Metaphysics is the study of reality. The story we Humans build around it. IT stands for the unnameable. IT doesn’t name and cannot be named. The word IT embodies an impetus, a desire to grasp.
The birth of the name Metaphysics is quite an interesting story:
Aristotle wrote many books. A later editor bound them together into volumes and gave each volume a title. One dealt with ‘Physics’ and was so entitled. The following dealt with more basic questions but had no title. It came to be called ‘The books that come after the one entitled ‘Physics’ and this name ‘After-the-Physics’, in greek, ‘MetaPhysics’ was then born.
That is how much we can never grasp what IT is.
The assumption this essay is willing to develop is that we have been building worlds after worlds, from very early in the history of Humanity, as understandings of what we experience. The articulation of those worlds seems to emerge suddenly out of a genius mind, out of a revolutionary physical discovery etc. But the reason why they then make sense is precisely that a large proportion of Humanity is evolving towards them, is slowly but surely coming to establish them. They are derived from a movement which at some point someone can transcend and put into words and experiments. An audience is in place, secretly and unconsciously ready to welcome them.
Today again a new world is about to be named.
We don’t know the language of tomorrow, until we start creating it. We don’t know indeed the things IT is going to name. Talking with today’s terms, we can think of it as the invention/discovery of another dimension. But its effects and proportions are as great as unknown. And so is the world of tomorrow.
Before attempting to sketch what could be this new dimension, let’s take some time to come back in the history of human understanding, when representations of the world and of the experiences within it were what we consider now to be 2-dimensional. More specifically, let’s move back to before the pictorial representation of a third dimension.
The phenomenal step made from this former world into the new one could possibly be dated back to the invention of perspective by Giotto at the very premises of Renaissance. We can think about this revolutionary invention as an improvement in the techniques related to the depiction of what actually is the world. The invention of this new skill, though, had to be in phase with the plain discovery of its subject’s existence. An interesting question here would then be: How was the world thought and imagined before this discovery?
We could also think the notion of a skill as being a tool to create a new perception. The new tool would imply a new thinking process leading to a new way to see, imagine and picture things. Indeed it ultimately seems to be about creating new perceptions.
The belief behind this all can be simplified in the idea that people used to think the world 2-dimensionally, before considering the third. Those two worlds were intrinsically different. As an example, the paintings made before the 15th century that we have the opportunity to see today were not lacking a geometrical dimension which would better express what was there at the time. They somehow were able to express the world in its entireness, probably through a spiritual or symbolic dimension.
Today we are so used to consider this three-dimensional representation of the world that it is a great mental exercise to ask ourselves what is the relation between a two-dimensional and a three-dimensional representation, what is the way from one to the other? How does the emergence of the third dimension allow new thinking and manipulation possibilities, which demonstrate very well that the properties of any object are not general but depending on the context they are considered in? What can possibly lead to imagine a third dimension from a two-dimensional context?
A very useful way to picture the consistency of the third dimension is to consider the idea of congruence.
If we consider this sheet or paper to be our world, we can never demonstrate that the two letters written above are in fact one.
They are made out of the same elements: a circle and a segment. Those two are connected in the same way: the segment is tangent to the circle at one of its extremities. Nevertheless, by whatever manipulation we could proceed in the 2-dimensional conception of this paper, we can never make them become one.
This changes drastically when we introduce the idea of a third dimension. We can now rotate the b into the d. Or else the third dimension can be introduced by using a transparent sheet instead of a paper one, or again by looking at one of the letter in a mirror.
Whether or not objects are congruent depends on the dimensions of the space we consider them to inhabit. The same is true of left and right hand: in a yet unimaginable space a left hand could be manipulated into a right hand.
This is one possibility of bringing in new dimensions.
There are others, some that we don’t suspect a priori.
The notion challenged today is at evidence TIME.
Einstein started the challenge, first by revealing its subject. He developed a theory supposed to explain the world in its entireness. However ambitious the theory was, it still relies on a great central mystery, as do all theories, here: the constancy of light’s relative speed. Recent experiments have been made that contradict this idea, showing that the speed of light can be altered in specific conditions.
Nevertheless, at the basis of Einstein’s theory is the idea that there is no single, universal passage of time. Rather the flow of time depends on speeds. For example faster speeds mean longer hours. But the most interesting deduction from this theory is that each body moving through space experiences the flow of time at a different rate.
Concerning the notion of object, two interpretations follow the theory.
The majority interpretation states that distances and durations do not exist as real properties of individual objects.
The minority interpretation considers that distances and durations do exist and vary with speed through the Ether. They are real but variable properties of individual objects.
In any case, the General Theory of Relativity has definitely brought the idea that our world does not consist of persistent objects. The first interpretation explains it by proposing that there are simply not such things as persistent objects. Instead the basic ‘objects’ are events. And these are fixed at a particular time and place.
Here a distinction has to be made between persistence and endurance. An object moving through time from one moment to the next persists. A sequence of events, distinct but implying similar actors, that creates the illusion of persistence is called an enduring object. This is how, in the context defined by this conception of the world, can be brought the idea of an object. Events are part of the enduring object, which is itself just a long-lasting event.
Let us consider as an example that we do not perceive motion. A doubt then arises. We see an object at one place and have a memory of a similar object at another place; the present visual image and the memory of the previous one together produce an impression of motion. They produce the definition of motion. Nevertheless the very existence of the memory is a fact about the present, and not itself direct evidence of true motion. Pursuing with such a conception of the world, there cannot be direct evidence for motions and changes that would stretch through many moments. All experiences occur at a moment in time.
The great mystery of this theory would be the similarity of events that follow one another, without any physical explanation. But again, this similarity is perhaps due only to the sense we give, and are so used to giving, to what happens around us.
Those theories, as fascinating as they can be as though experiments, strongly take another dimension when they have physical implications, when they become productive, when they manage to challenge and manipulate what is there.
What are today the transformations in the architectural discipline? If not yet theoretical, let us consider the technological ones.
A recent revolution has to be mentioned: the introduction of the programming language as a design interface (with the belief that it actually transcends the interface). The impressive emergence and establishment of the use of the scripting practice is also found in many other disciplines, running from biology to economy. This fact is not innocent and may be of real importance.
The fanciful use of a justified language, a language that would be only about the necessary cause-effect relations, a language of which science is itself the justification, is surely and broadly taking shape.
Scripting is fascinating in the way it deals with the mistake. It brings (back) and imposes the ideal of The Right Word. As if words could capture reality; and as if they were an untouchable and venerated productive data. The desire hidden in scripting seems to be an ultimate escape from the human language we presently use. It is in this view a belief in a purer version of language; a language cleaned from all its uncertainties, from its inability to reach what we think is the Real. Ultimately, scripting would love to think of itself as not being a language, with its luggage of negotiation and imprecision.
It would be a language ideally reduced to pure functionality.
The idea of function as the essential driving force in architecture is thought to have been outstripped; it instead has moved from the form, the product, to the processes leading to it. It is not the object itself that has to be deduced from its function, it is its reason to be. The function has moved from establishing the effect to establishing the cause. Creating by scripting indeed naturally conduces to question and justify one object’s existence.
And yet, scripting, as a fantastic newborn illusion, will soon endure poetry and corruption. This would however be another topic of discussion, and is not really our subject here.
Parallel to this somehow semantic shift, the emerging technologies linked to it challenge in practice our conception of Time. They develop a new way to experience Time, to represent Time, if not yet to modify Time.
We will soon have the same problem with the word Time as we have today with the word Space.
There is no place without a time, and no time without a place. By considering the world as a series of events, and therefore by creating the world as a series of events, the scripting tool enables the designer to go through time, modify one event, and the chain of implications linked to it. It is no longer necessary to consider their relation with a time factor. Actually one might say that it is totally irrelevant. What, then, is the nature of this link? If we remove the idea that cause and effect are time-based, what stands at the basis of this relationship? Is it the very nature of the object, and its non-existence as one entity but as a collection of states? In this perspective, and still by considering that there are objects, one state of an object might be related to another state of another object, which in turn is also related to another state of another object etc., and those relations are independent from the idea of Time.
What then starts the chain? Can we say that it is actually started? Is it still relevant to have the element time (the idea of the flow, of the succession) between events?
All this leads to a product that can be thought as being merely an instant, a collection of instants, an ever-present object. Its parts are operating at the same moment, if we may talk in these terms, and assure altogether its existence. We one is modified, it is the entire nature of the object, its substance, which is modified. We can foresee here that the idea of an object as we conceived it until recently does not make sense any more.
There would be no endurance of an object, but the persistence of a state (or the sequence of similar states), as a collection of interrelations. There is no reason to think about an entity any more.
Until recently this possibility remained inside the computer, occurring solely during the design process. It is now for good going out of the computer.
Practically, the incredible development of robotics plays every day a more important role in our environment. The researches are apparently aiming at an as direct as possible relation between the conception tools and the building tools, between the reason to exist and the existence. These time-based manipulations are taking shape in what we are used to calling ‘real-time’ (there is obviously not such thing as the ‘real-time’!). These technologies are about to drastically challenge the basis of our present environment, as well as our relation to it.
The way scripting is still generally used today retains the idea of a final product to be built. It is however not any more about stopping the design process but very much about freezing the ever-present machine in one state, in order to allow it to become an object.
And what if there was no gap between the design and the construction? Not only in terms of delay but in terms of process. What if they were both not aiming at a final state?
To be perfectly clear, we are not saying here that this final state has ever existed, but that the belief in – the idea of – it certainly did. We had in our minds the idea that a building existed as an entity, although it was absolutely impossible to experience.
But if the existence of a place at a certain time can only defined by a personal occupation of this very place at this very time, and if, in a very literal manner, the built environment is able to respond to this occupation, to react to it, then this idea vanishes.
And architecture today seems to have taken that route.
How to build a time machine? Paul Davies 2001
Space, Time and Einstein J.B. Kennedy 2003
Living by fiction Annie Dillard 1982