In a general way, reality is ordered exactly to the degree in which it satisfies our thought. Order is therefore a certain agreement between subject and object. It is the mind finding itself again in things. But the mind, we said, can go in two opposite ways. Sometimes it follows its natural direction: there is then progress in the form of tension, continuous creation, free activity. Sometimes it inverts it, and this inversion, pushed to the end, leads to extension, to the necessary reciprocal determination of elements externalized each by relation to the others, in short, to geometrical mechanism. Now, whether experience seems to us to adopt the first direction or whether it is drawn in the direction of the second, in both cases we say there is order, for in the two processes the mind finds itself again. The confusion between them is therefore natural. To escape it, different names would have to be given to the two kinds of order, and that is not easy, because of the variety and variability of the forms they take. The order of the second kind may be defined as geometry, which is its extreme limit; more generally, it is that kind of order that is concerned whenever a relation of necessary determination is found between causes and effects. It evokes ideas of inertia, of passivity, of automatism. As to the first kind of order, it oscillates no doubt around finality; and yet we cannot define it as finality, for it is sometimes above, sometimes below. In its highest forms, it is more than finality, for of a free action or a work of art we may say that they show a perfect order, and yet they can only be expressed in terms of ideas approximately, and after the event. Life in its entirety, regarded as a creative evolution, is something analogous; it transcends finality, if we understand by finality the realization of an idea conceived or conceivable in advance. The category of finality is therefore too narrow for life in its entirety. It is, on the other hand, often too wide for a particular manifestation of life taken separately. Be that as it may, it is with the vital that we have here to do, and the whole present study strives to prove that the vital is in the direction of the voluntary. We may say then that this first kind of order is that of the vital or of the willed, in opposition to the second, which is that of the inert and the automatic. Common sense instinctively distinguishes between the two kinds of order, at least in the extreme cases; instinctively, also, it brings them together.
Now, as soon as we have clearly distinguished between the order that is “willed” and the order that is “automatic,” the ambiguity that underlies the idea of disorder is dissipated, and, with it, one of the principal difficulties of the problem of knowledge.
The main problem of the theory of knowledge is to know how science is possible, that is to say, in effect, why there is order and not disorder in things. That order exists is a fact. But, on the other hand, disorder, which appears to us to be less than order, is, it seems, of right. The existence of order is then a mystery to be cleared up, at any rate a problem to be solved. More simply, when we undertake to found order, we regard it as contingent, if not in things, at least as viewed by the mind: of a thing that we do not judge to be contingent we do not require an explanation. If order did not appear to us as a conquest over something, or as an addition to something (which something is thought to be the “absence of order”), ancient realism would not have spoken of a “matter” to which the Idea superadded itself, nor would modern idealism have supposed a “sensuous manifold” that the understanding organizes into nature. Now, it is unquestionable that all order is contingent, and conceived as such. But contingent in relation to what?
The reply, to our thinking, is not doubtful. An order is contingent, and seems so, in relation to the inverse order, any state of things that is not one of the two orders is the other and is necessarily conceived as the other. But it may happen that we do not realize what we are actually thinking of, and perceive the idea really present to our mind only through a mist of affective states. Any one can be convinced of this by considering the use we make of the idea of disorder in daily life. When I enter a room and pronounce it to be “in disorder,” what do I mean? The position of each object is explained by the automatic movements of the person who has slept in the room, or by the efficient causes, whatever they may be, that have caused each article of furniture, clothing, etc., to be where it is: the order, in the second sense of the word, is perfect. But it is order of the first kind that I am expecting, the order that a methodical person consciously puts into his life, the willed order and not the automatic: so I call the absence of this order “disorder.” At bottom, all there is that is real, perceived and even conceived, in this absence of one of the two kinds of order, is the presence of the other.
Inversely, when we affirm that we are imagining a chaos, that is to say a state of things in which the physical world no longer obeys laws, what are we thinking of? We imagine facts that appear and disappear capriciously. First we think of the physical universe as we know it, with effects and causes well proportioned to each other; then, by a series of arbitrary decrees, we augment, diminish, suppress, so as to obtain what we call disorder. In reality we have substituted will for the mechanism of nature; we have replaced the “automatic order” by a multitude of elementary wills, just to the extent that we imagine the apparition or vanishing of phenomena. No doubt, for all these little wills to constitute a “willed order,” they must have accepted the direction of a higher will. But, on looking closely at them, we see that that is just what they do: our own will is there, which objectifies itself in each of these capricious wills in turn, and takes good care not to connect the same with the same, nor to permit the effect to be proportional to the cause—in fact makes one simple intention hover over the whole of the elementary volitions. Thus, here again, the absence of one of the two orders consists in the presence of the other. In analyzing the idea of chance, which is closely akin to the idea of disorder, we find the same elements.
Of an anarchical world, in which phenomena succeed each other capriciously, I should say again that it is a realm of chance, meaning that I find before me wills, or rather decrees, when what I am expecting is mechanism. Thus is explained the singular vacillation of the mind when it tries to define chance. Neither efficient cause nor final cause can furnish the definition sought. The mind swings to and fro, unable to rest, between the idea of an absence of final cause and that of an absence of efficient cause, each of these definitions sending it back to the other. The problem remains insoluble, in fact, so long as the idea of chance is regarded as a pure idea, without mixture of feeling. But, in reality, chance merely objectifies the state of mind of one who, expecting one of the two kinds of order, finds himself confronted with the other. Chance and disorder are therefore necessarily conceived as relative. So if we wish to represent them to ourselves as absolute, we perceive that we are going to and fro like a shuttle between the two kinds of order, passing into the one just at the moment at which we might catch ourself in the other, and that the supposed absence of all order is really the presence of both, with the swaying of a mind that cannot rest finally in either. Neither in things nor in our idea of things can there be any question of presenting this disorder as the substratum of order, since it implies the two kinds of order and is made of their combination.
But our intelligence is not stopped by this. It posits a disorder which is an “absence of order.” In so doing it thinks a word or a set of words, nothing more. If it seeks to attach an idea to the word, it finds that disorder may indeed be the negation of order, but that this negation is then the implicit affirmation of the presence of the opposite order, which we shut our eyes to because it does not interest us, or which we evade by denying the second order in its turn—that is, at bottom, by re-establishing the first.
How can we speak, then, of an incoherent diversity which an understanding organizes? It is no use for us to say that no one supposes this incoherence to be realized or realizable: when we speak of it, we believe we are thinking of it; now, in analyzing the idea actually present, we find, as we said before, only the disappointment of the mind confronted with an order that does not interest it, or a swaying of the mind between two kinds of order, or, finally, the idea pure and simple of the empty word that we have created by joining a negative prefix to a word which itself signifies something. But it is this analysis that we neglect to make. We omit it, precisely because it does not occur to us to distinguish two kinds of order that are irreducible to one another.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution
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