Matter and Life: Frozen Music and Flowing Architecture
First of all, I want to thank the person who read my book and alerted me to a possible connection between Alexander's approach and mine. I venture pretty far afield in my psychopneumatic peregrinations, but I don't think my wood've ever drifted into the frozen sea of architecture -- even though Alexander only uses architecture as a kind of focal point to discuss everything under the sun.
You might say that we have the same deep-structural approach to reality, even when we are sailing entirely different vessels on the surface. Twin brothers of different motherships.
Alexander has been building his ark since the 1960s, but the Nature of Order is said to be his magnum opus, the culmination of decades of attempting to feel his way into an entirely new way of looking at the world. From the ubiquitous Professor Backflap:
"Alexander describes a scientific view of the world in which all space-matter has perceptible degrees of life, and establishes this understanding of living structures as an intellectual basis for a new architecture.
"He identifies fifteen geometric properties which tend to accompany the presence of life in nature, and also in the buildings and cities we make. These properties are seen over and over in nature and in the cities and streets of the past, but they have almost disappeared in the impersonal developments and buildings of the last hundred years.
"This book shows that living structures depend on features which make a close connection with the human self, and that only living structure has the capacity to support human well-being."
Before reading the book, I wondered if he was just deepaking the chopra, but this is not the case. This is a very serious attempt to describe and draw out the implications of a deeper metaphysic that ultimately unifies the objective and subjective worlds that have been sundered from one another ever since the scientific revolution.
Interesting that in building my own little dinghy -- in particular, Book II, Biogenesis -- I searched everywhere for something like Alexander's buoyant approach. It's very much like what we discussed in yesterday's post: I had a preconceptual thingy of what I was looking for, but it had no content. D'oh! It was just a faith that somewhere there had to exist the concept to fill in the preconception, or the content to fill out the archetype. Frankly, I would have settled for some good BS to fill in the BSer.
The closest I came by far was Robert Rosen's Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life and Essays on Life Itself (neither of which is recommended to the casual mariner). Thus far I see no indication that Alexander knows about Rosen, but I think he'll be pleasantly surprised if he ever does meet him on the high seas. The description of Life Itself could have very well been written by Alexander:
"Why are living things alive? As a theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen saw this as the most fundamental of all questions -- and yet it had never been answered satisfactorily by science. The answers to this question would allow humanity to make an enormous leap forward in our understanding of the principles at work in our world."
That is a Critical Point: not only does science have no idea what Life is, but it will never find out using the tools at its disposal, which necessarily reduce Life to something else the moment the scientist ponders it. Rather, an entirely different approach to the world is needed if we are to understand Life Itself, i.e., to see the business of Life in all its glorious Isness. Herr Backflap:
"For centuries, it was believed that the only scientific approach to the question 'What is life?' must proceed from the Cartesian metaphor (organism as machine). Classical approaches in science, which also borrow heavily from Newtonian mechanics, are based on a process called 'reductionism.' The thinking was that we can better learn about an intricate, complicated system (like an organism) if we take it apart, study the components, and then reconstruct the system-thereby gaining an understanding of the whole."
"However, Rosen argues that reductionism does not work in biology and ignores the complexity of organisms. Life Itself, a landmark work, represents the scientific and intellectual journey that led Rosen to question reductionism and develop new scientific approaches to understanding the nature of life. Ultimately, Rosen proposes an answer to the original question about the causal basis of life in organisms. He asserts that renouncing the mechanistic and reductionistic paradigm does not mean abandoning science. Instead, Rosen offers an alternate paradigm for science that takes into account the relational impacts of organization in natural systems and is based on organized matter rather than on particulate matter alone."
It turns out that in order to understand Life, we really have to situate it in a cosmos capable of sustaining Life. Note that this is not quite the same as the intelligent design approach (nor of the Anthropic Principle), because the key issue -- or "ultimate primitive" -- isn't information but wholeness.
Without the prior wholeness, all the information in the world won't get you from matter to Life -- nor, for that matter, will it get you from Life to Mind, Mind to Spirit, or Spirit to God. In a way, the ID folks are laboring under the same paradigm that limits and stymies conventional Darwinism. The problem is the Cartesianism, whether it appears in the form of Darwinism or ID.
A thoughtful amazon reviewer of Life Itself says this:
"Although many influential scientists claim -- and most members of general public believe -- that all of reality can 'in principle' be expressed as the dynamics of its constitutive elements (atoms, genes, neurons), some have intuitively felt that this reductive tenet is wrong, that life and the human mind are more complex phenomena. Critics of reductionism have pointed to Kurt Goedel's 1931 'incompleteness theorem' (which shows that in any axiomatic formulation of, say, number theory there will be true theorems that cannot be established) as a contrary example, but this paradigm-shattering result has been largely ignored the scientific community, which has blithely persisted in its reductive beliefs."
I can probably save myself some time if I playgiarize with a reviewer of The Nature of Order. Let's see if I can find one who speaks for me.... Here, close enough:
"The essence of [Alexander's] view is this: the universe is not made of 'things,' but of patterns, of complex, interactive geometries. Furthermore, this way of understanding the world can unlock marvelous secrets of nature, and perhaps even make possible a renaissance of human-scale design and technology....
"[T]here are emerging echoes of this worldview across the sciences, in quantum physics, in biology, in the mathematics of complexity and elsewhere. Theorists and philosophers throughout the twentieth century have noted the gradual shift of the scientific worldview away from objects and toward processes, described by Whitehead, Bergson and many others. Alexander... takes it a step further, arguing that we are on the verge of supplanting the Cartesian model altogether, and embarking on a revolutionary new phase in the understanding of the geometry of nature."
Here is where I think Alexander's intuition converges with mine: "he argues that life does not 'emerge' from the complex interactions of an essentially dead universe, but rather manifests itself, in greater or lesser degrees, in geometric order. For Alexander, the universe is alive in its very geometrical essence, and we ourselves are an inextricable part of that life. This is a 'hard' scientific world view which is completely without opposition to questions of 'meaning' or 'value', 'life' or 'spirit.'"
That's another key point: in re-unifying subjective and objective, Alexander also shows how meaning and value are built into the cosmos. Things we think of as "subjective" are actually as objective as can be, including beauty, which is his main focus.
Here is what we said in One Cosmos, and I think you'll psi the psymilarity: "Life is not an anomalous refugee from the laws of physics, enjoying a brief triumph over the grinding, ineluctable necessity of entropy, but an intrinsic, exuberant expression of the type of universe we happen to inhabit."
Yes, please save your "woo-hoos" for the end of the post.
And "consciousness is not an accidental intruder that arrives late to the cosmic manifestival, but an interior, subjective landscape that may be followed forward and back, like Ariadne's thread, to reveal the transcendent mystery of our existence.... To borrow a hackneyed phrase, 'it takes a cosmos' to raise up a conscious being, and vice versa."
Elsewhere we wrote that "all death is local. Unlike Life, which must be a nonlocal, immanent spiritual principle of the cosmos, there can be no metaphysical principle called 'death.' Rather, there are only cadavers and corpses, strictly local areas where Life is no longer concentrated and outwardly visible at the moment."
Or, if you prefer the supersillyus version in an overused pompyrous font of nonsense: And the weird light shines in the dark, but the dorks don't comprehend it. For truly, the weirdness was spread all through the world, and yet, the world basically kept behaving as if this were just your ordinary, standard-issue cosmos.