Monday, September 3, 2007

Introductory thoughts on the "Nature of Order"

Ooops, well I missed the daily pattern as I was out of town till just a little while ago. However, during this little Internet break I had a chance to start reading Christopher Alexander’s book the "Nature of Order" in which he lays out his theory of order. Only a few pages into it and I have already been moved several times to reflect on the words. But this reflection is not so much in that he is asserting something new, but rather it is something I have seen or felt for a long time. It is also something that I have seen in a number of texts discussing Eastern philosophy such as the teachings of Vedanta; just read Sri Nisargadatta or Ramana Maharishi and you will get the sense that Alexander is not asserting something new. However, it is unique in a number of ways, primarily his discussion that is directed towards a Western audience.

The other important element that is unique to Alexander’s work is his attempt to apply this vision into all things we do in order to bring out these varying degrees of life and harmony. This conceptualization of wholeness and harmony is meant to represent a coherent picture relevant to those of us trying to make sense out of the 21st century predicament.

Though Eastern thought has made its way into Western culture not many of us know enough to recognize the obvious parallels, and it remains something more faddish than assumed relevant. Likewise the ideas of wholeness, cosmic harmony, emergence and so forth are still so foreign to Western thought it seems almost necessary for us to approach these ideas from within our current mechanistic construct along with all the legacy and history that this view brings with it before we can actually begin to understand or contemplate notions that have been present for centuries. This is not say that similar ideas haven’t been considered in Western context, but they don’t venture as far as Alexander seems to.

So, it appears that Alexander attempts to bridge this chasm by framing his argument in a language, and against a world-view that we Westerns’ are all too familiar with. Beyond this parallel something else struck me. I was contemplating Alexander's words and began to think of his conception of life and his assertion that there is a certain degree of life that can be measured within both the things we traditionally consider to be living and those that we consider non-living or inanimate. So I began to consider the scientific definition of life, which I remember from my high-school biology class. The definition given ascribes life to growth, reproduction, and adaptation to environment. However, when looking the word up in a dictionary the ambiguity of the word emerges with nearly 25 definitions representing differing meanings of the word life.

The other 24 definitions reveal a list of possibilities that extend beyond the "mechanistic" biological one from my high school class. Considering these options, I was undoubtedly led to the question what is it that represents life within a system or object? While organisms may grow and adapt so to do the living structures that society and individual humans create. While the processes may be different, there is nonetheless a growing, emergent and adaptive outcome from the dynamic relationships between both living and non-living systems. So what is this specific life that Alexander is talking about? Now, I haven't read the whole book yet, but I began to think about the spark or intuitive connection that is present when two systems come into contact in recognition of their innate aliveness.

This reminded me of this book I once read, titled the "Spell of the Sensuous" where Dave Abrams describes the fundamental awe and beauty that can be experienced in all things and he too spoke of this aliveness, but in terms of a dynamic relationship between the experiencer and the experienced. He also referred to the ideas of cosmic-dance.

All of this began to coagulate in my mind to conjure a vision of the aliveness in all things as a grand dance that is talked about in the Upanishads, it reminded me of the wholes that includes ALL things as being parts of this cosmic reality.

In getting to this point I began to wonder about how this translates into the world we create, how we interact and care for the environment, how our social systems play a part of this wholeness and aliveness. Perhaps Alexander will make all this clear later on, but I have some of my own ideas and thinking in relation to the use of patterns in the creation of these wholes that engender greater degrees of harmony and life.

This of course brings me to the Liberating Voices! pattern language and how these elements could be used in conjunction with these deeper conceptualizations. In a sense, these ideas of life and harmony are important for gauging the usefulness of the patterns that have been currently defined. These ideas are also potentially relevant to the work of building systems that could aide in the process of sustainable design. In a sense, with this work it is possible that we are moving closer to a level of understanding necessary for operationalizing pattern usage from a vantage point that prioritizes the notion of wholeness and harmony.

Now, I know this has mostly been a rant with little substance for many to grab onto, but as I move along I hope to conceive of ways that will promote a process whereby we can develop communications and knowledge systems capable of assisting this grand and complex ideal of harmony. A system that supports the living/non-living process of reproduction, growth, and adaptation and yet contains the elements that produces harmony in the way we design, live and work within this dynamic environment. A system that draws upon the collaborative efforts and collective wisdom of those who are doing this work already in their daily lives.

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