In our recent discussion on cryptic images and randomness, it was pngarrison who raised the issue of pareidolia – the human tendency to see images, especially of faces, in what are clearly (apart from God’s sense of humour) random patterns.
Here’s another example of a cryptic image (actually created by Rupert Sheldrake) just to remind you of what was in mind.
Now forget for a moment the dispute about whether any formal methodology could determine whether the image herein is intentional or fortuitous, like a pattern of leaves on the ground. All our contributors seem to agree that randomness is at least frequently a pattern we haven’t yet noticed. Instead, let’s briefly ask what human facility enables one to discern it.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asked this question, in a wider context including what facility gets jokes or understands music. His conclusion was that it is the imagination, which I would think to be fairly uncontroversial. At some point we get the intuition that maybe the blotches at the top frame a couple of human faces, and suddenly we can see two dancers, in their entirety.
In this case, both the context (you already know it’s a psychological test) and the exactness of the correlation lead to a conviction that the image is intentional and not fortuitous. But belief is one thing – the perception of the image itself comes from the power of imagination, which would seem to be the very same faculty involved in pareidolia.
Whether pngarrison’s insomnia heightened his imagination, or just muddled his ability to evaluate the impression of the imaginary patterns he perceived I don’t know. To have had the wholehearted conviction that someone really had arranged faces in the dirt would have required, I guess, greater mental disturbance than a moderate sleep deficit. Presumably we all want to detect patterns that are real rather than imaginary.
But if Wittgenstein is right (and he merits some respect as a thinker) then without an active imagination we could see neither the illusions nor the genuine patterns. Both would be inaccessible to us, and both would appear random. That isn’t a radically new idea either. As Einstein said:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
That accords, of course, with what we know of how Einstein discovered relativity in the first place. What is less known is that that same intuition involved him more than once in what we might call “scientific pareidolia”. Hans Ohanian, examining his various errors, wrote:
Albert often let his intuition overrule flawed proofs and shaky math.
Einstein was undoubtedly not unique either in the incisiveness of his imagination, nor in its sometimes getting the better of his other faculties. But its an interesting discussion whether it’s worse to have a rich imagination, with some “flawed proofs and shaky math”, or to be logically watertight and deficient in imagination. True knowledge appears to require both.