“When I feel that something I’m writing is going well, everything in my life is good and the things in my life that aren’t good are completely manageable. If it’s not going well, Miss America could be standing there in a swimsuit handing me a nobel price and I wouldn’t be happy about it”
Aaron Sorkin

The Element

Christopher Alexander on Essential Awe


“… In this conception, value is not something merely grafted onto space, as a passenger might be who carries no weight and does no work. It is part of the same nearly mechanical picture of space that we have come to believe in, and respect and trust. Yet, at the same time, in a most subtle way, it is also not mechanical. After all, what we observe is life emerging from space …

It is a structure, we can (tentatively) calculate with it, and it fits our structural understanding of space and matter. Yet it carries a bridge to life, feeling, and to our own experience of what it is to be a person: the self, which all of us contain, and are connected to …

I believe that one day it will be possible to demonstrate an experimental connection, where it will be shown exactly how the field of centers does open a door between space and self, and how, ultimately then, self and matter are permanently intertwined through the construction of this mechanism.

… Even today, we continue underestimating the degree to which we are prisoners of the present mechanistic cosmology; we have a strong tendency to underestimate the effect that this interior mechanistic view can have on us.

Consider, for example, three elementary facts: (1) in our immediate world, at normal temperature and pressure, nearly everything is made of atoms; (2) atoms are little whirling mechanisms which are spinning constantly; (3) people are largely made of atoms too.

Nearly every schoolchild learns these fats in school. We all learnt them. They are, by now, virtually a part of us … As a result, in the western world at least, there are few people alive who do not believe (‘know’) that they are mechanisms made up of millions of tiny whirling mechanisms.

… But if you believe … [this] mechanized reduction is accurate, how can you take seriously the kinds of ideas which I have described about the life of buildings, and walls, and rooms, and streets? The answer is you cannot. You cannot, because if you believe the three elementary-school facts, then mentally, you are still living in a universe in which nothing matters, and in which you do not matter. And then the life of the environment is not real either.

Ideas about the personal or spiritual nature of reality, no matter how desirable they seem, cannot affect you deeply, even if you think they do, until they can be embodied in some new picture which leaves the facts of physics intact, and also paves the way to a more spiritual understanding of the world

The whole point of the concept which I have described – of wholeness seen as a calculable, recursive, bootstrap field of centers with the consequences that follow from this view – is that within the framework this concept creates, things really are different, and the differences are visible as new aspects of the structure of space and matter. This newly seen structure not only says that things are different. It shows, through the properties of the structure, exactly how things are different.

… we can reconcile the face of being a a mechanism of whirling mechanisms, because we know that each atom it itself a field of centers, and that in the emergence of these fields, the self comes into view. We … you … I … are this instances of the field of centers

Armed with this view, we can unite our personal intuition of religious awe with our sensible scientific understanding of the world … And in this view, the work of building takes on entirely new meaning … we … realize … [that] When we make something, its selfness, its possible soul, is part and parcel of our own self.

There is, then, something very like a religious obligation to allow this self to reveal itself … It arises as a supreme spiritual obligation, which is our obligation to the matter/spirit we ourselves are made of …  it arises now, not as a religious or superstitious belief, but as a result of a new understanding of the structure of the universe.

A few years ago I went to mass in Salzburg’s great cathedral. It was at that time, one of the only places left where Mozart and Haydn’s masses were still sung every sunday. There was a Haydn mass. The church was filled with people thronging, crowding, pushing, to be there while the great mass was sung.

The high point of this mass was the sanctus. Full choir, slowly increasing rhythm, deep sound of the organ and the basses … the air became tense with the presence of this mass … At the most awe-inspiring moment, a young man pushed forward to a telephone mounted on one of the columns of the nave. He picked it up and listened. The telephone was tied to a tape-recording, giving interesting dates and facts for tourists. He listened to the tape-recording of dates and facts, while the Sanctus blazed around him.

This man became a symbol for me of the loss of awe and of our loss of sense. Unable to immerse himself … unaware of the size and importance of the sounds that he was hearing … For a while, during the 20th century, this had become our world: a place where the difference between awe and casual interest had been sanded down to nothing.

… All the efforts I have made have, at their heart, just this one intention: to bring back our awe … and to allow us to being to make things in the world which can intensify this awe.”

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


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