The Quality Without a Name (part two): Seeing Structural Wholeness

22 May 2010

“We have to be alert to give careful attention and serious consideration to the fact that our theories are not ‘descriptions of reality as it is’ but, rather, ever-changing forms of insight which can point to or indicate a reality that is implicit and not describable or specifiable in its totality.”

Physicist David Bohm, in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 22.

Here is a string of questions to which we could pretend David Bohm is giving an answer in the above quote:

Is there a whole and unified reality behind all things? If so, can we know anything true about it, in a traditionally scientific way? If we cannot know it in a traditionally scientific way, how can we know it for certain at all? What, in other words, is Christopher Alexander claiming when he says, “There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life” — the quality without a name — which “cannot be named” yet is also “objective and precise”?

Part of Alexander’s own answer to these questions is evident in the “mirror of the self” test (see previous post):

If we ask ourselves what we really like, in such a way as to get below all opinion, all concern about style and what others think of us — in other words, all the mimetic rivalry Chris E pointed at last week — what we really like, below all of this, is something we all share. It is an objectivity the confirmation of which is based on the inner state of the observer(s). This new kind of real objectivity is the claim of Alexander’s “mirror of the self” test.

And although the quality of what we all really like is something indescribable, Alexander’s life work has been to nail down, with as much precision as possible, how it can be created. (He is an architect and builder, after all, and buildings, like all of nature, can be described mathematically – indeed, buildings, unlike nature, must be described mathematically: most of what Phil and I have been doing on the Chapel Project so far has been shaping hefty beams down to the half-degree, and to the 1/8th of an inch…)

According to Alexander, attention to the quality without a name – where it shows up, and what its characteristics are – can help us judge the life of a window sill down to the half-inch, and also help us make sense of the bizarre results of perhaps the most famous physics experiment of the last century: the double-slit experiment (I’ll come back to it). Both kinds of structural difficulties can be helpfully explained — that is, made intuitively sensible — by the concept of Wholeness.

So, too, claimed renowned quantum physicist David Bohm.

In recorded conversations between Bohm and Alexander, Bohm says that “in his mind the wholeness defined in Book 1 [of The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life], is essentially the same structure as that which he calls the ‘implicate order,’ and considers responsible for the motion of the electrons [in the double-slit experiment]” (NOPL, 467).

Wholeness, Alexander’s favorite placeholder for the quality without a name. And if the quality without a name cannot be described, the concept of wholeness can be clearly defined. So if the feeling of wholeness (or, the quality without a name) bears any relation to the qualities of the concept of wholeness in structured space, then we are on fairly stable ground to begin to make initial, intuitive, trustworthy sense of even the results of a wild quantum physics experiment. (At the least.)

electron build-up over time (from the Wikipedia page - click to read their article)

I won’t use this space to try and explain the experiment, but you can find descriptions of it all over the web. (One YouTube tutorial is particularly helpful for its clarity. I highly recommend it.  It is only a few minutes long.  You can find it here). To summarize it very briefly: If you shoot photons of light one at a time through a slit onto a wall, they produce a pattern much like you would expect from little bullets. But if you shoot photons of light through two slits, they produce a pattern that is wave-like. It is from this experiment that we first learned this strange behavior of light, that it can be, or seem to be, both wave and particle. But the photons really are like little bullets, as the image shows. They create a wave-like pattern, but they are not a wave. How is this possible?

Bohm and Alexander both believe this result has to do with the structural wholeness present in the different experimental set-ups. It is the whole geometric structure of the experimental conditions which produces the different patterns. Even the presence of the observer, therefore, alters the results in some way.

David Bohm:

The ‘quantum’ context thus calls for a new kind of description [of the “experimental condition,” and of “what is called the observed object”] that does not imply the separability of the ‘observed object’ and ‘observing instrument’. Instead, the form of the experimental conditions and the meaning of the experimental results have now to be one whole, in which analysis into autonomously existent elements is not relevant.

Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 169

To pull back a little, the idea is that if the universe (the whole of space/matter) is indeed of a whole, such that what happens in one part of it can and does affect in some way what happens in another part of it, then it is only natural that our perception of this whole, itself being a part of the whole, should have an affect (of some sort) on the wholeness in other parts, not always clearly connected.

It is as though the universe were a whole the way a painting is a whole. A spill in a corner of the painting affects the overall wholeness of the painting, even though there are corners the spill has not, in our usual way of thinking, technically touched. If the universe is a work in progress, our perception — not to mention all those actions to which our perception gives rise — can be like a well-placed brush stroke, or it can be like a ruinous stroke, even a spill. It will be more like a spill the more we fail to perceive the painting/universe as a whole.

And we can in fact see that happening. As David Bohm says in his essay, “Fragmentation and Wholeness,” writing about the rampant fragmentation which we see and experience and create all around us:

[M]an then acts in such a way as to break himself and the world up, so that all seems to correspond to his way of thinking. Man thus obtains an apparent proof of the correctness of his fragmentary self-world view though, of course, he overlooks the fact that it is he himself, acting according to his mode of thought, who has brought about the fragmentation that now seems to have an autonomous existence, independent of his will and of his desire.

Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 3

Deepwater Horizon - image from Wikipedia

If enough people see the world a certain way, the world will in fact become more and more that way, and this because, like a painting, the world is a unified and living whole. It is not separate from us and our conceptions of it. We are, to use a term my Calvinist tradition does not cultivate the way it might, co-creators of this world. We bear importance on this whole world. Habituated to see the world as a fragmentary and mechanical place, it becomes a more and more fragmentary and mechanical place — a place where only prediction and control of the machinery’s behavior is important. What we then fail to recognize is the possibility, a reasonable conclusion in fact, that this fragmented, mechanistic nature of the world is a function of the deeper wholeness of the world. It is able to become as broken as it is because it is essentially whole.

Of course there are some people who will call spilling painting: “[Those] who are guided by such a fragmentary self-world view cannot, in the long run, do other than to try in their actions to break themselves and the world into pieces, corresponding to their general mode of thinking” (Wholeness, 20). An architect like Peter Eisenman comes to mind, whose so-called ‘de-constructionist’ architecture radically fails to grasp the kind of responsibility to which his philosopher-muse Jacques Derrida claimed we are each called. Eisenman thought it would be easy (and probably clever) to turn some interesting philosophical ideas into an architectural form. His forms fail.

Bohm says our “mode of thinking” is just as important, and has deeper roots in who we are and how we relate to the wholeness of the world, than any particular thought we might think, or idea we get carried away by:

[T]he fragmentation involved in a self-world view is not only in the content of thought, but in the general activity of the person who is ‘doing the thinking’, and thus, it is as much in the process of thinking as it is in the content. Indeed, content and process are not two separately existent things, but rather, they are two aspects of views of one whole movement. Thus fragmentary content and fragmentary process have to come to an end together.

What we have to deal with here is a one-ness of the thinking process and its content, similar in key ways to the one-ness of observer and observed… Questions of this nature cannot be met properly while we are caught up, consciously or unconsciously, in a mode of thought which attempts to analyse itself in terms of a presumed separation between the process of thinking and the content of thought that is produced. By accepting such a presumption we are led, in the next step, to seek some fantasy of action through efficient causes that would end the fragmentation in the content while leaving the fragmentation in the actual process of thinking untouched. What is needed, however, is somehow to grasp the overall formative cause of fragmentation, in which content and actual process are seen together, in their wholeness.

Wholeness, 23.

[A note on “efficient” and “formative” causes. These terms come from Aristotle, and a simple example, say of the growth of the tree the osprey perched on in my first post, will help:
An efficient cause is an external event which allows a certain process to begin — ie. the planting of a seed.
Formative causes are those which operate within the process of formation — ie. the movement of the sap, the growth of the cells, the articulation of the leaves, etc.
Aristotle identified also material causes — the materials that contribute to the realization of the process, such as the sun, water, earth, air — and final cause, which is the end goal of the formative causes — ie. the mature doug fir the osprey landed in.]


Here are the middle sentences from a poem called “Touch Me” by Stanley Kunitz, in his book The Wild Braid. A poet reflects on a century in the garden (2005). The book’s epigraph, I just noticed, reads, “The universe is a continuous web. Touch it at any point and the whole web quivers.” But here are the lines from the poem.

Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.


6 Responses to “The Quality Without a Name (part two): Seeing Structural Wholeness”

  1. Aaron said


    I have been getting your blog posts, and I really like what you are up to. In your first post, this line basically sums up my work:

    2. We also feel wholesome when we are making these things. As we make them, and after making them, we feel whole in ourselves, healed, and right with the world.

    Christopher Alexander not only articulated something I have felt my whole life, but also justifies it I think when he writes about the worthwhile pursuit of things we like. Working toward wholeness, in our physical world. As I was reading, I kept thinking about Reformed theology, how the basic point of our lives is to be agents brining about wholeness in God’s kingdom (or something to that effect). As craftsman, our mission is to bring about wholeness, a wholeness that really matters according to Alexander. Maybe as important as other, clearly helpful work (like feeding people).

    It is funny how we operate. We have our essential selves, and we sometimes struggle against it (I’m thinking about all the weird paths I’ve been on, all of which you know about), and hopefully sometime in our adult lives we finally can justify our essential self, that our innate work is worthwhile. (if only it were profitable).

    • Thanks Aaron.

      The idea that our relationship to God and to the stuff of the world is cut from the same feeling — our attention to the presence of goodness and wholeness, wherever it can be found — is the essential thing for me. I even wonder if it is really possible to sustain concern for either God OR the world without understanding this on some level, however deeply it is buried.

      A correction: the quote you lift is from the fourth post (The “Mirror of the Self” Test), not the first.

      I would love to hear more about how you have experienced making as a form of this feeling of wholeness, sometime.

  2. Lucas Harriman said

    “Part two” really helped me with “part one” — thanks. I appreciate the way you are wrestling here with the relationship between perception and the world, between process and content. You connection between spilled paint and the (shockingly still spilling) oil was one of those “Lost” moments for me, where my vision of what you, and of course Christopher Alexander, are working with really expanded.

    Please bear with me for an etymological digression. “Like” is one of those fantastic words. It comes to us via our German roots rather than our Latin or Greek ones. The old German word “gleich” and its various forms can be traced to a root word for body, implying that we “like” what has a similar body, or form, to our own. (This is why the verb “to like” is the same as the English adjective meaning to resemble something — I LIKE the show “Lost” … because I am LIKE it?)

    Those of you who have worked in a Romance language have probably encountered the frustration of trying to translate a simple English sentence such as “I like hamburgers” into Spanish, or some other similar language. You would need to say “Me gustan las hamburguesas,” which literally means “Hamburgers please me.” Here we have a completely different etymological journey for “gustar” and similar words, though the concept they present is exactly the same. Gustar descends from the Latin “gustus,” meaning “to taste.”

    So what is the point here? Well, since I am interested in the way language itself often shapes our perception, even subconsciously, I’m wondering if we English speakers are affected by the concept of liking what is like us, sort of along the lines of Narcissus falling in love with his reflection. When we move more directly into the question of pleasure, evoked in the Spanish “gustar,” is there a resulting shift in perception? (Note: gustar is also present in such English words as “disgust” and “gustation.”) This mode of thinking about “liking something” seems a little closer to the concept of desire, which comes out in Kunitz’s musings on the cricket’s chirping: “What makes the engine go? / Desire, desire, desire.”

    Anyway, I would love to hear your own reflections on such a rambling comment. I am especially interested in the sort of indirect allusion to Narcissus that is made in the concept of “the mirror of the self.” Is there anything there, or is such an allusion misplaced?

    For anyone interested, here are some links to relevant online etymological entries. They aren’t as thorough as something you’d find in the OED, but they get to the interesting reversal that happened when instead of saying, like Shakespeare, that “This peach likes me well,” we began saying “I sure do like that peach.” (Great stuff!!! Isn’t English fun? — I think I need some coffee …)

    • Luke,

      I am finally getting to this — apologies that I am not as quick as this medium enables me to be…

      The way language works, and the power it has, is mainly a mystery to me. I mean that I just do not have a good understanding of its breadth, and what are the limits of its real influence. I know that David Bohm cared very much about the modes of our thinking, and the way that language shaped these thoughts. He proposed not new words, however, but new understandings and uses — if I remember right. (I only read a little of his essay, “The Rheomode.”) And Alexander seems to be undermining the normal understanding of common nouns, such as “house” and “porch” as I pointed out in the “Living Centers of the World” post (the “house” being a difficult entity to nail down when you are trying to discern the quality of it, and what creates its overall quality as a living or not-so-living center in the world).

      I admit I never thought of Narcissus in relation to the Mirror of the Self test. I don’t think there is any connection, but I wonder where your thoughts (yours, in particular) would lead if you felt there was some meat to the allusion… The difference between the love of one’s own physiognomy and the trust of one’s deepest sense of wholeness, however, seems pretty different to me. 🙂 ( <– That's a mirror of my face right now.)

      On the other hand, when you put it in terms of "liking what is like us" that makes me think, Yes, but because we are so complicated and layered, and because we often run away from the 'whole' of ourselves, yet still say things like, 'I like hamburgers' or 'I am a democrat', the understanding each of us has of what 'I like' or 'I am' means, is confused. So with Narcissus, perhaps, who believes that his face is his self.

      John's mystery reverberates for me here, in ways I do not fully understand (to say the least):

      "…that we should be called Children of God! And that is what we are!" (1 John 3:1-3)

      Can we not know who we are until we know ourselves as children of God?

      • Lucas Harriman said

        Thanks, Mike, for the thoughtful response. I especially like what you said about the effect of our many layers. Narcissus reminds me also of that other nymph who pursued him in vain, Echo, who loved her own voice. Our whole selves … There is so much here to sink our teeth into.

        One more comment on mirrors and perception which may or may not be relevant. Your reference to 1 John takes my mind to Paul likening our present state of “knowing in part” to seeing “in a mirror dimly.” But then, we shall see “face to face.” What a beautiful and wondrous concept. What exactly are we seeing in the glass, or mirror, of 1 Corinthians? And then, when we know as we are fully known, what face will be staring into ours? In his next letter to this struggling congregation, Paul returns to this metaphor saying, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). Great stuff! Maybe something similar is happening as we behold the objects in your tests?

        • Luke, in all seriousness, that is exactly what I am aiming at. With all that I can muster. (Etymology on “muster”?) I know there are so many, many criticisms and questions to offer to the idea of objective wholeness I am trying to present through Alexander’s ideas. But it all comes down to the one concern: How is the Lord of Love, who is the Lord of Creation, actually related to this stuff that surrounds us? Or a slightly less eccentric (and, for me, less honest) way of putting it: What is the connection between our love and awe of creation, our inner feelings of (and desire for) wholeness, and the real meaning of the universe?

          Thank you so much for the beautiful verse.

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