By Jeff Schweitzer
We gaze at the night sky and see the comforting order of constellations in the random distribution of stars. We look up and discern shapes of animals in the wispy condensation of clouds. We breathlessly share on social media images of Jesus onburnt toast or the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich or Elvis as a potato chip. Welcome to pareidolia, the human brain’s amazing ability to perceive patterns, particularly the image of a human face, in what are in fact purely random phenomena.
In the Beginning…
We humans cannot turn off our instinct to see familiar shapes in the world around us; pareidolia means that our brains demand that there be order even when none exists. And just as we abhor the absence of visual order, we too are unable to accept the unsettling idea of “I don’t know” when confronted with the disorder of the unfamiliar. So we make up comforting answers to all that perplexes us, just as we create reassuring images from clouds and toast. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world, that we see design and significance in the absence of both.
In the abyss of great uncertainty, our ancestors developed elaborate creation myths and gods of the sun rain and oceans to explain the mysteries and happenings of daily life. War gods helped in victory, or not. Fertility gods helped, or not. Religion was our first attempt to predict and manipulate the future; it was also our first stab at physics and astronomy. Ironically, as we gained knowledge about the physical world, the need for multiple gods diminished. As the gods of the gaps grew smaller, we rejected multiple deities to insist rather randomly there is only one. But as did our primitive forebears with multiple deities, we still believe we can communicate with our one god and influence his behavior, because by doing so we gain some control over, impose some order on, the chaotic mysteries of the world. So we still have one more god to go, one more to assign to the pantheon of the fallen. The early quest for knowledge led to religion; ever-greater success has obviated the need. Our very effort to understand nature ultimately undermined the means by which we sought to reveal nature’s mysteries. We are just slow to acknowledge that god is superfluous.
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