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Lesson Explainer: Five Patterns of Thinking Philosophy

In this explainer, we will learn how to recognize and distinguish between superstitious, religious, philosophical, scientific, and creative thinking.

People use a variety of different patterns of thinking to explain the world around them and address the challenges they face in their lives. We will introduce some of these patterns of thinking and discuss how they differ from one another.

Let’s start with superstitious thinking. Superstitions provide explanations of things that happen. The explanations provided by superstitions are not supported by good evidence. A disregard for scientific evidence is characteristic of superstitious thinking.

For example, when the Brazilian soccer star Pele’s team had a losing streak, Pele became convinced it happened because he had given his lucky shirt away to a fan.

However, Pele did not have a good reason for believing that the shirt was lucky. His team was losing more games after he gave away the shirt, but that was probably just a coincidence.

Soccer striker
Figure 1: Soccer players in a game. Many soccer players have been known for their superstitions.

Many superstitions, like Pele’s, are highly personal. Other superstitions are more widely held, like the superstition that it is bad luck if a black cat crosses your path.

These superstitions are usually passed down informally, within families and cultures. It is often impossible to say how superstitions like these came about.

The superstition that black cats are bad luck goes back to the Middle Ages, but no one knows for sure how it got started.

Superstitious beliefs may not always be false. However, superstitious thinking does not include any standard procedures for determining whether the beliefs are true or false.

In that way, superstitious thinking is unlike scientific thinking, which relies on experiments for its reliability. It also differs from philosophical thinking, which relies on reasons.

For those reasons, superstitious thinking is less reliable than other patterns of thinking.

Example 1: Identifying the Characteristics of Superstitious Thinking

Which of the following is a characteristic of superstitious thinking?

  1. A disregard for scientific evidence
  2. The use of scientific experiments
  3. The interpretation of religious teachings
  4. A willingness to question one’s beliefs
  5. Free association of diverse ideas


Careful testing or scientific experiments are not characteristics of superstitious thinking.

If any superstition did happen to be scientifically proven, it would no longer be a superstition but a scientific fact.

On the other hand, if someone gave up their belief because they could not find any scientific evidence to support it, then they would not be thinking superstitiously.

It is reasonable to say that superstitious thinking disregards scientific evidence. Therefore, the correct answer is A.

Philosophical thinking also aims to explain the world and to figure out how we should live.

Someone thinking philosophically must provide reasons for what they believe.

As we saw in the example of Pele, someone thinking superstitiously can claim that their shirt is lucky without explaining why that is or how they know that it is true.

However, for them to think about it philosophically, they would have to come up with good reasons to support their claim that it is a lucky shirt.

Thinking about the matter philosophically would require Pele to reflect on his reasons for believing in lucky shirts or in anything else.

For Pele to be thinking philosophically, he would have to give up his belief in lucky shirts if he could not come up with sufficient reasons for that belief.

Key Term: Reasons

Reasons are legitimate foundations for beliefs or actions.

If someone’s beliefs and actions are supported by reasons, we can say that they are rational and are acting rationally.

Example 2: Identifying the Characteristics of Philosophical Thinking

Complete the following: Philosophical thinking requires us to give up our beliefs if .

  1. we cannot find sufficient reasons to support them
  2. we cannot express them in a beautiful enough way
  3. they are not new
  4. they are not accepted by the majority of people
  5. they cannot be experimentally proven


Someone thinking philosophically will believe something if they have sufficient reasons to accept that it is true.

They will also refuse to believe something that they do not have sufficient reasons to believe.

The philosophical thinker is concerned solely with rational thoughts and, therefore, it does not really matter whether a thought is expressed beautifully, is new, or is accepted by the majority.

For philosophical thinking, all that really matters are the reasons that can be offered in support of an idea. Therefore, the correct answer is A.

Scientific thinking must be supported by evidence. Evidence means observations that can support a belief.

For example, you probably believe that you have a body, and it is not hard to find evidence to support that belief.

If you hold your hands up in front of you, observing your hands provides you with empirical evidence to support the belief that you have a body. We observe the world using our five senses and derive evidence from our observations.

Key Term: Empirical Evidence

Empirical evidence refers to observations of the world that support a belief or a claim.

It is not always easy to determine exactly what we have observed. That is why scientists design experiments to help them accurately interpret observations.

For example, suppose you take some medicine because you have a headache. After an hour, your headache goes away. How can you know whether it is the medicine that caused your headache to go away?

Your headache may have gotten better for some other reason.

Key Term: Experiment

An experiment is a procedure carried out in controlled conditions to test a claim.

Scientists can find out whether headache medicine works by performing experiments.

In a typical experiment, researchers start by separating people into two groups. They give the medicine they want to test to one group, while they give the other group a sugar pill.

Figure 2: A pile of pills. Pills like these are tested by researchers using controlled experiments.

The researchers measure how many people in each group got better and how much better they got. They can use comparisons between the two groups to determine whether the medicine works.

If more people who received the medicine got better, then that could prove that the medicine works.

Example 3: Identifying the Characteristics of Scientific Thinking

Which of the following characteristics distinguishes scientific thinking from all other patterns of thinking?

  1. Requiring empirical evidence
  2. Citing religious authorities
  3. Interpreting texts by great thinkers
  4. Rationality


Occasionally, interpreting texts by great thinkers or citing religious authorities helps scientists come up with their theories. However, these activities are not typical of scientific thinking, let alone distinctive of it.

Although rationality is necessary for scientific thinking, rational thinking is only specifically scientific when the explanations provided are supported by empirical evidence.

Relying on empirical evidence distinguishes scientific thinking from all others.

Scientific thinking is distinguished by the kind of evidence that it requires. The kind of evidence it requires is empirical, that is, the evidence of our senses. Therefore, the correct answer is A.

Religious thinking explains the world and our place in it with reference to God.

In many religions, the origin of the universe is attributed to God and, therefore, religious explanations are crucial to understanding the world.

Religions often claim that God determines the purpose of life. In these religious traditions, living well means living in accord with God’s commands.

Religious thought usually recognizes the authority of a text, such as Islam’s Quran, Christianity’s Bible, or Hinduism’s Mahabharata.

Kashmir Mahabharata
Figure 3: A page of the Mahabharata. Religious thought usually recognizes the authority of religious texts such as the Mahabharata.

Sometimes, religious thinking uses observations of the natural world in order to support religious beliefs and settle religious disputes.

One example of religious thinking is the analogy of the camel’s droppings.

When we see a camel’s droppings, the natural conclusion is that there must have been a camel that created them.

Following a similar line of reasoning, some people argue that because there are stars in the sky, there must be a god who created them.

This argument relies on the principle of sufficient reason.

Key Term: The Principle of Sufficient Reason

The principle of sufficient reason states that there must always be a reason that things are as they are.

An application of the principle of sufficient reason is the assumption that for anything that exists, there must be a sufficient reason for it to exist.

This principle is the basis for many arguments for the existence of God. It is also the basis for the idea that every effect has a cause, which is crucial to scientific thought.

Whenever we try to make sense of the world, we are making use of the principle of sufficient reason.

When we try to make sense of the world, we are assuming that there are reasons that the world is the way it is.

Example 4: Religious Thinking

Which of the following analogies uses the principle of sufficient reason to argue for the existence of God?

  1. Just like we can infer the existence of a camel from its droppings, we can infer the existence of God from the stars in the sky.
  2. Just like if we follow droppings, we may find the camel that made them, if we follow the signs of God, we can find God.
  3. Just like we must trust a person who tells us that he knows that a camel made these droppings, we must trust a person who tells us that God exists.
  4. Just like a camel can hide in the desert, God is hidden in the universe.


The principle of sufficient reason states that there must be a sufficient explanation for why things are the way that they are and not otherwise. Many religious thinkers have used this principle to argue for the existence of God.

The camel analogy uses the principle of sufficient reason to argue for the existence of God by pointing out that we expect that when we come across camel droppings, we assume that there must be a sufficient reason that explains their existence.

What explains the existence of camel droppings is a camel.

Similarly, when we look up at the stars in the sky, we can expect that there is a sufficient reason for their existence.

Many religious thinkers argue that only God satisfies the need for a sufficient reason that explains the wonders of the universe and the universe itself.

Only answer A uses the principle of sufficient reason to conclude that God must exist; therefore, the correct answer is A.

Like the other patterns of thinking, creative thinking aims at understanding the world.

Creative thinking happens when we make new and different connections between ideas or impressions.

New connections make it possible for us to see the world differently and find solutions to the stickiest problems.

Whereas scientific thinking depends on observation and experimentation and philosophical thinking depends on reasons, creative thinking has no fixed boundaries or criteria.

Instead, creative thinking breaks down boundaries and creates new paths.

Creative thinking is demonstrated by an enormous mural that covers the walls of 50 buildings in a Cairo neighborhood.

This neighborhood had been discriminated against because of the occupation of its inhabitants, many of whom are garbage collectors.

The graffiti says, “Anyone who wants to see sunlight clearly needs to wipe their eyes first,” in Arabic calligraphy.

It is a creative solution for the social problems that face the neighborhood. It transformed the area into a beautiful work of art and helped to reduce the stigma associated with living there.

A group of buildings covered with graffiti
Figure 4: A group of buildings covered with graffiti.

It is not necessarily a choice between creative thinking and the other patterns of thinking; instead, they often complement each other.

Example 5: The Benefits of Creative Thinking

Who can benefit from creative thinking?

  1. Everyone
  2. Scientists
  3. Bureaucrats
  4. Entrepreneurs
  5. Painters


Creative thinking is often associated with artists, such as painters and writers, but it is important to many other activities.

That is because creativity is not limited to making original works of art. It is an important aspect of effective thinking for people in any line of work.

For example, scientists use creativity to design experiments that will test predictions and entrepreneurs need creative thinking to come up with ways to satisfy unmet needs in the market.

The work of bureaucrats is concerned with implementing rules and therefore might not seem creative. However, even they need to use creative thinking to find ways to implement the existing rules in ways that adequately fulfil their purpose.

If a bureaucrat does not practice creative thinking, they are unlikely to be effective at their job. They are more likely to make people’s lives more difficult and weaken the institutions that they serve.

Therefore, the correct answer is A.

Let’s summarize some of the key points we have covered in this explainer.

Key Points

  • We can identify five patterns of thinking: superstitious thinking, philosophical thinking, scientific thinking, religious thinking, and creative thinking.
  • Superstitious thinking does not include any standard procedures for determining whether the beliefs are true or false.
  • Philosophical thinking requires finding reasons to support beliefs and abandoning beliefs that are not supported by reasons.
  • Scientific thinking requires finding empirical evidence to support beliefs and testing beliefs using experiments.
  • Religious thinking explains the world and our place in it, with reference to God.
  • Creative thinking happens when we make new and different connections between ideas or impressions.

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