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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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P. 86
. . . people believe today that every whole is made of parts. The key aspect of this belief is the idea that the parts come "before" the whole: in short, the parts exist as elements of some kind, which are them brought into relationship with one another . . . and a center is "created" out of these parts and their combinations as a result.
   I believe accurate understanding of wholeness is quite different. When we understand what wholeness is really like as a structure, we see that in most case it is the wholeness which creates its parts.

P. 87
We may see the phenomenon as I believe it to be in the two-dot example [pictured above], where the visible things that look like parts are induced by teh whole. Thus the visible diagonal in the case of two dots is something we might call one of its "parts." But it is not a pre-existing element. It is a part which is induced by the action of the whole. . . . In no sense at all is it an element from which the center is built.


I've recently read Emergence which describes how a whole, an incredibly beautiful whole, can arise from parts. And, like any good 20th century mechanistic viewpoint zealot, I believe it.

Again, what I think Alexander is describing is the way the brain works. It is not, as Alexander claims, that he is describing a way the world works that is more true than the 20th century mechanistic viewpoint, but that it sits better in the mind. And this is extremely powerful. It's really, really valuable to know how the brain likes to think about things, and valuable to value it.

I don't agree with the way Alexander has chosen to value the brain - by taking its natural patterns and claiming that they describe the true nature of the world - but I deeply value his insight on the brain's natural patterns. For me it's not at all just about the mechanical way the brain likes to chop things up and perceive things; it is mainly about the pleasure of using the brain for what it's good at, the humaneness of building a world, a life, out of appealing to what humans are. What we all are. What you are, what I am.

I only ever want to make art for a human. For the appreciator. For the artist. For someone.



. . . What exactly . . . is wholeness? . . . It is a structure which . . . we intuitively perceive as the gestalt, the overview, the broad nature of a thing. . . .

   This wholeness gets its strength from the coherent spatial centers of which it is made. If there are roses around a front door of a cotage, that is what you remember; if there is a pair of ducks in the garden, and a fishpond, it is the ducks and fishpond you remember . . . the roses, the ducks, . . . are all centers, and it is these entities or centers which mark something as what it is, which make it memorable, remarkable. . . .

. . . If a building has a skating rink outside, like Rockefeller Plaza in New York, it is the skating and the skaters we remember.
   These are the explicit, obvious centers. And they are not only spatial. Other centers, some hidden, some hardly visible in the space, but latent, or biological, or social, . . .

   The wholeness of any portion of the world is this system of larger and smaller centers


P. 91
All the centers together, explicit ones and hidden ones together, form the wholeness . . . in any given part of the world at any moment.


P. 95
In our conceptual picture of the house, we have things called street, garden, roof, front door, and so on. But the centers or entities which hit my eye when I take it all in as a whole are slightly different. I see the sunny part of the garden where the sun is falling on the lawn as a center --- not the entire "garden." I see the swath of space which unites front steps, front path, and front stoop, . . . I see the roofline and the light and shadow of the eave, . . . The path to the front door, and the steps from the back porch, and the door itself, the door of the house, all work as a unit, as a continuous center about 40 feet long.
. . .
The house-garden complex seen in its wholeness is truer perceptually and more accurate functionally than any analytic vision of the house or lot or garden taken by themselves.


"truer perceptually," says Alexander, which again speaks to his perpetual goal, to justify this concept with regard to this mechanistic viewpoint... He claims that seeing the house-garden complex according to the human brain's natural impulses is "truer perceptually," which is either false or unknowable, unless one is willing to define truth itself in an anthropocentric or solipsistic sense...

It is "more accurate functionally" with regards to common human aesthetic appeal, because what Alexander is describing is common human aesthetic appeal itself. This has a deep, immense, profoundly human value, but don't assign truth based on human values. Find human values and apply them to one's choices after making the genuine attempt to see the truth as accurately as possible... The truth is not human, is it? Can it be? I am a human, so in some sense the truths I can admit are always human-touched.

This sure is a struggle. What is truth? Why am I so convinced that what I believe to be the truth is not what Christopher Alexander believes to be the truth? This is an epistemological question that's going to give me hell for a long time. Either I need to grab the Beginning of Infinity out of the library again, or I need to accept some weird form of phenomenal truth.


It's so hard for me to read this book. Do I put myself in the mindset of Alexander and for now allow myself to believe in W, in this objective wholeness he proposes to exist in the world? Do I keep myself out of it and fight it at every turn? Do I stop reading?


He writes, "I am firmly convinced that the nature and behavior of buildings and other artifacts can only be understood within the context of this structure." And I . . . agree . . . nature and behaviour and everything can only be understood within the context of the structure of what our human brains are capable of recognizing. An incredibly deep pattern recognition is at work in our heads, in our lives, inescapable.

". . efforts to explain it in more mechanical fashion will go on failing, . . ." writes Alexander, but I have seen the demons of pandemonium -- we cannot understand even rudimentary emergent systems in the mechanical details, but we can set the wheels in motion and observe as they perform. I don't see this ever crossing the bridge into "sentience," rather I see it as dissecting a joke, a frog, and killing it . . . It's a sad thing. At one time I thought the mechanistic viewpoint would help me understand the wonderful elements of the world, but I suppose every time it happens it merely takes the wonder out of them! To learn is to demystify . . .

What am I saying?

Basically, I think I am asking what constitutes an "understanding" of how a thing works. If I can write a program that produces a complex output, do I "understand" how it works? If every part of the process has been built by human hands, can we "explain it" in a "mechanical fashion", or has it crossed the veil of complexity? Are better explanations good for us? Not as masters of the universe, but as friends of it.

Is there an antiepistemological perspective which advocates for knowingly closing one's eyes to the truth, and by knowingly I mean embracing what one chooses to know as something other than the truth? "Ignorance is bliss." Is there a healthy way to go about this? Perhaps to ask questions only half of each day. To ask questions only in daylight, or at nighttime. To ask questions only sometimes, and to stop asking the rest of the time.

If only I could.


It makes me so mad to keep reading this (for reasons already stated)! But I have been thinking about a lens of party planning, of designing spaces which allow play -- life, even! -- to emerge, and this next chapter title is so, so tempting, seen through this lens.

Let's do it.





He describes how a garden at the end of a terrace encourages life, encourages children to run back and forth -- and would encourage and older person to do the same but slower. Staying at a particular place in a hotel... this place was full of life, it was alive.
I like this one very small example given of an electric light on a pillar (p.114) "There is an electric light mounted on the column, a very ordinary light . . . The [column] becomes a little more intense because the lamp is just there. . . .this is not automatic. If the light were lower down, or asymmetrically mounted, or a more obtrusive shape, this would not happen." And here he explains some more of how it comes about (p.114-115) "Suppose we have two centers A and B, and we want to know if B is helping A or not. We simply look at A with B, and A without B, and go back and forth between the two, using the criterion of life to decide which of the two, A with B or A without B, has more life."

It's simple! As far as I can recall, the criterion of life is "look at it and ask yourself which has more life". That's it. There's nothing complex or special about it. Looking at a column, how do you know where, or whether, to place an electric light on it? You just . . . look. You look and you decide and you do it. It's really that simple, and it hurts me to think that top-down planning has damaged the ability for people to make these small and simple decisions.

"Which placement is more aesthetically appealing?"

This simple, simple question is something a person should always be able to answer, should be afforded the opportunity to answer as frequently as possible in their lives, I think.


I often get caught up in (let's call them) disagreements like these.

I was putting the dishes in the dishwasher and generally cleaning up the kitchen when I inquired of myself:

"Why are you making a big deal out of this?" "What's at stake here?"

I answered immediately, dramatically, "The nature of existence!"

Then I realized I had fallen into the trap set by Mr. Alexander for himself:

It is not the nature of existence at stake, but one perspective, one phenomenal model of billions, of reality.

That is still important, but should my model of reality change, reality itself does not. It's not that important.


P. 132
[..] a mature artist can use the recursion of living centres in a very powerful way, thus creating centres which have still more life, which extract far tougher and more profound life from one another, and which create, overall, an even greater intensity.


P. 134
.. It has living structure, solidly and deeply built throughout its fabric. [..] this fact must be respected. Sneering at [..] depth of structure as a possible goal, as some contemporary architects have done, is a profound mistake.


I like this "depth in structure", this "recursion of living centres"... attention paid at each step down, so that there is always another centre, and another, however closely one looks.


P. 138
Artists are aware, all too often, that a work can be made or broken by something that seems, to an outsider, a nearly trivial difference: a tiny spot of color, the shape of a curve. [..] a few percent makes the difference between profound feeling and triviality.