“I distrust the extremes. Scratch a conservative and you find someone who prefers the past over any future. Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat.”
Frank Herbert

God Emperor of Dune

Christopher Alexander – Degrees of Life

“In the 20th-century scientific conception, what we meant by life was defined chiefly by the life or an individual organism. We consider as an organism any carbon-oxygen-hydrogen-nitrogen system which is capable of reproducing itself, healing itself, and remaining stable for some particular lifetime … There are plenty of uncomfortable boundary problems: For example, is a fertilized egg alive during its first few minutes? Is a virus alive? Is a forest alive (as a whole …) …

… We have have, it is true, begun some extrapolations of this idea of life … For example, we have somehow managed to extend the mechanistical concept of life to cover ecological systems (even though strictly speaking an ecological system is no alive, because it does not meet the definition of a self-replicating organism). We consider an ecological system … though not alive itself,certainly associated with biological life.

… But this extrapolation will not do to help us understand truly complex systems as living things. The mixture of natural and man-made … raises complicated questions of definition, which we have hardly begun to answer.

… Throughout this book, I shall be looking for a broad conception of life, in which each thing – regardless of what it is – has some degree of life. Each stone, rafter, and piece of concrete has some degree of life. The particular degree of life which occurs in organisms will then be seen as merely a special case of a broader conception of life.

… In the present scientific world-view, a scientist would not be willing to consider a wave breaking on the short as a living system. If I say to her that this breaking wave does have some life, the biologist will admonish me and say, ‘I suppose you mean that the wave contains many micro-organisms, and perhaps a couple of crabs, and that therefore it is a living system.’ But that is not what I mean at all. What I mean is that the wave itself – the system which in present-day science we have considered as a purely mechanical hydrodynamical system of moving water – has some degree of life. And what I mean, in general, is that every single part of the matter-space continuum has life in some degree, with some parts having very much less, and others having very much more.

… If the conception of life is completely general, we shall then be able to extend it from the purely natural (such as conservation of a beautiful stand of trees), to the cooperation between natural and man-made (roads, streets, gardens, fields) and then also to the building themselves (roofs, walls, windows, rooms) … we can then simply proceed with the general idea that all of our work has to do with the creation of life and that the task, in any particular project, is to make the building come to life as much as possible.

… I shall … try to persuade you, by example, that we do feel that there are different degrees of life in things – and that this feeling is rather strongly shared by almost everyone.

… it is undeniable – at least as far as our feeling is concerned, that a … breaking wave feels as it if has more life as system of water than an industrial pool stinking with chemicals. So does the ripple of a tranquil pond.

… A fire, which is not organically alive, feels alive. And a blazing bonfire may feel more alive than a smoldering ember …

Gold feels alive. The peculiar yellow color of naturally occurring gold, so different from pyrites, or from the gold in the jeweller’s shop, has an eerie magical essence that feels alive. This is not because of its monetary value. It got its monetary value originally because it had this profound feeling attached to it. Naturally occurring platinum, comparable in value … [does] not have the same feeling of life at all.

… We often see a piece of wood and marvel at its life; another piece of wood feels more dead ….

… We shall see later that this feeling that there is more life in one case than the other is correlated with a structural difference in the things themselves – a difference which can be made precise, and measured.

… One person may be glowing with life, which transmits to everyone around. Another person is drooping … different organisms, all alive in the strictly mechanical sense, impress us as having more life or less life.

… it is this feeling of life and love of nature which stimulated the young discipline of ecology … we recognize degrees of life, or degrees of health, in different ecological systems … one meadow is more alive than another, one stream more alive … one forest more tranquil, more vigorous, more alive, than another dying forest … we experience degree of life as an essential concept which goes to the heart of our feelings about the natural world, and which nourishes us fundamentally, as a fact about the world.

… The ‘Life’ which I am talking about also includes the living essence of ordinary events in our everyday worlds … a back-street Japanese restaurant … an Italian town square  … an amusement park  … a bunch of cushions thrown into a corner window-seat … This quality includes an overall sense of functional liberation and free inner spirit. It makes us feel comfortable. Above all it makes us feel alive when we experience it.

… It has nothing to do with images. It occurs most deeply when things are simply going well, when we are having a good time, or when we are experiencing joy or sorrow – when we experience the real.

Under these circumstances, we are free of our concepts, able to react directly to the circumstance we encounter, and least constrained by affectations, concepts, and ideas. This is the central teaching of Zen and all mystical religions. It is also the condition in which we are able to see the wholeness which exists around us, feel it directly, and respond to it.

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

 

 

Nature of Order - Table of Contents"