‘the eyes have it’

The following, excerpted from the New York Times, February 13, 2007, is a typical report of pareidolia:

More than a decade ago, Diana Duyser of Hollywood, Fla., received a religious message through an unlikely medium: a grilled cheese sandwich she had made herself. As she gazed at the brown skillet marks on the surface of the bread, a familiar visage snapped into focus.

“I saw a face looking up at me; it was the Virgin Mary staring back,” she told reporters in 2004. “I was in total shock.”

Are reports of pareidolia avowals or expressions (Ausdruck)? I look at a face in a picture and am asked: ‘What do you see?’ I reply: ‘The Virgin Mary’. I look at an object; suddenly a face is in it. I exclaim ‘The Virgin Mary!’ The first is a report, the second an exclamation. Both are expressions of visual experience and perception. But the exclamation is forced from us, so it is an expression of perception in a different sense from the report.

Diana Duyser reports she was shocked when she saw the face of the Virgin Mary in her sandwich. This makes her statement of pareidolia  – “I saw a face looking up at me; it was the Virgin Mary staring back” – similar to exclamations and interjections. Reports of pareidolia are spontaneous reactions to what we see, and they are on the same level as reports of aspect-perception (PI II 194).

Wittgenstein asks: ‘What am I believing in when I believe that men have souls?’ (PI II 178) Do I believe that somewhere within the body there is an intangible object called ‘the soul’? Suppose I do not believe that people have souls. Do I nonetheless understand it? Certainly, I understand this teaching, and I can imagine plenty in connection with it (e.g., people have souls, plants do not). But the overall role of the expression ‘belief in the soul’ in the life of he who believes in the soul escapes me. Similarly, I can readily understand a report of pareidolia. But I can only guess at its function in the life of the person who spontaneously avows it.

A picture of a West African lion in a zoological handbook is a picture by similarity. Its function or role is largely preparatory: it enables us to identify the West African lion; it tells us what the lion looks like. The application of this picture is straightforward because it involves a familiar means of comparison. Now, compare this to the face of the Virgin Mary in Duyser’s sandwich. Does the sandwich tell us what Mary looks like? Duyser does not say: ‘Naturally, I cannot show you the real thing, only the face in the sandwich’. At issue is not what is seen, but that it is seen. That is what part of makes reports of pareidolia avowals. We may agree that reports of pareidolia are avowals, but the role of Duyser’s statement is not clear, and much harder to survey than in the case of the West African lion.

Of course, for Duyser the story of the Virgin Mary in her sandwich didn’t end with her sincere avowal of it. She held onto the sacred bread for the next 10 years, and recently put it up for sale on eBay. The auction generated so much excitement that the sandwich eventually sold for US$28,000! Comedy aside, this nonetheless highlights the role Duyser and others associate with the experience.

Goethe said: ‘Because everyone uses language to talk, everyone thinks he can talk about language.’ What is difficult to convey in pareidolia is not that a person perceives a face in an object and from it derives a whole system, but that a whole system is, as it were, avowed in the face simpliciter. “I saw a face looking up at me; it was the Virgin Mary staring back” is embedded in a system – form of life – and is founded like emotion personified in the facial features.