The Face on Mars, photographed by Viking Orbiter 1, July 25, 1976 

Pareidolia (from the Greek para – beside, and eidolon – image) involves the perception of faces, animals in inanimate objects like clouds, rocks, or grilled-cheese sandwiches. The perception of secret messages in music is also common.

There are many examples of this phenomenon. In 1978, a New Mexican woman found that the burn marks on a tortilla she had made appeared similar to the face of Jesus Christ. Thousands of people came to see the framed tortilla. The Rorschah Inkblock Test uses pareidolia to make inferences about the subject’s state of mind. The charges of backmasking in popular music have also been described as pareidolia.

Are reports of pareidolia descriptions? Do they describe reality? Let’s consider some examples.

(1) I see the Virgin Mary in my sandwich.

(2) This cinnamon bun looks like Mother Teresa.

(3) There is Fidel Castro in these potato chips.

On one level, we understand sentences (1)-(3). They consist of words ordered according to the rules of English syntax, and are punctuated according to the rules of English grammar found in any grammar book. We can easily identify the sentence components and the mode of composition of each sentence. If we wish, we can transform the tense of each sentence. This is a necessary condition for understanding sentences (1)-(3). But, does the grammatical form of a sentence determine its purpose?

The standard purpose of a sentence may not agree with its grammatical form. Commonly, we give orders with declaratives or interrogatives, or we ask questions with imperatives. A form of words may serve a non-canonical purpose, such as a rhetorical question. The purpose of a sentence may depend on its use, and on how the speaker would explain or defend it, what he conceives as pertinent to it, and so on. Understanding the grammar of a sentence is necessary for understanding it, but not sufficient. We may also need to supplement our understanding of it with information on intention and contextual meaning. Hence, intention and meaning something are important for linguistic meaning or understanding.

Given this, it is not clear what sentences (1)-(3) communicate. We may feel – naturally enough – that they are descriptions or assertions. Paradigmatically, a description communicates how things are in reality. They communicate knowledge. This means what they speak of is observable and capable of examination and manipulation. They can be confirmed or disconfirmed; and are either true or false. It is natural to think that they make a knowledge claim and are ‘read off’ reality. Suppose now that statements of pareidolia have descriptive content. Is this sufficient to explain their meaning?

Compare what is claimed in pareidolia with the sentence ‘It is 5 o’clock on the sun’ (PI, 350-351). Is the sentence ‘It is 5 o’clock on the sun’ a description? First, we can easily identify the sentence components and the mode of composition which are necessary for understanding it. It is an articulate statement, grammatically composed. Let us entertain that the grammar of it conforms to the canonical form of descriptive language on the assumption that grammatical form conveys the status of a sentence when such a form is standardly used for a particular purpose. Suppose this is settled. We would still need to confirm it. But, can it be confirmed? How? For, given our method of determining time relative to the sun’s zenith, it makes no sense. Indeed, it reminds one of statements like ‘Pigs swim, but I don’t believe it’. The question arises: why say it in the first place? To whom is it intended to inform? For what purpose?

Suppose you utter (1), and then draw my attention to the object of attention (i.e., the Virgin Mary in the sandwich).  I observe the object of perception, and I may see in it or on it what the speaker sees, namely, the face of the Virgin Mary, or, indeed, I may not. Consider that I perceive the face of the Virgin Mary in the sandwich, and that my attitude to it is one of disinterest or indifference. After all, it is only a face. Nature abounds with such phenomena. No big deal. This is one possible reaction. But, this is not the one which interests us. The reaction we are interested in is this: reactions of shock or interest not in what is said, but in that it is said. In this case, the interest pareidolia generates is not due simply to the fact described. Our interest in this phenomenon also arises from a change in attitude toward the speaker, and our interest in his way of seeing the world, especially in those worlds that are imponderable (e.g., the world of the religious mystic).

It simply escapes me that one should be shocked in perceiving the Virgin Mary in a sandwich. I see it there too, clear as daylight, but I do not share your attitude to it. I am interested in it, for it is a face, and so it expresses a kind of demand, a power to attract interest, if you will. But, my interest in it goes no further than this. You, on the other hand, perceive a whole system in it. And I am left dangling in the wake of your experience. I understand your sentence as a description – but that is it. The system shadowed in your statement alludes me. Our grasp of each part of a whole is complete only once we have mastered the whole. But, in this case, I cannot master the whole, and I feel insecure.