For most of us, the planet Mercury looks like a little iron ball, wandering around the sun without much personality.
The Messenger spacecraft has changed that perception.
The photo comes from NASA’s Messenger spacecraft in orbit around Mercury and shows a giant crater topped with two smaller impact basins to create the recognizable shape of one America’s greatest comic iconic personalities—Mickey Mouse! The image of the crater might give a child the impression that Mickey Mouse does not live in Disneyland, but on Mercury!
This past week, the Messenger spacecraft sent back an image of what appears to be a human-like figure on the surface of Mercury by the orbiting Curiously, scientists point out a startling resemblance to the frozen Han Solo in Return of the Jedi. Stuart Guthrie’s fascinating book, Faces in the Clouds.
On July 25, 1976, the Viking 1 probe took some unusual photographs of the Cydonian region of Mars, which presented land formations resembling human faces, and hence came to be known as the “Face of Mars.” Scientists soon dismissed this theory and said that the image was nothing more than a “trick of light and shadow.” Historically, several cultures across the world developed myths regarding the mysterious “man on the moon” images.
The human mind is always projecting images of its own likeness unto the universe. For Guthrie, the same principle applies no less with respect to religion. For him, religion is the embodiment of anthropomorphism. Guthrie makes a thought-provoking point. Whenever people try to explain abstract processes they do not understand, the tendency is to use language that is metaphorical, for it alone helps people connect with ideas that are subtle and not easily defined. [i] According to Guthrie, the various branches of science, cognitive sciences, ancient and modern philosophy, along with the literary and visual arts abound with anthropomorphism, even though secular scientists and philosophers often criticize it.
In Stewart Elliot Guthrie’s book, Faces in the Clouds, the author theorizes that anthropomorphisms represent a perceptual strategy of how humanity perceives itself in an uncertain world. If, for instance, we mistake a dark shape in the forest it is better to assume it is a bear and not a boulder. Guthrie’s innovative idea is a patterned after the famous wager of Pascal. If what we are observing truly resembles human behavior, then our use of anthropomorphic language is correct; if we are wrong, what did we lose by employing anthropomorphism? In a world where scientific analysis fails or is severely limited, human beings consciously and unconsciously gravitate toward imagining the universe in the likeness of themselves.
Guthrie’s observation is right on target. Human speech uses metaphor for even inanimate objects or a when describing a force of nature as if it the object or force being described possesses human-like qualities and/or actions. Thus, we metaphorically speak of a storm as “vicious” or “threatening,” or “the wind howls throughout the night.” Even in scientific terms, physicians and biologists frequently refer to white blood cells as “fighting off” “invading” microorganisms, or the “selfish gene,” or “the blind watchmaker” (to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins’s popular book). Analogical language is not only vital for understanding religious language, it is no less essential for discerning scientific truths about reality.
In the final analysis, we are always using metaphors and images drawn from human experience whenever we attempt to describe non-human realities. As Voltaire was fond of saying, “In the Bible, God made man in His image and likeness . . . and human beings have been paying the Creator back ever since.”
[i] Stuart Elliot Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds—A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press; Oxford, 1993), ch. 6.
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