Friday, March 08, 2013

Matter and Life: Frozen Music and Flowing Architecture

Yeah, I'd better put MOTT aside for the moment -- just for the moment -- and begin blogging on The Nature of Order, or else I'll never catch up with myself. I'm already several hundred pages into the latter, and if I don't write contemporaneously, a lot of stuff just gets lost in the sea of consciousness.

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.

39 Comments:

Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Wo, speaking of frozen music.

3/08/2013 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Whoa, I like this Alexander fellow, if he thinks:

"The essence of [Alexander's] view is this: the universe is not made of 'things,' but of patterns, of complex, interactive geometries."

And by like, I mean: what's not to love.

And another 'thing', why ain't all these reviewers gettin their daily bread here?!

3/08/2013 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger ge said...

The House
that
Rudy Built

some schmuck burnt it down...

3/08/2013 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

Great post. One book I recently came across is that falls into the Alexander/Rosen category, is Howard Bloom's The God Problem (not the Yale guy).

Oddly enough, he defines himself as an atheist. But his interpretation of the cosmos is quite Racoonish.

He argues against the reductionistic metaphor that science grounds itself, and brings out the five major heresies:
*a does not equal a
*one plus one does not equal two
*entropy is wrong
*randomness is not as random as you think and
*information theory is way off base.

His writing is a bit off putting at times, so not highly racoonamending it.

3/08/2013 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

GE, that is some house. Spirit comes alive just looking at it!

3/08/2013 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Oh, almost forgot. All this Alexander business reminds of Roger Scruton -- especially when tying together:

"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."

and

"Things we think of as "subjective" are actually as objective as can be, including beauty, which is his main focus."

I mean, I literally can hear Roger's voice reading these. (I've been watching a bunch of his lectures on yootoob lately..)

3/08/2013 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Bob, is Roger mentioned or at least referenced in Herr Back Pages?

3/08/2013 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

No, Scruton's book on beauty came later. But I believe Scruton mentions Alexander in his recent book on the environment.

3/08/2013 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Hmmm. I was thinking of the BBC documentary and I thought that might have been earlier..

I did catch one of Roger's lectures about his environmental book. I think he might be on to something about restraining ones focus to your own surroundings. Similar to what Kimball (the other Roger) said it that recent lecture about a benevolent nature when not "local" becomes a vice.

3/08/2013 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

As someone who has studied environmental issues, I do like Scruton's ideas around oikophilia: he makes some good point around human nature and our relationship to our surroundings. However, I am not if it takes things far enough when dealing with tragedy of the commons issues. I tend to believe there is some state guardianship needed, albeit with modesty.

3/08/2013 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Bob --

You've probably read stuff about Alexander's pre-Nature-of-Order work, but if not it's worth checking out. He started with "A foreshadowing of 21st Century Art" basically about how Turkish carpets channel his life-force. Then on to architecture with "A Pattern Language". The interesting thing about "A Pattern Language" is that the ideas were adapted by the Object Oriented Programming community with great success, although Alexander had no expertise or interest in computers. Shows the breadth of his thinking.

Cliff

3/08/2013 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"However, Rosen argues that reductionism does not work in biology and ignores the complexity of organisms."

Indeed! This brings to mind complexity theory or chaos theory (although I don't prefer chaos in describing the unknown unknowns).

Michael Crichton had a lot of good stuff to say about this, but I have no idea what his religious beliefs were if he had any.
Still, he hit on a lot of raccoonish territory.

It appears as if more scientists are trending towards rejecting reductionism, albeit slowly.

3/08/2013 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger Gandalin said...

Hi Bob,

Very delighted that you have discovered Christopher Alexander. His "Pattern Language" has been one of my favorite books for almost 30 years.

I'm not sure that I think his subsequent work(s) have fulfilled the promise of APL, but I have not studied The Nature of Order thoroughly. I think I have only Book 4 of that series. His new book, "The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems" seems promising.

I guess I should admit that I am disappointed in some of the actual results that he presents, the actual projects that he has completed.

He is not building cathedrals, but perhaps something like that will come.

3/08/2013 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Processes and patterns -- yes, it looks like we could all reach some sensible understanding from that.

3/08/2013 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Gandalin:

Fortunately, I am more interested in the general principles espoused, and their cosmic implications, than in his architectural achievements. I want to let it all seep in and see where it leads me, especially as applied to realms more familiar to me, e.g. music, literature, and theology.

However, the book has already proved to have a very practical side, in that we're doing some remodeling, and now I have a way to actually distinguish the merits of an infinite range of potential choices.

3/08/2013 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Glad that my author suggestion proved interesting. It only gets more so as TNOO goes on.

It's been especially aggravating to me that despite the breadth and insight of Alexander's works, and despite the fact that he has a very loyal (if small) following, there is little of no discussion of his works going on today, even on the internet. He has little to no online presence, and the main website for The Center for Environmental Structure (which he still leads) is awful and uninformative. www.patternlanguage.com

Those who follow his projects occasionally hear rumors about some project or other he's working on, but they are rarely confirmed, and there is no depository collecting high-quality images of his architecture.

He is fairly old now, and semi-retired. The few lectures I've seen of his scattered around Youtube seems to show a figure who is incredibly tired and almost despairing. He predicted decades ago that an approach like his would become the new way to go about making structures, but instead postmodernism only intensified and deepened.

I think he's very disheartened that no one has taken up his mantle, and that there has been no concerted effort to bring real beauty back.

3/08/2013 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

His youtube lectures are pretty rambling, but one of the best videos on him and his work is the video "Places for the Soul: The Architecture of Christopher Alexander". Unfortunately it's only on VHS, but if you have a player you can ordered through the library system. It's worth watching.

3/08/2013 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger vanderleun said...

"Yeah, I'd better put MOTT aside for the moment"

Hark ye the heartbroken sobs of the Littlest Angel and the heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation.

3/08/2013 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

"I want to let it all seep in and see where it leads me, especially as applied to realms more familiar to me, e.g. music, literature, and theology.

I once had some intuitions regarding a "geometry of music". Problem is that I have found no way really to put it into words. (I am trying to put it into music, but that's another issue).

One night a year or so back I thought I had a connection between higher-dimensional geometry and the architecture of Cathedral. It made sense at the time. I tried to explain it to my atheist brother but it made no sense to him. So I dropped it.

Upshot: I would love to hear your thoughts--when they come--on the realm of music.

3/08/2013 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

The problem with your approach -- I'm guessing -- is that the geometry must be a function of the life, rather than vice versa. The geometry is a side effect, so to speak. Take Bach. He must have started with an overwhelming sense of musical life, which animated the "geometry." Otherwise a computer could do it.

3/08/2013 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Remodeling? You have my sympathies. I hope it all goes as well as these things ever go...

Love the ballet photos, by the way. Syncoonistically, Robin's Facebook photo assignment that started this week is about photographing music. Those would fit right in.

3/08/2013 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

"The problem with your approach -- I'm guessing -- is that the geometry must be a function of the life, rather than vice versa."

I am not entirely clear on this. If you would care to elaborate I would love to hear.

If I understand what you are saying at then I will say this:

I noticed back in my music school days that it was possible to determine how close the music I was creating/playing/listening to was to "it" by the color of the music. Again, this may sound barmy. But it seemed clear.

Lately, it increasingly appears that this perception is expanding into geometrical and spatial clues. To the point of seeming like virtual architecture.

This is probably not uncommon.

3/08/2013 06:29:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

So are you saying rather than trying to make the music "match up" to some criterion it would spring spontaneously from within?

3/08/2013 07:01:00 PM  
Blogger debass said...

"Rosen argues that reductionism does not work in biology and ignores the complexity of organisms."
It doesn't work with music either.

3/08/2013 07:07:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

The cause of heart disease is up in the air but climate science is settled.

3/10/2013 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Jack:

Re my comment on music -- I always go back to music that is superficially quite simple -- e.g., blues, country, gospel, soul, etc. -- but which nevertheless has a profound effect on the soul, and which has staying power, i.e., can stand up to repeated listening, without getting bored of it. How does that work? Phenomenologically, it feels very much like what Alexander says about certain centers having more life than others. Great music communicates life directly, but it's not necessarily a function of complexity or form. It's like soul calling out to soul, or life to life.

3/10/2013 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger vanderleun said...

Or it is, as Blues Traveller tells us, just The Hook:

It doesn't matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel that I'll convey
Some inner truth of vast reflection
But I've said nothing so far
And I can keep it up for as long as it takes
And it don't matter who you are
If I'm doing my job then it's your resolve that breaks

Because the hook brings you back
I ain't tellin' you no lie
The hook brings you back
On that you can rely

3/10/2013 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger vanderleun said...

Check it out and use it for grout:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdz5kCaCRFM

3/10/2013 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

" Great music communicates life directly, but it's not necessarily a function of complexity or form. It's like soul calling out to soul, or life to life."

Ah yes, I couldn't agree more. When young, many of us delight in complexity and the mistaken belief that one is going to build something completely new up from scratch. This often means complexity for it's own sake.

Perhaps then a second naivete starts to emerge as one matures as an artist, musician or thinker etc.

3/10/2013 01:09:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

I may have shared this quip before but it fits--
Lou Reed: "One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."

3/10/2013 04:24:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

"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."

, and,

"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...."

Yep. It was recognizing the relations between Object Oriented Programming, relational database design and philosophy, that began opening things up and making the whole click together for me. Those patterns exist between so much, it seems more sensible to say that they are not merely interesting coincidences, but the as yet barely glimpsed armature within which the whole is built upon.

You can find it between geometry & music, geometry & art, geometry & life (google Fibonacci Numbers in nature)... yet outside of trivial pursuit, the existence of such relations are mostly unknown, and certainly untaught, to modern man.

Patterns are order, and life is not found without them - to exclude them, as has been done in modernity - especially in regards to hierarchy - is a deliberate attempt to 'break the pattern' that is Wisdom.

What life could there be without it?

Other than nasty, brutish and short, I mean....

3/10/2013 05:31:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Interesting note I wasn't aware of, in software, Object Oriented Design came from a book on Design Patterns by a set of authors known as the GOF, the Gang of Four.

Apparently, according to some googling, they got their idea and inspiration from Christopher Alexander.

The old line "There are signs everywhere", maybe should be amended to "There are patterns everywhere", if you look for them.

An infinity of centers.

3/10/2013 07:36:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

"All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth." -Harlan Howard.

"Anything more than two chords is just showing off." -Woody Guthrie

3/11/2013 06:08:00 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

Yeah, I'm definitely getting the book.

It seems, in 'Spenglerian' terms, a balancing step away from the Faustian West's obsession with energy toward its antipode, the Grecian West's obsession with pattern, or 'Logos'.

In Orthodox terms, the Son and Spirit are the two 'arms' of the Father; the Spirit being the one who energizes, and the Son being the one who patterns, if you will.

So when the Psalmist says, 'This is a change that has been wrought by God's right hand' - this is interpreted to mean the action of the Son.

The dovetail is this; an attempt to emphasize pattern over energy or vice versa will create pneumopathology - or just implicitly wrong theology.

Neo-classicism and the various theologies that are born from it seem to represent one step in a series of reverberating backlashes, or bouncing between 'Son' and 'Spirit' theologies. (Pentecostalism is transparently Spirit over Son theology.)

A balance is required, but it can only be found where the Father is monarchos.

3/11/2013 08:13:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Riv, I like that "two arms" visual.

3/11/2013 08:56:00 AM  
Blogger Magister said...

Most unusual, this cosmos thing.

I like this: "It takes a family to raise a village."

A family is a geometry of relations, a wave, a field.

You can't build a village out of particles. You end up with entropy.

i.e. Obamanation

3/11/2013 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Magister said...

Take Bach. He must have started with an overwhelming sense of musical life, which animated the "geometry."

Christoph Wolff's biography is good on this. As far as we know, Bach started with awe and wonder, which became passion and a truly fearsome work ethic. He pursued musical thoughts the way Feynman did physics. He ran into every possible corner. His chorales are still (still!) inspiring for their sheer mania. I like listening to his partitas and sonatas for solo violin. Never less than totally rewarding.

I like Son House, too, and for the same reason: he was being true to himself. For Bach, it was being true to his awe at cosmic complexity, and his longing to say YES LORD I HEAR YOU, HERE I AM! And for Son House, it was HERE I AM, SON, STRAIGHT UP AND ON FIRE.

Something like that.

3/11/2013 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

Nice 60 Minutes segment on the Sagrada Familia. I wonder what Alexander would say about this work of art?

3/11/2013 08:14:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Ted - what a wonderful project! I could spend ages wandering around in there.

3/11/2013 08:35:00 PM  

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