Book Summaries

The Battle between Order and Chaos

A large proportion of people in the world do not have the ability to choose how they want to spend their time.

The global economic machine can only function when sufficient sacrifices are made. What people sacrifice is time, it is the most precious commodity that humans have.

Unless you have provided astronomical value to society and have recuperated this value financially, you are on the treadmill, grinding it out every day, competing with everyone else, aiming for security and freedom, and tirelessly balancing out this timeless dichotomy.

But what you choose to do in this free time will determine your future and how much free time you will have then. It will also determine the quality of your future experiences.

You may make the wrong sacrifices in the present and find no compensation for your efforts in the future. Thus, many people choose to enjoy their time while they can, because there are no certainties in the future.

In his book The Time Paradox, Zimbardo distinguishes between essentially two types of people. Those that live for the present and those that live for the future.

Future oriented people save, work hard, delay pleasure, and plan – they are more productive and healthier than present oriented people, who live for pleasure and don’t see much value in thinking about tomorrow. But present oriented people worry less, they are more relaxed and experience more joy.

The dichotomy describes people well, but of course, it exists within all of us. Each person has an impulsive side and a cautious side.

We need to be impulsive sometimes, because life would be boring if everything was predictable and planned. But we also need to be careful, because life would be dangerous without order.

The ultimate question of our lives is how we choose to allocate our time between order and chaos. Perhaps how we do this is a reflection of our freely chosen personality or is a result of an idiosyncratic arrangement of atoms that we have no control of.

It is nonetheless a question we are forced to wrestle with.

But to wrestle adequately with it, we must leap away from our tendencies and experience the other side. And to do so, we must temporarily abandon the traditional ways we choose to learn about the world.

If you are comfortable understanding the world and yourself through books, you must abandon reading temporarily, and see life from a different angle, one that is not so cerebral. And if you prefer to learn about the world by experiencing it directly, talking to people, and going on adventures, it would be good to be more contemplative.

But this standard common sense advice does not always work, because the world cannot be dichotomised, even though we would like it to be.

Instead of order and chaos, we have varying degrees of both, but we also have the subjective experience of both, and this too is characterized by degrees of order or chaos.

In other words, it is not just that the external world that is chaotic or orderly, it is our minds too. How we interpret reality will also depend on how are minds are configured, and to what extent the factors of order and chaos feed into our thinking.

A third layer of abstraction exists, when we consider that our perceptions of language itself is also affected by varying degrees of chaos and order. The precision of someone’s command of a language can affect what kind of thoughts they can have, and express.

All three layers continuously inform each other, so that there is never a final form, we are always scrambling somewhere on the spectrum of order and chaos.

And what is constantly pulling at us in one way or another is circumstance: time, motivations, financial resources, health, genes, and other people.

It becomes not so important to ask ourselves, as Sam Harris remarks in his book Free Will to what extent we are really free, but rather, to what extent we are free to control the levers that constantly affect our behavior.

We are only as free as our circumstances allow us to be. That is, our circumstances underlie the degrees of freedom that we have, and our job is to recognize the best mode of action that we are allowed.

Sometimes, having many possible modes of action can be detrimental to future well being – the problem of too much choice.

Generally, it is better to have more options, because it allows you to better understand the limitations of the alternative actions you may take. At the same time, by being too aware of these limitations, you get stuck, and lose your ability to imagine the future rewards associated with potentially risky behavior.

To act before thinking is not always bad, as many present oriented people may proudly attest, or as Mr. Hyde would inform Dr. Jekyll, or as Mephistopholes would inform Dr. Faust.

To recognize this means to recognize the inherent limitations of our way of thinking, even if it was well informed by deep philosophical ideas and thought.

We will always be missing some part of the picture – now the question becomes: should we care more about winning, or not losing?

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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