A new method of observation at the core of the world-picture

It is well known that a cosmology may be linked to a particular method of observation. Indeed, the recently-held mechanistic view of the universe itself arises from a particular method of observation, the famous method described by Descartes. In the Discourse on Method, written three hundred years ago, Descartes set out his charming and innocent idea about the method of observation which we ought to follow in order to find out who the world works. He said, quite simply: We must pay careful attention to what happens in the natural world, and keep checking it in detail, and keep making our own model or picture of it also more detailed, constantly checking backward and forward, until the two come into closer and closer correspondence. This is the essence of his famous method.

It is wonderful, reading Descartes, to see how he predicts that the use of this method, when consistently and patiently applied, will lead to the gradual creation of a world picture which is true and detailed. Three hundred years after he described this method, what he predicted has come true. The constant application of his method made it possible for us to know the mechanics of the universe in extraordinary detail. The whole of modern science, the wonderful picture of the world which we have attained today, has come about simply because of repeated application of this method, day after day after day, by hundreds of thousands of people, for three hundred years.

We see, then, that a method of observation can have enormous power to teach us things. However, as we now know, the world-picture we have inherited from these three hundred years of observation and model-making is too mechanical. That came about as a direct result of the method itself. Indeed, it was the genius of Descartes’ method to focus attention only on how things work as machines, and to pay no attention to anything else.

But, of course, we had to pay a price for doing it. The mental trick that was needed to achieve these wonderful results required that we separate ourselves from the process of observation — and this had the consequence that our view of the world became mechanical. That is no surprise, because it is precisely the strength of the method that we choose to pretend that everything is a little machine. It is this mental trick that lets us find things out. But, at the same time, it has the consequence that the world which is created in our minds then seems to be value-free, and seems to be impersonal.

Descartes himself would have been surprised by this result. I believe he invented his trick, only because during his lifetime few people were paying proper attention to the way things really work, and therefore no one had any real idea how the world is actually made. Perhaps they were too busy thinking about spirits and angels. So, in his time, the method he proposed was an antidote to a more religious method of thinking which was making it difficult to find out what the world was really like.

In our time, the tables have turned. In our time, the only method of observation considered scientifically respectable is the one which treats things like machines. So in our time our problem is the opposite of the one which Descartes faced. Our problem is to find a way of supplementing our observation of the mechanical universe with some type of observation which establishes our personal connection to the world.

This is a fascinating framing: a pendulum swinging between two extremes — a pattern (or mental model) that we can find in many systems, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, economical. It does somewhat also frame it as a continuum with two poles only, although reality might very well be more complex than that. Also, the observation that we need to consider our own perception and experience in the models we make about our world, doesn’t necessarily end up straight with the conclusion Alexander draws from it. There is room for many alternative explanations all over the spectrum of hardcore rational-mechanistic science to spiritual-religious.

What I call living structure is directly connected with this issue. The observations presented throughout these four books are based on a method of observation which is entirely different from the Cartesian method. Unlike the Cartesian method, the method I have used invites the observer to make distinctions, constantly, on the basis of his/her own inner feelings — but with a framework that guarantees consistency and objectivity to these inner feelings so that they are not idiosyncratic. For example, to discover the fifteen geometric properties reported in Book 1, or the eleven color properties reported in chapter 6 of Book 4, I did not try to observe things as if I myself did not exist. Instead, I kept asking which of two objects was more wholesome, which one had more feeling, and which one created a more wholesome feeling in me — the observer — which then by extrapolation also creates a more wholesome feeling in all observers. And I then tried to find out what structural features were correlated with the quality that I observed.

In the canon of contemporary science (as practiced in the second half of the 20th century), this kind of observation would have been considered inadmissible. Yet, as we have seen, without this kind of observation, the very subject matter which I have presented in these books does not even come into view. Even the identification of the centers which make up the wholeness in a given part of space, together with the relative rank-order of degree of life these different centers have, depend on relative distinctions between centers because to define the structure at all, we have to select the centers which have the greatest coherence. The centers identified in the very simple examples of Book 1, chapter 3 cannot be rank-ordered, or even selected at all, without making judgements of their relative coherence. Thus the mathematical structure which underlies the phenomenon of wholeness itself depends on a phenomenon in space which can only be identified, or observed by a method able to make distinctions of value and coherence among the different regions which occur in space.

Within our Cartesian method of observation, it is doubtful if these center-like regions could even be reliably identified, so the structure of wholeness itself would then appear to lie beyond empirical methods of observation. And yet they can be identified. I doubt if the reader had any fundamental difficulty recognizing the structures which I described in Book 1, chapters 3, 4, and 5. The fact that some parts of space are more coherent and more salient than others is confirmed by experience and is, to a very large degree, agreed on by different observers. The basis of the theory I have presented lies in the recognition that different regions in space may have different value. In the conception of matter that I have presented, it is the structure based on the value-differences of different regions which is the most fundamental structure of all.

Does this argument then, not also strongly suggest, that a mathematical description of centers — something Alexander actively searches for himself and seems convinced to be found eventually — cannot be possible? Or, asked differently, if we ever find a mathematical way to describe a field of centers, does this not mean that we have successfully removed the observer currently necessary to judge the coherence?

The observations that I have put before the reader in this book are therefore, by and large, empirical. They are as objective, as dependent on experience and shared experience as the scientific experiments and observations that are permitted by the present-day Cartesian method. But they extend and supplement the arena of permissible observations in such a way that the self of the observer is allowed to come into the picture. And they do so in such a way that the self of the observer comes into the picture in an objective, replicable, way.

If we think carefully we shall see how inevitable it is that the way of understanding physical space described in the conclusion of Book 4, and the new method of observation I propose, are intertwined. The point is this. I have argued that space must be considered as a potentially living material — a kind of stuff which, according to the recursive structures that are built up in it, becomes progressively more and more alive. But of course, this way of understanding space could not be understood within the confines of a method of observation that insists that everything is a machine because it is only the facility of assigning value or coherence that allows the structure to be recognized.

Since the matter-space I have described has precisely the character that it is not machine-like, no method of observation which has to pretend that everything is machine-like will be able to see it as it is, or acknowledge its properties.

The observations I have used to build a modified picture of space and matter are observations which are available to anyone. They are not, in themselves, very astonishing. Many of them were well known to traditional artisans and artists. But, precisely because the observational method of Descartes forbade us from seeing these observables, they have dropped out of awareness. It might be said that (by an adherent of mechanistic thinking) that they must not be true, cannot be true, because if they were, something would be wrong with the machinelike representation of the universe. I, on the other hand, started with a different kind of observation. I knew, intuitively, that observation of the inner feeling in the work of building, and the fact that different works of art have more feeling or less feeling, is a real thing. I based my whole method of analysis on the observations that I got by following this method, and on the observables which this method exposes to view.

And since, within this method, there is no arbitrary prohibition against discovering a non-mechanical nature in the structure of space, I was able to consider and discover such a nature.

Thus the characteristics of the field of centers which make it potentially profound — which make it the basis of great art and building — were available to my inspection, only because I used a method of observation that allowed me to check the feeling of a work as an objective matter.

I can’t help to almost feel offended by this, even though I’m not a social or cognitive scientist myself. How is his method different from all the empirical research that’s been going on in psychology and other cognitive sciences? So either he needs to acknowledge those sciences as having done exactly that for ages too, or he needs to explain why he doesn’t consider those sciences to have done exactly what he describes, which would hopefully explain his almost condescending attitude toward them.

Let us be clear that this method of observation, like the method of Descartes, still refers always to experience. It is empirical in nature. It dismisses fantasy. It seeks constantly to avoid speculation. In this sense it is experimental, like the method of Descartes. But where Descartes only allowed observation to focus on the outer reality of mechanisms in the world, my method requires that we focus on the inner reality of the observer’s feeling of wholesomeness as well.

Thus the results I have reported are based on experience, they report experience, and they describe experience. The results are public. Of course the experience is experience of inner feeling, but the feelings still refer to experience which can be shared. I have shown that each one of us is capable of feeling the existence of wholeness, feeling the existence of value, and that we can use this capability, constantly, to keep on making distinctions and learning things. In several chapters in these four books, I have demonstrated that these methods of observation are sharable and public. They do not depend strongly on the person who is doing them. So in spite of its novelty, this method is not subjective but objective.

It is not necessary to choose between the method of Descartes and the method which I have described. In a situation where the relevant facts have to do with things that can be viewed in a machinelike fashion, the method of Descartes is best. Pretend the unknown thing is a machine, and find a model which represents its behavior. But in a situation where the relative wholeness of different systems, is the most important, most relevant thing, the method of Descartes, by itself, will not work. We then need a method which can explicitly recognize the relative degree of wholeness in different systems, and can make this objective. In such a case, the method which I have described must be used as well.

If we follow both methods — the method of Descartes for thing that are outside ourselves and can be represented as machines; and the method I have explained whenever we have to judge or study wholeness — we may then arrive at a picture of the world which includes the self, and which clearly recognizes the personal nature of the universe.

Whitehead’s problem of the bifurcation of nature is then solved.

(Pages 340-343)

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