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Dryburgh Coat of Arms on Tartan

The tartan is a pattern without meaning (other than denoting clan) while the patterns on the coat of arms are heraldic and loaded with meaning. (Photo: dryburgh.us)

Recognizing patterns is a way of ordering, or seeing order in, the world. Spotting patterns can be a way of perceiving meaning, although we must remain aware that where there is a pattern there is not always meaning. Maintaining a rational open-minded stance or avoiding the satisfying jump to conclusions can be surprisingly hard to do. Humans have evolved to notice patterns and ascribe, if not meaning, then at least significance, to them. English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon said that humanity has a proclivity to “suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.”

The Jungian idea of synchronicity, so popular these days, arises from the notion that coincidence (a small, localized pattern) may contain some kind of message or reflect an underlying meaningful substrate in the world. The religious may see coincidences as signs from God, and looking out for them becomes a way of gaining welcome and reassuring divine guidance. The superstitious see coincidence as the workings of fate. They too believe they see useful clues, signs, and omens. Good things may be had and bad things avoided by paying attention. Patterns, once noticed, are hard to ignore. They tug at our minds. Financial theorist William J. Bernstein updates Bacon when he says, “Man is little more than a pattern-seeking primate, with an unerring ability to see connections and suspect conspiracies where none exist.”

Larger patterns or patterns of longer duration are even more convincing than small ones. How could so much fit together if there is no meaning behind or within it? When we think like this, we are in danger of seeing patterns as a substitute for conceptualizations, or believing that they are the same thing. The orderly nature of the pattern makes us, as Bernstein suggests, go too far in making unwarranted assumptions.

Patterns are not conceptualizations; they are the perceived order from which we build conceptualizations. The simplest way to see this is to consider how different individuals may conceptualize the same pattern in completely different ways – each constructing their concepts according to their own particular set of emotionally important ideas or way of seeing the world. Take gasoline prices, for instance. They are often the same no matter which station you visit. There is a pattern. For some, this is the result of market forces, honest competition driving down the price to the lowest possible point. For others, such uniformity is indisputable proof of dishonest collusion and widespread price fixing.

We humans go beyond looking for patterns in the world around us. We perceive patterns in ourselves. We develop “habits.” We notice our “routines.” We feel as if we are stuck in a rut. Some people sound like “broken records” (or they did when we had such things!). Patterns often irritate us making us feel the need to eliminate or change them. We not only want to perceive patterns; we want to manipulate them, create them, and if we like them, inhabit them.

Consider this quote from SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Fifty Degrees Below: “Frank speculated that many life stories consisted precisely of a search for reiterated pattern, for habits. Thus one’s set of habits was somehow unsatisfactory, and you needed to change them, and were thereby thrown into a plot, which was the hunt for new habits, or even, but exceptionally, the story of the giving up of such a hunt in favour of sticking with what you have, or remaining chaotically in the existential moment …”

Sound familiar?