Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Eyes, images, and miracles

In what may be the most absurd example of pareidolia I've ever seen, a Cornell-educated Ph.D. in engineering has discovered images of human faces, and encoded holographic messages, in the cloth image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The image, the story goes, was imprinted on a young man's poncho in 1531 when he had a vision of the Virgin Mary near Mexico City.  The cloth has since been venerated as a holy icon, and has been photographed and studied extensively by the religious.  Starting in 1979, an engineer who specialized in digital imaging, José Aste Tonsmann, began to examine the icon, and it has become a virtual obsession with him.

Aste Tonsmann located 31 human figures in the image, many of them in the Virgin Mary's eyes.  These images were seen "(A)fter filtering and processing the digitized images of the eyes to eliminate 'noise' and enhance them."  Even after all of this messing about, we still end up with images like this:



(Photography by J. Aste Tonsmann, from his website.)

Not exactly life-like images of the human face, are they?  Yes, they suggest faces, but once again, we're up against our old friend pareidolia -- the tendency of people to see faces in clouds, water stains, and patterns on tortillas because our brains are wired for facial recognition.

But Aste Tonsmann, who himself is a devout Catholic and a member of the Marian Congress, thinks this is all part of the miracle.  He believes that the Virgin Mary herself has sent us an "image of a family in the center of the Virgin's eye, in times when families are under serious attack in our modern world."  More interestingly, he believes that the images are effectively holograms -- three-dimensional images captured at the time the image was created, and imprinted on the cloth in a "miraculous fashion:"
The eyes reflect the witnesses of the Guadalupan miracle, the moment Juan Diego unfurled his cloak before the bishop to show him the painting; a kind of instant picture of what occurred at the moment the image was unveiled. It is possible to see a seated Indian who is looking up to the heavens; the profile of a balding, elderly man with a white beard who looks like the Bishop; a younger man who is possibly interpreter Juan González; another Indian who is Juan Diego; a woman of dark complexion who is possibly a slave who was in the bishop's service and a man with Spanish features who looks on pensively, stroking his beard with his hand.
The idea, I suppose, is that we're seeing the image that was on the Virgin Mary's retina the moment the miracle occurred.

Well, that is a lovely story, and it goes along with all sorts of other trappings -- the usual miracle stories associated with icons and holy relics, and various "amazing facts."  My favorite of the latter is that the stars on her cloak resemble the constellations that were in the sky in December of 1531, only reversed -- "as if the constellations were being observed from a vantage point a great distance from the Earth."  Presumably, the implication is that this is what the constellations look like to the Virgin Mary from her home in heaven.  The unattributed writer of that statement evidently is under the misapprehension that the stars in a constellation exist in a flat plane, and so if you were far away ("on the other side of the constellation"), you'd see them backwards, as if you were looking at an image painted on a flat sheet of glass first from one side, and then the other.  Unfortunately, the stars in the sky are not equidistant from the sun, but sit in a three-dimensional space -- so there is no place in space where you'd see the same constellations as you do on the Earth, only inverted.  You'd think the Virgin Mary would know that, somehow.

The whole thing recently has been picked up by the Secret Coded Messages cadre, and now they're using Aste Tonsmann's techniques (which can be summed up as "taking magnified photographs of something and tinkering with the images until you find something you already had decided was there") to try to find encoded textual material in the image.  One site I looked at claims to have found strings of characters, and now "linguistic experts" are trying to translate them -- and that once they do, we'll have our first look at the "lexicon of God."

And if that proposal didn't make you do a facepalm, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

In any case, I mean no disrespect to whoever created the original image; it's quite a pretty thing, really, even if I don't subscribe to the whole miracle story.  (You can see a photograph of the entire Virgin of Guadalupe on the site that I linked above.)  But the goofy pseudo-analysis done by Aste Tonsmann and others just makes me wonder how people can achieve such towering heights of credulity.  I suppose it's the same old story; if you want to believe something badly enough, you'll find a way -- even if it comes to seeing images of people that aren't actually there.

3 comments:

  1. And...if you do NOT want to believe something badly enough, you'll find a way - even if it comes to NOT seeing images of people that ARE actually there.

    Open your heart and mind and see.

    ReplyDelete
  2. For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey Mr Skeptophilia...if you're still interested in this topic, check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccePqp2jjz0 START AT 25:49

    ReplyDelete