May 2017 #6 Are Humans Pattern Seeking Animals ?


I’ve received a few requests to write about this question.

Students answering this question may want to take a look at Michael Shermer’s original article from which the quote is taken: Chicken Soup for the evolutionist’s soul. Whilst a reading of the article will be very useful it is important to focus on the ToK PT rather than on Mr Shermer’s (very good) article.

This PT requires the student to write their own Knowledge Questions, these KQ’s will be the stepping stones which guide your path through this essay. I would recommend that you decide what you want your overall argument to be, then build your KQ’s to help you through that argument. (Remember that you must include multiple perspectives, evaluation & implications in the essay). If you need more help writing your KQ’s please see my Easy Guide to Writing Knowledge Questions

This essay has many layers to it, and lots of different approaches to it. Some of my opening thoughts are:

What do we mean by patterns ? (e.g. visual, behavioural, semantic, aural, emotional etc).
What is the interaction between WoKs and knowledge in determining these (apparent) patterns ?
Do these patterns exist in external reality or are they created internally by us ?
Do we seek these patterns, or do they become apparent to us without effort ?
Is there a biological imperative to pattern seeking ? (or substitute the biological for socio-cultural, artistic, aesthetic etc).
Why do we need to find patterns ?

The list of questions could go on, let’s just get into how the essay could be answered:

The essay probably has 3 main approaches:

  1. The straightforward approach.
    We are pattern seeking animals vs we are not pattern seeking animals.
    The claim in favour of the PT could draw upon the methodology of the natural and human sciences (which is about establishing patterns. It could draw upon cognitive psychology, and particularly the field of perception. It could draw upon narrative structures from The Arts, Religious Knowledge Systems, Indigenous Knowledge Systems. It could draw upon a lot of interesting mathematics such as Probability Theory.
    The claim against the PT could be that:
    (i) We are not pattern seeking animals (but the patterns exist)
    (ii) The patterns are created by us, but don’t really exist.
    (iii) We are not pattern seeking animals, and the patterns don’t really exist anyway.It’s very much up to you how you choose to argue this essay, there is no one single correct approach – just well argued & structured approaches, and less well argued approaches. RLS evidence against the PT could be drawn from numerous sources such as Confirmation Bias, Free Will vs Determinism debate, or Chaos Theory. Students choosing this essay would be very much advised to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent book The Black Swan. In this book Taleb argues that the seemingly random, erroneous, event is inevitable. Whether this demo0nstrates a pattern, or not, very much depends upon the approach that you choose to this essay.Taking this approach students could look at a range of AoKs, and consider the arguments for and against a ‘patterned’ understanding of that AoK. EG is history best understood as a patterned set of cause & effect relationships, or better understood as a set of relatively unrelated events ? Does history show us trending for the better or the worse ? In Natural Sciences is it possible to establish theory & fact without patterns ? In Ethics, is it actually the exception that proves the rule ? I could go on, you get the idea…,
  2. The causal approach.
    My second approach would be to accept the PT at prima facie level, but then to ask If we are patterns seeking animals then how & why do we seek these patterns ? How & why in this context could be treated as mutually inclusive concepts.
    This approach could be structured as an evolutionary psychology vs humanist growth argument. On the one hand Evolutionary Psychologists argue that identification of patterns have enabled humans to evolve, grow and thrive. On the other hand Humanists would argue that the patterns used are those that give us succesful emotional and social growth, and ultimately lead to self actualisation. This could look like a parallel argument, or it could be a sharply contrasting argument, depending upon the theorists and evidence that you choose to draw from (e.g. an essay positing Hobbes vs Rogers will look very different to an essay which draws upon Dawkins and Maslow).
    Personally I like this approach to PT#6 as it gives candidates lots of opportunity for evaluation and implications. The sort of evidence that I would draw upon for either side of the debate:
    For evolutionary psychology I would draw upon Behavioural Economics (such as the work of Dan Ariely), or from Psychology the work of David Buss,. For the Humanist side of the debate I might draw upon the work of Carl Rogers, or Paolo Freire.Possible Evaluation points could be drawn from Confirmation Bias, The File Drawer Problem, Ahistorical Bias, Historical Fallacy, Ethnocentrism, Androcentrism.
  3. The philosopher’s approach.
    This question is actually the age old philosophical argument of empiricism vs rationalism. Whether the patterns exist or not, and whether we seek them or not, is essentially predicated upon how we understand the relationship between the mind, the brain and the external world. Empiricists argue that our knowledge of the world is all that which is gleaned from the senses, that our knowledge of the world is a fairly accurate representation of the world. Rationalists argue that our knowledge of the world is the result of a reasoned analysis of sense data, as such we supplement the sense data with our own cognition. In this argument empiricists would roughly argue that the patterns exist in the world, and that we have gained a broad evolutionary advantage by seeking & recognising them. On the other hand, Rationalists would broadly argue that the patterns have been created by us, and added into knowing by us, in order to give ourselves some sort of advantage. The different implications of each position are potentially profound.

Enjoy your ToK Writing !


3 thoughts on “May 2017 #6 Are Humans Pattern Seeking Animals ?

  1. Could you please elaborate on this “It could draw upon narrative structures from The Arts, Religious Knowledge Systems, Indigenous Knowledge Systems.”? I am not sure what ‘narrative structures’ are.

    1. Narrative structures refer to the underlying principles of the knowledge connections which can be found in stories.. You could argue that there are patterned story arcs in most classic fiction, films etc. You also find the same story arcs in the core stories of religious knowledge systems etc. Talk to your literature, Psychology or philosophy teachers for more details. The renowned stories all have common patterns, or underpinnings. They’re the essential stories about what it means to be human. However, you should also develop a counterargument, a disagreement, to this claim. Enjoy developing YOUR story!

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