Pareidolia is the the esoteric term psychologists give to the phenomenon by which faces are recognized in clouds, patterns and figures in random configurations. And while some are quick to class it with delusion, it would be more accurate, I believe, to refer to it as “the mind filling the gaps.”
The more intently one studies the matter, the clearer it becomes that all perception does involve “the mind filling in the blanks,” that all perception is interpretation. I stand before a house, and my physical location in relation to the house gives me a profile of that house—not the entire picture, but one of its profiles, that is dependent on my standpoint. When I move around it, or fly above it, I get other profiles but mysteriously, I do not multiply the houses. When I am asked how many houses I see, there will be no hesitation on my part in declaring that I see only one house: somehow the brain (or the perceptive faculties) have filled in the gaps between the many profiles and the singularity of the object. And even should a different person stand exactly where I stood, the profile he would have would still be different, because standpoint includes one’s emotion dispositions and one’s life history. So it is that a newcomer to a building has a different perception from one that a resident for four years in the same building has, although it is the very same building they inherit.
Not that there are no cases of delusion. There are, of course, and quite plainly. When one “hears” voices although all those around who have no reason to prevaricate swear that they hear none, then clearly one has an auditory delusion. The point is that, in perception, there are some tests we commonly agree on as to whether something is “really” there or not—touching it, asking others whether they see it, using instruments to test, etc.— and when we all agree that there is nothing there over and above the protestations of a solitary claim that there is, then we say of the latter that he is suffering from a delusion. That is what makes supernatural apparitions and conversations so problematic—which is not to say implausible!
Now, this piece of phenomenology of perception is socially significant, because the raging debate between the President’s vociferous supporters and his equally shrill detractors is, in many respects, a debate over perception. While one side perceives him to be a determined reformer, undeterred by convention and unhampered by bourgeois niceties, who has fearlessly taken on the heretofore feared forces of the nation’s netherworld, others perceive him as a lawless despot, intent on subverting all existing institutions—sacred and profane—for his largely unarticulated agenda. And just as in the case of the Rubin vase, one can carry on an endless—and really pointless debate—about whether it is really two faces facing each other, or a goblet (because it is both depending on what one pays heed to), this might just be the kind of endless harping between the two camps. And interpretation always has to do with our own emotional dispositions, our life-histories and our social contexts.
The whole point to this bit of phenomenology is that both sides have a task. Sometimes the ambivalence is calculated —because that is a strategic maneuver, but there is such a thing as the obligation (both ethical and legal) to avoid unnecessary ambiguity. In the case of the confounding faces-goblet puzzle, if the goblet were painted with some liquid in it, say champagne, then there would be more agreement that it is a goblet that is pictured, and not two faces. In the case of the President if only there were more consistency and less dissonance between the off-the-cuff but serious remarks and the inevitable clarification-cum-explanation, there would be less acrimonious exchange. There is something that the Chief Executive may want to learn from a precept of judicial ethics: The must not only be fair but must appear to be fair! On the part of the perceivers—which means us—the absolutization of a profile and the canonization of a viewpoint are most counter-phenomenological. Inevitably, they result in misjudgment and error. A single profile opens itself up to other profiles and a house that appears spic-and-span from the front, may be rotten and falling apart from the rear. The openness to a multiplicity of perceptions and the hospitality for variant profiles should make our experience of reality richer. That is what conversation, discourse and research are all about.
What allows what should be an enriching exchange to continue is desisting from dismissing one side as irrational—because that forecloses all further exchange, but, at the same time, to remain committed to allow the more reasonable position (of which, we beings of reason are always capable of deciding!) prevail!