CREATING AN ORGANISMIC METAPHYSICS OF QUALITY
by John Beasley
My intention is to survey a number of the key strands in the thinking of Robert M Pirsig from the perspective of the organism, a perspective that allows bridging between the ideas of a metaphysics, the encounter with different levels of experience, and, crucially, the ability to encounter dynamic quality within unmediated experience. The outcome will hopefully be a more limited but more coherent metaphysics, with some innovations that may diminish some of the confusions inherent in Pirsig's thought.
First, it is no criticism of the statements that go to make up a metaphysics that they are themselves somewhat static and intellectual. This goes with the territory, though the fact that the MOQ posits the primacy of quality does mean that we can seek to build references back to pre-intellectual dynamic quality as best we can, realising that this too is done with more words and is inevitably somewhat static. The best we can hope for is to construct some useful fingers pointing to the moon. I shall argue that in saying that "Quality is the primary empirical reality of the world", Pirsig implies by his use of the word empirical that the test of our experience is indeed fundamental to forming judgements, and will use this as a basis for asssessing the major strands of his own thought in developing a metaphysics of quality. In doing this I shall attempt to show that while a number of these strands are consistent with this stance, some seem arbitrary or mistaken.
It would be helpful to find some bridging structure to provide linkages between the world of ideas and the immediacy of perception. The 'self' has in the past been used in this way. This seems inappropriate given the sometimes focal role of the self in subject/object metaphysics, and given Pirsig's own rejection of any substance to self over and above rather abstact "patterns of patterns", so a more neutral bridge is called for. I intend to use the 'organism' as the bridge, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, as a biological entity, the word organism brings up connotations of an ongoing unity within a constantly changing flux. Any organism is changing from moment to moment, yet through maintenance of its boundaries, and its ability to choose holistically, it retains an identity while it lives. The relationship between an organism and its environment need not carry the metaphysical baggage of a subject within an objective world. Secondly, while acknowledging that an 'organism' is ultimately an intellectual construct, and tied to our Western scientific world view, it seems characteristic of all human societies to respond to organisms as individuals. Religious rituals surrounding death make this fascination with the integrity of the organism quite plain. Thirdly, within evolutionary thinking the term organism is one of a few key organizing terms. The powerful explanatory value of the evolutionary world view has influenced not only Pirsig, but much of our experience is made intellectually comprehensible by viewing it in terms of facilitating our survival as organisms.
Having said all this, I am aware that this is only one way to explore the territory Pirsig has mapped, and from a limited perspective. However, as a human organism I have access to all static levels as well as to dynamic experience. It is this ability to move around the space that Pirsig explores that makes this vantage point so useful. Pirsig himself acknowledges this when he says "societies and thoughts and principles themselves are no more than sets of static patterns. These patterns can't by themselves perceive or adjust to Dynamic Quality. Only a living being can do that." (Lila Ch 13).
I have chosen a number of brief quotations from Lila which seem to me to encapsulate the key components of the metaphysics of quality as spelled out by Pirsig. Generally I then try to test them empirically against my experience as an organism, or if this is not possible, challenge the necessity of the statement. Often I re-phrase the statement to fit more precisely the organismic parameters I have chosen to operate within, and I will return to these statements later.
STRAND 1 "Quality is the primary empirical reality of the world" (Lila Ch 5) While this seems to be essentially an assertion, the word empirical implies that it is to be supported by my experience. Pirsig's example of the hot stove demonstrates an organismic reaction to quality, in the case of this example a low quality experience. What needs to be added to the core statement to remove any possible ambiguity, then, is something of the nature of "Organisms experience quality (both positive and negative) as the primary empirical reality of their world." As an organism, I can then test this statement against my experience, and hopefully this 'reality' would also be supported by Poincare's small child. It seems to me that some form of statement of this type is essential for the MOQ, yet by refining it as I have, it is saying rather less than the original bold assertion. Yet critically, what it now is saying is testable, whereas the more abstract statement from Pirsig is not.
STRAND 2 "Quality is morality" "They're identical" "The world is primarily a moral order" (Lila Ch 7). The problem here is how to understand the terms morality and value (another term Pirsig equates with Quality), especially as they are applied to inorganic substance, or to artistic and intellectual judgements. With reference to organisms, we could rephrase this to read something like "Organisms experience quality as having either a positive or negative valence, insofar as the experience alerts the organism to potential help or harm in its environment."
To say bluntly that "Quality is morality" seems a nonsense to me, at least in the generally understood meanings of these terms. The Nazis despised degenerate modern art. That was a moral judgement, and based on quite different criteria than an assessment of the artistic quality of the works in question. In Pirsig's terms, the values that hold a society together deserve the term moralâ (he hints at this when he uses the term "conventional morals" to describe the codes that establish the supremacy of the social order over biological life), while quality encompasses quite different values when applied to the realm of art, for example. In my work as a sculptor, I can readily distinguish between the artistic quality and the moral value of my work, despite the fact that both forms of quality are easier to know than to define.
Pirsig is not unaware of this criticism. Indeed in Lila, Ch 12, he says "... value. The word is too vague... Therefore to say that the world is nothing but value is just confusing, not clarifying." He then goes on to sort values according to the level of evolution they represent. "The value that holds a glass of water together is an inorganic pattern of value..." and so on. In my view he has not improved the situation. Just what an 'inorganic pattern of value' might mean eludes me. Cut out the word value altogether in this context and it reads better. The above could be rephrased as "What holds a glass of water together is an inorganic pattern." It may be a bit trivial, but adding in value doesn't improve that. The whole effort seems driven by a desire to have 'value' as a universal term, while then admitting that the values of each level "are completely different from each other."
He concludes this unsatisfactory explanation with the following important statement "These patterns have nothing in common except the historic evolutionary process that created all of them. But that process is a process of value evolution. Therefore the name 'static pattern of values' aplies to all. That's one puzzle cleared up." (Lila Ch 12)
Not so fast. While evolution is an important component of Pirsig's thought, he has not justified the core statement that the evolutionary process "is a process of value evolution". What he has done is examine the 'survival of the fittest' strand in evolutionary thought and he makes quite a good case for fitness being a 'value' term. But again, this works at the biological level of the organism, or the species; possibly even at the cellular level. It takes a giant leap of faith to apply this with any coherence to inorganic patterns, and yet this is precisely what is required. What we have is a form of words which papers over the huge gaps between patterns with nothing in common by assuming a universal process of 'value evolution'. A teleology, perhaps, if the definition of teleology can stretch to encompass a direction for life away from mechanistic patterns. How this can be supported with evidence that relates to our immediate awareness of quality eludes me. It is an isolated metaphysical construct. Indeed, it is essentially a statement of faith, and resembles so many of the classic references to God in religious discourse that it would perhaps be fair to label this theology. Pirsig's use of capitals for Quality and Dynamic Quality throughout his writing serves to support this view.
STRAND 3 "A thing that has no value does not exist" or "The Value has created the thing" (Lila Ch 8). This is an important insight, but difficult to test in terms of experience as by definition what is without value will not be experienced. Again there is a way of understanding such assertions from the perspective of organisms, but by doing so the sweep of the original statements is greatly reduced. The organismic statement would run somewhat as follows "Organisms encounter the world through experiences of positive and negative value, and what does not have value for them is not experienced, hence is not encountered."
When Pirsig says "a thing that has no value does not exist", he is overstating his case. At a fundamental level all language can be seen as carrying static value. Most words only form from experiences of value. According to his logic, if there was no value for me in a word, it would not become part of my vocabulary. However some words seem clearly functional without value - the word the will do as an example. The fills a grammatical role in language, but as a word it is empty of content and equally empty of value. You might argue it has a grammatical or syntactical value, but this is to apply a different standard. The value Pirsig implies is the primary value arising out of dynamic experience. To now move in the reverse direction, is it not at least possible that there may be some 'things' which we do experience as existing, but function like the word 'the' as a component of our ordering of experience, without value? If so, it seems a fundamental statement of Pirsig's metaphysics is flawed. To me it seems the word "the" is itself sufficient refutation. It may well be that a whole class of mathematical and logical terms, for example, are of this type. Or can you explain for me how I might distinguish the values of seventeen and eighteen respectively?
So while most experience for most organisms includes positive or negative value, and without this value nothing will be experienced, in human beings with a capacity for language and logic there appear to be words and ideas which are experiencable but function to facilitate other processes and are themselves value free. Pirsig's assertion in this strand is generally correct when appplied to most organisms; but is capable of being overturned at the intellectual level and so is incorrect as a metaphysical assertion.
STRAND 4 "Dynamic quality is the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality." "Static quality ... always contains a component of memory." Pirsig saw this division into dynamic and static as fundamental to his metaphysics, yet it lacks clarity. In this polarity he seems to be addressing the question of how dynamic experiences of quality are preserved or integrated into the ongoing lives of organisms. Both the wording above, with its references to 'pre-intellectual' and 'memory', and the examples used to flesh out this distinction (the tune on the radio, the heart attack victim) are closely tied to higher organisms. To explicate this, I would suggest something like "Organisms encounter dynamic quality in direct experience, both positive and negative, and have the ability to retain traces of this quality experience through memory, which is static." But as the example of the tune on the radio makes clear, there is in fact no sharp division beween dynamic and static, but rather a continuum. The dynamic element is still present to some extent even as the song is becoming defined as 'good' in a static sense. It may still be possible to catch a small element of the dynamic surprise after dozens of playings.
Working as a sculptor, I have a different experience. After weeks of close attention to the piece I am producing, I usually have almost no sense of the quality of the finished piece. I have been too close to it for too long. But a few weeks later I may quite unexpectedly catch a glimpse of the finshed sculpture, out of the corner of my eye, as it were, and suddenly I am aware that the quality I sought is present. Or perhaps not. But then the process Pirsig points to gets under way - while I may enjoy many glimpses of the work over an extended period of time, the dynamic element slowly fades and is replaced with the static. I add this example to demonstrate that the dynamic-static progression is not necessarily straightforward.
The whole question of dynamic and static forms of quality seems more complex than Pirsig's treatment of it allows. The dynamic encompasses an element of encounter, and in organismic terms this encounter is the way in which an organism both becomes aware of its environment, and in a sense differentiates itself from the environment. Dynamic encounter is new, yet the organism somehow takes from this unique encounter patterns consistent with its prior history in order to make sense of the experience. Pirsig somewhere explains how the baby creates a thing from the initial confusion of experience, and yet this is the same dynamic that is constantly recurring as organisms encounter the new through the experience of dynamic quality. The meaning that the organism reads into the unique encounter is itself a static product, yet this static product may then in turn become a dynamic input for another organism encountering it as an idea or statement. Or the static idea can be transformed by its relationship to another static statement or idea into a dynamic experience that we call thinking. Which is why writing a metaphysics is both degenerate and one of the more dynamic possibilities in life.
STRAND 5 "All life is a migration of static patterns of quality toward Dynamic Quality" (Lila Ch 11) Pirsig plants this theory firmly in an evolutionary context of why the fittest survive. He goes on to say "Natural Selection is Dynamic Quality at work." We have already explored some of the problems with accepting "a process of value evolution" as any more than a metaphysical assertion. And in the previous section we saw how dynamic quality tends to fade into static quality. On the face of it these statements of Pirsig's seem contradictory. The problem is with the migration ... towardâ in the statement above. It suggests a teleology, though of an obtuse kind, "away from mechanistic patterns", as Pirsig puts it, rather than towards any definable goal. It might be better rephrased as "All life evolves through the impact of dynamic quality upon patterns of static quality carried within organisms". Such a formulation allows for dynamic input into otherwise stable systems, and fits comfortably within the evolutionary world-view, without the provocation of an external value system to drive it.
Here the value of the organism as a bridging structure becomes apparent. The organism is on the one side the outcome of previous patterning, hence constrained by the static limitations of such conditioning. Yet the same organism is open to dynamic input, and it is precisely this ability to respond to changing conditions which is the fuel of evolutionary change. There is also a useful analogy with mental health here, in that the healthy individual maintains sufficient static patterning to provide stability and continuity, while remaining open to dynamic novelty, and hence able to adjust to changing conditions. As Pirsig says at the end of this chapter, "Without Dynamic Quality the organism cannot grow. Without static quality the organism cannot last. Both are needed."
STRAND 6 "Static patterns of value are divided into four systems: inorganic patterns, biological patterns, social patterns and intellectual patterns. They are exhaustive ... Only Dynamic Quality ... is absent." (Lila, Ch 12). Pirsig goes on to assert that "they are not continuous. They are discrete ... The higher level can often be seen in opposition to the lower level, dominating it, controlling it where possible for its own purposes." This strand is closely associated with a value hierarchy within the systems, hence
STRAND 7 "Intellect is a higher level of evolution than society; therefore, it is a more moral level than a society. It is better for an idea to destroy a sociaty than itis for a society to destroy an idea." (Lila Ch 22) Closely associated with this is
STRAND 8 "The static patterns that hold one level of organization together are often the same patterns that another level of organization must fight to maintain its own existence. Morality is not a simple set of rules. It's a very complex struggle of conflicting patterns of values. This conflict is the residue of evolution." (Lila Ch 13)
We have already found difficulty with the assumption that the the different kinds of values associated with each level are part of some "process of value evolution". However the question of the existence of the four systems or levels remains an open one. The proposition is at least plausible, and it seems to me that the test of experience does tend to confirm it. That is, I, as an organism that functions within all four levels, frequently experience conflicts which may be seen to arise from the mutual antagonisms of the different systems, and these conflicts frequently appear intractable (there appear to be no win/win solutions).
But even if this is so, it does not necessarily follow that the four systems are rigidly hierarchic. Is it always the case that social values, for example, over-ride biological values? Or is it rather that biological values form part of the field in which social values arise, and the biological values are encountered as constraints, limiting and shaping the options available to the emerging social value system? In this more subtle statement, there may be direct conflict between biological and social values, but there is likely to be quite a bit of mutual adjustment as well. Indeed, this seems likely, given that the complete overturn of biological values by the social is likely to result in the elimination of the organism. Jonestown is an example of such a situation, where the society became self destructive, but obviously such social systems destroy their own bases for survival. So although there may be some basis for asserting that since systems arising in the higher levels manage lower level systems, they therefore dominate the lower level systems, such domination need not be totally oppositional. Nor will every emerging social value be equally above the lower level biological values. It is to be expected that the lower level values will form an important part of the environment which will select which higher level emergents will survive. It may well be that the lower level values will at times appropriately overturn some higher level emergents.
The strength of Pirsig's idea of the four discrete levels of valueâ is felt in our experiences of conflict between levels. However the assertion that the levels form a hierarchy in which the values that emerge at a higher level must dominate all values of the lower levels seems over-zealous, and leads to the sort of contradictions that Pirsig notes but seems unable to explain. ("Getting drunk and picking up bar-ladies and writing metaphysics is a part of life", he says in Ch 5, as though that somehow sorts things out.) It also leads him to subscribe to a ruthlessness which can become quite chilling. ("Intellectuals must ... limit or destroy destructive biological patterns with complete moral ruthlessness, the way a doctor destroys germs..." Lila, Ch 24.) Human intellect has been capable of any imaginable cruelty in the past, and to pretend that the intellect has the right to define any chosen lower level pattern as destructive and then squash it is really rather naive. In his attempt to find an equivalence between quality and morality, Pirsig's attempt to read a moral hierarchy into the four levels almost invites the horror of the intellect in total control, and convincing itself that its choices are not arbitrary but moral. And Pirsig himself seems unable to help in assessing which of the creations of intellect are the high quality ones we should be supporting, and which are mistaken, regressive, or just bad. At the end of the day, it it is hard to see how helpful this assertion of the moral hierarchy really is.
Strand 8 is carefully worded to avoid this hierarchical assumption. One of the simple rules that deserves to be abandoned is the assumption that the evolving codes are always superior to the already evolved codes that are present in their environmental field. Pirsig is more modest when he states that tracing the evolutionary causes of value quarrels can "sometimes" provide a rational solution to the quarrel. He later spends considerable time analysing the emergence of the intellectual dominance over social values during this century, ending with a plea that the values of the Victorian era not be abandoned without a fair and impartial re-examination (Lila Ch 24). Then in the next sentence he re-asserts that "when a society undermines intellectual freedom for its own purposes it is absolutely morally bad, but when it represses biological freedom for its own purposes it is absolutely morally good". It wonât wash. His whole argument up to this point has been to the effect that the emerging intellectual order has lost its way and led to "a secret loneliness, so penetrating and so encompassing that we are only beginning to realize the extent of it." The assertions of strand 7 are dogma, and best abandoned. What is required is a proper valuing of the moral imperatives of each level, which while recognizing the often contradictory nature of this evolutionary process, can allow for fair and impartial examination of the outcomes at each level. What is missing is the appreciation that biology and society have a value, irrespective of the current intellectual consensus, and those values must be involved in any assessment of a higher level intellectual development. Pirsig seems aware of this lack, tries to resolve it, then reverts to the dogma that causes the problem.
STRAND 9 "The Metaphysics of Quality identifies religious mysticism with Dynamic Quality ... the mystic has abandoned all static patterns in favor of pure Dynamic Quality." (Lila, Ch 30) Having said that Dynamic Quality is indefinable, Pirsig regularly attempts the impossible. Indeed, one of the problems with his descriptions of dynamic quality is the range of terms he equates with quality or dynamic quality. Probably these are various fingers pointing to the moon of Quality, but unfortunately the language of their presentation is generally quite dogmatic and uncompromising, as the assertion above is.
I have in another article ("Quality and Intelligence", available in the LS Forum) argued that there are varieties of quality associated with the biological, social and intellectual levels, and that the mystic puts his trust in quality at the biological level. This is in organismic terms the most immediate form of experience, unmediated by intelligence or social factors, and linked very closely to survival. Recognition of the the quality of a work of art, in contrast, is heavily dependant upon personal and cultural training which can be extremely elitist, and generally has much less survival value. It seems clear to me that Pirsig approaches this issue a number of times but is so keen to maintain the elemental purity of Quality as the basis of his metaphysics that he invariably turns off at a tangent and evades the issue. It is one of the major flaws in his thought; and the purity of the final metaphysics is phony because he has avoided the range of meanings of quality that he has tried to subsume in an overly simple formula.
I will not go into detail in attempting to analyse the mystic experience here. [Read U.G. Krishnamurti for a powerful view of the mystic experience from the inside, or Aubrey Menen, The New Mystics (1974) for a clear overview of mysticism in the Hindu tradition, extending to the present day.] What Pirsig has done is to confuse the value of immediate experience in which the dynamic is encountered, which he fails to see is at the biological level, with the broader types of quality which are encountered at the social and intellectual/artistic levels. He then wriggles on a hook of his own making, trying to assert that intellectual quality is superior to social and biological quality, yet recognizing that the intellect is a static form of quality because it is always removed from the immediacy of experience. In my view, it is only a clarification of the varieties of quality expereinced at these three levels that can resolve this dilemma. This will also serve to remedy the false message of Strand 7 above, and by avoiding the inorganic altogether, remove the need for a messianic tone which asserts without evidence, or seemingly any chance of proof or disproof, that the physical world is constructed from the same quality that applies to living organisms.
AN ORGANISMIC METAPHYSICS OF QUALITY
To conclude, I wish to pull together those statements which I have derived from Pirsig's core statements but expressed in terms of how they apply in the world of living organisms. While the world no doubt exists in some form outside of ourselves as organisms, all our models are the creations of our intellects, embedded in the mythos of our society, and as Pirsig clearly acknowledges, are constructs that follow from dynamic experience, but can never encompass it. Accordingly, it seems unimportant that the MOQ fits the Copenhagen convention, for example, since that is to tie it to the current orthodoxy in physics, and we do not know how much the language used to describe the very strange outcomes of physics can be stretched to accommodate other dimensions of reality. Where the metaphysics of quality stands or falls is in its adequacy to interpret the world to organisms which move within biological, social and intellectual/artistic worlds, and directly encounter dynamic quality through unmediated experience. The statements I have produced I believe are well anchored within that world, a world that encompasses the products of intelligence, while constantly dialoguing with the dynamic other as encountered in experience. No system of metaphysics is complete and unambiguous - all I can hope is that there is more consistency within the norrowed bounds I have adopted.
So what are these key statements of an organismic metaphysics?
A. "Organisms experience quality (both positive and negative) as the primary empirical reality of their world."
B. "Organisms experience quality as having either a positive or negative valence, insofar as the experience alerts the organism to potential help or harm in its environment."
C. "Most organisms encounter the world through experiences of positive and negative value, and what does not have value for them is not experienced, hence is not encountered."
D. "In human beings with a capacity for language and logic there appear to be words and ideas which are able to be experienced but which function to facilitate other processes and are themselves value free. So far as we know, only human beings can experience what is without immediate value to them."
E. "Organisms encounter dynamic quality in direct experience, both positive and negative, and have the ability to retain traces of this quality experience through memory, which is static."
F. "All life evolves through the impact of dynamic quality upon patterns of static quality carried within organisms".
G. "The static patterns of value within organisms are divided into three systems: biological patterns, social patterns and intellectual patterns. Dynamic Quality is encountered at each level, but the character of that quality changes from level to level."
H. "The static patterns that hold one level of organization together are often the same patterns that another level of organization must fight to maintain its own existence. Morality is not a simple set of rules. It's a very complex struggle of conflicting patterns of values. This conflict is the residue of evolution."
I. "Mysticism is the abandonment of static patterns by people and is made possible by focussing on dynamic biological experience."
J. "Human life contains the potential for balancing static patterns of quality preserved in memory with openness to dynamic experiences of quality experienced at the biological, social and intellectual/artistic levels. It is likely that a fluctuating balance of these possibilities provides the basis for an optimum life that is able to incorporate the maximum dynamism from all three levels into those static patterns which provide stability and continuity."
The ten points above are not necessarily a complete statement of a metaphysics, and point I. is more in the nature of an aside, in response to Pirsig, than a central tenet of an organismic metaphysics. The nature of the intellectual/artistic level needs more work. I suspect that there will be more than these two styles of dynamic encounter at this level. I am using this rather clumsy structure to indicate my dissatisfaction with the intellectual as somehow the highest level of static quality. The static/dynamic divide also needs more work. However, I find the general outline of a biological metaphysics of quality emerges with some clarity from this exercise. Obviously points D, G, I and J are very much my creation, while the others are at least based upon Pirsig's ideas. However I include them all as a pointer to the way this metaphysics might be developed.