Our egos crave order – regularity, rhythm, sameness, predictability, repeating patterns. Spinoza was wholly intolerant of this need of ours, and in just a few sentences relegated order to the status of imagination. Here is a quote from the appendix to part one of The Ethics:
… such persons firmly believe that there is an order in things, being really ignorant both of things and their own nature. When phenomena are of such a kind, that the impression they make on our senses requires little effort of imagination, and can consequently be easily remembered, we say that they are well-ordered; if the contrary, that they are ill-ordered or confused. Further, as things which are easily imagined are more pleasing to us, men prefer order to confusion – as though there were any order in nature, except in relation to our imagination – and say that God has created all things in order; thus, without knowing it, attributing imagination to God, unless, indeed, they would have it that God foresaw human imagination, and arranged everything, so that it should be most easily imagined. If this be their theory, they would not, perhaps, be daunted by the fact that we find an infinite number of phenomena, far surpassing our imagination, and very many others which confound its weakness.
In his typically brutal way Spinoza claims that we prefer order simply because it is easier to deal with, requiring “little effort of imagination”. That we impose order on the world through our imagination, and that the universe itself knows nothing of order, is the cause of many confusions. We believe that the climate should be orderly, that global economics should be orderly, that our personal lives should be orderly, and so on. When these things do not happen we stand back in amazement thinking that something has gone wrong – global warming, a financial crash, a divorce, when all the time there was never any order to break down. It was never orderly; the order being simply wishful thinking on our part.
We are pattern seeking creatures. This is the color of the spectacles through which we see the world – pattern seeking pink. As the world becomes more volatile so we desperately seek greater order – our egos demand it. Businesses are investing billions in big data, machine learning and AI in their attempt to impose order on the world – desperately seeking patterns in consumer behavior. But here is a twist – the more desperate we are for order the more disorderly the world will seem. Our assumption of order will be constantly under attack because the world is largely random for us. The reason you are reading this right now is beyond your comprehension – the causal chain is pretty well infinite, and so as far as our understanding is concerned this is a largely random event. As Spinoza states – we are ignorant of the real nature of things and of our own nature. This is not a weakness it is just the way it is. As a compensation we “imagine” order in a world that is beyond our comprehension.
And for those who believe that physics is concerned with a world of order, it should known that contemporary physics largely shows a world of disorder. If you watch a dripping tap for example, you should know that physics cannot predict the exact time that the next drip will drop. Something called sensitivity to initial conditions means that many physical systems are largely unpredictable. Even our solar systems is inherently unstable. It wouldn’t take all that much to send the Earth hurtling toward the Sun.
At a personal level it is worth trying to surface our hidden assumptions of order – in relationships, our conceptual constructs, or physical existence, and so on. There is no order in any of it. If you see an assumption of order within yourself – kill it!
The Turkey Management Consultant
The turkeys at a particular farm noticed that their feed was slowly increasing as the year progressed, and one particularly bright turkey believed he saw a money making opportunity. Pretty soon the amount of feed would be beyond simple dietary needs and would make most of the turkeys fat. He proposed to buy the excess feed for a pittance and sell it back at a profit. Since he had a turkey MBA he quickly laid out his plans on a spreadsheet, and had calculated that by the end of the year he would be a turkey millionaire. Sure enough the increase in feed continued until one day the farmer, puzzled as to why his turkeys were not getting fat, saw the turkey MBA and his pile of grain. He became enraged and decided he would celebrate Thanksgiving a week early. The turkey MBA fed the farmer’s family for a week, and never again did any turkey assume there was order in the turkey universe.