“Nobody can be anybody without somebody being around.”
John Wheeler

The Element

Christopher Alexander – Liking from the Heart

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“… contemporary ideas about what is likable are extremely confused. It is a current dogma that you may like what you wish, and that it is an essential part of democratic freedom to like whatever you decide to like. This occurs at a time when the mass media have taken over our ideas of what is likable to an extent unknown in human history. Thus if one were pessimistic, one might even say that there is very little authentic liking in our time. What people like can often not be trusted, because it does not come from the heart.

On the other hand, real liking, which does come from the heart, is profoundly linked to the idea of life in things. Liking something from the heart means that it makes us more whole in ourselves. It has a healing effect on us. It makes us more human. It even increases the life in us. Further, I believe that this liking from the heart is connected to perception of real structures in the world, that it goes to the very root of the way things are, and that is the only wat in which we can structures as they really are.

  1. The things we like … make us feel wholesome
  2. We also feel wholesome when we are making them
  3. The more accurate we are about what we really like … the more we find out that we agree with other people about which these things are.
  4. … As we get to know the ‘it’ which we like … we begin to see that this is the deepest thing there is. It applies to all judgements …
  5. … it is not easy to find what we really like, and it is by no means automatic to be in touch with it …
  6. The reasons for the existence of this deep liking are mysterious … [and] empirical … It is not a private matter.
  7. … the experience of real liking has to do with self.
  8. When we find out the things we really like, we are also more in touch with all that is.

… The main breakthrough in understanding will come when we are able to distinguish the everyday kind of liking (where we obviously do not agree about what we like) from the deeper kind of liking, where we agree, that forms the basis for good judgement …”

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

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Christopher Alexander – A Universal Personal

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The picture in this excerpt is one of mine.

“In our present world-view, the word ‘personal’ is often taken to mean ‘idiosyncratic.’ Something is personal if it reflects the peculiarities of a given individual …

To my mind, this is a very shallow interpretation of what ‘personal’ really means. A thing is truly personal when it touches us in our humanity.

… from the point of view of the world picture in this book, ‘personal’ is a profound objective quality which inheres in something, It is not idiosyncratic but universal. It refers to something true and fundamental in a thing itself.

… When we deal with the field of centers, we are dealing with a realm of personal feeling in which feeling is a fact – as much a fact as the radiation from the sun, or the swinging of a pendulum.

When the field of centers is authentic, it is always personal. It if appears to have the right structure but is not personal, it is empty structure, only masquerading as life – and, in every case lke this, it will turn out that we have misjudged it structurally.

… Few things in the world are quite as moving as a meadow full of wildflowers  … why? … A flower is one of the most perfect fields of centers that occur in nature. And flowers in groups create highly complex living fields of centers, perhaps among the most beautiful in nature …

… The field of centers exists in a thing to that degree to which the thing has personal feeling …

Perhaps we are beginning to see that life – because of its structure, the field of centers – is inextricably connected with human feeling … This deep feeling is indeed a mark of life in things ..

Although within the canon of normal contemporary science we cannot imagine a kind of objective truth which is also personal in nature, thsi combination if sone of the most extraordinary and important aspects of the new structure which I call the wholeness. As the centers deepen, the personal feeling of the structure increases. It its personal feeling does not increase, its structure is not really getting deeper.

… we become happy in the presence of deep wholeness …

This theme … can in no way be regarded as proven … I merely take a first few steps toward the possibility that it may be so, and that it may oen day be recognized …

I believe the personal feeling I have touched on in this cahpter, which si directly connected to order and life, is a mobilization in which my vulnerable inner self becomes connected to the world. In increases my feeling of connection and participation in all things. It is feeling, not emotion. It does not – directly – have to do with happiness, or sadness, or anger.

… The external phenomenon we call wholeness or life in the world and the internal experience of personal feeling and wholeness within ourselves are connected. They are, at some level, one and the same.

… The ultimate criterion for whether something works in nature, just as in buildings, therefore also depends on the extent to which it resmebles the healthy human self.

… Wholeness and feeling are two sides of a single reality. Within the modern era, we have become used to the idea that feeling is something we experience subjectively – while life, it it exists, is something that exists objectively out there in the world of mechanics. In such a mental framework, the idea that feeling and wholeness are two sides of a single thing can hardly even be understood.

But as we study the phenomenon of wholeness, as I am trying to do, it teaches us to change our understanding, and to reach a reorganization of our ideas about the world in which this equivalence of living structure and deep personal feeling is not only makes sense but is also the most fundamental fact of our experience. “

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

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Christopher Alexander – Value as a Matter of Fact

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“The concept of wholeness as structure depends on the idea that different centers have different degrees of life, and therefore the idea that the existence of these varying degrees of life throughout space is a fact about the world …

If we consider … the interplanetary space between Jupiter and Saturn … we cannot help being impressed by the relatively featureless character of this space … compared with the structure of a rock, or a birch tree, or a meadow. The articulation and complexity of the field of centers is less developed in the interplanetary space.

The traditional scientific view has been that, in spite of this obvious difference … as scientists we should be committed to a view where each of these structures are equal in value.

A world view based on the existence of wholeness comes out rather different … there is a crucial objective sense in which there is less value in the empty space, somewhat more value in the rock, and still more value in the birch tree.

In this objective sense, the relative degree of value, or relative degree of life, in different parts of matter, must then be a fundamental and objective feature of reality. Not all nature is equally beautiful. Not all of it equally deep in its wholeness …

… one of the most fundamental tenets of contemporary science – that value is not part of science and that all matter is, from a scientific point of view, equally value free – can no longer be sustained.

… In the new viewpoint, the harmony of nature is not something automatic, but something to be marvelled at – something to be treasured, sustained, harvested, cultivated, and sought actively …

Most human actions are governed by concepts and visions. These may be – but may easily not be – congruent with the wholeness which exists … Often our actions … are at odds with our own wholeness, and at odds with the wholeness of the world. The gradual emergence of value is then drastically threatened.

… The activity of building – what we call architecture, and with it also the disciplines we call planning, ecology, agriculture, forestry, road building, engineering – may reach deeper levels of value by increasing wholeness, or they may break down value by destroying wholeness … If what I have argued is true, this is a matter of fact …”

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

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Christopher Alexander – The Character of Living Structure

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” … the repeated appearance of the fifteen properties in natural systems is a profound result … it suggests a new view of all nature as living structure … In some sense the same morphological character occurs in mountains, rivers, ocean waves, blown sand, galaxies, thunderstorms, lightning …

… Within the terms of my definitions, then, nature as a whole – all of it – is made of living structure … all of it – inorganic as well as organic … the living character of these structures is different from the character of other conceivable structures that could arise, and it is this character which we may call the living character of nature.

… Among natural phenomena, the fifteen properties seem to appear, pervasively, in almost everything. Yet among human artifacts, the fifteen properties appear only in the good ones … What is it about nature that always makes its structures ‘good’?

… in nature all of the configurations that do occur belong to a relatively small subset of all the configuration that could possibly occur …

First, is the domain C … contains all the possible three dimensional arrangements that might exist. It is almost unimaginably large, but nevertheless (in principle) it is a finite set of possible configurations. Second is the domain L, of all configurations which have living structure as I have defined it. L, too, is very large, but smaller than C …

It may well be that all naturally occurring configurations lie in L while, on the other hand, not all man-made configurations lie in L.

For this to be true, we merely need to show that for some reason nature, when left to its own devices, generates configurations in L, but that human being are able, for some reason, to jump outside L, into the larger part of C. That is, human beings … are able to be un-natural.

In nature the principle of unfolding wholeness … creates living structure nearly all the time. Human designers, who are not constrained by this unfolding, can violate the wholeness if they wish to, and can therefore create non-living structure as often as they choose. “

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

 

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Christopher Alexander – The Fifteen Properties in Nature

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I chose to do a brief summary of this section, giving preference to the wholeness of the theme of the properties in nature (over giving more attention to each property). It was a journey, first reading through it, not knowing how/what to extract. By the time I read through, certain excerpts popped out of the latter properties and gave shape to this whole summary. All the images are inspired by the text though collected from the vastness of the internet (so inspired by and similar, but not the same as those in the book).

“If we are to use the theory of centers – and the concept of life – as the basis of all architecture, it would be reassuring to know that wholeness, together with the properties which bring centers to life, is a necessary feature of material reality, not merely a psychological aspect of things which arises during perception of works of art.

… According to a ‘cognitive’ interpretation, the centers could merely exist in the mind’s eye … and the fifteen properties … could also exist merely as artifacts of cognition …

… I shall argue that nature too is understandable in terms of wholeness … I shall try to show that the structure of centers I call wholeness goes deeper than mere cognition, is linked to the functional and practical behavior of the natural world … and is as much at the foundation of physics and biology as it is of architecture.

1: Levels of Scale

… in any system where there is good functional order it is necessary that there be functional coherence at different levels, hence necessary that there are recognizable hierarchies in the organization of these functional systems.

electrical discharge

 

mud cracks

2: Strong Centers

Many natural processes have centers of action. The action, or development, of force-field radiates outwards from some system of centers … In physics we hae the fact that electric, magnetic, gravitational, and nuclear forces are created by spatially symmetrical fields, thus often creating centrally and bilaterally symmetrical structures.

 

common spotted orchid

 

coral

3: Boundaries

In nature, we see many systems with powerful, thick boundaries. The thick boundaries evolve as a result of the need for functional separations and transitions between different systems. They occur essentially because wherever two very different phenomena interact, there is also a ‘zone of interaction’ which is a thin in itself, as important as the things which it separates.

the sun’s corona

 

Rio Negro joins the Amazon

4: Alternating Repetition

In nature most of the repetitions which occur are alternating … Repetition itself of course occurs simply because there are only a limited number of archetypal forms available, and the same ones repeat over and over again, whenever the same conditions occur … In most of these cases of natural repetition, the repeating units do alternate with a second structure, which also repeats … The defining feature for alternating repetition lies in the fact that the secondary centers are coherent in their own right, are not left over.

fern leaf

 

muscle fiber

5: Positive Space

In the majority of naturally developed wholes, the wholes and the spaces between wholes form an unbroken continuum. This arises because wholes from ‘from the inside’ according to their specific functional organization … the positiveness of the space – what we might also call the convexity and compactness of the centers which form – is the outward manifestation of internal coherence in the physical system.

crazing in porcelain glaze

 

soap bubbles

6: Good Shape

Good shape is a geometrical figure – often curved – which has in it some major center that is intensified by various minor centers.

Tulip leaf

 

Chladni figures

7: Local Symmetries

In general these symmetries occur in nature because there is no reason for asymmetry; an asymmetry only occurs when it is forced … In addition, the existence of local symmetries in nature corresponds to the existence of minimum energy and least-action principles. In the majority of these cases, it is also the presence of layer upon layer of subsymmetry at smaller scales which is important.

crystal growth

 

Dwarf Dogwood

8: Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

Deep interlock comes about in many natural systems because neighboring systems interact most easily along extended or enlarged surfaces, where the surface area is large compared with the volume … Ambiguity, a similar phenomenon, comes about when a subsystem belongs to two different overlapping larger systems. One of the most important and dramatic example … exists in the case of the molecule … the molecule is given its structure by the overlap of the electrons in the outer electron shells of the component atoms … the stability of the molecule … is determined by the depth of overlap or interpenetration of the electron shells.

cross section of a cerebellum

 

magnetic domain

 

a giraffe’s coat

9: Contrast

Many – perhaps all – natural systems obtain their organization and energy from the interaction of opposites … It would be extremely hard to show, from first principles, why contrast must arise, necessarily, as a property of any naturally occurring system, and one wonders whether the matter is not merely cognitive. We read contrast; our cognition depends on it; therefore we think its important. And yet, the fundamental contrast of dark and light, positive and negative, can hardly be an artifact of our cognition.

Purple Emperor butterfly

10: Gradients

… Any time that a quantity varies systematically, through space, a gradient is established … The idea of regular gradient-like variation is fundamental to the whole integral and differential calculus, and it is the fact that these mathematical tools are closely mirrored in many phenomena of nature that is essentially responsible to the success mathematical physics has had.

Spider Web

 

Nautilus Shell

11: Roughness

An irregular world struggling to be regular always achieves a certain level of regularity which is interrupted by unusual configurations created by the very forces that produce the regularity as they act against a framework of three-dimensional constraints inherent in space … Roughness, far from being caused by inaccuracy … occurs where there is a partial misfit between a very well defined order and the space or configuration where it occurs. This forces an apparent irregularity, not for its own sake but to create a greater regularity.

A raft of bubbles, representing crystal dislocations, shows that roughness is inevitable in crystal growth under natural conditions

 

zebra stripes

12: Echoes

In all natural systems, deep-lying fundamental processes ultimately give geometric forms to the static structure of the system. These processes repeat certain typical angles and proportions over and over again, and it is the statistical character of these angles and proportions which determines the morphological character of the system and its parts – even within parts which seem superficially different.

x-ray of a lily

 

Everest – North Ridge

13: The Void

The void corresponds to the fact that differentiation of minor systems almost always occur in relation to the ‘quiet’ of some larger and more stable system. Thus smaller structures tend to appear around the edge of larger and more homogeneous structures.

eye of storm

 

Void in river valley

14: Simplicity and Inner Calm

Simplicity and inner calm is the Occam’s razor of any natural system: each configuration occurring in nature is the simplest one consistent with its conditions.

ginko leaf x-ray

15: Not-Separateness

Not-separateness corresponds to the fact that there is no perfect isolation of any system , and that each part of every system is always part of the larger system in the world around it and is connected to them deeply in its behavior.

edge of a lake

Summary

From the examples in this chapter, we see that the fifteen properties appear again and again throughout nature. They occur and recur at every scale … Virtually always, the specific structure of centers in a given case can be explained as a result of forces and processes which are mechanical in the conventional sense … However, such mechanical explanations do not explain why the properties themselves keep showing up.

… The reason that a human blood cell has a thick boundary is that it ‘needs’ a processing zone, where inputs to the cell are filtered and distributed before reaching the nucleus … The reason that the Rio Tapajos has an immense boundary when it enters the water of the Amazon is that the silt deposits which come down the river are hurled out into the water of the larger river, creating a chain of islands along both sides of the stream, for nearly one hundred miles … the reason that the sun has a thick boundary – the corona … is a temperature gradient from the hot interior of the sun to the cold of outer space … It does not seem possible to dismiss the appearance of thick boundaries as meaningless or as a coincidence. One guesses that there must be some higher order explanation …

… One wonders, then, if there might be a more general language for talking about function than the one we are used to …”

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

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