“How easy it is to follow our thoughts instead of our senses.”
Frank Herbert

Children of Dune

Christopher Alexander – Mechanistic: A Mental Toy

“The mechanistic idea of order can be traced to Descartes, around 1640. His idea was: if you want to know how something works, you can find out by pretending that it is a machine. You completely isolate the thing you are interested in … from everything else, and you invent a mechanistic model, a mental toy, which obeys certain rules, and which will then replicate the behavior of the thing …

However, the crucial thing which Descartes understood very well, but which we most often forget, is that this process is only a method … [it] is not how reality actually is. It is a convenient mental exercise, something we do to reality, in order to understand it …

Descartes … was a religious person who would have been horrified to find out that people in the 20th century began to think that reality itself is actually like this … treating reality as if this mechanical picture really were the nature of things, as if everything really were a machine.

… [this] had two tremendous consequences, both devastating for artists. The first was that ‘I’ went out of our world … Of course, it is still there in our experience. But it isn’t part of the picture we have of how things are. So what happens? How can you make something which has no ‘I’ in it, when the whole process of making anything comes from the ‘I’? The process of trying to be an artist in a world which has no sensible notion of ‘I’ … leaves the art of building in a vacuum. You just cannot make sense of it.

The second devastating thing that happened … was that clear understanding about value went out of the world. The picture of the world we have from physics, because it is built only out of mental machines, no longer has any definite feeling of value in it: value has become sidelined as a matter of opinion, not intrinsic to the nature of the world at all.

And with these two developments, the idea of order fell apart. The mechanistic idea tells us very little about the deep order we feel intuitively to be in the world. Yet it is just this deeper order which is our main concern.

… In the world-view initiated by Descartes … it is believed that the only statements which can be true or false are statements about mechanisms. These are the so-called ‘facts’ familiar to everyone in the 20th century.

In the world-view I am presenting, a second kind of statement is also considered capable of being true or false. These are statements about relative degree of life, degree of harmony, or degree of wholeness – in short, statements about value. In the view I hold, these statements about relative wholeness are also factual … They play a more fundamental role than statements about mechanisms.

… Suppose I am trying to place a door in a certain wall. While I try to decide where to put it, I can make various mechanical statements of fact … it is wide enough to allow a refrigerator through it … it will resist a standard fire for one hour … it weighs 25 kilograms … people can see through [it] … All these statements are, potentially, statements of fact in the 20th-century mode.

… But if I am trying to put the door in the wall, there is also a second kind of statement … when the door is in a certain range of positions, the result is more harmonious than other positions … a pale yellow on this door has more life than a dark gray … They are thought of as statements of opinion. As a matter of principle within the 20th-century mechanistic view, statements of this kind may to be considered potentially true or false.

… As architects, builders, and artists, we are called upon constantly … to make judgements about relative harmony. If the only statements considered potentially true or false mechanistic statements of fact … then, in principle, rational discussion about building should be impossible.

… The devastating impact of this state of affairs on the progress of architecture has not, I think, been sufficiently discussed in recent decades … If we accept the 20th century idea that statements of value are … merely statements of opinion, it is in principle impossible to reach any sensible shared conclusion in the process of making the environment – only arbitrary and private conclusions. The chaos with which are familiar in the built world, must then follow as an inevitable conclusion – as indeed it has.

… Consciously or unconsciously, the architect assumes that only ‘factual’ statements (in the mechanistic sense) can be true, and therefore has it as a further (unconscious) assumption that the idea of what is good is something that you add to the factual statements – something that is … only a matter of opinion.

… Architects make different idiosyncratic choices because within the mechanistic world view it is not possible to function mentally without making some private choices of this kind.

… It … makes cooperative work, collaboration, and social agreement very difficult in principle. It has a superficial permissiveness which seems to encourage different opinions. But what is encouraged, really, is only the essential arbitrariness of ideas rooted in a mechanical view of how the world is made.

What we need is a sharable point of view, in which the many factors influencing the environment can coexist coherently, so that we can work together – not by confrontation and argument – but because we share a single holistic view of the unitary goal of life.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

Nature of Order - Table of Contents"

2 Comments

  1. Posted January 24, 2018 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    What we need is a sharable point of view, in which the many factors influencing the environment can coexist coherently, so that we can work together – not by confrontation and argument… agree.

    – but because we share a single holistic view of the unitary goal of life.” … don’t like how it sounds. Single holistic view sounds hard and is probable harder the larger is the number of cooperative entities.

    • Posted January 24, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for that comment Pepo 🙂

      I believe that when we look at this through our minds it seems difficult. But if we shift to looking through our hearts, it may seem much simpler. What do you want for your loved ones? for your child? There is a deep, cross-cultural commonality there. We may differ in how we go about pursuing it, but there is an underlyig feeling that is, for the most part, shared. The mind has a hard time holding, pinning down this feeling and so either rejects it or frames is as “hard.”

      I believe your reservation goes to the heart of the matter. The mechanicstic-mental glasses that we’ve had on for so long (that we’ve forgotten we ever put them on) filter out this feeling (by framing is as merely something subjective). What if this is, by definition, not something that our minds can ever fully comprehend?

      A “larger number of cooperative entities” conjures up a static image in my mind. I think we tend to place too much attention on “how to be together” and not enough attention on “how to come together”. When we don’t pay enough attention on how we come together, being together can seems confusing and hard.

      As an example, I invite you to have a look at Drawing Centers. My initial attempt to “draw” an image was indeed difficult. But when I discovered a sequence of relatively simple transformation that led to the image it was much simpler to create (and that sequence is easy to communicate so that you and other can also do it).

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