“They just hate it when people make love. And then they’ll go to a fistfight where somebody’s really hurt and all covered with bloodand they’ll just love that. Or a war and stuff like that. They’re all mixed up and they’re trying to take it out on you so you get mixed up too.”
Robert Pirsig


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


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Christopher Alexander on A Gift from Art to Science


What is, truly, the ultimate nature of matter? … I have expressed my conviction that architecture cannot be good so long as we try to to do it within a mechanical conception of matter … I have argued … that we must have a vision of the world in which life, as the foundation of all architecture, is understood as something objective and inspiring … But it cannot be understood, or used, successfully, I think, without making changes in our concept of the matter from which the world is made.

The fact that such a modified world-picture might arise in part from architecture, not only from physics, is significant. Our present picture of the universe, which does come mainly from physics, is hamstring by the unavoidable narrowness of physical investigations. The character of wholeness, one of the major unsolved problems in 20th-century physics, is more easily revealed by consideration of architectural problems than by consideration of problems of physics.

Thus, architecture, previously the recipient of cosmological conceptions that originated in physics, might perhaps itself now become a contributor to cosmology.

… We now believe that the world is made of an extended material which we cal the matter-space continuum …The detailed structure of the matter-space is under daily investigation, and is not certainly or completely known. Some physicists use models in which this stuff is mathematically continuous; others use models in which it is discrete – hence string-like or granular …

In contemporary cosmological theory, the matter-space continuum is assumed to be inert … It is above all dead.

Even the matter-space of quantum mechanics – which assumes that most events are influenced by the whole, perhaps even by the act of observation, and where events can interact without strictly Newtonian causal interactions – even this quantum matter-space is still conceived as mechanical in nature … any life which appears in it is held to be created only be assemblages and configurations of the inert material. Scientifically speaking, the inertness of the matter-space is the most essential part of its nature, and of its definition in the current physical scheme. Being inert is an essential feature of the Cartesian and mechanistic picture, and it must be inert – because the basic idea of our Cartesian model of science is that you pretend that it is inert in order to understand how it works

Can we create a picture of matter which will one day become adequate to give us a world not only profound in its mechanical successes, but which also explains our nature, our agony, our relationship to matter, and the existence of the soul?

An idea that has recently begun to appear in physics is that wholeness itself is a real structure, something geometrically concrete, not merely a general appreciation for the unity and connectedness which exists in things. It is rather, nearly a substance, a definite structure, which appears all around us.

We have all had the experience of remembering a human face. We may have experienced sometimes the fact that we can remember the feeling of this person’s face, its gestalt, its effect on us, its kindness or its ferocity, without being able to summon up, in memory, the detailed features that generate this gestalt. Even in such a memory lapse, it is plain that we do remember the most essential thing, the overall feeling quality of the face, which allows us later to say, unhesitatingly, ‘There he is,’ or ‘He’s the one,’ if shown a picture … that is the wholeness.

… Possibly the most important discovery of the 20th century was that in physics, too, the behavior of matter depends on the wholeness, not merely on point by point phenomena … That was the essence of quantum mechanics … for this reason it was necessary to attempt mathematical descriptions of this wholeness. And, indeed, in the case of quantum mechanics, the gestalt or wholeness was successfully described by a variety of mathematical formalisms: formalisms so powerful that they predict accurately to many decimal places, the detailed behavior of quantum mechanical systems.

However, although the mathematics of quantum mechanics works, it is, even to this day, almost impossible to understand … how it works or what it means. For seventy or eighty years, a struggle has gone on to find a way of looking at these phenomena and their mathematical representations which makes them understandable. But the mathematics has outstripped our cognitive grasp of what is happening … Indirectly the wholeness has been described by mathematics But what this gestalt really is is still not grasped …

I believe … Quantum mechanics has appeared undecipherable because, altogether, people alive in the 20th century had the greatest difficulty coming to terms with the idea that it is indeed the wholeness – just the very same structural gestalt-as-aspect of the experimental apparatus which in another case determines the kindliness of ferocity of a human face – that determines where the electron is going to go.

This hurdle to comprehension has occurred because we have not had an adequate way of depicting, in our minds, what – in general – wholeness is like, and how it might be depicted …The actual meaning of these mathematical descriptions seemed (and I emphasize ‘seemed’) to lead to paradoxes so great that it became common to speak of cats that were both dead and yet not dead, of multiple universes spawned from each even and going forward indefinitely into the future in parallel, and so forth. These strange interpretations, seeming to defy reality, came about in my view, because it was just too difficult to create workable pictures of just the wholeness itself. In cases of art or buildings, we can feel the wholeness sometimes, intuit it sometimes, grasp it with an artistic eye, but up until now we have had no concrete language for it in the world of everyday phenomena.

Recently, a few adventurous physicists began to see that the ‘meaningless’ mathematical interpretations of quantum mechanics could be given up and replaced by a more realistic picture of the wholeness which makes sense in a more ordinary meaning … they gave the wholeness itself a different role and started with the assumption that the mysterious phenomena of quantum mechanics come about because of interactions between things which are extended wholes in the world of space and matter

For an artist or an architect the task is a little easier. For us, it is more everyday, more commonsense to experience wholeness, easier to see it, and perfectly clear that the phenomenon of wholeness is real … in this context, talk of disappearing cats, multiple worlds existing in parallel, and collapsing wave functions, though typical fo the physics of recent decades, makes no useful sense, and makes no contribution to the solution of real architectural problems.

… Towards the end of the 20th century, once a new picture of matter began to come under consideration … for the first time clues began to form that somehow the matter, the space-time continuum, might after all be made of animate material, not just inert stuff

George Wald … Professor of Biology at Harvard … and winner of the Nobel Prize … wrote in 198415:

‘It takes no great imagination to conceive of other possible universes, each stable and workable in itself, yet lifeless. How is it that, with so many other apparent options, we are un a universe that possesses just that peculiar nexus of properties that breeds life? It has occurred to me lately – I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities – that both questions might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality – that the stuff of which physical reality is composed of is mind-stuff.’

… in 1955 the physicist Wolfgang Pauli16 wrote:

‘It would be most satisfactory of all if matter an dmind could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality’

… in 1959, Erwin Schrödinger gave a brief argument … demonstrating what he considered as rather conclusive proof that there must, somewhere in our universe, be a single ‘One mind’17  in which we are all participants.

The identity hypothesis formulated in 1980 by C.F. von Weizsacker18 says:

‘Consciousness and matter are different aspects of the same reality’

David Bohm … explicitly came to believe about 1980 that the universe is close to being made of a non-material ground which he called a plenum, and that both matter and consciousness arise from that ground.19, 20

… in 1985, Brian Josephson, the discoverer of quantum tunneling, speaking of new physics said21:

‘… we might hope that appropriate mathematical tools will be developed, so that in not too many years from now we’ll have a new paradigm in which God and religion will be right in the middle of the picture …’

John Bell, the originator of Bell’s theorem, wrote in 198622:

‘As regards to mind, I am fully convinced that it has a central place in the ultimate nature of reality’

And in 1994 Roger Penrose published a book arguing (for nearly the first time in the literature of physics) the necessity (his word) of accepting that consciousness is materially different from the other entities of physics – and cannot be viewed as emergent from them.23

… But in spite of this growing consensus, nevertheless a huge problem remains. We do not yet know how to make sense of this idea. Just having this idea, by itself does not really solve any problem … How can a relationship of mind and matter make a useful and testable contribution to physics itself? How can such a picture enlarge our understanding practically and change, for the better, our view of how matter works?

Here I may have made a small but useful contribution. I have shown how the existence of centers in matter-space … has a recursive character … The intensity of centers and wholes arises within the wholeness, purely, as a results of the mathematics of the space itself, as new centers proliferate and concentrate themselves … the intensity of these centers … can be recognized empirically when the observer appeals to feelings of wholeness within himself. And the degree of organization can also be calculated by systematic measurement of the symmetries and subsymmetries appearing in space …

The conclusion that there is some actual relatedness between the observer’s self and the centers which arise in the field is reasonable … But to make fullest sense of such arguments we need to know the ultimate substratum, the ultimate material out of which the space-matter is made … this … would be that ground of I which has been described throughout Book 4. It would be the source of the power we experience in works of art, and would be the same thing which has at different times in history variously been called the great self, or the ultimate source of being, or the void. But it would enter the picture now, as a graspable component, with a clear function, and a clear way of helping the generation of life.

  1. Professor George Wald, ‘Life and Mind in the Universe,’  INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUANTUM CHEMISTRY: QUANTUM BIOLOGY SYMPOSIUM 11 (1984), 1-15, abstracted in Margenau and Verghese, COSMOS, BIOS, THEOS, p. 219,
  2. Woflgang Pauli … in Carl Gustav Jung and Wolfgang Pauli, eds., THE INTERPRETATION OF NATURE AND THE PSYCHE (New York: Bollingen, 1955), pp. 08-10.
  3. … Erwin Schrodinger, MIND AND MATTER (Camrbidge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), pp. 52-68 and 88-104.
  4. … C.F. von Weizsacker, THE UNITY OF NATURE, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1980), p. 252.
  5. … David Bohm WHOLENESS AND THE IMPLICIT ORDER (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980) pp. 192-213, and D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley,  THE UNDIVIDED UNIVERSE (London, Routledge, 1993), pp. 381 – 390.
  6. Bohm and I met, originally, because he had been told that I had some special ability to see wholeness. Based on that, in 1986, he and I spent two days together at the Krishnamurti Center in Ojai California, in public discussion …
  7. Brian Josephson, in THE REACH OF THE MIND, NOBEL PRIZE CONVERSATIONS (Dallas: Saybrook Publishing Company, 1985) p.178.
  8. J.S. Bell, ‘Six possible World of Quantum Mechanics,’ PROCEEDINGS OF THE NOBEL SYMPOSIUM 65: POSSIBLE WORLDS IN ARTS AND SCIENCES (Stockholm: August 11-15, 1986). reprinted in SPEAKABLE AND UNSPEAKABLE IN QUANTUM MECHANICS (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 194.
  9. Roger Penrose, SHADOWS OF THE MIND (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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

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Christopher Alexander on a Gift to God


This felt like a demanding excerpt to put together.

“When the field of centers appears in something, its deep feeling appears and it is … spirit made actual, spirit made manifest … It is not an indication of God living behind all things, but it is actually God itself … As we understand this more, we recognize that a building, or a building detail, or a painting, is, to some degree or other, spirit …

Once I accept that what is happening is actual spirit, it helps me to make a whole thing … a necessary state of mind. The core of this necessary state of mind is that you make each building in a way which is a gift to God … It is not a pious extra. I believe it is a necessary state of mind without which it is not possible to reach the purity of structure needed to create a living thing …

The essence of this state of mind is that the building must not shout. Emotionally, it must be completely quiet. It is very hard to allow the wholeness to unfold. To do it, we must pay attention, all the time, only to the wholeness which exists in what we are doing. That is hard, very hard. If we allow ourselves the luxury of paying attention to our own ideas, we shall certainly fail. The things which can and do most easily get in the way, are my own idea, my thoughts about what to do, my desires about what the building ‘ought’ to be, or ”might’ be, my striving to make it great, my concern with my own thoughts about it, or my exaggerated attention to other people’s thoughts …

The reason why I must try and make the building as a gift to God, is that this state of mind is the only one which reliably keeps me concentrated on what is, and keeps my away from my own vainglorious and foolish thoughts … This problem potentially affects every single one of the 100,000 steps which I go through to make the building … the effect is tiny but the impact is enormous …

In order to get it right … I must be truly concerned to make it more whole, I must truly abandon my own desire to make a good impression or to make a vivid impression on the other people in the world.

It is certain that life is not something local … it is a relation between the thing where it occurs and the world beyond. It is a phenomenon which depends on the whole universe, and the extent to which the larger order of the universe penetrates and soothes, the order of the part whose order we are looking at. In such a world, the order springs fundamentally, and ultimately, from the connection of each part to its surroundings

This state of non-separateness … is a state in which the world is melted … The more any portion of space is unified, the more inseparable it becomes from all the rest. So in the end, the intricacy and richness o fa beautiful thing does not arise from the desire to make something rich or intricate, it only arises from the particular desire to make it perfectly ont in itself, and with the world.

It is perhaps surprising, but necessary to recognize, that I cannot make a thing which has this not-separateness, unless I honestly want it … For this, I must lose my preoccupation with myself and keep it only with the thing … there must be no desire at all for separateness …

Thus, to make a thing which is one, I struggle – myself, the maker – to become one with the world. … I have to catch each flash of ‘wouldn’t this little detail be great’ and kill it … I must genuinely seek, and want, and open my arms to begin not separate. Most of the time I fail. I fail because, to do it, I must honestly give up every last trace of wanting to be distinct, separate, identifiable

This is why, from a practical point of view, there is a connection between building and religion. The connection is not historical. It is empirical, because the religious disciplines are just those which have taught people how, practically speaking, to lose themselves. Not only how to become not-separate but – far harder – how to become willing to become non-separate

This idea cannot be realized in a building without a change, a quietness, in the maker. It requires absolute removal of the individual ego, because what is created can no longer stand out and be separated from everything else, and therefore loses its personal identity. And yet, paradoxically, in the moment where this absolute identity and non-separateness is attained in a thing, and it truly become one with the things which surround it, it stands out shining with an extraordinary power which could never be reached under any other circumstances.

This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become most individual, and most precious.

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

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Christopher Alexander on Never Truly Beautiful


“What kind of beauty could go so deep that a person would be afraid of creating it? …

Working with architects, I have experienced it again and again. Many traditional shapes, especially the most profound shapes with deep and serious centers in them, for some reason trouble modern architects profoundly. Even when an architect does want to borrow a traditional shape for a building … he often feels he has to make the shape ‘modern’ in order to feel comfortable with it …

The history of the 20th century has been one in which people do not want to see God, nor, therefore, true beauty either. The role of religion has, for many, become uncomfortable. Many people want no part of it … And for that reason, they also do not (cannot) want, in their lives, any kind of true beauty – the beauty which brings something in touch with the I – is, in effect, something in which we cannot avoid, in some part, seeing God. For this reason the underlying vocabulary of the 20th century … asserted that designers would create structures which are ‘interesting,’ ‘pleasing’, ‘fantastic,’ ‘exhilarating,’ … anything but beautiful – indeed never truly beautiful. That word has unalterable meaning, cannot be contaminated, and during the temporary insanity of the 20th century, struck a nerve which people could not tolerate.

Is it even permissible, today, to please yourself? … Much of the 20th century difficulty occurred because the vast changes that have occurred in society led ultimately to one conclusion: a person was not allowed to be comfortable with his own self. And it is this which makes wholeness so hard to achieve.

… To do that thing which comes only from the heart is so hard not only because others may laugh at us when we do it, but because we may even sneer at ourselves, and wince when we see it, and cannot face the depth and ordinariness which it encompasses. For the sense of that … feeling, when expressed in its true form, is the I which faces us.

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


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Christopher Alexander on Gauguin’s Cow


After reading this, I invite you to repeat an experiment I did: do an online search for both pictures and see what you get!

“The cow is more basic still. This one is less knowing that Gauguin’s other works. When I saw it at Christie’s, the junior auctioneer told me it was a ‘very nice minor Gauguin,’ it will go below the estimate. Such a patronizing tone.


Paul Guaguin – Kneeling Cow

If we compare this picture with a great picture by Gauguin – Parahi te Marae, for example (The Sacred Mountain) … we find that the cow is more direct. The Sacred Mountain took work, it was a considered construction, carefully done, reaching a profound effect … But, to some tiny degree, Gauguin, without a doubt I think, was aware when he made Parahi te Marae, aware what he was trying to do, aware of the gallery in Paris where he was sending the painting …


Paul Gauguin: Parahi te Marae (The Sacred Mountain)

But the cow is more innocent, perhaps more truly something that Gauguin liked … in this picture he was, I think, only trying to please himself. He drew and painted this cow for his own pleasure. It was what he saw, what he wanted, not so knowing – constructed, yes, but far more innocent.

It is even possible, I think, that Gauguin himself was slightly ashamed of this picture, just as my students were sometimes ashamed  of their greatest works, because they were too naive, too direct, too innocent … In my mind, this cow is a greater work, because it penetrates deeper, it has more grace, it is more that ultimate thing which Gauguin did to please himself.”

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

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