An Inquiry into Robert Pirsig’s Works Part II: Notes on Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

Having devoted his first book laying out the idea of ‘Quality’, which I interpret as ‘the internal reality of the mind’, Pirsig uses his second book to develop Quality into a ‘Metaphysics of Quality’. This metaphysics divides subjective reality into the antagonistic Static Quality (convention) and Dynamic Quality; that is the new, the here and now of instinct or reasoning/intellect. Confusingly Dynamic Quality is, I think, pretty synonymous with ‘Quality’ in his first book; the cutting edge of experience. Each Quality can be overlaid to Pirsig’s hierarchy of value patterns, which are:

  1. Intellectual patterns
  2. Social or societal patterns
  3. Biological patterns
  4. Inorganic patterns

Each pattern is ‘more moral’ than the pattern below and tries to free itself from it and so tries to overcome it and curtail its tendencies. Pirsig makes no justification as to any of this: why is one more moral than the other? Why in that particular order? He attacks the cultural context of science (fairly), but that hierarchy of moral patterns is surely an outcome of the culture it was written in too? He does condemn cultural relativism (laudably in my opinion), so it is noticeable that he does not apply the same criticism to his own ideas. It is a hierarchy that crops up again and again in philosophy, going at least as far back as Plato, who believed the pursuit of philosophy (and intellectual pattern) was the highest calling of the human spirit.

My immediate dislike of this thesis is what is the meaning of inorganic value (Pirsig admits this is nonsense, or at least strange)? Can we be charitable and say the thing to remember is that it is the presentation of a philosophical system of thought, not a scientific claim/theory. That sounds like a way to excuse it from empirical analysis, not to mention denigrating the whole of philosophical discourse! However, like Quality in Zen and TAMM, its best use is not in producing observations or confirming hypotheses, but it is a way of describing the mental lives of people and, moreso in Lila, society, including one’s own personal life and thoughts. Problems arise when Pirsig does not stick to this rule and he goes off description and tries to explain trends.

As such talking about the inorganic pattern of values is still little use. I have read accounts by physicists that tend to think of life, i.e. self-replicating inorganic matter, as having a ‘tendency’ to overcome the restrictions of inorganic ‘patterns’ such as entropy (temporarily), but I’m not convinced it has much use as a working theory. Although I am fond of the poetry of it, and the meshing of science and poetry is very much in line with spiritual materialism.

To say biological patterns are ‘more moral’ than inorganic ones may simply aim to explain why we see no moral problem in how biology influences inorganic matter (think of plant roots damaging soil). But if societal patterns outweigh biological ones then it could be used to say anthropogenic climate change is OK. It’s never clear if Pirsig means his hierarchy to be proscriptive or simply descriptive.

When restricting ourselves to human life, talking about the other three patterns and the antagonisms between them in society and in people, it is a much more useful framework; one about our mental, subjective lives. Maybe to a sociologist or psychologist it could supply a useful, different way of looking at things to give new insight. I suspect that it would be a supplement at best and that the current working theories with more scientific rigour are more useful. My understanding is that psychology would certainly support the idea that long-term happiness is increased when people practice at least some self-control over biological impulses. Of course the idea that we should keep the passions in check is thousands of years old, but traditional common-sense still needs scientific evidence to back it up.

Pirsig himself states this is a philosophical framework, not a scientific one, and consequently for most of the book I found it odd (and annoying) that he spent so much of the book attacking science; or as he insists on calling it ‘subject-object metaphysics’. However, he later redeems himself when he says “Truth is a static intellectual pattern within a larger entity called Quality”, but that this is not the whole story. This suggests he sees science as an acceptable part of his metaphysics, what it is missing and how it fits into his system echoes Kuhn’s analysis of the history of science.

“In the past empiricists have tried to keep science free from values. Values have been considered a pollution of the rational scientific process. But the Metaphysics of Quality makes it clear that the pollution is from threats to science by static lower levels of evolution: static biological values such as the biological fear that threatened Jenner’s smallpox experiment; static social values such as the religious censorship that threatened Galileo with the rack. The Metaphysics of Quality says that science’s rejection of biological and social values is not only rationally correct, it is also morally correct because the intellectual patterns of science are of a higher evolutionary order than the old biological and social patterns. But the Metaphysics of Quality also says that Dynamic Quality – the value-force that chooses an elegant mathematic solution to a laborious one, or a brilliant experiment over a confusing, inconclusive one – is another matter altogether. Dynamic Quality is a higher moral order than static scientific truth, and it is as immoral for philosophers of science to try to suppress Dynamic Quality as it is for church authorities to try to suppress scientific method. Dynamic value is an integral part of science. It is the cutting edge of scientific progress itself.”

Or in Kuhnian terms the static scientific paradigm is overcome by the revolution started by a scientist’s, or a number of scientists’, Dynamic Quality.

Perhaps, then, I misunderstood initially and he’s not attacking science’s subject-object divide as used in the context of scientific method, but the overuse of that divide outside of science, using it metaphysically or to philosophise about morals etc. It is really tempting to interpret this to mean subject-object metaphysics is fine for objective truth, but not subjective truth. Although this is more excusable, I’m still not sure this is preferable. For one thing I’m convinced science has had and will continue to have more to say objectively about human mental lives or subjective truth. To be fair some of my criticisms of Pirsig are not his fault, he wrote his books before the neuroscience revolution, which has allowed objective understanding of subjective experience and before most of the development of moral psychology.

Metaphysics of Quality is something I will use personally as regards my own life (because at the moment moral science can’t be used in immediacy of my day-to-day life and when N=1), but in general I’m much more convinced that, and hope for, a moral science will provide answers to moral questions of how society’s are best arranged and how human’s best behave. The idea of a science of morality has been around for decades, but the most recent and most famous example is Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape, which I agree with in principle, although I don’t agree with all of the arguments he makes to support it. But perhaps that’s something for another time.

One glaring omission: the morals of a Metaphysics of Quality seem to miss out empathy entirely, which pattern would it fit into? All of them? None of them? Perhaps empathy is a biological pattern as it part of evolved human biology, but then aren’t society and intellect part of human biology or at least emergent properties of human biology? Empathy is defensible for protecting and improving society and intellectual freedom, so it could fit into all three patterns. Increasing intellectual understanding can increase our ability to get over prejudices and emphasise. Although one could argue empathy has certainly been overcome or bypassed by social needs and intellectual arguments, think Machiavellian, have they done so in ways that were justifiable morally? Should they have sacrificed empathy? We come back to Hume’s law and the impasse at the is-ought divide.

Similarly war and environmental destruction are defensible with the Metaphysics of Quality at least in the short term as it is moral for the ‘more evolved’ social patterns to triumph over biological ones. Pirsig says war is justifiable on those grounds, and suggests that sometimes makes it moral, but death of a human reduces the number of potential intellectual patterns.

This ‘more evolved’ idea is seemingly based on what appeared later in time, a sort of historical based moral paper-scissors-stone: biology beats rock, intellect beats society. There is no evidence or any real argument given, but it is suggested it is just necessarily so, this is the problem with metaphysics of course. Why is this hierarchy anything but arbitrary? Intellectual pursuits are better to some people, but what criteria are we using? Of course for those who don’t have the leisure time for reading because they need to survive then biological patterns are more moral. Again, science could tell us that average well-being is greater in societies where they have leisure time for intellectual pursuits (although it can’t tell us that well-being is desirable). I don’t think Pirsig would have a problem with this, but it’ll be coincidence if he turns out to be right. (Like Freud on the subconscious or Thomas Aquinas on whether the Big Bang.) And of course science would tell us that we require our basic biological needs to be taken care of and we require social interaction to be happy. As with many discussions of ethics (apart of Aristotle) Metaphysics of Quality misses that we need a balanced mix, also it’s not clear whether the philosopher is talking about what’s good for individual or societal flourishing.

There’s a possibility for confusion here; I say in my opening that Pirsig is right to condemn cultural relativism, and then do I lambast him for saying the Western approach is better? Well actually I argue for a limited pluralism. If someone doesn’t want to engage in the intellectual patterns of science and philosophy this is not wrong (after initial exposure is provided throughout school), but if they want to hold beliefs that disagree with the findings of science it is wrong. Equally some societies will be better at promoting a combination of scientifically informed practices that lead to human flourishing, but there may be multiple combinations (this is Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape).

So Lila was in general much less rewarding to me than Zen, and had much less of an influence on my ideas about spiritual materialism. It provides something more interesting things in certain specifics though.

The end of the book seems to confirm my thoughts on Quality relating to religion and each religion seeing Quality as its particular subject of worship or devotion, as well as discussing religion as a delusion:

“The Metaphysics of Quality identifies religious mysticism with Dynamic Quality. It says the subject-object people are almost right when they identify religious mysticism with insanity. The two are almost the same. Both lunatics and mystics have freed themselves from the conventional static intellectual patterns of their culture. The only difference is that the lunatic has shifted over to a private static pattern of his own, whereas the mystic has abandoned all static patterns in favour of pure Dynamic Quality.”

Can temporarily freeing oneself from the conventional static intellectual patterns of one’s culture, as in mediation or congregational worship, be done without sacrificing rationality? I don’t see why not, as long as the static pattern that surrounds it is built from rationality (and/or scientific findings) rather than the static patterns of dogmatic beliefs…

“The Metaphysics of Quality associates religious mysticism with Dynamic Quality but it would certainly be a mistake to think that the Metaphysics of Quality endorses the static beliefs of any particular religious sect…

“Phaedrus thought sectarian religion was a Static fallout from Dynamic Quality… In all religions bishops tend to guild Dynamic Quality with all sorts of static interpretations because their cultures require it. But these interpretations become like golden vines that cling to a tree, shut out its sunlight and eventually strangle it…

“…you do not free yourself from Static patterns by fighting them with other contrary static patterns… you free yourself from Static patterns by putting them to sleep. That is you master them with such proficiency that they become an unconscious part of your nature. You get so used to them you completely forget them and they are gone. There in the centre of the most monotonous static ritualistic patterns the Dynamic freedom is found.

“Phaedrus saw nothing wrong with this ritualistic religion as long as the rituals are seen merely a Static portrayal of Dynamic Quality, a sign post which allows socially pattern-dominated people to see Dynamic Quality. The danger has always been that the rituals, the Static patterns [including beliefs], are mistaken for what they merely represent and are allowed to destroy the Dynamic Quality they were originally intended to preserve.”

Lacking evidence to back it up and embedded in language of a metaphysics that I hope I’ve explained clearly, is a pretty good description of what I call spiritual materialism; the subjective experiences caused by the rituals of religion are beneficial, those caused by the beliefs are not.

Pirsig also pre-empts Karen Armstrong’s thesis of religion being based on ritual not on belief, one I’m still unsure whether to accept, it may have be the case in the past, but now the static patterns have taken over!

“He could only guess how far back this ritual-cosmos relationship went, maybe fifty or one hundred thousand years… anthropological studies of contemporary primitive tribes suggest that stone-age people were probably bound by ritual all day long. There’s a ritual for washing, for putting up a house, for hunting, for eating and so on – so much that the division between ‘ritual’ and ‘knowledge’ becomes indistinct. In cultures without books ritual seems to be a public library for teaching the young and preserving common values and information.

“These rituals may be the connecting link between the social and intellectual levels of evolution. One can imagine primitive song-rituals and dance-rituals associated with certain cosmology stories, myths, which generated the first primitive religions. From these the first intellectual truths could have been derived [i.e. at least truths which fitted the available data, which is all scientific truth can ever be]. If ritual always comes first and intellectual principles always come later, then ritual cannot always be a decadent corruption of intellect. Their sequence in history suggests that principles emerge from ritual, not the other way round. That is, we don’t perform rituals because we believe in God, we believe in God because we perform rituals.”

Again this was an important part of my development of spiritual materialism, recognising that people had subjective experiences and then invented explanations for them, as they then did for things like the weather. The experiences are still important regardless of whether the theologies to explain them are.

– The Spiritual Materialist


2 thoughts on “An Inquiry into Robert Pirsig’s Works Part II: Notes on Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

  1. Pingback: Science & Values: Is Spiritual Materialism Reductionism or Scientism? | The Spiritual Materialist

  2. Pingback: Science & Values: Is Spiritual Materialism Reductionism or Scientism? | The Spiritual Materialist

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