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The Nature of Order // Book One // The Phenomenon of Life

Started by droqen, December 10, 2022, 05:47:43 PM

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I can't get completely on board, as usual, but one of the last things he says, still, is "The deep order which produces life . . . can be described and understood."

So describe it, Alexander! I want to understand it, as a fellow Alexander!!!


P. 64
. . . I want to . . . persuade the reader that . . . the different degree of life we observe in every different part of space is not merely an artifact of our cognition but is an objectively real physical phenomenon in space which our cognition detects.
As previously stated, I REALLY cannot get on board with this, haha. Still... I'm waiting for the point where Alexander stops saying what he intends to do and attempts to do it. Come on, dude.


Hmm. I'm reading through the next bit, and I feel again as though I, we, are returning to this same place, this same double-ended disagreement, agreement from opposite directions. Repeating but not repeating.

Alexander says that the degrees of life are "not merely an artifact of our cognition but is an objectively real physical phenomenon in space which our cognition detects". I almost, almost, almost agree with this, but my agreement hinges upon a condition I may never have confirmed or denied: the objectively real physical phenomenon is defined by the particular detection our cognition performs upon it.

Some examples:

- The colour red
"Red" is an objectively real physical phenomenon which can be mathematically described (though not perfectly -- people can disagree on whether certain orange-like shades are red or not) but such a description is completely dependent on an artifact of our cognition!

- A happy smile
The mouth that wears a smile is an objectively real physical phenomenon (etc etc), but the boundaries and definition, the value of a smile, these are completely dependent on an artifact of our cognition...

To revisit Alexander's "the different degree of life we observe in every different part of space is not merely an artifact of our cognition but is an objectively real physical phenomenon in space which our cognition detects.":
Fine, perhaps our cognition is detecting some physical phenomenon which you have labelled life -- its value is likewise objective, based on an objective artifact of our cognition, an arbitrary consequence of whatever processes produced our very existences.

The phenomenon... The problem I have been having is that I do not believe the boundaries were created objectively. The label. If I have a universe that is a series of numbers, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9, can I describe the sub-series of numbers "3 4 5" as a phenomenon? Is it an objective phenomenon within the universe of that series, in that it exists, or must a phenomenon have some meaning or value? It certainly is a piece of the universe. Hmm.


Alexander has brought up religion and objectiveness enough so far that I strongly suspect that he believes his life to be some objective value that humans are detecting within the universe. This is the perspective I cannot side with.

It is perhaps a deeply profound shared human value, something that runs to the core of every or near every human being, but it is at its core anthropocentric, or perhaps somewhere between anthropocentric and biological, something that is valued commonly by living things on earth. I still believe we are machines. Perhaps the misery there is that I hold a belief that itself is not one valued by life; my perspective is incompatible with biological comfort; my viewpoint is itself not alive.

Alas. I will try to work my way out of this one, but never backwards. Only through.


It is "merely" an artifact of our cognition, but that "merely" is hurting me.
It is an artifact of our cognition, and that truth must be beauty enough.


End of Chapter Two.
I'm not sure I will read more, but I might.

Alexander proposes that "every part of a building . . . has its degree of life" or that "the degree of life of different things and places [exists] in every single thing there is".
At this point I am entirely convinced that the problem here is one of projection, but on an extremely large scale. Alexander is not projecting his feelings about an object into the object, but rather a statistically salient number of people's feelings about an object into the object. He has a great wealth of experience, no doubt.

He places these common human feelings "into" the objects, when in fact they lie in the eye of the beholder, or the billion eyes of a half-billion beholders, or at its greatest extent the countless eyes of every human beholder to have ever existed or who ever will...
This is such an important topic to me that I've thought about a lot, which is why I keep repeating myself, and why I've read as far as I have. I want to be able to get it out correctly, to say it right.

Christopher Alexander, inescapably human, claims that a "degree of life of different things and places [exists] in every single thing there is." But he is simply describing his judgement, simple as that. It is only natural that the owner of a brain that is capable of judging some value of any object will come to believe that such a value might not exist within themselves but within those objects...

In some ways I wish I could have faith in his particular belief about how the world works, rather than my particular belief about how the world works. But I've already mourned that above.







I've read a few pages into this chapter, tentatively, and while I will continue to express my particular reservations about how my perspective differs from Alexander (our difference 'repeating but not repeating' each time -- it feels like a development of my own perspective, testing it against his own as it appears in different contexts), I hope that doesn't get away from the love I feel about his ideas otherwise. Alexander's idea that this is 'mathematical' and 'objective', I can take it or leave it, but it's obviously of great importance to him, this aspect of the metaphor, so whatever helped him get here, I'll accept as necessary debris.


Alexander uses this example of a dot in the middle of a piece of paper to get at wholeness and centers. I've recreated most of his diagrams in the image above. (Oops! I forgot the 'halo' around the dot. Imagine a final grey line indicator of a smallish circle of the area immediately next to the dot.)


P. 82
. . . including the main entity of the sheet itself, there are at least twenty entities created in the space of the paper by the dot. . . . when we place the dot, these zones become marked in some way, they become visible, they stand out. In some fashion they become coherent, or differentiated, where before they were not. Although the precise nature of these entities is not yet clear, the thing that matters is that they have become more visible, marked, stronger.

[ . . . a list of twenty entities, e.g. 6. Right-hand rectangle trapped by dot, 17. Diagonal ray from dot to nearest corner. . . . ]

The basic idea of the wholeness . . . these stronger zones or entities, together, define the structure which we recognize as the wholeness of the sheet of paper with the dot.


P. 83
The entities which come into existence in a configuration are not merely cognitive. They have a real mathematical existence, and are actually occurring features of the space itself.


Haha! As if math is not itself merely cognitive.
And yet math also is real! A cognitive construct is real. A cognitive construct may contains truths, deep and profound.


P. 84
There is a . . . reason for thinking of the coherent entities in the world as centers, not as wholes. If I want to be accurate about a whole, it is natural for me to ask where that whole starts and stops. Suppose, for example, I am talking about a fishpond, and want to call it a whole. To be accurate . . . I want to be able to draw a precise boundary around this whole . . . Obviously the water is part of the fishpond. What about the concrete it is made, or the clay under the ground . . . the air which is just above  . . . the pipes bringing in the water? . . . These are uncomfortable questions, and they are not trivial.
. . .
The pond does exist. Our trouble is that we don't know how to define it exactly. . . . When I call the pond a center, the situation changes. I can then recognize the fact that the pond does have existence as a local center of activity: a living system. It is a focused entity. But the fuzziness of its edges becomes less problematic. The reason is that the pond, as an entity, is focused towards its center. It creates a field of centeredness. But, obviously, this effect falls off. The peripheral things play their role in the pond.


In the previous quote I cut out Alexander's use of "mathematical", but I think to make my point I need to bring it back in. "There is a mathematical reason for thinking of the coherent entities in the world as centers," is the full first sentence, unedited.

Here is my breakdown of what he's saying about wholes and centers and mathematics.
  • There is a mathematical reason for calling things 'centers' and not 'wholes'
  • In mathematical theory, to define a 'whole' I must define its boundaries
  • Real objects do not have mathematically clear boundaries
  • Therefore I will use the mathematically vague term 'center' which does not provoke the theorizing of boundaries

The thing is it seems that Alexander is invoking a semantic trick to get out of mathematics, or I could say, out of the 20th century mechanistic viewpoint. He could just as well say

  • Mathematical theory likes boundaries
  • Real objects do not have mathematically clear boundaries
  • Therefore I will not use mathematical theory

BUT! The precision, and perhaps legitimacy under our modern-day viewpoint, afforded by mathematics and mathematical theory is too great for Alexander to resist. That is not to say or even imply his theories are intentionally crafted to win legitimacy. This is something people do automatically to themselves, within themselves, all the time: justify and rationalize what they know to be true by coming up with a way to explain it that appeals to their values and worldview, which is itself partially impressed upon them by the outside, by society, by the people they know, by the world around them, by their knowledge and learning.


P. 85
if I call [the kitchen sink] a center . . . it creates a sense, in my mind, of the way the sink is going to work in the kitchen. It makes me aware of the larger pattern of things, and the way this particular element -- the kitchen sink -- fits into that pattern, plays its role in that pattern. It makes the sink feel more like a thing which radiates out, extends beyond its own boundaries, and takes its part in the kitchen as a whole.
. . .
The same is true of all the entities which appear in the world. . . . When I think of them as centers, I become more aware of their relatedness; I see them as focal points in a larger unbroken whole and I see the world as whole.


There is an imprecision that I am coming to value, this idea that there is no whole to understand. Here Alexander says "I see the world as whole", and in some ways this is certainly a convenient perspective. The world is rather whole. But it's also completely wrong: the world is just another center. In The Timeless Way of Building, Alexander presents the concept of patterns as things nested within one another, always. It's refreshing, freeing, to think of everything as a center, a center of something, a participant in something larger that exists but which does not necessarily need to be discussed or understood -- and certainly not as a whole. Every center is the center of another, greater, center. Every entity is a participant in another, greater, entity.

Right, I'm getting ahead of myself. From a first-person perspective let us say that anything we perceive to be whole... cannot be understood as an object itself. Oh, no, I finally understand 'everything is connected.' It really is. To the 20th century mechanistic viewpoint which seeks to understand wholes, that's terrifying, overwhelming. But I think the point is to let go, to understand by not understanding. You cannot completely understand an apple by studying the apple, you must study the apple tree too. But you cannot completely understand an apple tree by studying the apple tree, you must study the land from which it grows. But you cannot understand the land... and so on, forever.

You must understand that you can never understand the apple seed.