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Sciencebod’s 3D Problem

imageA reader writes:

I recall one of your postings in which you recounted the story of someone who claimed that there really wasn’t a picture of a man on the shroud, that what we all saw was no different then a picture of Jesus that appears on a slice of toast. As I recall, no amount of explanation could convince him to change his mind.

Of course not. That would violate the first law of kookiness.

Now, excuse me for interrupting the reader’s email to repeat a part of what I wrote that the reader refers to:

One day, I was astonished to receive an email from someone who claimed that we only think we see an image of a face on the Shroud. What we think is an image, he told me, is merely the happenstance accumulation of smudges and stains on the cloth. It is no different than an imaginary image of Jesus on a burned slice of toast. It is a pareidolia, an apophenia. I had never heard of either of these words. Now I have. As far as I can see, they mean the same thing. According to my Merriam-Webster dictionary apophenia is "the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data." Pareidolia is defined as apophenia.

I wrote back. "The image is too detailed. It is too realistic and too complex to not be the real face of a man. When I say real, I mean by any means. Absent other evidence this includes painting, photograph or something else that we don’t understand."

But he persisted. His mind was made up. "You can’t prove it," he wrote back. "It could be pure coincidence and you don’t know for a fact that it isn’t. What is the threshold for perceiving an image? What are the criteria for saying that the image is of a man? Are you an expert on the human face?" . . .

I suspect that there is a rather fuzzy swath of undecidedness between certainty that an image is of a face and is not. Given the setting and circumstance and a measure of sanity in whatever our worldview may dictate to us, we can usually avoid undecidedness. If I see a face in the clouds, I know it is a phantasm (another cool word), an illusion, an apparition of sorts. I am sure most of us think the same thing if we see a face on a piece of toast or in a smudge of a windowpane. It should be easy to know what we see for any given context. If I see a face in a Picasso, even if it looks less like a face than what I see on my morning toast, I know it is an image of a face because of the context. But what about the face on the shroud? It is a face? The context is clear. There is an entire body there – admittedly, at the risk of being declared incompetent, maybe a pareidolia. I don’t know how the face got there but it is a face.

Now to resume the readers email:

Dr. Sciencebod has the same sort of problem with 3D. He fails to distinguish between fully expected pseudo-elevations from burn marks and the real-elevations visible on the real image of a man on the shroud. This is apparent when he writes, “So-called 3D-encoded information is an artefact of the computerised imaging – which explains why the 1532 burn marks appear as a hologram-like 3D as well as the image itself.”

A bit of disclaimer is in order. I’m not convinced that the shroud is real. At the same time I’m not convinced it is fake. So for me it is a mystery. If it is real, I am not at all inclined to think the image was caused by energy left over from some sort of physical resurrection. I have seen no convincing evidence for that. But even if I had I would have significant difficulty accepting it. I am a Catholic much more in sympathy with progressive Catholic scholars like Crossan who interprets the resurrection as a statement of faith and not as a physical event in a scientific or historic sense.

However, the 3D, which Dr. Sciencebod so casually dismisses, is ever so appropriate for the shape of a human form that it is silly to think otherwise unless one confuses reality with toast. Even so, the 3D effect obtained by plotting luminescence may not be a real measure of distance between body and cloth. It may be something entirely different that we have not imagined. But it is not casually dismissible. Regardless of how it came about, it is a real property of the image. One cannot claim to have found a method by which to create the image on the shroud unless one can show how that method encodes this property. One cannot claim it’s an artifact in order to escape this pass/fail criteria.

NOTE: Top picture is from Discover Magazine. Bottom picture is called “Face in the Shroud.” It is a 3D rendering of data in the shroud image undertaken by Ray Downing for the History Channel special, The Real Face of Jesus.

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