Spontaneous order is a term used to describe the unplanned emergence of order out of apparent chaos. It is an idea that is undoubtedly counterintuitive – if I sit on the sofa for a couple of hours and then go to the kitchen, I will not discover that all the dishes have miraculously been washed. Yet we can see it all around us – in human language, in the evolution of life on Earth and in the free market economy – to give just three examples.
Natural languages are not designed; they are the products mainly of evolutionary rather than some kind of conscious construction. The way language evolves is captured in this extract which I found on the internet:
Languages deal with and describe the natural world, a world which is so complex that any individual attempt to describe it, and make sense of it, can only capture part of it. In order to survive, each individual must make some sense of his environment, most fundamentally by acquiring a language. But the language of each individual (his idiolect) only functions effectively if it forms part of a wider structure such as the language of a group, a region or a nation. So our languages are complex decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. And we use them confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how they develop (Two Kinds of Order by Dr John Marks).
Let’s turn to evolution. Some creationists have argued that because of what they call “irreducible complexity” it is impossible to explain things such as the human eye or the clotting of blood without the existence of an intelligent designer. I think that science has successfully refuted that idea. But what is interesting is that the same people who deny evolution have no problem accepting the complexity that has evolved in the modern economy. I can just go to Adolfo Dominguez and buy a shirt without having to have ordered it before.
The cooperation required to make that humble shirt was enormous, with inputs from all over the world, but nobody designed these structures (obviously someone did design the shirt). And we don’t need a Minister for Shirts to guarantee that I can find one.
Spontaneous Order can thus be applied to social theory. Self-interested individuals can unintentionally create an order that may well be superior to the order created through the issuing of commands. A free society maintains order not through diktat but through traditions and institutions that have evolved and have been passed down from previous generations. The moral framework for human society can never be set in stone, but is constantly adapting through a process of trial and error until we can incorporate new rules that allow society to function better. It is this balance between existing laws and customs and innovation that is so vital. Obviously in the real world things are messy. Scientific progress may be a constant – I don’t think we will go back to believing in alchemy although with some of the things I read in the papers, I wouldn’t bet against it. Moral progress though is another question altogether. But I feel the concept of spontaneous order is an invaluable tool in understanding how societies work.
Complexity and Intelligent Design How ‘Spontaneous Order’ Applies to Economics and Evolution
Spontaneous Order By Nigel Ashford
Two Kinds of Order by Dr John Marks
I, Pencil My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read