“Truth is indestructible. It seems history shows (and it’s the same way today) that the innovator is more often than not met with some degree of condemnation; usually according to the degree of departure from the prevailing modes of expression or what have you. Change is always hard to accept…. Quite often they are the rejects, outcasts, sub-citizens, etc. of the very societies to which they bring so mush sustenance… Whatever the case, whether accepted or rejected, rich or poor, they are forever guided by that great and eternal constant – the creative urge. Let us cherish it and give all praise to God.”
John Coltrane

Coltrane - The Story of a Sound

Christopher Alexander on Ultra Mechanistic

For more on this dear-to-me subject see Robert Pirsig’s Lila and the work of Rupert Sheldrake … and this is just the opening of the book

“Scientists often like to say that the materialist view of present-day science is potentially consistent with early any view of ethics or religion because it says nothing about these subjects.
Strictly speaking, the logic of this view can be upheld. But what governs people’s view of the world is not only logic, but also what is implied by this logic … Strictly speaking the facts of physics and astrophysics do not imply that the universe is meaningless. But the way these facts are presently drawn, the larger conception of the world which we have formed at the same time we have been forming our physics, does suggest – even strongly imply – that the world is meaningless …

Indeed, tacit assumptions have entered our picture of the world so pervasively that it is from them that we have got the picture of the universe that is distressing us. Though they were originally inspired by mechanistic philosophy, they themselves go far beyond the strict discoveries of science. It is these beyond-mechanistic or ultra-mechanistic assumptions which control much of what we say and think …

These ultra-mechanistic assumptions about matter – not strictly justified by mechanistic science itself, but inspired by it and encouraged by it – have shaped our attitude to art and architecture and society and environment.

TACIT ASSUMPTION 1: What is true, is only those facts which can be represented as lifeless mechanisms.

[As scientists … we focus on models … to … help us understand what is going on. But the careful use of models does not require us, also, to inject gratuitous assumptions about the inertness of the models into our thoughts, or into the aura of thought with which we surround the models. Most scientists will tell you that you are entitled to hold whatever extra beliefs you wish. But the ‘extras’ will be characterized as beliefs, thus excluding them once again from the world-picture, while the material in the scientific journals will be characterized as hypothesis about fact.

As a result, though the use of Cartesian models in science is beautiful, and useful, and powerful, it does not yet provide us with a wholly accurate picture of the way things are. Its use means that vital aspects of reality, especially those which we can only see accurately through feelings – such as the degree of life in buildings – can be represented only in a crude and distorted fashion.

Our society is corrupted by this approach. The tacit assumption that what is true is only that which can be represented as a mechanical model, almost prohibits us from seeing life around us. Love, feeling, faith, art … have become second class citizens in the world of ideas.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 2: Matters of value [in architecture] are subjective.

[Before the age of enlightenment there was, in most cultures, some group of values to which one could appeal … In some it was thought to be ‘God’, in others ‘ancestors’, in others ‘tradition’ or ‘law.’ Whatever the source, there was no doubt, at that time, that there was indeed a (partially) uniform source of value widely understood throughout the culture, and of such a kind that early any act might be judged against it, inspired by it.

Today the situation is different indeed … It is socially acceptable to state values publicly – but only so long as they are clearly presented as matters of opinion, hence as matters of private value? Few people today will dare to assert that some value they perceive is in any sense actually true.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 3: Modern conceptions of human liberty require that all values be viewed as subjective. The subjective nature of value gives the private striving of each individual person … the same weight. Attempts to put value on an objective footing are to be viewed with suspicion.

[During the 18th and 19th centuries, European and American imperialism created a view of the world in which many people on earth were considered ignorant, and in which it was taken for granted that the views of white Victorian gentlemen were correct. At the end of the 19th century the new discipline of anthropology was gradually able to attack this Victorian point of view by establishing the idea that each culture is coherent in its own terms …

In the last decades of the 20th century this movement was extended to protect the rights of many groups … handicapped people, people with various sexual preferences, subcultures of ethnic or religious particularity, groups of particular age … So, by the end of the 20th century, the liberality and freedom of the centuries early years had helped to create an atmosphere of pluralism in which nearly ‘anything goes,’ and in which it had become almost impossible to assert the rightness of any value …

Thus the idiosyncratic and private view of value … has led to the assumption that value, valuation, and judgement and taste, are so deeply embedded in the realms of individual rights that they almost cannot be seen as based on an objective reality.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 4: The basic matter of the world is neutral with regard to value. Matter is inert. The universe is made of inert material which blindly follows laws of combination and transformation.

[… In the 19th century physicists thought that the world was made of little atoms, like billiard balls … Today we have a conception of ultimate matter which is vastly more interesting, where particles are more like whirlpools of energy …

However, the physicist’s idea that this matter or energy is essentially lifeless and moves blindly according to the laws of its process, has not changed.

Sir James Jeans’s words ‘The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine,’ written in 1930, have, so far, remained a beautiful and inspiring, but still empty, promise … our cosmology itself … remains unaltered …]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 5:  Matter and mind, the objective outer world and the subjective inner world are taken to be two entirely different realms, different in kind and utterly disconnected.

[… The idea that the outer world can be thought of as a structure which is distinct from ourselves, the divisions of the world into mind and matter, goes back at least to the scholastics of the 14th century … combined with the assumption that we can only reach truth by distinguishing objective (agreed upon) outer reality from individual (and not agreed-upon) inner reality, is the very foundation of modern science.  It is the idea that observations and experiments must be made independent of the observer.

The first 20th century cracks in the iceberg of this assumption arrived within physics itself. They came with Bohr‘s and Heisenberg‘s demonstrations that completely observer-free observations cannot exist at the level of photons and electrons … But today, seventy years after Heisenberg, mind and self still to not have a status in the world-picture that is comparable to the status of the underlying entities of 20th century physics. Even among the scientists who accept the existence of cognitive structures, it is still generally accepted that a cognitive structure is an artefact of neurological activity.

… the self cannot itself be included into the larger view of the universe … Yet self is what we experience of ourselves. How then, could the universe seem comfortable to us?]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 6: Art is an intense and powerful social phenomenon, but one that has no deep importance in the physical scheme of things, and therefore no basic role in the structure of the universe.

[… many would insist that art is important, vital … A mechanistic cosmology makes it difficult to formulate the idea that a building, or a painting, or a piece of music could have any inherent value. At best … they might be based on social realism (ascribing functional importance to works which help society), or psychological realism (describing the value of works of art in terms which appeal to human emotion).

These ideas are deeply conflicted …]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 7: Ornament and function [in a building] are separate and unrelated categories.

[Why is this a cosmological matter? It had its origin in the 19th century, when ornament became something to be applied, not something arising organically from its context. Adolf Loos, trying to overcome a spurious and disconnected attitude to ornament, began the early 20th century revolt against irrelevant and decadent ornament … he argued … ‘ornament is a crime‘ … By mid-20th century, later versions of this assumption then said, essentially, that all ornament should be removed from buildings, and that their geometry should be derived from function. … what is practical is only mechanical … any ornament or form which is not mechanical, is removable, unnecessary …

Mid-century purity lasted until about 1970, when architects started again, like builders of old, bringing in ornament and shape out of sheer enjoyment. But even then … the conceptual split caused by our mechanistic world-picture still exists. There is a functioning part (the practical part), and an image part (the art part). In some of the latest buildings, built during the last three decades of the 20th century, this image part, because of the conceptual context, became truly arbitrary and absurd.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 8: At a profound level, architecture is irrelevant. The task of building has no special importance, except in so far as it contributed to practical function through engineering, or to material wealth through image.

[Few people would willingly admit that they make this assumption …

Few contemporary architects would reject the use of a building program [that defines different numbers of square feet to different functions]; few lay people would question it either. It is the norm. Yet their acceptance of this norm (and this is only one tiny example) means that real beauty, real life, are pushed into a subsidiary position while the building program, more concerned with efficiency of administration than with life, stays in a higher position.

It is reasonable to conclude that architecture is viewed as irrelevant. A society in which people routinely do something different from that which creates life or beauty, cannot be said to care about life and beauty.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 9: The intuition that something profound is happening in a great work of art is, in scientific terms, meaningless.

[… By default our cosmology relegates art to the status of a interesting psychological phenomenon. Certainly it does not allow art equal status with the awe-inspiring realities of the atoms, or of the galactic universe.

This it not to say that scientists, like others, do not have instincts which make them feel the deep importance that a work of art can have. But, scientifically speaking, that is only a vague instinct at best. So far, it has no place in the body of thoughts and concepts which make up our fundamental picture of the world.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 10: The instinct that there is some kind of deeper meaning in the world is scientifically useless. It has to be ignored as a subject of serious scientific discussion.

[That is what our scientific civilization has been telling us for three to four hundred years. Yet it is hard to deny that many of us have instincts about deeper meaning in the world. The experience may come, perhaps, as a result of love, as a result of gazing at the ocean, at a small flower.

The official position of 20th century scientific philosophy said, explicitly, that science is neutral: it neither confirms nor denies the instinct that this experience is important … However, the actual state of mind encouraged by our current scientific cosmology is not neutral but negative … The assumption therefore exists – nearly always tacit, rarely explicit – that experiences, ideas, which might lead to a feeling of profound meaning in the world are scientifically empty, and best kept at arm’s length, away from the body of precise thought about the world.]

I believe these ten assumptions do exist tacitly throughout our everyday lives today. Although thousands of modern books and poems and paintings have helped people assert and affirm their sense of meaning in the world, the world-picture itself, the scientific world-picture, continues to assert the blind meaninglessness of the physical matter in the world, and of the physical matter we ourselves are made of.

[… Suppose a person tells you that he believes the earth is round, not flat. However, you notice that this person has a surprising reluctance to go far to the east, or far to the west. No matter what he says, you may wonder if after all, this person does not believe the earth is flat.

… No matter what people say, they often continue to behave as if these assumptions are true. There is no practical certainty attached to the other more spiritual views, which lead directly to different behavior; so once again the residue of behavior suggests that the ten assumptions are what is, in fact, controlling our mental picture of ourselves and of the universe.]

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

Nature of Order - Table of Contents"

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  • […] there, but one that we no longer see, or acknowledge, or are willing to experience, because in our cosmology it is not understandable that such a thing could be […]

  • […] 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 […]

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