I am currently reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building on the recommendation of a friend. It is one of those books that is so full of insight that it cannot be absorbed all at once, especially with the analytical part of the brain. It is as intuitive as it is logical. It’s the kind of thing that forces you to think outside of your paradigms, but in a way that is oddly comfortable.
Yesterday a section of the book stood out to me in particular. It was about the patterns in building that are good at resolving conflicting forces, and those that are not. Alexander maintains that there is near universal agreement on what patterns of, say, a window or a garden resolve conflicting forces. He asks people how they feel in a certain window area vs. another, and 95% or more feel good in the same one. It may seem outlandish to claim that there is so little disagreement about what makes for a good pattern in building, but the key for Alexander is the word feeling.
He does not ask what they think of flat windows vs. Bay windows. He does not ask their opinion on window material or position. He does not ask what a builder should do. He does not ask anything that evokes a belief or idea or a connection to some overarching plan or policy. These ought expressions get in the way of the is of the forces at work within us. It turns out it is incredibly hard to be honest with ourselves about what feels good. It takes a lot of discovery, and shedding all the baggage and ideology we carry around.
It someone asked me what I thought of using locally grown ingredients in food, my mind would immediately leap to the idiotic and regressive political movements that seek to force economies into localism, drive up prices, drive down quality, get everyone too involved in everyone else’s business while self-righteously proclaiming the superiority of an absurd proximity bias. In other words, my thoughts on the matter would probably be negative.
Because of this, it is possible that I would overlook an opportunity to bite into a delicious and juicy local fruit at a farmers market, for fear of giving credence to the food busybodies. These thoughts – my view that no one ought to get preachy about local ingredients – might prohibit me from finding alignment with the genuine feelings within me. It’s harder than it first seems to constantly stay in touch with what feels right – with who we actually are – in the face of all the things we think we should be and believe.
This is one of the reasons democracy is such a poor way of resolving collective action problems. It not only seeks and allows our mere opinions, it rewards our proclamations of what we wish we thought, or what we pretend to want, instead of what actually make us fuller, happier people. It rewards and glorifies the boring lies and spin we weave into our narratives, and vilifies our honesty about what really harmonizes with us.
It’s much more fruitful to dig down to the bottom and discover what you really do feel, and work with those forces rather than pretending they don’t exist. This is why capitalism is such a powerful and beautiful system of social coordination; because it takes humans as they are, imperfect knowledge and motives and abilities, and the scarcity and difficulty the natural world presents, works with it, and channels it all in a harmonious and life-giving way. Capitalism is honest.
This is why the economic way of thinking – the rational choice model – is so enlightening and useful in explaining human behavior and institutions. It does not condone or condemn, it just accepts ends as a given and seeks to understand what means will and will not achieve them.
Certainly some goals or desires or feelings are better than others. Certainly some are worth trying to change. But playing pretend and building patterns around forces we wish existed in us and in others, instead of what’s actually there, doesn’t help. There is no better way to express this insight than to quote The Timeless Way at length:
“But a pattern which is real makes no judgments about the legitimacy of the forces in the situation.
By seeming to be unethical, by making no judgments about individual opinions, or goals, pr values, the pattern rises to another level of morality.
The result is to allow things to be alive – and this is a higher good than the victory of any one artificial system of values. The attempt to have a victory for a one-sided view of the world cannot work anyway, even for the people who seem to win their point of view. The forces which are ignored do not go away just because they are ignored. They lurk, frustrated, underground. Sooner or later they erupt in violence: and the system which seems to win is then exposed to far more catastrophic dangers.
The only way a pattern can actually help to make a situation genuinely more alive is by recognizing all the forces which actually exist, and then finding a world in which these forces can slide past each other.
Then it becomes a piece of nature.”
Mr. Alexander is an architect and is here talking about patterns in rooms, gardens, buildings and towns. He refers to things like the human desire to go towards the light in the room, and the desire for comfortable seating. The patterns he seeks are those that bring into harmony such forces. But read the above again, slowly, and consider how much broader this insight might apply; to institutions, to social coordination problems, and to our own lives.