Do you know what’s meant by ‘signal and noise’? Here are two examples. My old analogue hi-fi system, with its vinyl discs and audio cassettes, delivers music with a background hiss; the music signal is picked up by the brain which ignores the hissy noise. At a party we tune in to the voice of the person talking to us -the signal– all the other sounds are just so much background noise. All day long we are surrounded by noise, and our brains try and look for meaning in it: was that my name someone just called? Is that car too close? What was that strange bird call? Is there someone in the house or was it a mouse I heard?

Some people imagine they hear something when there’s really nothing there. Some people create signals out of background noise. For them random sounds come to have a meaning. Ghosts appear in the swirling fog, animal shapes form in the clouds, forms glow in the burning embers of a fire. The greater our imagination, the more we see.

We humans survive by means of our wits. Our minds are quick. We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities  and threats without much hesitation. Recognizing  objects in difficult situations means generalizing. A new born baby can recognize the basic pattern of a face. It has been learned by  evolution not by the individual. The problem is that these evolutionary instincts sometimes lead us to see patterns when there are none there. People have always been finding patterns in random noise. (The  term ‘noise’ refers to information picked up by any or all of our senses, not just sounds coming to the ears.)

What if ‘God’ is an imagined pattern in random noise? No two people seem to agree about what God is like. Perhaps that is because they are all imagining different patterns. Just a suggestion.


Tomaso Poggio, MIT neuroscientist, quoted in Nate Silver’s ‘The signal and the noise’ Penguin (2012) p. 12


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