Christopher Alexander and Religion

This note was a response originally posted in Thinking Tools forum:

One of the reasons I refrained from reading The Nature of Order for a long time is that I had this impression that Alexander, a trained mathematician, started his career with an extremely rational approach of explaining complexity (his earlier publication Notes on the Synthesis of Form), and then over time changed into a more spiritual person, until he went “completely bonkers” — from my agnostic perspective — on this “spiritual nonsense”, culminating in the fourth book The Luminous Ground.

Let me be clear: that was the opinion of a stupid former version of myself. And I haven’t even read the fourth book yet. (I will until April.)

One thing that fascinates me about Alexander, is how true he stays to his mathematical and scientific desire to figure this all out. Yes, on a surface level it all seems to drift into a spiritual realm in his later works, because he is touching a lot of topics that were previously only ever comfortable to bring up in the context of religion. But he does so in the most scientific way imaginable. I wouldn’t read his works if that wasn’t the case.

Nothing (so far) in The Nature of Order strikes me as religious at all. In fact, everything is grounded either in mathematics directly — he talks a lot about geometry — or relates to physics, chemistry, biology. As he climbs up the ladder towards more complex interactions between more complex dynamic systems, getting to the realm of communities, culture and society, he still stays firmly grounded in empirical science.

One of the most difficult concepts for me to understand was what he calls “feeling”, which has nothing to do with emotions although that is what we would naively assume (I did). It’s what you feel when you look at some source code and just know it’s the most beautiful version of that code you are capable to come up with. Or what you feel when you use the right tool for the job, and you know that tool has been well designed. It’s before you start to explain why that is to someone (or yourself) intellectually. If you develop software, or if you build or create things, perhaps do some woodworking or bake a bread, you must have had that feeling where you look at the result and just know it turned out good.

Even with something as spiritual as this, he goes through great lengths to pull this concept into a scientific realm, partly because his argument is that we humans, even across cultures, are mostly aligned on being capable of identifying this particular kind of feeling, which becomes the basis for his suggested solution of how we can fix the most difficult problems in architecture, which turn out to also be some of the most pressing problems in society in general (and in tech in particular — precisely why I think more people need to know about this, and specifically more people who build large interactive systems with lots of users).

There’s a lot more to say about this. Perhaps that’s the most important discussion to have about this. But please don’t let your rational, scientific, perhaps atheist/agnostic worldview prevent you from approaching this material. I guarantee you that you will be positively surprised by some profound, precious, and scientific thinking.

After reading Book 4, I have more to say about this topic and this note needs updating with a more differentiated analysis. I haven’t changed my general opinion that Alexander’s approach in _The Nature of Order_ is scientific and his theory useful.

Two articles in which Alexander describes his relationship with religion and God:

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