“A warrior, on the other hand, is a hunter. He calculates everything. That’s control. But once his calculations are over he acts. He lets go. That’s abandon.”
Carlos Castaneda

Journey to Ixtlan

Christopher Alexander on an Extended Physics


“… In physics, the effort has always been to take the geometry of a material system and to derive from it, predictions about the dynamic behavior, forces, and causal interactions … which follow from a particular configuration.

In art and building … Again we have geometry, but here we seek especially to derive from it, or predict from it, the harmony, gracefulness, and quality of life, which different geometries may have.

Further, still, in the study of living systems – ecosystems and organisms – we have yet a third problem . Here we have geometric structures, and we seek to derive from their geometry both the behavior of the systems (in that regards it is like physics) and the health or degree of life and coherence of the systems (in that regard it is like art and architecture).

In what follows now, I am taking the view that all three cases are to be included in a single view of matter … our picture of the matter-space of the universe must be modified in a way that is consistent with the insights of 20th-century physics … matter-space must have certain additional features, not provided for by contemporary physics, which allow us to see the wholeness as it occurs in space, thus forming an extension of the present picture.

The existence of centers and wholeness

… wholeness – a pervasive multi-leve structure created by centers throughout space, together with the idea that different centers have different degrees of life and centeredness…

Value and life as part of space itself

… each spatial region, at every scale, has a relative value, and a relative degree of life.

Time asymmetry: Structure preserving transformations as the origin of the laws of physics and biology

One of the most unsatisfactory aspects of Cartesian physics has been the so-called symmetry of time: the fact that classical equations do not, for the most part, distinguish between forward and backwards. Like a clock mechanism, the mechanistic universe can run backwards and forwards equally well … However, our world picture would be far more satisfactory if there is an overall and natural sense in which ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ are essentially different.

The world picture which I have been describing provides such an asymmetry in a natural way. In the physics contemplated for a world picture based on wholeness and its transformations, all laws will (I believe) fall out as natural consequences of the principle of unfolding wholeness … That principle will say, only, that the next step after a given configuration will be the one which does most to preserve and extend the structure … for the first time the possibility occurs of a natural way for understanding time-asymmetric laws as the foundation of all physical processes.

The personal quality of space

… a personal link with our own self is connected to each region of space, in that degree to which that region of the space has life or is centered … feeling – also appears in space.

The Ultimate I

To reconcile the vision of matter with the experience of personal relatedness we feel when in touch with living structure, I have, in addition, introduced the conception that living centers open some kind of window or tunnel to a ground and to an ultimate I which constitutes this ground … as the matter-space becomes organized it becomes more and more strongly linked to this ultimate ground which lies beneath it, or inside it, or throughout it.

… this … would incorporate most present-day physics a it is. However, it would add essential new features making it capable of allowing our world-picture to include both contemporary physics and crucial issues of value, feeling, and mystical experience … [it] might have the capacity to contribute substantial insights to the biologists’ long standing search to find a coherent and deep of what life really is when it arises in organic nature. It would, furthermore, provide a new basis for discussion of the profound question: Why does consciousness occur in some living systems?

In order to move our discussion away from abstract speculation, and towards experience, I would like the read to consider an experiment. Dwell briefly – and for the sake of experiment only – on the possibly that you are indeed, part of some greater I. In this frame of mind, try, next time you are playing with a favorite animal, to consider this: I have found that if I look at a cat, a favorite cat, and imagine that this cat is part of the very same I that I am made of, then the cat seems entirely different, and my relationship to it, even its relationship to me, seems entirely different … the sense of wonder I feel in the cat’s presence, is enormously multiplied, and I begin to see the cat, its beauty, its familiarity, and its strangeness, almost as not cat at all, but rather as something wondrous to which I have the cherished relationship that endears me to it, and makes it part of me. One can do the same with any beloved creature … One can do it, of course, with another person (oddly, this is harder). And one can do it with a plant or a flower. It is most poignant with an animal.

I shall try complete my sketch of this difference by writing down some new cosmological assumptions somewhat analogous to the ten ‘bad’ and tacit assumptions described in chapter I, but consistent with the view of matter I have put forward.

NEW ASSUMPTION #1.  Matter space is an unbroken continuum which includes everything, both matter and the so-called space around it, all at the same time.

NEW ASSUMPTION #2. In varying degrees, any given portion of space may be more whole or less whole, more alive or less alive, more healed or less healed, connected or broken, separated or not separate.

This assumption implies that the relative degrees of life of different buildings, neighborhoods, paintings … woodlands, part of the ocean’s edge, mountains, fields, gardens, streets, chairs and spoons – is largely fact.

NEW ASSUMPTION #3. Whenever we undertake an act of construction we have the ability to make the world more alive or less alive, more harmonious or less harmonious.

… No action, and no act of building, no matter how small, is exempt from this fundamental aspect of our existence. It is there when we paint the front door. It is there when we lay out the plates for breakfast. Is is there when we choose a location for a new freeway, and it is there we when decide to pick a single flower.

NEW ASSUMPTION #4.  Everything matters.

… Our present cosmology has built into it a definite refusal to assert the importance of anything, a refusal to define any value, a refusal to define any human reality. It is value-free.

… in this [alternate] picture, portions of the world can be less alive or more alive, and because the life of a given center has a transcendent quality in which the I of the universe becomes manifested, the degree to which living self occurs in our actions then becomes a matter of immense importance.

In this world everything matters.

NEW ASSUMPTION #5. Value is a definite and fundamental part of the universe, and of the scheme of things.

… Each action is valuable, or not, according to the extent that it preserves, and extends, and enhances the wholeness which exists, or does not do so.

… different values which exist in different human cultures … appear different because each one tries to create wholeness in the context of different conditions (including those created by culture, people and society) … At root, though, what is valuable is always the same thing: is it that which does most to enhance the structure of what is.

NEW ASSUMPTION #6. Ornament and function are indistinguishable.

Once we understand that wholeness is the most essential structural feature of the world, there is no room for a narrow distinction between legitimate and non-legitimate forms of wholeness, and there is no moral or practical distinction between the ornamental and the functional …

NEW ASSUMPTION #7. Matter itself is not a mechanism: It is a potentially soul-like materiality which is essentially what we call self.

… Although this may seem to be the most fantastic of these new cosmological assumptions, it is this assumption which, in the long run, has the greatest capacity to stimulate experiment … The world is emphatically different it if is true, and if it is not true …

NEW ASSUMPTION #8. If self or I is woken up whenever living structure appears in matter, what we think of as value may then be described as the protection, preservation, nourishment, of the precious self of the universe.

… We then treat all creation … as the protection of the personal which resides in matter, and which, through our actions, may see the light of day.

NEW ASSUMPTION #9. The nature of space-matter, being soul-like, is such that the more whole it becomes, the more transparent, the more it seems to melt, the more it realizes itself, releases its own inner reality, the more transparent it becomes, the more transcendent.

If it is true that the ground of the universe reveals itself whenever order is produced  … then this … is the single most important thing that is at stake, whenever anything is being made.

NEW ASSUMPTION #10. Thus art is not merely pleasant or interesting. It has an importance that goes to the very core of the cosmology.

… the task of buildings things and shaping things is fundamental to the spiritual condition of the world, and to our own spiritual development …

NEW ASSUMPTION #11. The unfolding of the field of centers, and the unfolding of the self, is the most fundamental awakening of matter.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground


This entry was posted in AltEco, Design, Expanding, inside, outside and tagged , , , . You are welcome to read 1 comment and to add yours