“Immoral governments tolerate desertification and land salting, concreted highways and city sprawl, which take more good land permanently out of life production than the loss of territory to a conqueror.”
Bill Mollison

Permaculture: A Designer's Manual

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 call 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 of 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 in 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 and mind 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

Nature of Order - Table of Contents"

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