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When Facing Faces

By The JuanKurse


In various fields of occultism, there has always been a certain debate on what exactly it means to “see spirits” and how they are supposed to appear.  Although this debate can be approached from many angles, this essay will focus upon a particular visual aspect of “spirit” manifestations or apparitions, phenomena that is sometimes even acknowledged by those who systematically deny existence
of any spirits at all: the appearance of faces in various settings.


It is generally recognized in the psychological sciences that the human brain has a very developed capacity to recognize human or anthropomorphic faces.  It has been demonstrated that this capacity is biologically and genetically preprogrammed within the human species.  Because of this mental faculty, the infant – as a reflex – shall smile to his parents even prior to his being conscious that there are other human beings with whom he can interrelate.  This capacity stays with him throughout his life and when he reaches adulthood, the individual will have achieved an outstanding ability to recognize, singularize or tell apart from other faces, and remember nearly every human
or anthropomorphic face that he will see.


Of course, the human being – whether child or adult – doesn't only recognize faces on human beings for instance, he sees them on animals, in the intricate forms of tree bark, in the plushy shapes of clouds, in the shadowy mists of morning fog, in the vivacious flames of a campfire, in incense smoke, or even in the vague tenebrous silhouettes that fill the darkness when the sun has left us for the night.  These images are often vivid enough to leave us stunned or amazed... must we then conclude that these are the faces of “spirits”
which have manifested amongst the living?


Many will explain the phenomena in this way: “these faces are in fact illusions created by the highly developed facial recognition capacities of the human brain.”  Hence the faces would be completely made up by a brain that doesn't tell the difference between a 'real' face – a human face – and a 'fake' face which is in fact nothing more than a random pattern which just happened to stimulate our visual cortex.  The face then only exists in mankind's imagination and therefore certainly not in nature. Facial identification is ascribed as the arbitrary reflex of a brain which automatically organizes visual information in order to perceive faces.  Therefore, when we see these “faces” in such incidental patterns of nature, we are left to conclude that our vivid human imagination deforms reality.  This reasoning is based on a very precise postulate: that there are no faces to see other than human faces.  For the purposes of this essay, we shall call this “pseudo-scientific dogma.”

Let us now adopt a skeptical stance, albeit more neutral.  We will not claim or disclaim the fact that there may or may not be faces in nature other than human.  Given this, we can now consider the possibility that there may, in fact, exist faces in other places than on human heads. We could then go on to say that, “our brain has a highly developed capacity for facial recognition, therefore, it would be possible to recognize faces elsewhere than on human heads, IF there are any to be found.”  By extension, could we not then deduce that WHEN there are faces to be found elsewhere, humans have the necessary ability to identify them?  Or even further: that when we identity these faces, we are efficiently using our biologically innate skill?  In other words: in having the capacity to identify faces, we identify them when they are made manifest to our senses.  Following this, the faces that we see in natural phenomena take on a whole new signification, much more profound and also more credible when it comes to their authenticity.  The authenticity of faces AS faces (rather than random geometrical patterns) is established by the authenticity of our capacity to recognize them.  Let us call this reasoning, “magical thinking.”

An analogy can be used to further demonstrate the argumentation.  The human being has a capacity to use formal reasoning to understand connections between events and discern the causal relationships between them.  The argument of “pseudo-scientific dogma” stated above will say that the capacity to make out connections between events can create logical illusions so we can therefore see causal connections where there are none.  “Pseudo-scientific dogma” will then have to use a postulate to differentiate a 'real' causal link and that which is not, because formal reason will be used equally in both 'real' and 'unreal' cases – just as the facial recognition capacity is used equally for facial recognition in ALL circumstances.  If then we turn to “magical thinking”, we will say that “in having the capacity to use formal reason to make connections between events, we CAN discern and identity causal relationships where they are, therefore we DO discern and identify them by this same capacity.”  An error would then be to not identify them when there are to be found.

Hence, the causal link that I wish to establish here is that, “a capacity to recognize faces, recognizes faces.”  In other words, the faces must be present a priori in order to be recognized by the human recognition capacity.  For example, it is this very capacity that can distinguish between a tree that has a face, and a tree that has no face.

To push our comparison further, we shall notice that “pseudo-scientific dogma” adduces an extraneous postulate which is then used as an anchor and objective measure in order to make a judgment that conforms to the postulate, yet being completely alien to both the observer and the observed phenomena.  On the other hand, “magical thinking” stems from direct subjective observation of phenomena.  Even though “pseudo-scientific dogma” might seem objective at first, each approach is equally as subjective as the other: the “pseudo-scientific dogma” is arbitrarily chosen (according to a given philosophical system or world-view); it falsely affirms itself as an objective truth on the grounds that the postulate is exteriorized from the observer: biased objectivity.  “Magical thinking”, on the other hand, recognizes and uses the subjectivity of the human condition without trying to remove itself from it: unbiased subjectivity becomes the axle of observation and understanding.

For this reason, this essay will dissociate itself from “pseudo-scientific dogma”, which blindly postulates the inexistence of non-human faces: we prefer to affirm what we see rather than deny it, as this approach seems more realistic – truer to our reality.  Furthermore, we claim that “pseudo-scientific dogma” attempts to define a reality and force the observer into self-denial and conformity, whereas “magical thinking” leaves the observer with the freedom and responsibility to discover reality according to the dispositions of his intrinsic human capacities.

In consideration of this, two fundamental questions pop up. First, “what is a face” and second, “why are there faces to be found all around nature in the first place?”

To the first question, considering that we are our own focal point, our spontaneous answer lies within circular reasoning: a face is what our facial recognition capacity recognizes!  It would be a lazy mistake stop there, however; it is important to know what we precisely recognize when we see a face – so this definition must be one of function rather than one of design so as to circumvent circular definitions.  Nonetheless, it is obvious that we distinguish precise geometrical forms, all the while being non-specific, namely two eyes a nose and a mouth on an enclosed area.  But these forms are perceived in essence and not in substance, as even when hideously disfigured or lacking important detail, the brain can still recognize them, although often accompanied by a feeling of disgust, of uneasiness or ugliness towards the malformed face.  Secondly, faces are recognized organically and not mechanically, meaning that the recognition of faces happens in the context of a living relationship between the face and the observer.  (Of course, the understanding of a relationship and the capacity to be in a relationship improves, matures and complexifies according to the age and the individual's level of personal development.)  In sum, a face is a perceptibly tangible witness in a relationship of recognition between a being and a symbol that is fundamental to humanity.

What, then, does the symbol represent ?  Invariably, it is an expression of life (not 'life' as in opposition to 'death', but 'life' in existential terms).  If faces are recognized, then it is for a reason that goes beyond their simple geometrical arrangement, hence according to their interactional and functional relationships with human existence (or, in short, their usefulness to the species).  Naturally, if this is true for human beings in relation to the faces of other human beings, then by extension it is also true for human beings in relation to other faces seen in nature, because nature is neither less living nor less essential for the survival of humanity than are the parents of the newborn infant who inevitably smiles when he or she recognizes a face that presents itself in his or her still limited eyesight.

The answer to the second fundamental question est now self-evident: faces exist in nature (or at least according to the relative human point of view – the only point of view to which we really have access) as witnesses of a life (or existence) to which we are inexorably dependent at the beginning of our lives and with which we are progressively interdependent throughout our lives as our individual autonomy increases.  As demonstrated above, this principle is then equally valid in both ontogenetic and phylogenetic contexts: faces are vital for the individual in relationships with his peers just as they are vital for the human species in its relationship with nature.

We can henceforth understand how shamans, magicians, druids and other sages of old – in their magical thinking – had logically deduced the “animism” of and in nature through their reasonable perceptual experience (rather than blind superstition).  As infants, each of us recognized faces – those of our parents – in order to interact with them and later, as adults, we are recognizing other faces beyond our own species.  This facial recognition that helped the infant interact with his parents probably also helped the adult interact with its natural environment throughout the history of mankind.  If, under a human face, we find a sentient being having its own intentionality, personality and spirituality, why not explore further when we identify a non-human face?  The least we can say is that the face offers a significant door which opens to exploration, communication and an opportunity to learn from and share with that or who can be found behind the mask.  Indeed, there can be no doubt as to the good will of the sorcerers of old...

Even today, in our society heavily dominated by pseudo-scientific dogmas – imposed realities and postulates – the innate human capacities keep sending us back to an instinctual transcendence of the momentary culture; yet the choice to listen to ourselves (or not) has always belonged to each and every one of us.  Will we deny that which is evident to our innate senses, which evolved into what they are through millions of years of perfectionment?  Or shall we more deeply explore the meanings and intersubjective relationships that life brings to our perceptions?  (Of course, the phenomena of faces is one example amongst many, as "magic" goes far beyond the scopes of
what we can say about it.)


Dear Reader, you see a face: shall you ignore it or will you say hello?  If so, how?  ... and so ye walk the magical path.

Original French version published in Le Soleil de Minuit
http://www.soleildeminuit.magiqc.net
JuanKurse@gmail.com