Life and living structure

Understanding life as a structure

a quality of space itself
an objectively real physical phenomenon in space which our cognition detects; applies to every brick, stone, person, and physical structure of any kind that appears in space.

Alexander’s hypothesis:

What we call “life” is a general condition which exists, to some degree or other, in every part of space: brick, stone, grass, river, painting, building, daffodil, human being, forest, city. And further: The key to this idea is that every part of space — every connected region of space, small or large — has some degree of life, and that this degree of life is well defined, objectively existing, and measurable.

Living structure has this property to a high degree and supports human life better than other structures. A high degree of life comes from Wholeness.

Degree of life

Every form of order has some degree of life. The particular degree of life that occurs in organisms becomes a special case of a broader conception of life.

Although it is hard to define and describe life, we can sense and feel it, in particular in structures with high or low degrees of life.

I do understand the need for the gradual and more inclusive definition of life, but I’m not sure how he makes the leap to more life automatically being better. Are there no use cases where the absence of life could be useful?

Defining what life is

Alexander is deeply concerned with finding a good definition for life, so that we can ask precise questions about what must be done to create it. His goal is understanding the interaction of humans with nature and making a harmony out of that interaction. He wants to proceed with the general idea that all work has to do with the creation of life and that the task is to make buildings come to life as much as possible.

Alexander wants to move from the classic narrow binary definition of life to a new broader gradual definition. He needs a definition that makes it possible to apply it to both alive organisms (in the classic biological sense) as well as any other kind of matter in space. A gradual definition makes that possible.

It is somewhat problematic that Alexander wants to redefine the existing term “life” (though appropriate), because it conflicts with contemporary common-sense understanding of the word and makes conversations difficult.

Classic biological definition

Conventionally (and in contrast to Alexander’s definition), life is defined and commonly understood as:

  • a special kind of mechanism,
  • applied only to a certain limited system of phenomena
    • self-reproducing biological machines
    • organisms, ie. carbon-oxygen-hydrogen-nitrogen systems capable of:
      • reproduction
      • healing themselves
      • remaining stable for some particular lifetime
    • we have somewhat extended it to ecological systems too
  • doesn’t apply to larger and more complex systems

Alexander does not consider this a useful, or precise, or adequate definition of life. This becomes apparent looking at issues this biological definition has:

  • When does a fertilized egg become alive?
  • Is a virus alive?
  • Is a forest alive (as a whole, and over and above the life of the component species taken as individuals)?

He acknowledges ecology as an entry point for a better definition, yet what he has in mind has little to do with ecology as we understand it today.

Questions to think about

  • Why does it seem to be easier to create life if we don’t think about it too much?
  • Are there any cases where a higher degree of life would not be desirable? Is there any use for “dead” structures or are they universally bad?

#book/The Nature of Order/1 The Phenomenon of Life/1 The phenomenon of life/1 Introduction#

#book/The Nature of Order/1 The Phenomenon of Life/1 The phenomenon of life/2 The need for a broader and more adequate definition of life#

Notes mentioning this note

Here are all the notes in this garden, along with their links, visualized as a graph.