A REVIEW OF JOHN BEASLEY’S “UNDERSTANDING QUALITY”
by Anthony McWatt
The following thoughts on John Beasley’s essay “Understanding Quality” developed from correspondence with an MOQ student of mine, Patrick Gawley. I recommended that Pat read John’s essay with specific reference to the self. Pat found John’s essay interesting and sought my opinion on some specific points. I therefore examined John’s essay more closely and produced the following commentary.
I’ve noticed that John has made the effort to produce a number of essays on the Forum. These have a number of interesting insights and, due to these, will continue to be used as a resource for my students.
What makes John’s work of particular interest for an MOQ class is that he’s discussing the MOQ from an SOM perspective. He’s not yet made that perceptual shift to the MOQ that someone such as myself or Bodvar has. In consequence, John’s essay immediately shows the differences between the two traditions. In academic philosophy, there’s not that much comparative material between subject-object metaphysics (SOM) and the MOQ so it’s been especially interesting for me to have an opportunity to address some of the issues that John raises.
(Or “The MOQ re-written from an SOM viewpoint”)
by John Beasley
Robert M. Pirsig wrote two books which explore quality. In Lila he developed a metaphysics of quality.
It’s more accurate to state that Pirsig developed the “Metaphysics of Quality” as he also developed a metaphysics of quality in ZMM where Quality was divided between classic and romantic Quality. This is also why the term “Metaphysics of Quality” should be capitalised.
…Quality, which he equates with value, (Lila Ch 5) or morality, (Ch 7) is the foundation for his "hierarchical structure of thought". (Ch 5) He asserts that "quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions" (Ch 5) and is "the primary empirical reality of the world", (Ch 5) yet he wishes to retain the assertion that "Quality cannot be defined" (Ch 5) that he developed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Hence he admits that a Metaphysics of Quality becomes a contradiction in terms, even a degenerate activity.
As are all metaphysical systems. At least, Pirsig recognises this degeneracy which puts him one step ahead of most SOM philosophers.
…At the very end of Lila, Pirsig sums up his argument very briefly. "Good is a noun." 'Good' here equates with 'quality'. He finishes "Of course, the ultimate Quality isn't a noun or an adjective or anything else definable, but if you had to reduce the whole Metaphysics of Quality to a single sentence, that would be it." (end Ch 32)
In this article I wish to explore these two assertions; that quality cannot be defined, and that quality is a noun. Pirsig's early 'irrational' definition of quality ran as follows. "Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a nonthinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined." (Zen Ch 17)
Good is introduced as a noun in a story about an Indian who replies to the question "What kind of dog is that?" with the response "That's a good dog". (Lila Ch 32) Pirsig remembered that the Indians also described his friend Dusenberry as a "good man". He elaborates, "The Indians didn't see man as an object to whom the adjective 'good' may or may not be applied. When the Indians used it they meant that good is the whole center of experience and that Dusenberry, in his nature, was an embodiment or incarnation of this center of life." (Ch 32)
I have long been uneasy with both assertions, just as I feel uneasy with Pirsig's use of a capital 'Q' for 'Quality'.
This immediately indicates that John’s taking an SOM viewpoint. An MOQ philosopher wouldn’t feel this unease. Unfortunately for SOM, if Quality is dismissed as a synonym for reality then you’re returned to the problem where value is usually thought of as subjective and therefore relative. As Pirsig (LILA, Chap. 8) explains:
“The Metaphysics of Quality can explain subject-object relationships beautifully but, as Phædrus had seen in anthropology, a subject-object metaphysics can't explain values worth a damn. It has always been a mess of unconvincing psychological gibberish when it tries to explain values. For years we've read about how values are supposed to emanate from some location in the "lower" centers of the brain. This location has never been clearly identified. The mechanism for holding these values is completely unknown. No one has ever been able to add to a person's values by inserting one at this location, or observed any changes at this location as a result of a change of values. No evidence has been presented that if this portion of the brain is anesthetized or even lobotomized the patient will make a better scientist as a result because all his decisions will then be "value-free." Yet we're told values must reside here, if they exist at all, because where else could they be?”
If value is not either subjective or a synonym for reality, SOM must produce a credible explanation of what it is. John doesn’t supply any answers himself to this quandary and I’ve never read any credible solutions to this other than the MOQ. Anyway, back to John’s essay:
…His friend DeWeese apparently urged him to leave quality undefined, when he was invited by the English faculty at Bozeman to explain whether quality was objective, existing in the things we observe, or subjective, existing only in the observer. Phaedrus (Pirsig) rejected "the easy escape of mysticism", "the idea that truth is indefinable and can be apprehended only by non-rational means", because he felt "the academy, the Church of Reason, is concerned exclusively with those things that can be defined, and if one wants to be a mystic, his place is in a monastery, not a University." (Zen Ch 19) This choice, which Pirsig appeared to regret, returns to haunt him in Lila. Pirsig actually gives us the context. His second book was to be about Indians. Pirsig drove to Montana to see them, wanting to talk. But the conversation always became difficult, awkward and self-conscious. To Phaedrus the problem was his inability to maintain casual conversation. He "had never learned how to make small-talk like that and as soon as he got into it his mind always drifted off into his own private world of abstractions and the conversation died." (Lila Ch 4)
This is true but John has omitted the main problem that Pirsig found with anthropology; namely it wasn’t scientific (in the same sense as the natural sciences). According to Pirsig, this was due to the repression of evaluations and the reliance on individual facts which consequently led to a lack of generalisations. A field without generalisations is a field outside science.
…In the event Pirsig went to study anthropology, so he might know better what to ask the Indians, and again he took up the role of heretic in the Church of Reason. Whatever he had experienced in the peyote ceremony, he was unable to stay with that immediacy in his pursuit of Indian values. He was driven to definition, and his fascination with quality had ultimately to be defined as a metaphysics, despite his protestations that quality was indefinable. He was angered to find that in the dominant anthropological science value did not exist.
More precisely, Boas (the founder of American anthropology) thought value-freedom was an ideal state.
…Yet to prove the centrality of value, he wrote a metaphysics, knowing full well that this is a contradiction in terms. For Pirsig, either he must just leave quality alone, or attempt to define it. And the intellectual part of himself wants the fun of trying to define the undefinable. "Writing metaphysics is a part of life", he concludes, just as "getting drunk and picking up bar-ladies" is a part of life. (Lila Ch 5)
The Problem of Definition
For Pirsig, as we have seen, definition is at the core of the intellectual quest, and hence of the academy or university. He has experienced quality, notably in the peyote ceremony…
Again, this indicates John’s SOM viewpoint. The MOQ would state that the peyote ceremony gave Pirsig an insight into Quality (if Quality is experience then Pirsig has experienced Quality all his life and makes John’s comment sound nonsensical).
…and he is driven to construct an intellectual map of reality that places quality at its centre. In the course of this project, he constructs a hierarchy of values with the intellectual at the apex.
No, Dynamic Quality (or the Code of Art) is at the apex; the intellectual level is secondary.
…Yet within this schema, he recognises that quality is primal experience, the absolute bedrock from which all classification, all language, arises. His fatal assumption is that only what can be defined is worthy of academic study,
I think John is mis-reading Pirsig’s criticism of the Church of Reason here. One of the points of the MOQ is to allow the indefinable (in the form of Dynamic Quality) to be included as something worthy of academic study.
…even as he berates anthropologists for their failure, in the name of science, to discuss values, which he asserts are not definable.
I think it would be more accurate to state that Pirsig suggests static quality patterns are definable while Dynamic Quality is not .
…As a way out of this morass, I argue that quality may be quite well understood without being defined.
Now that’s an excellent suggestion! Though John has overlooked that this is one already suggested by Pirsig in LILA (Chap. 5):
“Quality doesn't have to be defined. You understand it without definition, ahead of definition. Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to
…That is, we may hold fruitful discussions about quality, just as we do about science or logic or mathematics, without necessarily being able to define all our terms. Indeed, many of the core terms in science, such as energy or mass, are notoriously incapable of clear definition.
This point has also already been stated on Doug Renselle’s Quantonics site; specifically the script for the Loyola video. Still, it’s a good one.
…New theories continue to emerge that radically redefine them, such as Rueda and Haisch's recent reworking of the idea of mass. (New Scientist, 3 Feb 2001) Definition is about seeking to pin down a term in a verbal formula. It is ultimately a word game. While definition is often useful, clarifying what was otherwise unclear, and refining intellectual argument, there is a fundamental fallacy in the assumption that this is the most valuable human understanding.
There are at least two dimensions to this fallacy. The first is a misapprehension of the function of language, and its limitations, to which I shall soon return. The second is linked to Pirsig's placement of intellect at the apex of his hierarchy of values.
Again, it’s worth making clear that it is Dynamic Quality which is at the apex of the MOQ.
…In short, he is asserting that the most valuable learning is intellectual. And yet he knows this is just what the mystics reject. To the mystic, "metaphysics is not reality. Metaphysics is names about reality." "Thought is not a path to reality." (Lila Ch 5) "The fundamental nature of reality is outside language ... language splits things up into parts while the true nature of reality is undivided." (Ch 5) Pirsig, however, lacks a language adequate to discuss 'the true nature of reality'…
As does all philosophy. At least, with “Dynamic Quality” Pirsig takes this limitation into account.
…and perhaps more importantly, it seems that despite his involvement in Zen, his studies in India, and his experience with peyote, he has failed to find an adequate experiential path to learning about reality as the mystic views it.
A strange comment as I’d view Pirsig as a mystic.
…His friend Dusenberry loved chatting with the Indians. Pirsig blames his failure to communicate on his inability to generate small talk, instead drifting off into his own "private world of abstractions". But the mystic would view this drifting as just what must be overcome if true learning is to occur. Learning arises from actual encounter, contact, experience; not from definition and abstract argument.
I think Pirsig realises all of this. Moreover, small talk is quite different from mystic understanding.
…When Pirsig says quality cannot be defined, he is making a statement about language. He quite correctly acknowledges that language is a static latch derived from what he calls dynamic quality. The words we use are never adequate to encapsulate the uniqueness and vitality of actual experience. Just as the map is not the terrain, words are not our fundamental experience of reality.
Not credited by John to Pirsig but this map analogy with reality is clearly inferred in LILA (Chap. 8):
“Or, using another analogy, saying that a Metaphysics of Quality is false and a subject-object metaphysics is true is like saying that rectangular coordinates are true and polar coordinates are false. A map with the North Pole at the center is confusing at first, but it's every bit as correct as a Mercator map. In the Arctic it's the only map to have. Both are simply intellectual patterns for interpreting reality and one can only say that in some circumstances rectangular coordinates provide a better, simpler interpretation.”
“The Metaphysics of Quality provides a better set of coordinates with which to interpret the world than does subject-object metaphysics because it is more inclusive. It explains more of the world and it explains it better.”
…Where Pirsig errs, it seems to me, is to get trapped in the academic view that "the Church of Reason is concerned exclusively with those things that can be defined"…
It’s this very view that Pirsig is trying to counteract with the MOQ’s incorporation of the indefinable i.e. Dynamic Quality. If Pirsig is at fault here, it is the over-generalisation that all members of the Church of Reason are “concerned exclusively with those things that can be defined”.
…so that the 'knowledge' of the mystic belongs in the monastery, not in the university. Yet, as I suggested previously, science gets along quite well without being able to define such key terms as "mass"…
Does it? And how many members of the Church of Reason actually recognise that fields such as physics contain terms which aren’t defined?
…and the mystic path, far from being "an easy escape"…
This phrase is taken out of context. The narrator in ZMM (in Chap. 19) was suggesting that the mystic path was an easy escape for Phaedrus in answer to the Montana State College staff question: “Is quality subjective or objective?” However, the mystic path Phaedrus eventually took to understand Quality (in Chap. 30 of ZMM) was clearly not an easy one. He lost everything he had to achieve this understanding.
…may well be a more advanced form of learning than what commonly occurs in universities. It seems that Pirsig is falling into the very dichotomy he so detests elsewhere, in viewing academic debate as objective and rational and based on definition, while mystic understanding is subjective and indefinable.
This is a very disingenuous remark here. If anything, Pirsig is expanding the rational in academic debate to include the aesthetic and the mystic.
…Yet surely it was just such a polarisation that the metaphysics of quality was supposed to resolve. "Most empiricists deny the validity of any knowledge gained through imagination, authority, tradition, or purely theoretical reasoning ... The Metaphysics of Quality varies from this by saying that the values of art and morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable, and that in the past they have been excluded for metaphysical reasons, not empirical reasons." (Lila Ch 8)
There we have it. On the one hand Pirsig wants to develop a metaphysics that is empirical, based on the senses…
As John is referring to the MOQ here, it would be more accurate to state experience rather than “the senses”. He’s using an SOM materialistic understanding of empiricism rather than the MOQ one. I note that on MOQ Discuss on July 23rd 2001 that Willem Beekhuizen actually points this out to John in the context of Northrop.
True, as John indicates (in his reply of July 24th to Willem), Northrop’s terminology (of “aesthetic materials”) can leave something to be desired. However, Northrop’s logical ordering of placing the “irreducible, ineffable, aesthetic materials” (what Buddhists term “nothingness” and Pirsig terms “Dynamic Quality”) before consciousness (and the physical “world”) is fundamental to the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism.
This ordering developed from the Buddhists “dialectic of negation” which logically works to the conclusion that Dynamic Quality is the only real thing there is. Everything else (such as subjects, objects, self, trees, chairs etc) are impermanent and dependent on Dynamic Quality for their existence. If correct, this fatally undermines idealism, materialism and dualism (i.e. the SOM traditions) as they falsely assign mind or matter (or both) as being real (i.e. an ontological status they don’t have).
Finally, it needs to be noted that John’s particular translation of Whitehead’s process philosophy as suggesting “that it is our ability to apprehend quality that is basic” is a return to SOM if the Quality event isn’t equated with the process events that Whitehead discusses.
…or thinking about what the senses provide, yet expanded to include the realm of quality and values, which are just as real, in fact more real, than traditional subject-object definitions of reality. On the other, he rejects the possibility that there is a way of learning about and understanding such a reality, that goes beyond the intellectual pursuits of the Church of Reason.
However, Pirsig doesn’t reject a way of learning that goes beyond the intellectual pursuits of the Church of Reason. I think the main difficulty with the two above paragraphs of John’s is that he has erroneously conflated:
a. Pirsig’s view in ZMM that the Church of Reason is concerned only with definable things; and,
b. Pirsig’s view in LILA that the MOQ should be concerned with definable and indefinable things.
…It is relevant to enquire why, if Pirsig is so concerned to make an intellectual statement that is valid in the academy or university, he has chosen to present his metaphysical musings in the form of two novels.
This is because Pirsig wants to expand what is valued in the Church of Reason’s positivistic rationality to incorporate art and spirituality as equal partners with SOM (or Enlightenment) science.
…Surely the use of an art form to promote his message is not such a large step from the mystic enquiry that he claims must be kept for the monastery. It is also quite evident that any verbal exploration of dynamic quality must occur within a language that is essentially a static latch.
Of course, that’s the point or the “whole trick” of the MOQ! If you like, ZMM and LILA can be viewed as two extended Zen koans.
…Nonetheless, an essentially static medium is capable of producing a dynamic outcome in the reader, and words, defined or not, are able to educate us about dynamic quality. The novel can indeed be dynamic in a way that a philosophy text might not.
…Lila seems a poor novel to me, in part because the philosophy is intrusive. It lacks the device of the chautauqua that insulated the philosophy from the story in 'Zen'.
In Chapter One of ZMM, Pirsig defines chautauqua as a:
“Series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.”
Though John may not feel any benefit from LILA, it shares the same chautauqua format of ZMM in that a series of “talks designed to edify and entertain” are inter-weaved with a narrative. However, in support of John’s sentiment, in LILA, the biological, social and intellectual threads are designed to clash. ZMM is sugar coated, LILA isn’t.
…It is built upon the trays containing eleven thousand slips of paper, a giant intellectual effort, and situated within a story involving Lila. Yet in spirit it is a philosophy text, a metaphysics. Was it written as a novel to ensure publication that might have been denied it had it been presented in a thoroughly academic style, or is it just that Pirsig quite enjoys the extra dimensions that a novel permits him as an author? Probably both, I guess.
ZMM and LILA are deliberately written as examples of the unifying philosophy that they are representing as illustrated by ZMM’s famous title “Zen” (spirituality), “Art” and “Motorcycle Maintenance” (science).
…It is worth making a minor diversion into the nature of language at this point. Post modern thinkers have delved deeper and deeper into the nature of language and at its heart they find nothing substantial. To some, words are so fluid and unstable that communication appears an impossibility. The fact that they then proceed to inform us of this in words is an irony that seemingly escapes them.
A good point.
…This is a consequence of exploring meaning through a process of logic and definition, though. In the puzzle of the hare and the tortoise, a good intellectual argument is developed for demonstrating that the hare will never pass the slower tortoise in the race, yet we know from our direct experience that the faster runner simply cruises past the slower one. Edward Pols, in his book Radical Realism, is much concerned with the paralysis that has developed within philosophical discourse as a consequence of such delving. He speaks of "a restorative access to reality" which equates with the 'direct experience' I mentioned above.
And originally derived from Pirsig.
…Ultimate authority in both cases derives from the ontic level of the person.
In reality, we do communicate rather satisfactorily using language, much of the time. When I purchase a new appliance, and am confused with how to operate it, a glance at the handbook is often helpful. If the extreme views of language were valid, this would not happen. We know that words are not what they point to, just as the map is not the terrain, but what is important is that words are understood. Just as the map reader orients himself within the mapped terrain, and proceeds to use the map to get where he wants to go, it is generally enough if words and the message they carry are understood. Exhaustive analysis and definition are actually unnecessary most of the time.
I shall argue for the importance of education in more detail below, but it is worth noting that most education occurs informally without much drama about definition, and is, for all that, quite effective. David Bohm, in a discussion with Krishnamurti, points out that the root meaning of intelligence is 'to read between the lines'. Our brains have a marvellous ability to take in new meanings and attach words to these. Children actually learn about five new words a day for a period of years. The Zen image of 'a finger pointing to the moon' picks up a similar theme. Our brains have evolved, it seems, to make meaning, and we intuitively seek the code that will provide it for us. Helen Keller, blind and deaf, learned to 'speak' when her teacher tapped out the symbol for water on her skin. If I listen to 'white noise' on an amplified blank cassette tape enough times, my brain will start to interpret some of the sounds as speech. I shall argue later that brains are 'threat or benefit' seeking structures in living things. They search out quality.
The above two paragraphs are fine and, unlike some of this essay, add something to the MOQ.
Talking About Quality - Quality in Organisms
Pirsig has consistently attempted to maintain that quality is unified and uniform.
No, he certainly hasn’t. Quotes to show this please, John! The Dynamic/static split in the MOQ is to incorporate the unified (Dynamic) yet non-uniform (static) properties of Quality.
…I shall argue that it is not.
And in doing so, follow Pirsig!
…In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Phaedrus explored what he called romantic quality and classic quality. He was horrified to think that "his simple, neat, beautiful, undefined Quality was starting to get complex." (Zen Ch 19) His solution was to view quality as "the source and substance of everything", (Ch 20) "the Tao, the great central generating force of all religions ... all knowledge, everything". (Ch 20) Then came madness. Pirsig later equivocates on this statement, but holds out hope that if it is true then Religion, Art and Science may be united in a shared fundamental quality. (Ch 21)
After discussing Poincare, Pirsig states, "Quality is the Buddha. Quality is scientific reality. Quality is the goal of Art." (Ch 24)
In his metaphysical exploration of quality in Lila, Pirsig adopts the language of evolutionary development to carry his ideas. I think this is sound. However, the schema he developed, though clever and useful, stretches the meaning of quality to breaking point. Substitute the word 'God' and not much changes.
Except, importantly, Quality is non-theistic in the sense of “theistic” as employed by F.S.C. Northrop (1947, p.375): “The theistic religions of the West believe in the immortality of the determinate personality and in a divine being with determinate characteristics” whose existence is mediated through a third party (usually a prophet). Quality is non-theistic as it is indeterminate, has no determinate personality, and is immediately apprehended. It is therefore seen that Quality as used in the MOQ is fundamentally different from how the term “God” is used in the theistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“Quality can be equated with God, but I don’t like to do so. ‘God’, to most people, is a set of static intellectual and social patterns. Only true religious mystics can correctly equate God with Dynamic Quality. In the West, particularly around universities, these people are quite rare.”
“The others who go around saying ‘God wants this,’ or ‘God will answer your prayers,’ are, according to the Metaphysics of Quality, engaging in a minor form of evil. Such statements are a lower form of evolution, intellectual patterns, attempting to contain a higher one.” (Robert Pirsig to Anthony McWatt, September 11 1994)
Another reason, Pirsig gives for using the term “Quality” rather than “God” is due to the perception of the latter by traditional science:
“People with scientific training often think of the term, ‘mystic’ as a synonym for ‘demented,’ but by mystic I only mean that which is known but is inherently without any kind of intellectual definition. If Dynamic Quality were merely called ‘God’ or ‘oneness’, (they) would have it shoved out of philosophic bounds without question. But they can’t shove Quality out of bounds. Mystic or not, they can’t deny it exists. They cannot… go five minutes of their lives without making a quality decision: that is, a decision that something is better than something else. Since they use quality all day long, every day of their lives and they don’t want to call it ‘mystic,’ then they are under an obligation to say what kind of thing it is. Is it in the subject or is it in the object? Where in the object? Where in the subject? The whole narrative of ZMM shows how I have already been down their road - 37 years ago - and it goes nowhere.” (Robert Pirsig to Anthony McWatt, August 17 1997)
…Quality has been reified as moral codes. His hierarchy runs as follows. "First, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of biological life over inanimate nature. Second, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the social order over biological life - conventional morals ... Third, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the intellectual order over the social order ... Finally there's a fourth Dynamic morality which isn't a code. He supposed you could call it a 'code of Art'". (Lila Ch 13) In saying that there were moral codes that established the supremacy of life over inanimate nature, he is asserting something as untestable as any religious belief.
No, that’s not true. A religious belief is based on faith, the evolutionary levels of the MOQ are based on science. Admittedly, it doesn’t make the latter infallible, just more credible.
Moreover, in the “Quantum Society” by Marshall and Zohar they note testable evidence for Bose-Einstein condensation which they believed helped to establish life.
Marshall and Zohar claim that the unity of consciousness is evidence that the mind is a manifestation of Bose-Einstein condensations.
(A condensate is a condensed phase. For example, water has three phases - gaseous (steam), liquid (water) and solid (ice). Each state displays a greater order amongst its molecules than the last. The degree of coherence refers to the degree that a group of things (such as atoms or a football crowd or brain cells) behave as one. When one behaviour becomes strong enough to outweigh the effects of others, the group is said to have gone into a “condensed phase”. It is this condensation that gives the mind its unitary character by organizing millions of neurone firings into a coherent whole.)
Zohar and Marshall advance the thesis that the collapse of a wave function is not random but value (or tend towards) Bose-Einstein condensates. The critical issue for the MOQ is that these condensates existed before any physical matter was created in the universe. As wave functions tend to collapse towards Bose-Einstein condensates this implies that there is a primordial tendency (or value) of the universe towards creating living and thinking structures. Zohar and Marshall perceive this as the evolutionary cause of life and is what Pirsig terms Dynamic Quality.
…(On the first day, God created...) For me, it makes more sense to look at quality as co-emerging with life, not as some prior code.
This puts John out of the MOQ park and back with SOM. If Zohar and Marshall are correct then values “which favour the evolution of life and consciousness” were prior to life.
…Living things may be defined as those things for which the environment has quality, (or value), either positive or negative.
Not an air tight definition. For instance, an environment can be hostile or beneficial for the existence of stars or atoms.
…Living things have needs, which must be met if life is to be sustained and reproduced. The environment offers both satisfactions and threats. What helps the organism survive and reproduce has positive value. What harms the organism has, for that organism, negative value. Pirsig suggests that only those experiences which have quality or value for the organism will be experienced. Quite possibly this is correct for species other than man. Threat and benefit are the very basis of contact between the organism and the environment. Indeed, the brain operates to restrict the flood of 'useless' information that would overwhelm it and leave the organism vulnerable.
John’s use of the term “brain” rather than “mind” seems behaviouristic, and, therefore, SOM. The above point is similar to the one made in ZMM (Chap. 7) though without the SOM inference:
“All the time we are aware of millions of things around us ...these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road ...aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”
…The brain emerges, then, as a threat or benefit seeking structure in living things. Only in man, so far as we know, can it transcend this role to attend to data which is only indirectly threatening or beneficial.
Are humans really this unique?
…According to Plotkin, in Evolution of Mind, "my memory of my Aunt Sarah, that I can conjure up at will and extend and imaginatively transform in any number of ways, has no equivalent in other species of animal." (p 4). He argues that both language and culture are exclusively human qualities.
I wonder what Plotkin would say about the “languages” of elephants and dolphins?
…Take the word 'are' in the last sentence. I can attend to it. Yet it is hard to show that this word, three marks on paper, is either threatening or helpful to me. Delete it, and my brain will immediately register that something is wrong with the sentence though. Its value is instrumental. Perhaps, to stretch a point, it could be said to have a functional value. Unlike most animals, human beings are able to attend to something that is only indirectly of value.
We speak of scientists attending closely to data, a word that captures something of the flavour of this ability. We don't expect data to be very exciting, as a rule. Our ability to remember, to predict, and to plan, make this abstract attention possible.
Primitive life forms develop senses that may assist them, for example, to move towards the light which offers an energy input vital for survival. In more advanced life forms the senses may be much more specialised. A young bird may experience terror and take appropriate avoidance activity when the shadow of a hawk passes over it. 'Primitive' and 'advanced' are value judgements, too. But this is another realm of value. Evolution, seen from this perspective, is not neutral. Those organisms 'better' adapted to ascertaining the helpful and harmful aspects of their environment thrive and reproduce. At the very foundation of life is a set of values, and evolution implies a value development.
…The interaction between the organism and the environment is inherently dialogical. While the organism has the ability to act, the environment has potency. The action of an organism, to be of value, must deal with what is actual in the environment, and what is potent in the environment. Organisms that are ineffective at discriminating real threats from imaginary ones are not going to survive. But responding to a certain proportion of imaginary threats may not greatly harm the organism, and may give it some advantage in fleetness of response in comparison with a more accurate but less sensitive companion. Animals that form the main prey of other animals often are consuming quite a deal of energy responding to imaginary threats. The proportion of 'real' to 'apparent' threats responded to is likely to be quite finely tuned in any population. Those animals that overreact to possible threats have less time to graze, and do not thrive. Those animals that under react, on the contrary, may make easy prey. So evolutionary pressures will select an optimum level of accuracy of response for a given species in a given context. (In practice, of course, many different types of reaction to threats and benefits will interact in very complex ways.) And of course over time predator and prey species are involved in a behavioural ballet in which each maximises their own advantages, and searches out the weaknesses of the other, the better to survive. All of this gets very complex, seen from the outside.
For each individual, though, each moment brings its unpredictable threat or promise, the quality of which attracts attention, and promotes contact with the environment. Threats and attractions vary in intensity. Needs fluctuate. The well fed lion is not a threat to its prey. Put differently, the value of the impala to the gorged lion is minimal. The impala with the ability to discriminate that this lion is well fed will graze longer without fleeing. The ability of the organism to discriminate the intensity of threats and attractions, and compute the probability of danger or assistance in the field, can become very sophisticated. This ability is exemplified in the daily drama as prey species go to drink at waterholes that also become magnets to their predators.
…The key word is 'unpredictable'. Quality emerges in each unpredictable moment, in the existence of each organism. It is experienced. It is encountered.
In the MOQ, it is experience.
…It is utterly primal. Ken Wilber points out, in The Eye of Spirit, (p 375), that subject/object dualism "is the hallmark, not of Descartes's error, but of all manifestation". It is tempting to say that quality, too, is the hallmark of all manifestation, but just as the subject/object dualism can be bridged, so the mystics tell us, by interior transformation, so our inability to directly communicate quality can be bridged by a process we call education. Before exploring this more fully, though, I wish to examine quality in a different context, in human culture.
Quality in Culture
I have spent some time exploring the complexity of animal behaviour, since as human beings we are also subject to this fundamental level of perception of quality. But the world we inhabit is much more complex than that of animals. We are members of a society, a culture, in which language becomes an important tool for manipulating our environment. It is likely that for most humans, our greatest threats, and rewards, will come from others of our species, rather than from being preyed on by other species.
…This is perhaps a recent development, witness the fact that children in Detroit (as evidenced in their dreams) are more scared of snakes, generally rare in downtown Detroit, than they are of much more significant dangers such as traffic. We have to be educated to appreciate the real risks we face, rather than depend upon the residue of more or less instinctive responses with which we have been endowed by the evolutionary battles of the past.
An organism operating within its environment really has no choice but to respond to the values it encounters. We know, though, that much cultural value is a matter of choice, or perhaps more accurately, of taste, in which education plays a significant role. Let us take an example.
Assume a young person with no experience of opera visits Covent Garden for the first time. The opera is in Italian, with period costumes. A likely response is that the music is old fashioned and rather boring, the acting is crude, and the story line, as gleaned from the program, is rather unbelievable and somewhat trite. Let's not go on. If our visitor comes from a significantly different culture, say Japan, where the equivalent to opera might be the Noh play, there may be some recognition of some elements of the opera, and total incomprehension of the rest. We know, though, that opera lovers were once neophytes, too, and learned to love opera by attending performances, listening to records, and generally talking with others who enjoy and appreciate opera. Can the quality of an opera performance be defined? I doubt it. But those who have bothered to learn about opera by attending performances and so on, may well agree that a particular performance was very fine. In short, they have been educated, probably informally, to appreciate opera.
The above is a good illustration of why Pirsig (“Subjects, Objects, Data, Values”, 1995, p.12/13) introduced the static-Dynamic split in LILA:
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance left one enormous metaphysical problem unanswered that became the central driving reason for the expansion of the Metaphysics of Quality into a second book called Lila. This problem was: if Quality is a constant, why does it seem so variable? Why do people have different opinions about it?”
“The answer became: The quality that was referred to in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance can be subdivided into Dynamic Quality and static quality. Dynamic Quality is a stream of quality events going on and on forever, always at the cutting edge of the present. But in the wake of this cutting edge are static patterns of value. These are memories, customs and patterns of nature.”
“The reason there is a difference between individual evaluations of quality is that although Dynamic Quality is a constant, these static patterns are different for everyone because each person has a different static pattern of life history. Both the Dynamic Quality and the static patterns influence his final judgment. That is why there is some uniformity among individual value judgments but not complete uniformity.”
…Ken Wilber explains that the quality in a work of art is located in different loci, depending on how the art work is viewed.
The SOM mode of putting it. In the MOQ, it would be better to state that a work of art is an expression of high quality.
…Quality is found in the inspiration of the individual artist who created the work.
Again, the SOM mode of putting it. Better to state that the inspiration of the artist is an attribute of high quality.
…Quality resides in the features of the artwork, which is expressed in a medium where the relationships of those features are themselves the locus of value. Quality occurs in the experience itself as judged by the audience member, and quality is located within the broad social and technical context of the day. All are valid.
True, but this (SOM flavoured) paragraph is again making Quality a property of subjects and objects rather than vice versa.
…Each requires education for its elucidation. We are a long way here from the innate, instinctive reaction of an organism to its environment.
And it gets more complex. Wilber asserts that each of the four dimensions in which quality can be ascertained is itself organised hierarchically, with at least ten layers, or degrees of depth in each. So the child who has reached a relatively low level of intellectual and moral development is simply unable to recognise aspects of quality available to a more advanced adult. Not that all adults advance far. Most societies reward their members attaining a basic level of development, but beyond that tend rather to constrain further advancement. And while each level represents an increase in depth, this is accompanied by a marked decrease in the numbers of people achieving that level. In Wilber's view, it is not possible to skip levels. Each builds upon the level below, which in some sense it will contradict, much as Pirsig developed his four levels, which he illustrated by the emergence of different qualities of law in each. (Natural law, the law of the jungle, the Law, and the emerging law of individual intelligence and judgment.) But while Pirsig saw his hierarchy as formed by evolutionary forces, and situated in history, for Wilber the extended hierarchy exists within each individual, and "the knowledge quest takes on different forms as we move through those various levels." (The Eye of Spirit p377).
In the MOQ, an individual is composed of the four static quality levels (rather than this hierarchy existing within the individual). However, the Wilber material here is useful as it provides another example of the static latching described in the MOQ.
…Further to this, there are almost infinite realms of discovery and hence of quality. From pure mathematics to flower arranging to motorcycle repair, human beings have created a rich diversity of skills and accomplishments. Often these are very specialised. Ikebana is a type of flower arrangement, originating in Buddhist Japanese culture. The Sogetsu school is a more specialised form of Ikebana, and within it you may find an avant garde movement that creates arrangements without any flowers or plant material at all. The quality of an arrangement will be judged differently, depending upon which tradition or school is involved. And it is not that there is a continuum of quality from basic Ikebana flower arrangement to avant garde; not at all. Each is equally valid, but the rules are different. There is indeed an evolutionary sequence in the formation of schools, and a history in time of this development, but it is not possible to say that a later development is 'better'. It may be more specialised, but the development is branching, rather than hierarchical. We can more accurately speak of differences in personal taste, rather than in quality as such, when comparing different schools of art, or codes of football, or any of a multitude of human endeavours.
But not all human endeavours! As illustrated in “Zen in the Art of Archery” different levels of Quality are embodied in the individual schools of art, sport, science etc. There would have been no point in Herrigel’s training (in archery) if this wasn’t the case.
…Pirsig correctly identifies the freedom this offers us in terms of choice, though he is wrong in asserting this is true of all quality.
But Pirsig doesn’t assert this. In Lila (Chap. 12) he states (in the context of free-will and determinism) that:
“In the Metaphysics of Quality this dilemma doesn't come up. To the extent that one's behavior is controlled by static patterns of quality it is without choice. But to the extent that one follows Dynamic Quality, which is undefinable, one's behavior is free.”
I understand the MOQ as inferring that freedom of choice as being on a continuum from little (or no) choice at the inorganic static quality level (e.g. little control over the level of gravity in the universe), to some choice at the biological (e.g. I have to eat to survive but have some control of meal times), considerable choice at the social (e.g. what church, if any, I attend), nearly complete choice at the intellectual (e.g. what I believe to be true) and complete choice at the Dynamic “Code of Art” level (e.g. where I put my first brush stroke on the canvas).
…Biological quality, as it applies to us as organisms, is not a matter of taste.
I think this is too sweeping as human tastes in food is certainly not uniform.
…Given that our culture often offers us choices, it is possible to ask if a quality life consists in choosing our pleasures wisely, or if there might be some aspects of life that are intrinsically more 'valuable' than others. So is being the best basketballer in the town of equal weight with being the most advanced citizen morally or spiritually?
The problem with this question is that it uses “moral” in an non-MOQ sense. There are five codes of morality in the MOQ and John does not make it clear which one he is alluding to. If he is just referring to the spirituality of his “advanced citizen” then this is two levels above the celebrity status of the sportsman. As celebrity is a social value pattern it also has less value than philosophy (this being primarily an intellectual value pattern). The money a society assigns to each area is probably a good reflection of how balanced the society is.
…If we look at the fame, fortune and media attention our society offers to sportsmen we would have to assume not only equality, but a seemingly greater importance for sport.
Or presume our society is seriously out-of-kilter (or, if you’d like to phrase this sentiment in traditional Buddhist terminology, suffering from considerable dukkha).
…Yet fame is not an adequate indicator of quality. Pirsig discriminates between saviours and degenerates, and hence implicitly recognises another dimension of quality. He would be inclined to impute the quality of the saviour to the superiority of the intellectual position that person adopts. Yet when he talks of the Nazis he is implying the judgement is moral, not intellectual.
This comment shows that John is employing just the MOQ’s social-biological code of morality i.e. the traditional SOM notion of morality.
…If it makes any sense to talk of a better person, or a better society, then we are talking about a quality hierarchy that Pirsig's scheme seems inadequate to demonstrate.
It seems strange that John didn’t pick-up on the character of Rigel in LILA as they share the same view of morality! Still, I agree with John that the MOQ doesn’t always supply ready made answers to particular instances.
However, I think it can help. For instance, the reliance of Nazi philosophy depended on (erroneous) assumptions based on biological value patterns which (in the MOQ’s evolutionary structure) have less importance than social or intellectual value patterns.
Quality as a Noun
"If quality or excellence is seen as the ultimate reality ... one can then examine intellectual realities the same way one examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find out which one is the 'real' painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value." (Lila Ch. 8)
Taking the “intellectual realities as painting” analogy in the context of LILA and ZMM, I think Pirsig has in mind what poetry or art or non-Western cultures can teach us. I think this is an important point if a good education is sought.
…Would it were it so simple. While it may not matter which school of art or flower arrangement I like, the consequences of subscribing to a corrupt ideology may be serious. Nazism surely is the paradigm case. Many of its supporters were true believers. To them it seemed the values of the Third Reich were of very high quality indeed. And Pirsig cannot escape this quandary. How do we separate the saviours from the degenerates?
But as stated above, Nazi philosophy depended on (erroneous) assumptions based on biological value patterns. In the MOQ, these are subordinate to the higher quality levels (in ascendant evolutionary order) of the social, intellectual and spiritual. These ideas of Nazism are immoral as they give precedence to a lower quality level (i.e. the biological) over higher ones (the intellectual and social). This is very well illustrated by John from later on in this essay:
“There is a wonderful irony in the Nazi labelling of Jews as low quality, yet this was a race that had made a disproportionate intellectual contribution to European culture. The Gypsies, also despised as degenerates, have their own tradition of vitality, especially in music and dance.”
As far as the art gallery quote from Chapter 8 of LILA is concerned the next sentence that John has omitted reads:
“There are many sets of intellectual reality in existence and we can perceive some to have more quality than others.”
So its also a mistake to think of the MOQ as a relativistic system that can be used as some kind of apology for Nazism. The latter was based on ideas of race that are about as scientific as astrology.
…If 'Quality' is a noun, as Pirsig asserts, then in theory it is possible to measure the 'Quality' in a person, by assessing the value of that person's ideas. I see no evidence that this can happen.
Yet John discusses different stages of intellectual development in the last section of his essay. Moreover, would the ideas of medieval science or religion be of equal value as modern scientific ideas in achieving a moon landing?
…It is like the search for intelligence, and like that search it offers comfort to demagogues. "That's a good dog", said the Indian, and in doing so pointed to a range of qualities that he found admirable in that dog.
This misses the point of Pirsig’s quote which is that the dog is a manifestation of the Good rather than having the property of goodness. Moreover, an intellect of the average human being would not usually be expected in a “good dog”.
…But as an intellect the dog rates pretty low. Lila has quality, and again it's not much in evidence in intellect or artistic appreciation, or any other culturally determined arbiter of success. She does have a strong, almost animal, vitality. Perhaps just sexuality. There is a wonderful irony in the Nazi labelling of Jews as low quality, yet this was a race that had made a disproportionate intellectual contribution to European culture. The Gypsies, also despised as degenerates, have their own tradition of vitality, especially in music and dance. Such generalizations, of course, are insulting to individuals. Individuals vary widely in their almost infinite range of qualities.
This is true but if we didn’t generalise or categorise at all then intellectual paralysis would result. Like any tool, generalisation can be used for good or immoral purposes.
…Only if quality is a noun do we enter the nonsensical world of labelling one person as a saviour, another as a degenerate, on the basis of their quality.
I doubt the labelling of one person as a saviour and another as a degenerate, on the basis of their quality, has been proved as nonsensical in this essay. The MOQ does indicate that this discrimination isn’t always straight forward but at least gives a basis from which to make such a decision. What would John suggest in its place?
…Pirsig's story of the Zuni Indian reinforces this; his leadership may have eased the Zuni adaptation to a world dominated by their white conquerors, but he was an unhappy if talented man. Do present day Zuni regard the overthrow of the war chiefs as a 'quality' event, I wonder?
At least they are still around to ponder such a question.
…Pirsig speculates that "he did much during his life to prevent a clash of cultures that would have been completely destructive to the people of Zuni." (Lila Ch 9) Perhaps. Perhaps not. It seems to me impossible to say whether his leadership, dynamic though it probably was, was 'good'. Describing dynamic 'contrarians', as opposed to decadent, degenerative 'contrarians', Pirsig says "They're way too energetic and aggressive to be decadent." (Lila Ch 29) But Hitler, and many another dictator or pirate or war lord, seem to have had plenty of dynamism. What they fight for may indeed be a "kind of morality", or it may be power or plunder or revenge. The question of how to discriminate between the saviour and the degenerate remains unresolved.
I think there is some value in John’s comment here. Though the MOQ can help in discriminating between the saviour and the degenerate, the full picture of someone’s real intentions is not always initially clear. I can’t see how a static metaphysics can pre-empt every (Dynamic) eventuality.
However, to put John’s quotation from LILA (Chap. 29) in its larger context, Pirsig is claiming that the MOQ recognises that not all people (such as the suffragettes) who go against social rules are doing it for degenerate reasons:
“When you add a concept of "Dynamic Quality" to a rational understanding of the world, you can add a lot to an understanding of contrarians. Some of them aren't just being negative toward static moral patterns, they are actively pursuing a Dynamic goal. Everybody gets on these negative contrarian streaks from time to time, where no matter what it is they're supposed to be doing, that's the one thing they least want to do. Sometimes it's a degenerative negativism, where biological forces are driving it. Sometimes it's an ego pattern that says, "I'm too important to be doing all this dumb static stuff."”
“Sometimes the contrary anti-static drive becomes a static pattern of its own. This contrary stuff can become a tiger-ride where you can't get off and you have to keep riding and riding until the tiger finally throws you and devours you. The degenerative contrarian stuff usually goes that way. Drugs, illicit sex, alcohol and the like. But sometimes it's Dynamic, where your whole being senses that the static situation is an enemy of life itself. That's what drives the really creative people-the artists, composers, revolutionaries and the like-the feeling that if they don't break out of this jailhouse somebody has built around them, they're going to die.”
…An important part of the problem, I think, is Pirsig's cavalier treatment of the self. He mocks "this Cartesian 'Me', this autonomous little homunculus who sits behind our eyeballs looking out through them in order to pass judgement on the affairs of the world" as "just completely ridiculous". (Lila Ch 15)
Pirsig is following the Buddhists’ philosophy about the “self” which (through the dialectic of negation) doesn’t recognise that “Me” has any real existence. Only Dynamic Quality (or the Tao) has.
Briefly, the Buddhists believe that a clinging to the self as real is the primary cause of dukkha (what Hagen translates as being “out-of-kilter”). If there is any truth to this, then Pirsig is quite correct in his “cavalier treatment of the self.”
…He then takes a confusing ramble through what quality is for cells, and organisms…
Why is this confusing? John doesn’t explain.
…and finally asserts that the quality inherent in Lila is sexual. She doesn't like his intellectual superiority, and judges him lacking as a potential mate. He is getting close to inverting his own hierarchy at his point, and admits to being "sick of all this intellectualizing". (Lila Ch 15) This half of the book ends literally all at sea, to the faint rocking of the tidal surge.
Yes, John is correct that Lila epitomises biological values while Phaedrus epitomises intellectual values. However, as mentioned previously, he’s missed the epitomy of social values in Rigel the lawyer.
…Pirsig's disdain for the self is not without consequences. In his description of the Giant, the city or organisation or society that uses people as expendable pawns, for the 'good' of some larger totality, he comes close to implying that people are just ciphers in the ongoing self perpetuating struggle for the emergence of quality at higher and higher levels in an inhuman world.
As biological units of society though not as intellectual or Dynamic beings. To be fair to John, I don’t think this distinction is made clear by Pirsig.
…I find this sad and alien.
However, it can be argued that the MOQ is less alienating than most metaphysics as it perceives us as manifestations of a connected Dynamic reality rather than “individual autonomous little homunculi who sit behind our eyeballs” looking out on a separate and dead universe.
…It makes his "secret loneliness, so penetrating and so encompassing that we are only beginning to realize the extent of it " (Lila Ch 22) look almost benign. "This scientific, psychiatric isolation and futility had become a far worse prison of the spirit than the old Victorian virtue ever was," says Pirsig,
This sentiment of modern alienation caused by Enlightenment science is pretty well supported elsewhere. Examples that immediately spring to mind include Barrett “Death of The Soul”, Bohm “Wholeness & the Implicate Order” and Zohar “The Quantum Society”.
…yet his vision of society in which memes…
I don’t think Dennett’s memes help in explaining the MOQ. They just add unnecessary complication where none existed before. Certainly, Pirsig doesn’t refer to them.
…compete for primacy and selves are 'ridiculous' strikes me as soulless in the extreme. Sadly, the spirit of which Pirsig speaks seems little more than an intellectually successful meme.
I am with Pols in saying that authority derives from the ontic level of the person, and with Wilber in asserting that the knowledge quest takes on different forms for each person as we move through a hierarchy of increasing 'depth'.
This sounds pretty much MOQ though.
…Pirsig appears to be drawing on a Zen understanding of self, a mystic view of the self as the impediment to real being.
Yes, that’s correct.
…But the self operates at different levels.
This emphasis on the self looks like John has returned to the SOM again.
…The self that emerges in the early object relations of the infant indeed becomes a barrier to the relaxed (What is meant by “relaxed” in this context?) experience of our essential natures, causing us to believe that all gratification must come from a potentially hostile world, and vitiating our ability to encounter what is, moment by moment. But the self is also our agency, our ability to act as an integrated mind and body in the world.
This sounds very SOM. I wonder what the self is besides the mind and body?
…Many mystic traditions have the enlightened one, who has overcome the stunting of the egoic self, returning to the market place as an agent. Indeed, an agent with a mission; not to leave this world of suffering while others remain ensnared in their egoic selves. This self takes on suffering so as to be an agent of liberation to others. Other mystic traditions…
It would be helpful if John could give the particular traditions he’s referring to. After all, he’s the one who doesn’t like generalisations! To quote him from the previous page of the essay:
“Generalizations, of course, are insulting to individuals. Individuals vary widely in their almost infinite range of qualities.”
…would say that enlightenment is at base merely attending to what is, as it arises, rather than to our ego driven projections and distortions of what is. In this view, the truth is right in front of our noses, and the work of enlightenment is merely a removal of those self created veils that have us think otherwise. In both cases it is the illusion of self created by ego that is the problem, while an essential self is also present, waiting to be recovered.
I don’t think the latter is true as there is no “essential self” to be recovered. In Rahula (1959) which focuses on the core teachings of the Buddha, the self is perceived as nothing more than a convention.
In addition to the ego, I think it can be argued that social value patterns also have some input into creating the SOM illusion.
…The whole idea of a unified quality comes unstuck the moment we start to look at quality from the perspective of the cell, or the organism, or the person, rather than as some metaphysical 'noun'. As I have said before, quality enters the physical universe with the coming of life.
This last sentence contradicts the evidence of the Bose-Einstein condensates. John is also undoing all the good work of the MOQ by returning us to SOM i.e. an universe divided between an objective physical realm and a subjective qualitative realm.
…To talk of pre-existing moral codes establishing the superiority of biological life over inanimate nature is a form of theologising.
Not necessarily, as the evidence of Bose-Einstein condensates show.
…Quality only makes sense as seen from the perspective of the organism. Life brings value.
No. Quality brings life. To say otherwise, is a return to SOM.
…It is meaningless to assert value without life. Human life brings a magnificent unfolding of quality, which emerges in intellect, as Pirsig correctly asserts, but also in art and ethics and creativity, and none of these flower without education, as we know from study of the wolf-boy, the individual raised alone.
To summarise, quality is not so much defined as understood.
Yes, this chimes in with the MOQ.
…To understand something, I enter an educational project, either formal or informal. I learn from those who have preceded me in this process, and who in turn have learned from those who taught them.
On other words, intellectual value patterns largely derive from social patterns.
…Occasionally a person of genius seems to have reached the heights of quality without passing through this educational process, but such an appearance is false. Mozart may indeed have been composing at his piano at a very young age, but it was not until he became an adult that his great works were produced. Studies of extremely talented people show that most spent at least a decade refining their craft before achieving excellence.
Nothing in the above disagrees with the MOQ.
…Quality begins with the emergence of life: the organism lives within an environment that has value for it.
Back to John’s SOM land and definitely non-MOQ.
…Language and culture immeasurably expand our environments.
Both of these are social quality patterns and, in the MOQ, subordinate to the intellect.
…Intellect is one dimension of this expanded range. It is not necessarily superior to social quality.
Though usually so.
…Intellect itself is limited. It cannot tell me whether to become a teacher or a sculptor, or resolve my moral dilemmas.
Surely, John is mistaken here. Possibly the most important instruction a teacher can give a student is “Think for yourself”. Moreover, to leave such life decisions solely to social institutions (such as Government, Family and the Church) or biological needs would be a disaster.
…For these I need a sense of vocation, and wisdom.
The latter has nothing to do with the intellect? Isn’t the only life worth living the examined life?
…While Pirsig often refers to Zen and a mystic view of reality, he ignores the whole issue of education for wisdom.
This seriously misrepresents Pirsig’s work. The issue of Quality arose in the context of the classroom at Montana State College. It was Pirsig’s recognition that wisdom is not necessarily linked to high college grades that initiated his whole project in the examination of Quality. ZMM can even be read as a teacher’s manual about achieving wisdom in the classroom.
…Zen is not fundamentally about intellectual choosing, almost the opposite; indeed, enlightenment as I understand it is very much about contacting here and now reality free of our habitual projective fantasies and filters.
I would certainly go along with this.
…Intellect is easily conscripted to do the work of projection. Paul Goodman, when writing 'Gestalt Therapy'…
(A holistic theory like the MOQ).
…in the middle of the twentieth century, saw immersion in a pervasive intellectual 'reality' as the defining quality of mental illness in the West. Ken Wilber in his book 'No Boundary' suggests that the developing person transcends an alienating, overly intellectual phase of his or her development by reintegrating the body into a centauric unity, and it is just this that therapies such as Gestalt facilitate through their focus on the body rather than the intellect.
Again, all very MOQ.
…This is not the end of the developmental road. The fundamental assumption that the world is divided into self and other is itself an outcome of the earliest stage of the human process of individuation. Various forms of spiritual development work to break down this boundary imposed by the egoic mind, and once again the fundamental process of change and development is educational. The Diamond Approach of Hameed Ali, for example, which is recommended by Wilber, is explicitly educational in style. Only sustained practice of a transformative process such as meditation can overcome the Cartesian dualism that so annoyed Pirsig. Intelligence can help us to talk about transformation, while actually acting as a barrier to any real change.
As far as meditation is concerned, it should be noted that:
“…hardly any other section of the Buddha’s teaching is so much misunderstood as ‘meditation’, both by Buddhists and non-Buddhists.” (Rahula, 1959, p.67)
According to Rahula (1959, p.68), what the Buddha meant by meditation, was not a particular sitting posture, nor an escape from the daily activities of life in a cave nor an exercise in mysticism but the development of mental faculties (bhavana):
“The Buddhist bhavana, properly speaking, is mental culture in the full sense of the term. It aims at cleansing the mind of impurities and disturbances, such as lustful desires, hatred, ill-will, indolence, worries and restlessness, sceptical doubts, and cultivating such qualities as concentration, awareness, intelligence, will, energy, the analytical faculty, confidence, joy, tranquility, leading finally to the attainment of highest wisdom which sees the nature of things as they are, and realises the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana.”
It seems, therefore, that the “transformation” that John is referring to, is only obtainable in association with the intellect.
…At this level of development, then, the intellect is something to be overcome.
More accurately, the belief in the (illusory) subject-object dichotomy is the “something to be overcome”.
…Zen recognises this fact, though its critics accuse it of being quite mindless, or more accurately, of valuing the cerebellum which controls our instinctive actions, while condemning the cortex which controls our thinking. (Aubrey Menen, The New Mystics, p229).
I think the connection of Zen to particular parts of the brain is a return to the SOM physicalist mire and more confusing than anything else. Its certainly not in Pirsig’s work. Moreover, I think Zen is concerned in overcoming the limitations of language rather than being an abandonment of intellect. An example of this is the Zen koans which try to point the intellect to non-linguistic understanding.
…Possibly the simplest description of what the mystic way offers is from Menen. "It is a way of stopping you thinking. It has no appeal to people whose worry is that they never seem to have started: but more intelligent people do often feel that they need a holiday from their own minds, while leaving them intact to come home to when the holiday is over." (p7)
I like this sentiment.
…Pirsig seems unable to escape thinking. His response to the Indian values that impressed him was ultimately to define them. He tends to assume that wisdom can be had by talking about transformation.
What he fails to adequately address is the educational process that can simultaneously resolve the subject/object division while facilitating immediate experience of 'what is'.
As with much of this essay, this is a caricature of Pirsig’s position. If Pirsig’s (ZMM, Chap. 25) observation that "The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself" is not an illustration of the Buddhist bhavana then I don’t know what is. I think John has confused meditation as an exercise in mysticism.
…If Wilber is correct, there are no shortcuts. Intelligence is indeed a necessary component in wisdom.
I thought John was stating before that the intellectual process was something to be overcome before enlightenment?
…A drug experience, (peyote for Pirsig), can assist in the transformation of an overly intellectual person, but the same experience for someone at a low level of development will achieve nothing.
John also stated before that there is no evidence that “it is possible to measure the 'Quality' in a person, by assessing the value of that person's ideas”. If there is no such evidence this would surely make it difficult to ascertain “someone at a low level of development”. Moreover, how does John know that peyote would do nothing for such people? Where’s the documentary evidence? Possibly people “at a low level of development” have most need of this type of experience as, arguably, a very intellectual person is nearer enlightenment and, in general, requires less artificial help to achieve it.
…What makes the whole business so complex is that transformation is not unidimensional. There are a host of qualities that combine in any individual. My spiritual development, artistic development, moral development, and so on, may run in parallel, with many interconnections, yet the strands are separate enough that I may demonstrate different stages of development in each, with the pace of development also differing in each field. This complexity is anathema to Pirsig, who wants a neat indivisible schema for his quality.
Evidence please, Mr Beasley! This is another caricature of Pirsig’s philosophy.
…Fundamentally, Pirsig's limitation is that he does not allow for a deeper level than that of the intellect…
This isn’t true as the recognition of Dynamic Quality is made explicit in LILA.
…and this is the basis of the sterility that we can sense in 'Lila'. He points to a mystic resolution often enough, but his own level of operation is intellectual. And wryly he admits this. Writing a metaphysics is a self defeating activity. It is degenerate. It cannot save us. Ah! But the exercise is rescued by one thing. In this activity he finds quality, or at least more quality than in any alternative he can conceive.
Like Horse, I never fail “to be fascinated by the insight, clarity and beauty of the Metaphysics of Quality”. This has seemingly passed John by.
…For each of us the challenge is to know quality in our lives. Reading a metaphysics, if it engages us, excites us, is in a limited way to know quality. But the understanding of a metaphysics ultimately is to 'know about' quality. There can be higher or lower quality in a metaphysics, and in its presentation; this is the "quality meats" understanding of quality. The quality of Pirsig's metaphysics on this scale is judged both in the formal way characteristic of universities, in regards to the consistency and defensibility of the ideas it contains, and artistically, in terms of how well Pirsig uses his medium of the novel to engage the reader in his concerns. One ultimate test of the quality in a novel is how much we, the readers, care about it.
This paragraph sounds fair enough though.
…So paradoxically, the degeneracy of writing a metaphysics of quality can be rescued if the artistic form of its presentation engages the reader to the extent that a new educational project is born. The dynamic spark of the novel, that which causes us to care about the characters as they grapple with quality in their own fictive existence, is indeed part of that "code of art" that Pirsig barely points to in his novels.
The finger pointing to the moon, no doubt!
…He is constrained by his limitations as an intellectual, and his inability to point beyond the rational constraints of system building. Despite the numerous hints, the appeals to mystic experience, Pirsig's metaphysics seems to resolve no human problems.
Arguable. If metaphysical problems are human problems, I think the MOQ at least does that.
…It is just another system…
But this isn’t true, is it? Which other metaphysical “system” places value as the fundamental ground stuff of the universe?
…and its appeal seems to be to those who are by temperament desirous to manage their world by understanding it. That is why so many of those who debate Pirsig's ideas in cyberspace belong to that 1% of the population who fall into the 'intellectual' personality type (The INTP Myers Briggs category.)
Yet this is not the whole story. Pirsig's agonies as he explores his past and seeks some closeness with his son in 'Zen' can grip us in a way that makes the sub theme of quality seem important. It is ironic that 'Zen' explores the limits of the intellectual explorer, who encounters madness, in his obsession with understanding, while in 'Lila', eleven thousand slips later, the same obsession returns. Nothing important has been learnt.
Another caricature about Pirsig. Moreover, I doubt John himself really believes this as earlier in his essay (in the second paragraph of the section titled “Talking about Quality - Quality in Organisms”) he states that the MOQ’s evolutionary schema is “clever and useful”. A schema which was only developed by Pirsig during the writing of LILA.
…As an intellectual project the metaphysics of quality is of interest to system builders. Yet in as much as Pirsig cares about quality, and succeeds in communicating that concern through the artistic code of the novel, his writing does become an authentic finger pointing to the moon of quality. The tragedy is that he focuses his effort on the metaphysics, the intellectual structure, rather than on the path…
Is it such a tragedy that Pirsig has focused on metaphysics? As noted in ZMM, there’s nothing wrong with mystic reality. The real patient is analysis and this is what Pirsig is treating. There are already a number of texts and traditions which “point to the moon”. It can be argued that what the modern world requires is not yet another mystic path but a new intellectual framework. Even mystics need to use metaphysics in everyday life so isn’t better that they can use the MOQ which recognises enlightenment rather than SOM which ignores it?
Moreover, in light of the recent attacks in the US, one thought that came to mind was Northrop and the principle aim of his work. This was the achievement of world peace through a reconciliation of the different values of East and West. By focusing on this reconciliation of values, Pirsig’s new intellectual framework assists in this important objective.
Though largely forgotten since World War Two, I believe Northrop’s work is more important than ever. The understanding of your neighbour’s values can only assist in peaceful co-operation with them, whether they live next door or in Afghanistan. And with nuclear proliferation this is becoming ever more critical.
“If the atomic bomb is ever used to destroy civilization, it will be because men cannot get together sufficiently upon their ideologies to agree upon the social controls that are necessary to meet the situation... The issues are difficult enough quite apart from the conflict with respect to differing conceptions of human values.”
“There is selfish nationalistic pride. There is also the drive for oil and natural resources all over the world. Science intensifies these competitive factors because the nations with scientific knowledge must secure resources to feed their machines, and these economic pressures are hard enough to control even when the situation is not aggravated by ideological conflicts having their sources in the humanities.” Northrop (1947, p.348/349)
“What must be said with all the emphasis at one's disposal is that our very existence as human beings depends upon whether… we can learn to understand each other and resolve the ideological conflicts which divide us internationally. For this undertaking we must first thoroughly understand the differing cultures and their respective differing and often conflicting economic, political, and religious normative ideological theories. It is these theories which define what a specific culture regards as good and which prescribe the type of social organization to which it will agree in a conference of the United Nations. Consequently, if these conferences are ever to succeed, men in different parts of the world must receive an education which enables them to understand the other person's culture and ideology as well as their own, an education which gives a clear conception of the basic problem to which the conflicting ideologies are differing answers. Only if these basic problems, as thus clearly defined, are faced and then resolved, can a really constructive program for peace, grounded in understanding and knowledge rather than bickering and threats and futile verbal compromises, be achieved.” Northrop (1947, p.315)
…the educational process through which each of us might in time find more immediate access to the dynamic quality inherent in our existence.
John’s essay has some very good points especially the analogy of the MOQ as a finger pointing towards the moon of enlightenment. It also contains Pirsig’s analogy of reality with maps, the MOQ’s static-Dynamic split in the context of opera, and the problem the MOQ has in discriminating saviours from degenerates.
However, the essay contains many caricatures (dare I say, strawmen?) of Pirsig’s philosophy (especially in the context of education). Incredibly, in one or two instances, these caricatures are contrasted with Pirsig’s real views (which John has misappropriated as his own). Very naughty indeed! Less seriously, some of the ideas concerning Eastern philosophy are not accurate (such as the definition of meditation) and there is some inconsistency about the importance of the intellect in relation to wisdom.
I think many of John’s caricatures originate because of his SOM viewpoint. Once this is understood, someone from an MOQ perspective can set these aside and focus on the number of interesting illustrations such as the interaction between an organism & its environment and the multi-dimensionality of personal development.
Finally, to return to education, John has seriously underestimated the value of ZMM, especially in its recognition that wisdom does not necessarily correlate to grades. As a lecturer of Pirsig’s work, I know myself the high standards set by ZMM and the MOQ in the context of teaching. Standards which are being seriously eroded, certainly in the UK, by the emphasis on static centralised procedures rather than the facilitation of creativity. Pirsig’s work is a challenge to such regression and is why its never been more relevant. I was recently informed (by a graduate from Brisbane) that education in Australia is developing along similar lines so I hope that John, at least, re-considers his views in this context.