QUALITY WITH A HUMAN FACE
by John Beasley
Metaphysics can be viewed as the attempt to define what is real. Yet any conceivable basis for this attempt can be attacked as itself unreliable, partial or biased. Just as Godel showed that there can be in principle no unassailable mathematical system, so generations of philosophers have undermined any naive consensus for a value neutral basis for understanding what is. In recent times science has come closest to offering the illusion of such understanding, but the twentieth century romance with science seems to have done little to advance wisdom. If there is a way forward for human understanding, though, it will need to take account of the real, if limited, achievements of science; achievements which balance abstract and analytical thinking against messy practical experimentation. In this essay I intend to range over some of the territory of metaphysics, and in particular to critique the work of Robert M. Pirsig, whose thought offers a partial alternative to much of what is on offer in current academic disciplines.
A metaphysics is a human artifact. When Robert M. Pirsig wrote 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (ZMM) he established the fundamental significance of what he termed quality in speaking about a range of issues of crucial importance to human beings. In particular, he attacked the false dichotomies that arise from what he saw as the dominant subject/object metaphysical world view, and showed that establishing quality as the primary 'stuff' of the universe, as we encounter it in experience, can resolve many of the difficulties that spring from the subject/object model. Of most significance, he was able to locate value in a central place in his new paradigm, offering an escape from the increasingly sterile debate about the place of values in a world dominated by the supposedly 'value-free' ethos of science.
With his second novel, 'Lila', Pirsig reformulated his earlier thinking about quality to create a structured metaphysics. He postulates that quality is encountered in two forms: dynamic quality, able to be encountered in experience, but necessarily indefinable since definition draws upon the past, and the past can never adequately encompass the potential in each new moment; and static quality, the residue of experiences of the dynamic which is preserved in memory and language, and which can be further categorised into four discrete levels. These four levels, the inorganic, biological, social and intellectual, can accommodate everything in human experience except dynamic quality itself.
Pirsig's metaphysics of quality has been generally ignored or treated with contempt by professional philosophers. At the same time, it has struck a chord with many people who are searching for an intellectually credible way of understanding our existence that can encompass values as well as 'facts'. By postulating that each level of static values is an advance on the level beneath, he also suggests a potential meta-ethics which might provide guidance in situations where the value systems of the varied levels clash. Indeed, in his understanding, such clashes are inevitable since the emergence of a new level, seen as occurring within an evolutionary process, invariably sets up a conflict between the newly emerging higher values and the static hierarchy of values that has previously been dominant. He views the history of the twentieth century as the struggle for control of social values, which dominated the world of the Victorians, by the emerging intellectual values which guide thinkers, planners and specialists of all types. He also vaguely acknowledges the values of art, though it is not clear how they fit with the values of ideas, which appeal to him as an intellectual.
Like all attempts at metaphysics, the metaphysics of quality has its strengths and weaknesses. It does offer a subtle and convincing understanding of just what it is that we can be said to know, similar in broad outline to that developed by William James. It avoids the narcissism which has destroyed traditional concepts of meaning in late structuralism (the deconstructionists) and offers, in Edward Pols apt phrase, "a restorative access to reality". Yet Pirsig is surprisingly dismissive of people, focussing on the "patterns of patterns" which in his view make a nonsense of the 'self'. As a result, there is a strong sense of isolation and loneliness in his books, together with a somewhat stifled appeal to mystic values. He has great trouble explaining just how his metaphysics will actually make a difference to people, particularly when it comes to discriminating those ideas with 'quality' from the dross. Perhaps inevitably, his ideas seem to appeal to intellectuals and those who relish systems and structures; yet they seem equally attractive to those of a mystic bent. Unfortunately, this broad appeal is based on an understanding of "Quality" (Pirsig almost always uses capitals for this term) which seems to mean all things to all men. It would be possible to insert the word "God" in the place of "Quality" in many of his statements without significantly altering the meaning. This is a pity as he has explored enough of the terrain of quality to recognise the real strength of the term, and he has experienced enough to know that we do not require another theological system.
Briefly, his failure has been twofold. First, he loses the value of his core term, 'quality', by equating it with too many other terms, and ultimately reifying it; while at the same time asserting that quality cannot be defined, and ignoring the resulting paradox. Secondly, and more importantly, he subtly devalues people by focussing on patterns of patterns of value, in which people become the necessary carriers of information in an evolutionary process, rather than holistic agents with the potential for contact and encounter.
LANGUAGE AND INTELLIGENCE
Before exploring what might be done to correct these faults, it is necessary to explore the location of our metaphysics. I began by saying a metaphysics is a human artifact. It is an intellectual construct, an attempt to put in words our best understanding of how things are. As Pirsig himself was acutely aware, insofar as he adopts a mystic standpoint, a metaphysics is an offence, given it is an attempt to explore dynamic reality with static tools. It seemingly cannot be done. But this is to ignore the structure of intelligence, which as the physicist David Bohm reminds us in a conversation with Krishnamurti, means quite literally 'to read between the lines'. In Zen terms, a metaphysics is 'a finger pointing at the moon'. If we focus too narrowly on the words, the terms, the definitions, we miss the moon. But if no-one points, we may also miss the moon. It is a fact of our experience that at some point in an explanation of something new, the penny drops, and we, like Archimedes, can suddenly exclaim "Eureka, I have it". The 'Aha' experience! This is intelligence, as it is encountered in experience.
And this is why Pirsig is so wrong when he states that quality cannot be defined. Certainly, definition in dictionary terms cannot encompass the encountered reality of dynamic quality. But we have all experienced such encounter, and the words need not be a straightjacket which limit and constrict the reality; rather, they must become the finger that points, and then, Aha, we see it. Yes, there is a valid point that Pirsig wants to make, that any new encounter may be different in quality from any previous experience we have encountered. But this is simply a proviso, something we bear in mind, and we know that this is true of our experience of new things in the past. It simply does not prevent us using language to explore, to point to something other than the words we use. Indeed, all language is just this, a coded metaphor for something else. If we reflect on how a language grows, or how we as children learnt a dozen or so new words each day for years on end, we face this mystery afresh. And without intelligence, we could never move forward: new words could not be invented, new words learnt. But we do learn, we do make sense of the new term, as intelligence reads between the lines and connection, even contact, occurs. At a physiological level we may speak of traces programmed in our brains, perhaps through some form of self sustaining feedback loops, and we rightly regard memory as a diminished residue of what was in the experiencing a vital event. But this mechanical device is only the hardware that makes possible the miracle of intelligent comprehension. We must not mistake the floppy disc for the novel, with its plot and characterization, that is inscribed there.
Much more could be said about language, its subtleties and the self recursive nature of talking about talking, but ultimately this is irrelevant to our issues in constructing a metaphysics. If our language is 'good enough', then it can trigger the intelligent comprehension of another person, and we do not not require more. Intelligence makes the connection between our words about experience and an intuitive comprehension. This in itself is an encounter with one species of what Pirsig calls quality, and so is directly accessed by us. The encounter with meaning is just as real as the encounter with a hot stove, though in a different realm.
THE REALMS OF ENCOUNTER
And it is those different realms we need now to discuss. Pirsig talks about the inorganic, biological, social and intellectual realms, each with its own system of values, often in conflict with the values of the realm above or below. This is helpful as far as it goes, but we need to reflect more on the human dimension of this arrangement. Intellectual and artistic realms seem predominantly confined to the human species, while the social realm is encountered in a broader group which certainly includes our primate relatives. The biological realm by definition encompasses all living things.
We alone appear to have the consciousness that allows us awareness of self, and the ability to plan for a future fantasised from the remembered experience of the past. And, yes, only humans construct metaphysics, so far as we know. Consciousness of our 'selves' also gives rise to the particular anguish and poignancy of human suffering - animals experience the suffering of what is, while for humans the greatest suffering seems often to arise from what could have been. And lest it be assumed that such suffering is 'merely' emotional, consider the strange fact that the pain we feel in attempting to hold our arms above our heads for a long period disappears under hypnosis. Fatigue is at least in part a creation of consciousness.
Pirsig introduces these realms in the context of evolutionary theory, which in his hands risks becoming a sort of scientism; a teleology at times. Evolution has become the strongest explanatory myth of our culture, and this is in part because it appeals to our intelligence. But it also appeals because it shares the values of the mythos we inhabit, and ultimately it is a conceptual scheme for making sense of the world of experience, much like a metaphysics. It is a useful myth, provided we do not lose sight of its limitations.
I want to propose an alternative, person centred way of viewing these realms. I think it was Darwin who explained that in exploring the natural world, we must perforce start from the middle, the realm of our habitation, which is the natural world seen at the human scale. This, it seems to me, is a necessary truth, consistent with Pirsig's subtle understanding of what and how we know. We do not have any privileged access to the universe. In evolutionary terms, we are creatures whose senses have evolved in response to our situation. Our senses are value laden from the beginning. They provide us with information that increases our chances of survival and reproduction, but we have no way of knowing objectively what 'is'. All that is necessary is that our senses, and the nervous system that links and coordinates them, provide input which minimises our risks of harm and maximises our opportunities for help, in the environment we inhabit. If our evolutionary understanding is somewhere near correct, our survival as a species is dependant upon a good fit between our perception, as organisms, and what 'is'.
We are so used to the scientific explanation of this environment and its functioning that we tend to take for granted that this scientific model of the world is somehow real. One of the great virtues of Pirsig's view of the world is that he neither denies nor worships the scientific understanding of a world 'out there' that functions according to laws we seem increasingly to comprehend. What he makes clear is that all this understanding is second-order, static knowledge. Our primary experience, the bedrock for all the superstructure of knowledge that becomes our mythos; this primary experience is an encounter, a value laden encounter, dynamic when it is in the moment. It becomes static when it is preserved in memory. However, just to complicate things, our memories are routinely projected as fantasy into the maelstrom of encounter, in such a way that what is derived from our past experience, and what is objectively present, are indistinguishable in the moment.
We do not and cannot 'know' what is in our world with any objectivity. Even science, the nearest thing we have to 'value-free' knowledge, performs a strange oscillation between intuitive theorising and pragmatic experimentation. Each keeps the other on the rails, and the results seem to indicate that the process has been remarkably successful, yet there is actually only a tension that is surely in the realm of values and intelligence that indicates when it is appropriate to jump from one modality to the other. Paradigm shifts are rarely obvious at the time they occur, and the best scientists have made stupendous errors. It seems unlikely that there will ever come a time when there can be only one view of reality. There are a multiplicity of competing views on almost any facet of 'knowledge', with more invented daily. Some will be effectively disproved by their incompatibility with the tests of experiment, but even the most successful are merely our best current knowledge, and a new paradigm is always possible. There is also the very real likelihood that our minds, wondrous though they are, are simply inadequate to comprehend what is beyond a horizon which is defined by their sophistication.
So human experience is embedded in a world which we can usefully assume exists independant of us, though it is not possible to prove this. The realms Pirsig postulates are
supposed to encompass all our categories of experience, other than the dynamic encounter itself. However I would rather examine these realms, from the human perspective, as nested or interpenetrating 'universes', each utterly unpredictable in terms of the substrate on which they are built. Each level is a new revelation. Pirsig acknowledges that each level carries a new set of values, which re-order and often clash with the values of the level below. What he seems less able to comprehend is that each new level of values is embedded in an understanding of quality different in kind from the quality infusing the values it builds upon. To do this would mean sacrificing the implied unity of quality in his scheme. He faces this most overtly in ZMM Ch 19, where he starts to explore differing forms or dimensions of quality, which he calls "just seeing" and "overall understanding", then withdraws from this enterprise because his shiny new 'Quality' is getting complex. A great pity, for had he gone further in this direction he may have arrived at a more satisfactory, though complex, outcome.
In a sense he returns to this classic/romantic split with his new categories of dynamic and static quality in Lila, which are similarly linked to immediate experience and experience remembered or reflected upon later. But in an effort to construct an elegant model of reality, he chooses to ignore the diversity of types of quality which he touches upon, and pretend that there is just one "Quality", indefinable but overarching. So artistic and intellectual quality are uncomfortably lumped together in one realm, the intellectual, though his unease shows, and he vaguely suggests a "level of art" at one point, but fails to take this further.
VARIATIONS IN QUALITY IN DIFFERENT REALMS
THE BIOLOGICAL REALM
While Pirsig often seems to equate quality with the good, his example of the organism's encounter with quality, sitting on a hot stove, shows an encounter with what is harmful, not good. At the biological level, value can be positive or negative, insofar as it represents help or harm to the individual organism. Survival and propagation are imperatives for living things. At the level of the organism, then, value is defined in terms of individual survival and propagation. What is significant to the organism is contact with those aspects of the environment which can potentially hurt or help it. Everything else, with the exception of reproduction, can be safely ignored. Our ability to attend to what is outside the contact boundary that defines us as organisms is built upon these biological imperatives. This inbuilt bias is the basis of value. Our brains and sense organs are as much concerned with eliminating unnecessary data as they are with gathering data. It is the quality of the data, its value for survival, that is selected for in terms of evolutionary pressures. Those organisms that survive are those better equipped to avoid predators and find sustenance, and these qualities, together with those that offer reproductive success, define those individuals which will tend to pass on their genes to a new generation. (The attributes which increase reproductive success, such as the peacock's tail, may come at some expense to its ability to survive. In one sense this can be viewed as a fundamental value clash within the biological realm: alternatively, the reproductive dynamic may be seen as a basis to the value schism between biological and social realms that Pirsig explores. That this issue does not seem to be cleanly resolvable by Pirsig's metaphysics indicates that his categories are not as absolute and discrete as he would like to believe.)
It is very likely that our brains are 'hard-wired' for the qualities which confer survival benefits upon us. It is plausible that the so-called 'reptilian brain' largely located in the brain stem provides this rapid appraisal of and response to threats and opportunities in the environment. (Derryberry & Tucker, 1990, for example, show how the locus ceruleus (noradrenergic) system in the brain stem is activated by the perception of unexpected, intense or aversive stimuli, and facilitates rapid attention and response outcomes.)
We see that the values that rule the biological domain necessitate a view of quality that is spread along a spectrum from positive to negative, insofar as the quality of any experience is intimately related to the survival value, positive or negative, that is communicated by the experience to the individual organism. Where there is no such value, or it is unable to be apprehended, there is for the organism no 'experience'. (It follows that the mid range of the spectrum is without quality and is not experienced by most living things, though we human beings form a notable exception.) Madame Curie's death from cancer could have been avoided if humans had a sense capable of assessing the negative effects of strong radiation, such as was given off by the radium she carried in her pocket. But such strong radioactivity was previously unknown, so no such sense had evolved, and consequently she did not 'experience' what was in fact a harmful exposure to radiation. Ambient temperature is a good example of the bi-polar nature of the biological quality spectrum. Very low and very high temperatures are noticed and the organism takes what action it can to minimise the damage that temperature extremes can cause it. For humans a temperature of about twenty five degrees Celsius is simply ignored, though it is possible for us to attend to it if this is required of us. [As a hypothetical example, a temperature guessing competition at a party would stimulate attention to something in the environment which would be otherwise ignored. The social reward of winning the competition provides the necessary stimulus in this case.]
THE SOCIAL REALM
When we move to exploration of the social realm we encounter a subtle shift in the locus of value. William Hamilton in 1963 produced a thesis, published the next year as "The evolution of social behavior", in which the genetic arithmetic of kinship is explored. Darwinian evolution assumes a basic selfishness - the individual looks after itself. Hamilton showed that supposedly altruistic behavior in individuals could be demonstrated to confer a genetic advantage to the group which shares a common ancestry. Kin selection is therefore one basis for the development of the realm of society.
Another is the recognition that in social animals such as chimpanzees the greatest threats to wellbeing come from other chimpanzees, not shortage of food or predation by other animals. The evolution of the 'mammalian brain' has allowed human beings and their near relatives to react to an environment in which one's kin are both valued for their shared genetic heritage, and feared for their ability to inflict harm upon us. As Lyell Watson says in 'Dark Nature', (p75) "Life for mountain gorillas in Rwanda or chimpanzees in the Congo forests is relatively easy. Food is abundant and easy to harvest, predators are few and easy to avoid. There is little to do but eat, sleep and play. But the calm is illusory, it looks easy because the members of such groups have discovered how to create and maintain stable societies. They may be physically lazy, but they are intellectually hyperactive. The forest may not present great problems to them, but other gorillas and chimps certainly do. Social survival requires the use of every skill they or we can muster, largely because such society is a paradoxical concept. On the one hand, it provides benefits for those individuals who preserve its structure, who keep the group together. But on the other hand, it encourages and rewards those individuals who discover how to exploit and outmaneuver their fellows. By its very nature, a complex society creates calculating beings - ones who recognize the consequences of their own behavior, who predict the response of others, and who measure the net profit and loss in everything that happens."
"Humans share food, and we help the young, the sick, the poor and the wounded. And we do this routinely now, extending aid to those to whom we are not even distantly related." (Ibid p 80) The development of such altruism is based upon a number of social values that have evolved within small social groups. According to biologist Robert Trivers these include 'friendship', a disposition to like others with whom we can enter into reciprocal relationships; 'fairness', which guards against cheating in those reciprocal relationships; 'gratitude', an
appreciation of the cost-benefit ratio of reciprocal acts; 'guilt', an emotion that can repair relationships where cheating has been, or is about to be, discovered, and 'justice', which encourages common standards for assessing altruism especially when more than two parties are involved. Game theory initially suggested that in many social situations cheating offers the best rewards for an individual, and the altruism displayed in human and some animal societies therefore seemed difficult to explain. Robert Axelrod is a political scientist who explored the question "When should an individual cooperate, and when should an individual be selfish in an ongoing interaction with another person?" In a competition for games theorists that he organised, the winner was this surprisingly simple program, with just two rules. "On the first move, cooperate. And on each succeeding move do what your opponent did on the previous move." ('Dark Nature', p82). As Watson comments "Systems which start this way tend to grow; they contain a "ratchet" which ensures that levels of cooperation remain the same or increase, but never go down... Cooperation flourishes best in continuing relationships where the participants can anticipate mutually rewarding transactions in the future."
To quote Watson again at length "It is clear that genes are selfish; but that organisms need not be. We may be cowardly creatures, born selfish and subject to the ruthless interests of genes that encourage cheating and lying; but we are also part of kinship systems that put a premium on being nice to close relatives. Genes are primarily concerned with inclusive fitness, with the big picture; but parental and social behavior require a certain amount of selflessness which gives us, as individuals, the experience of generosity and sympathy. There are distinct advantages to be gained by deception; but the very existence of such wiles produces the need for awareness of them that has made us calculating and intelligent beings with a sense of justice and fair play. Self-interest may be guaranteed; but kinship, individual recognition and extended contact all provide the conditions necessary for altruism to appear in contradiction to the three rules of the genes, and once it does, there are simple mathematic principles, rules of the universe, in play to ensure that they increase and encourage cooperation instead of conflict." (p87).
While our genes are selfish, as Dawkins showed, in the social realm a new set of values emerges, particularly those centred on fairness and justice. The social realm is one in which we recognize others, over long periods of time, and where we calculate the benefits of altruistic behaviour not only in the present moment, but in potential future encounters. Goodness in the social realm has connotations quite different to those at the biological level: a 'good' friend or a 'good' neighbour is one who is fair and just in an ongoing reciprocal relationship. The emotions experienced at this level are also more sophisticated - including gratitude, guilt, ambivalence, sympathy, generosity and friendliness.We attend to those subtle cues in voice and body language, as well as in words, which alert us to changes in relationships, and the possibility of deception. A 'good' social experience is one in which mutuality has been experienced and the expectation that future encounters will be mutually rewarding has been strengthened.
The quality experienced in the social realm is therefore more tenuous; as vague as a sense of belonging, for example; and relates to an imagined future as well as to the immediate present. The strongest emotions are focussed on behaviour regarded as unfair or unjust, but unlike the 'goods' of the biological realm, which are easily defined and recognised, fairness and justice are complex notions, subject to differing interpretations. Children's moral values change as they develop, and Kohlberg has mapped six stages in moral development. It follows from all this that quality in the social realm is contextualised in a way that is not evident in the biological realm. It is not so much the act in itself that has quality, but the development of those reciprocal relationships of importance to the actors which flow from the act, and which are a matter of judgement. The large mammalian brain, consuming much energy, is necessary to ascertain such sophisticated outcomes.
One minor proviso needs to be noted here. The understanding of society explored above clearly excludes the so-called social insects, such as bees and ants, whose complex relationships are involuntary and do not require reciprocity.
THE INTELLECTUAL REALM
While Pirsig asserts that all human experience can be categorised within the four static levels and dynamic quality, it seems very likely that he is quite wrong in this. Like the familiar five senses, which turn out on closer inspection to involve a much greater diversity of both sensory modalities and combinations of these (for example 'wetness' is assessed using a combination of more primary senses), so the intellectual realm on closer inspection unravels into an untidy collection of value fields, as diverse as logic and humour, gumption and artistry. Intellect, or more precisely, the static derivative of the dynamic encounter with intelligence, is but one of these fields.
There is an interesting suggestion that intellect is language based and auditory, while artistry is image based and visual. While at first glance music seems to fall between the two, (or is it linked to psychomotor skills and movement?), it is possible that sensory modalities are fundamental to a finer exploration of the complexity of the intellectual realm.
INTELLIGENCE, CONSCIOUSNESS AND SELF CONSCIOUSNESS
It may be of value to discriminate between intelligence, consciousness, and self consciousness at this point. Consciousness would appear to have developed comparatively early in the evolution of life, and appears (we cannot be sure) to be well established in all animals with defined brains. It is consciousness which gives us the colour blue, for example, which is not predictable from an understanding of the physics of perception. I can only guess that what I perceive as blue is similar or identical to what you perceive as blue. While we can communicate about colour and this allows us to assume that we share similar perceptions, we are ultimately unable to test this belief. Consciousness is a property of organisms, as individuals.
Intelligence and self consciousness are both high order emergents which have developed utilising the enlarged capacity of the mammalian brain, and the human cerebral cortex. But they are significantly different developments. Intelligence would seem to have emerged (in evolutionary terms) earlier than consciousness of the self. There is evidence of intelligence in animal species, though it is surprisingly limited. For example, dolphins constrained by a net never think to jump over it, something they are quite able to do. However chimpanzees are supposedly able to 'see' how two sticks might be fitted together to make a tool long enough to reach some fruit placed out of reach.
Julian Jaynes has explored the origins of self consciousness and provides evidence that this occurred in Greece between the composition of the Iliad and that of the Odyssey, that is, from about 1000 BC. Indeed the Odyssey is a celebration of the deviousness that can occur when subjective consciousness emerges. Its fifth word, 'polutropon', means 'much turning'. If Jaynes is correct then many of the marvels of the ancient world were constructed before, not after, the emergence of human self consciousness. It is likely that intellect emerged in connection with the ability to plan, or to 'see' mentally how objects or aspects of our world are related or might be altered or adapted to our benefit. Self consciousness, on the other hand, is an awareness of our own role as actors in society, and recognises that our planning must involve our dealing with other self aware organisms, with all the complications that emerge from that knowledge. In this vein, R.D. Laing's poetry in 'Knots' celebrates regressions of the form "I know that you know that I...". In Jaynes view, pre-conscious man had a bicameral brain, in which the conduct of life was controlled by voices generated in one half of the brain, resonating with the voices of parents or clan leaders known to the individual, and later projected onto the Gods. So long as novel occurrances were not too different from previous experiences, the internalised voice offered sufficient guidance to allow for appropriate action. Whereas by the time of the Odyssey the Gods had become rather powerless, if verbose, spectators of human beings involved in existential and self interested encounters with others, and the voices were either no longer heard, or were heard by prophets or oracles and passed on as the words of God (or the Gods), finally to be heard no more except by those we now classify as insane.
Intelligence, as seen by Pirsig, is very much to do with ideas. The term 'memes', meaning self perpetuating ideas, fits well with Pirsig's view. In this view, there is an evolutionary winnowing of ideas, with the 'best' surviving. If this is true, unpalatable conclusions may follow - Nazism was apparently a high quality meme in pre war Germany. While Pirsig at times is quite explicit in stating that ideas can only exist as embodied in human beings, at other times he shows people as the playthings of systems such as the 'Giant', the modern city that devours its inhabitants but is good because it is dynamic. His perceptions, whatever their validity, risk taking us back into an ethical and moral morass not so dissimilar to that which he sought to overcome. The risk is that in jumping from the frying pan of the seeming meaninglessness of value in a subject/object metaphysics, we end up in the fire of viewing ourselves as the playthings of unfolding patterns of value that can, like the 'Giant', crush us with complete indifference. Value as experienced by the individual organism can be quite different to value in the more general sense which Pirsig seems to favour. The vagueness of the locus of value in his scheme is a major weakness.
AGENTS AND THE SELF
As humans we feel ourselves to be agents. Pirsig's metaphysics risks making us apparitions. His description of Lila as a "jungle of evolutionary patterns of value" asserts this. "She's a cohesion of changing static patterns of this Quality. There isn't any more to her than that. The words Lila uses, the thoughts she thinks, the values she holds, are the end product of three and a half billion years of history of the entire world." (Lila Ch 11) Later he acknowledges the Dynamic ("Ah! That's the one to watch. There's something ferociously Dynamic going on with her." Ch 13.) He goes on to liken "Dynamic morality" to a "code of Art". Then Lila appears in the hatchway, and startled, he recognises "She was real, after all", and not just "theoretical thought about this advanced metaphysical abstraction called 'Lila'." (Ch 13). In a sense this mirrors the problem of his metaphysics. We can start with 'real' people, or we can start with abstract theoretical thought. Defining Lila in terms of the abstract levels is fine as far as it goes, but when the real person emerges, the definition is always inadequate.
In this regard self consciousness is an important jump beyond the intellectual realm into a new 'universe'. It conflates the biological organism, the social actor, and the thinker, with their often conflicting moralities, into a whole, a whole that acts, and whose actions have consequences of great complexity. I am an agent. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that the 'I' is always unified and coherent, for often it is not. Pirsig helps explain why this is so. What he does not explain is how "a cohesion of changing static patterns" (what a paradoxical description!) can have an identity, in a way that New York, which is also a cohesion of changing static patterns, does not. While New York can be characterised as this or that sort of city, there is absolutely no reason to assume that New York knows or believes itself to be such a city. New York is not in itself an agent.
Agents care about the consequences of their actions. Caring is a value term. In making 'value' the basis of everything, Pirsig has blurred the distinction, crucial to agents, between the observed values that cohere in cities, as in everything we can discern, and value as it is encountered by 'me'. As a biological organism value has to do with survival and propagation. As a social being value has to do with moral codes that guide my interaction with others. At the intellectual level value has to do with 'truth', the existence of a world outside our desires or morals, the validity of which is subject to different tests than those which apply to social or biological issues. Pirsig's deep disquiet with the Western world's acceptance of supposedly 'value free' science as the ultimate in truth statements led to his metaphysics of quality, a value infused term, pointing to the fundamental reality of value in our encounter with the world, prior to any abstraction derived from that encounter. But encounter demands agents, and in human beings these are self aware agents.
So we encounter one of the great mysteries. On the one hand we know of nothing in the universe that shares our human existence as self aware, intelligent agents. To many, it seems the universe cares nothing for our plight. Others believe that in some way the emergence of self consciousness is itself a warrant that such a development is of value, and an increasing flow of books from people with a solid scientific background exploring the possibility of some form of purpose within nature attests to the attractiveness of this position. Mystics generally assert that our perception of 'self' is a noxious development, the overcoming of which is supposed to lead to "a wholly different way of living" (Krishnamurti). There seems no way to adjudicate between a belief that self aware agency is the apex of a universe that at some level supports and therefore 'values' self, and the contrary view which sees this as an alienating and destructive development which can be overcome in some fortunate individuals, usually through some form of meditation which leads to a non- differentiated cosmic consciousness. With respect to those with the latter conviction, it seems to me there is no going back. Conscious agency is not so easily given up or transcended, despite the ongoing quest of millions of self aware beings to do so. That meditation can, when well developed, allow us respite from our unruly chatter-box brains is not in doubt. That we can enter a state (sometimes described as 'bliss') where self no longer functions seems, at least to an outsider reading the diverse reports of mystic writers, a temporary relief from the self rather than an evolution into something which fundamentally transcends the self. Like our inability to see colours through the eyes of another, there is probably no unambiguous resolution of this issue possible to us. Insofar as intelligence allows us to read between the lines, we can speculate on mystic reality, but only from the background of our experience. This gap between individuals seems in principle unbridgable, and has caused much heartache to those with mystic experience they wish to communicate.
This is not irrelevant to Pirsig's assertion that we all know quality when we see it. In fact, at the higher levels what we see is very much shaped by our experience, and at a deeper level by our needs. A mathematician may 'see' quality in an equation that to me is just meaningless marks on a chalk board. Art seems to share the same requirement of experiential training. How else do we make sense of the almost total neglect of Van Gogh's paintings during his lifetime (only one sold) with the immense value placed upon them by millions in the west today. So within the higher realms that Pirsig includes in the intellectual level, quality is ambiguous. As an artist, I know only too well the futility of trying to 'explain' the quality in an art work to an observer. If it is not obvious, then no amount of explanation is likely to assist, though sustained attention to the work may. What makes this even more subtle is that we can explore the social traditions which shape our encounter with quality as disciplines, for example, which exist in some sense independant of the individual, yet each and every encounter with this quality occurs within evolving individual minds. It was this sort of exploration of the roots of the individual's perception of quality derived from social patterns that Pirsig was contemplating undertaking with Lila, as they voyaged towards Florida. And it was just this dissection of her 'self' as intellectually discriminated patterns that Lila so strongly rejected.
As human beings, we recognise conflicting options, and our choices are better or worse as we take account of the longer term consequences for ourselves and others implicit in each choice. Much of the tension of seemingly opposed moral viewpoints originates from the temporal scale of the moral agent. If I focus on the immediate potential gains or losses from an action, I may well arrive at a different moral judgment from someone who is looking at the bigger picture, and assessing the probable long term outcomes. The deep ecology movement is an attempt to influence human behaviour in terms of the largest patterns discernable to us. Our survival as a species may depend upon our ability to adjust to this very large timescale approach to issues, which looks at the long term survival of our species (and others) as a greater good than the short term benefits of individual consumption. Our ability to delay gratification, and to discriminate between needs and wants, may be the ultimate survival values. Yet it is clear that these values are human centered values. It matters to humans that our race survives, but there is no compelling evidence that nature or the universe would be any the worse for our destruction. Pirsig at times seems to be viewing the universe as a necessary outplaying of values built into the physical world, in which humans are just another irruption of value, or perhaps just the necessary carriers of a higher level of value.
However a life lived only in terms of calculated long term advantage would seem to many a stifling and less than human existence. Kant's categorical imperative seems a particularly oppressive moral code, in part because it assumes the uniformity of humanity. There are many things I want which would be disastrous if everyone wanted them and acted to satisfy their wants, but which are open to me because I am able to recognise that not everyone will in fact act this way. My desire to climb a mountain, for example, for the values that I experience as a climber, would be frustrated if I focus on the potential destruction of these values, and the damage to the mountain, if the whole human race was to do the same. It doesn't. My action in doing so, despite having some impact upon the environment, remains morally defensible. Likewise, as Aristotle recognised, there are many things which are good in moderation, but become harmful as they are indulged in to excess, or equally may cause harm through an over zealous abstention.
All such moral sophistication is largely absent from Pirsig's account. Apart from the crude and questionable assertion that intellectual values are always to be chosen above social values, and so on down the hierarchy of levels, Pirsig's metaphysics is surprisingly value neutral. New York, the 'Giant' which devours people, is 'good' because it is dynamic. That makes a tornado very good, and a quiet summer afternoon pretty bad. What nonsense! Pirsig's assertion of the dominant status of the intellectual level in his four tier moral universe is inadequate to do justice to the complexity of moral issues. He is himself unable to use it with precision to provide moral guidance, for as he admits, the dynamic saviour is often indistinguishable from the degenerate rogue.
If a credible moral framework is to be developed, it will have to recognise that morality is human centred because it is a human creation, and it will take account of the evolutionary forces that impinge on us as humans. This will require a more sophisticated appreciation of the intimate connection between living as social animals and the development of morality, as seen in those passages already quoted from Lyall Watson's "Dark Nature".
WALKING ON WATER
The Jacana is an acquatic bird, sometimes called the Jesus bird, because it seemingly walks on water. In reality its long toes enable it to walk on lily pads and other acquatic vegetation with ease. Writing a metaphysics requires the skills of a Jacana. While there are numerous realms of understanding which can support an argument, each is limited and cannot be asked to bear too much of the weight alone. The spread of our enquiry is as important as the individual components.
Ultimately any metaphysics is judged by whether it is consistent with our own experience, and whether it has anything to offer us. Pirsig's metaphysics of quality seems well supported in its reliance upon immediate experience as the foundation upon which any intellectual construct must depend. His use of evolutionary theory is another strength. His insistence that values are intrinsic to our immediate experience, and not just something added on, is an important insight, though he jeopardises this crucial aspect of his thought by the system building that occupied him in 'Lila'. Pirsig is able to explain why our choices are often so difficult, by showing how different realms of value intersect in our experiences, and how the values that are paramount in each realm are often conflicting with the values that define other realms. Perhaps at the end of the day this is his one major contribution to our understanding of ourselves as human beings.
Yet what does his metaphysics offer us? Surprisingly little. It tells us that everything is infused with value, but is of little use in assisting us to sort out the more valuable from the less valuable, which seems to be one reason people bother with philosophy. It tells us that dynamic situations are better than static ones, (though both are necessary), even if we are torn apart by the dynamic forces. It tells us 'good' is a noun, rather than an adjective, but gives us no guidance as to how we might recognise a 'good' man when we go to vote. It tells us that the universe operates to maximise value, which in this context seems to be equivalent to the outcome of evolution, but this value is so sanitised from our human concerns with quality or its lack that it seems little more than an untestable and ultimately meaningless theological assertion.
If a metaphysics is to prove valuable, then it must prove valuable to people, to real human beings. We live in an era when the religious myths of earlier cultures have been largely discredited, as intellect emerges as the supreme arbiter of what is real; yet at the same time we see in the modern world a resurgence of magical beliefs, and worse: many forms of aggressive and hate filled fundamentalism flourish in our midst. Fear is not dispelled by the knowledge our era offers in abundance. Our knowledge threatens to overwhelm us. For every opinion there is a wealth of seemingly supportive evidence, and while some is patently absurd, much is at least plausible. How can I operate amongst such largesse? There is not time to explore all that is known if I lived a thousand years, yet in crucial areas of knowledge our comprehension is minimal. A hundred years after Freud's pseudoscience, we still have no better understanding of our mental functioning, in terms of a coherent theory, though we know much about details, many of which seem mutually irreconcilable. Science itself may have reached the limits of its explanatory reach, as a theory of everything increasingly appears a mirage. Postman and Weingartner, in one of the better examinations of the philosophy of education, speak of developing our inbuilt crap detactors (the phrase comes from Hemingway). A metaphysics for our age would at least suggest a plausible set of understandings which would provide islands of support for our navigation of the intellectual sea in which we float. Without such support, our 'crap' becomes simply what we cannot understand or do not choose to accept.
One fact emerges with troubling clarity. Each person, each mind, while drawing upon the cultural mythos for its language and understanding, is fundamentally a creative emergent which composes its own universe. Fritz Perls asserted that ninety percent of our experience was in fact projection. If he is even approximately correct, very little of what seems real to us is reliable. Our understanding of brain functioning, limited though it is, does little to reassure us that we can separate what is real from our wishes and fantasies. While the best minds of our day may have escaped the more obvious forms of religious and ideological enslavement, they are no nearer to generating a clear and convincing code to live by than previously. While our vista is doubtless greater than our ancestors, and the information available to us is unbelievably richer, wisdom is just as necessary and just as subjective and hard to define as it always was.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
While Pirsig's exploration of quality has value, it is a flawed and inadequate metaphysics, which, in denying human agency its central role, is ultimately rather irrelevant to (or actually demeaning of) human beings, who, after all, are the only organisms interested in metaphysics. Pirsig's equation of value with the outcome of evolutionary forces offers no convincing means of discriminating which of the options we face is the best for us, and ultimately we as humans are concerned with the 'quality' of the choices we make - a metaphysics which offers no assistance at this level is an intellectual luxury.
Missing from Pirsig's metaphysics is a comprehensive assessment of human needs, such as has been developed by Erich Fromm. Also missing is an understanding that value arises from an organismic base. There is no reason to believe that 'Quality' has any meaning except as it refers to an individual organism. Put another way, it is human beings who discriminate quality, and in doing so their own needs provide the context for decisions as to what in their experience has quality, be it negative or positive. That the experience of quality is immediate and fundamental does nothing to alter this understanding of how it is derived.
While Pirsig takes the social realm seriously, his analysis is limited by his overemphasis of the conflict between Victorian social values and the emerging intellectual values experienced in the twentieth century. While he is helpful in showing how social values differ from biological or intellectual values, he has not adequately explored the social dimension. In particular, he needs to examine how "a complex society creates calculating beings" (in Watson's words); and this leads again to his fatal lack of interest in agency. Human beings are agents who calculate their actions based upon assumptions of future rewards. Pirsig sees us as patterns of patterns, effectively dictated by our past evolutionary history. We are the playthings of evolutionary patterns of value, or vehicles for the transmission of memes, patterns of knowledge. Therefore the 'Giant', be it modern society or the modern city, devours us. Pirsig is at his bleakest in this subhuman assessment of the significance of our selves. It seems hard to believe that he can take the position he does about how it is I 'know' anything, and with this assert that my experience of being an agent who knows is phony.
Pirsig is unnecessarily restrictive in his four tier universe, and the intellectual tier is unable to accommodate the rich diversity of human accomplishment, tied as it is to a narrow focus upon ideas. He seems unable to grasp that art, for example, is not a branch of ideas, despite his understanding from his teaching of rhetoric that the quality of language depends upon an innate appreciation of the 'rightness' of the words used, and that following rules does not lead to high quality outcomes. As a thinker, Pirsig is always the analyst, and while he can talk about the appreciation of quality in lived experience, his fascination with intellectual structures leads him to over simplify his classification of experience. (I mentioned previously the significance of sensory modalities to intellectual exploration. Gordon Rattray Taylor, in 'The Natural History of the Mind' pp214 & 215, quotes a figure of 15% of the population who think almost exclusively in verbal terms, and suggests that "verbalisers tend to operate in a domain of concepts which have, all too often, only the vaguest relevance to the real world.") Pirsig fails to explore the experiential basis for quality at this level, and the huge diversity of human enterprises which require mastery of complex structures of learning before the quality in their outcomes is accessible. While such specialization may often be elitist (just check out your local orchid society to confirm this) there is also much to celebrate in the profusion of human enterprise. Whole realms of the human experience of value, such as what strikes us as humourous, are absent from Pirsig's purview.
Pirsig has struggled with a mystic or Zen approach to the human situation. While it is hard to accept that a metaphysics can ever be fitted into such a world view, and Pirsig admits as much, the fact that he continues to aspire to Zen values while in practical terms flouting them is a clue to one unresolved area of his thinking. Mysticism generally devalues the 'self', and regards this an an aberration to be overcome through meditation or disciplined attention to and mastery of the ordinary. In trying to ascertain what, if anything, replaces the self in the mystic experience, we encounter the limits of human communication. Mystics bewail their inability to express the significance of their experience to those who have not shared that experience, and those who have not participated in mystic experience may well doubt the substance of that experience. It is tempting to speculate that Pirsig is attracted to this approach less through actual experience of an alternative reality (with the exception of his experience with peyote he says little about mystic experience) than through dissatisfaction with 'self' in his experience. There is a certain savagery evident in his treatment of self that indicates a deep anxiety here, not surprising given the experiences recorded in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". His rejection of the illusory nature of the world expounded at Benares Hindu University where he had studied for ten years further complicates an already complex situation. While many people of a mystic bent are attracted to Pirsig's writing, it is unclear just how valid his mystic insights are, or how well they are integrated with the rest of his work.
I have indicated in the section above entitled 'Walking on Water' that I believe a metaphysics can no longer offer a single integrated conceptual scheme which can be said to underpin all reality. Rather, any viable metaphysics for our age will offer a number of useful bases for the conceptual mapping of experienced reality, which augment each other yet continually challenge each others assumptions, so contributing to developing a more robust crap detector in the user. That is to say, a metaphysics has become an education in what is of most worth or value in comprehending our human existence. It must start with our biological reality, encompass our social embeddedness, and acknowledge our agency as "calculating beings". It will draw upon our scientific understanding, not just of the 'physical' world, but of evolutionary theory, and our best understanding of brain function and mental development. It will encompass emotional, moral and personality development, and explore the complexities of projection and other forms of illusion. It will point to the diversity of human experiences of quality, and the many cultural pathways leading to encounter with quality. None of these bases is in itself an adequate foundation for a good life, or a good understanding of our encounter with what 'is'. Together, though, they may provide sufficient support to keep us from sinking, though we shall have to keep moving from one to another as our grasp of their complex interrelationships expands. The attempt to offer one static scheme, even if that scheme includes the dynamic as a category, will no longer suffice.