Where Order Meets Chaos

September 2, 2005

I like to think that I understand the words I use. So it came as a bit of a shock to me when on a recent occasion I tried to explain just what I mean by a common word I have used zillions of times - "order" - and I couldn't, not without some heavy thinking about it.

I think I know order when I see it, but what exactly is it? Stuff neatly arranged? But what makes an arrangement neat, and, for that matter, what's an arrangement? Let's look at it from the other end: "order" is the opposite of "mess". A "mess" or "disorder", a.k.a. "chaos", is when things are scattered or piled up helter skelter, without rhyme or reason. In other words, in "chaos" there is no discernible purpose or meaning, there is no pattern of any sort that the mind can grasp. If one thing is over here and another over there, you still have no idea where the next thing may be till you actually find it. There's no way to predict its location and knowing where the other things are doesn't help.

Now we're getting somewhere. If chaos is unpredictable, then order must be predictable. To be predictable, an orderly arrangement must follow some kind of an unchanging rule, a regular pattern, so that if you know what came before you can predict exactly what comes after. Even if the pattern changes and evolves with time, the change itself is governed by the rule and is predictable. That's order: a place for everything and everything in it's place - no surprises.

Order involves repetition, cyclicity (rhythm), symmetry, similarity (rhyme), and reason (it implies a purpose). It underlies what we perceive as beauty, elegance, and grace. It enables us to plan, design and act effectively and confidently. We can dance through an orderly life without a wasted motion. There is only one fatal problem with order: it's boring. If you already know your destination, why bother going?

Fortunately, in real life this is not a problem because there is no such thing as perfect order. It is indeed true that ignorance is bliss: it is because we do not and cannot know everything, or even any one thing completely, life is to a large extent unpredictable and exciting. Chaos may not always reign, but it is never absent from our lives. It provides us with opportunities for adventure, discovery, heroic struggle, victory and defeat, comedy and tragedy, and above all, wonder and surprise.

Of course, absolute chaos, like perfect order, does not exist. In a state of absolute chaos, if there were such a thing, nothing would make sense, no meaning, purpose or intent could exist, no effective action would be possible. Somewhere between those virtual extremes of perfect order and absolute chaos there is the reality of life and art: neither would be possible, or worthwhile, without some measure of both order and chaos. If order makes for beauty and effectiveness, chaos is the stuff of creativity and innovation. Where the two meet wonderful and amazing and often terrible things happen - life happens, and where there's life there's art. But that's another story.

Paul Wyszkowski