The Paradox of Arrangement(s)
Physics Department, Emory University
Arrange, arrangement, or arrangements... no matter which form of the word, it carries a built-in paradox. It contains the word “range”, which suggests a wide scope, a multitude of possibilities, a sweep over a large arena. Yet the entire word “arrangement” means a degree of order that has meaning to some human facility, such as the power to reason, our visual apparatus, or our aesthetic sense. In the social sphere, it also suggests order imposed, as in “arranging” to meet somebody for lunch. Can we resolve this paradox? Perhaps we can if we consider the truest meaning of the word.
I think of arrangements that have powerful meaning within certain cultures: a flower arrangement as seen by a Japanese, or a still-life painting as seen through the eyes of a Western European. The art of making such an arrangement consists of exquisite details: the angle of the flowers, the color of the peaches in the bowl, the balance of one mass against the other. In the flower arrangement, in the still life, the tiniest change, such as moving one element an inch or two may turn a mediocre pattern into a perfect one.
How can the idea of “range” enter into such a minutely detailed universe? The answer is that “range” is always there, but in a hidden way, for the making of an arrangement involves selection from among many possibilities: what flowers to pick, what container to put them into, whether the still life should include a silver knife, and so on. So one way to resolve the paradox in “arrangement” is to realize that an arrangement arises when a mind makes a careful selection among a range of elements to achieve a goal. The goal may be aesthetic, as in forming the perfect floral display; intellectual, as in understanding the atomic make-up of the world by creating the pattern of the periodic table of the elements; pragmatic, as in making a date for lunch; or one of a dozen others.
But the world around us is also full of other arrangements that are not apparently the result of a mind, or at least of a human mind. The most intricate, perhaps, are the shapes and functions of living things; but even the non-living world has its complex arrangements, as in the striking pattern of a spiral galaxy. Let’s take for granted the obvious, that it is only through human perception that these arrangements have meaning: a dead and uncaring universe would presumably be unimpressed that galaxies take on a particular kind of spiral shape. So in that sense, a human mind is always involved in appreciating these patterns. But human minds did not make them; how, then, did these arrangements come to be?
One answer is that the mind of God selected and imposed these patterns on the raw stuff of the universe, and so in that view they too come from a mind, although a mind greater than any human’s. In my view, though, the biological and physical arrangements that impress us represent a different kind of arrangement, evolutionary arrangement, which seems to impose patterns of increasing intricacy as time moves on.
In this case, the starting “range” of possibilities is not an array of already existing choices, but rather a uniform distribution of simple and beginning elements: hydrogen and helium in the case of the universe, certain molecules for the living world. These respond to forces acting on them or evolve according to a Darwinian process, and in both cases, move on to more complex “arrangements” -- arrangements that in my opinion represent no other over-arching pattern. (Parenthetically, one wonders if the ever-increasingly intricate arrangement of the technology around us represents evolution out of control).
But are there arrangements that represent both human thought and evolutionary forces? Surprisingly, yes, and in those that might seem the most mundane and furthest removed from the mysteries of cosmic birth and the dawn of life; namely the little and not so little arrangements we make within our own daily existences, in the larger patterns of our lives, and in the even bigger patterns of whole societies.
Consider what happens when you arrange to meet a friend for lunch: you propose a time and place, she agrees or makes a counter proposal, then you both agree. Two days later, you successfully meet and enjoy lunch. A simple arrangement, made through the efforts of a human mind...or in this case, two human minds. This is surely order imposed on a multitude of possibilities as to when and where.
But it is only the evolution of human interactions and human societies that could have developed the idea that this particular arrangement is a good one. In centuries past, in unsophisticated societies, maybe people met for lunch only at random, which is no arrangement at all. Perhaps the preferred arrangement in some strange society was to pretend to agree to a time and place, and then not show up. Among all the different ways that this social interaction could have been formed -- just like the flower arrangement, where one possibility is to always include a sprig of green, and another is to always include a big flower and a small one -- this particular form of a contractual agreement to meet has shown itself to be the most viable.
And so the paradox in arrangement is perhaps resolved: an arrangement is an imposition of order selected from among disparate, malleable, or changeable elements, either by a human mind with a particular goal, or by evolutionary workings that in their randomness lead to the survival of certain patterns and the death of others.