Patternicity as a unifying principle of human ingenuity

31 May

I have been impressed over the last few years by the so called ‘cognitive turn’ in matters pertaining to philosophy and methodology in the social sciences and history. In particular I have been struck by the phenomena of ‘apophenia’ which serves as something of a lynchpin of psychological epistemology, helping us to see how humans have an inherent capacity for understanding, abstraction and interaction with their environment.

Michael Shermer has written extensively on apophenia; he prefers the labels of patternicity and agenticity to describe the mental process of reasoning and abstraction when the sentient brain is able to find meaningful patterns in the various phenomena it encounters. Whilst apophenia is generally characterised as a Type 1 cognitive error of a false positive (finding a meaningful pattern in randomised data), Shermer’s allied concepts of patternicity and agenticity underline our more generalised innate capacity to generate comprehension and purposiveness in our understandings of the external habitat, such meanings being fallacious in the type 1 sense or otherwise.

Shermer’s definition of patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.

Facial recognition is a primary example of how patternicity is crucially imbued into child development, with two black dots on a piece of cardboard able to prompt a smile in infants, whilst a single dot was not. And our wider ability for pattern recognition is suggestive of an a priori epistemology capacity to analyse complex data sets into pertinent categories.

Patternicity is a central component of human intellectual life, our ability to comprehend and project meanings onto the complex series of elements and phenomena that we encounter in our sentient existence. We are able to intellectualise and make causal inferences about our environment and society, and go on to project a vast range of typologies and classifications of phenomena that present to us in terms of interrelated components and meaningful systems.

The historian and historiographer E H Carr offered up his prescient take on how we begin to construct the temporal reality we inhabit, with a little bit of help from Talcott Parsons:

Professor Talcott Parsons once called science ‘a selective system of cognitive orientations to reality’. It might perhaps have been put more simply. But history is, among other things, that. The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.


The facts of history never come to us ‘pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concerns should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historians who wrote it…


Our internal mental construction of the world and our ability to elucidate and build complex patterns and models is central to our ability to navigate around the terrain of our human environment as well as giving us some notions of existential reality. These elaborate belief systems comprise a range of interpretations and metaphysical possibilities, whilst the emergence of science grounded in empirical methodology allows us to critically scrutinise the corpus of knowledge that is now our common inheritance.

Politics and narrative

Our modern liberal politicians are still paying tribute of course to ideas of the ‘general will’ as set out by Rousseau. So the political class will constantly refer to polling and elections in order to divine an underlying set of narratives or to infer a mandate for this or that policy initiative.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146)

Politicians understandably have been obsessed with the meaning of recent General Elections. In this respect the patterns thrown up by the election results are akin to a Rorschach test (a psychological assessment method that attempts to analyse personality by measuring interpretative responses to abstract inkblots). Naturally those parties that have their noses out in front in terms of the greater number of seats won and vote share will claim a mandate to legitimise their claim and accession to government. Conversely, those who have fallen behind and confined to minoritarian status will normally be pressed into a period of introspective policy reviews, pouring over the consequent psephological evaluations.

The general election of 2015 presents perhaps the most complex set of electoral results experienced thus far for the United Kingdom. The Labour Party mainstream and its new generation of would be leaders have concluded for the most part that their party has failed to keep traction with middle class mores and have found themselves reluctantly caught in a critical left wing vernacular, for which they now offer fulsome apologies.

Yet this narrative is questionable on a number of fronts, given that large segments of the electorate actually failed to turn out at all (for the most part presumably out of antipathy towards Miliband’s Labour Party), voted Green and SNP (a constituency explicitly to the left of Labour) or for UKIP (a party with intimations of protectionism and a strident rejection of metropolitan liberalism).

This divination of meanings from elections took on any number of metaphysical pretensions after the 2010 general election gave us one of our quirky hung parliaments that are occasionally but sparingly thrown up by first past the post. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats were quick to run with the idea that the electorate had chosen in their infinite wisdom on the virtuous option of coalition. Some wry critics were good enough to remind us that coalition did not actually present as a literal option on the ballot paper.

The point being that a number of commentators had allowed themselves to succumb to the fallacy of composition and therefore excitedly attached a higher purpose, divining macro intentionality to the millions of individualised and conflicted (tactical) acts of voting. Like the Rorschach, commentators are wont to infer a super historical agenticity, a telos which guides our affairs in line with some as yet undisclosed mystical destination.

History is replete with these grandiose metaphysical memes, the fateful combination of providence and geo-politics to be found in America’s Manifest Destiny, or Germany’s Lebensraum.


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