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Dynamic Quality Static Quality
Inorganic Level
Biological Level
Social Level
Intellectual Level

Lila is the sequel of a bestseller, not a bestseller. The first thing I was told about it was that it's difficult to understand. It's a hard book that feels as grand as a barren ground until you realize you wouldn't appreciate an inherited fortune as much as one you earned yourself. The primary goal of Lila is to incorporate a moral hierarchy into the Metaphysics of Quality that allows us to deem some things more or less valuable than other things. Another primary goal of Lila is to make the Metaphysics of Quality infallible by openly admitting that said hierarchy is fallible and informing the reader of a doorway that leads out of that hierarchic reality. The doorway is called Dynamic Quality and the hierarchy is called static quality. The infallibility that the Metaphysics of Quality attains this way is that Pirsig leaves it at our discretion whether we wish to think in terms of the hierarchy. Anyone who sticks to the hierarchy and falls is more at fault of his predicament than the Metaphysics of Quality is.

Within the hierarchy there are four levels. From a set theoretic point of view these are nested sets, that is, sets that are within each other. From a philosophical point of view these sets are a theory of emergence. That is to say they form a theory that aims to explain how simple structures, such as molecules, can constitute complex structures, such as living creatures, that have some property, such as consciousness, that the simple structures do not have. Color already works as a simple example of emergence. Elementary particles such as protons and neutrons do not have a color in the sense that they would reflect certain wavelengths of light. They only begin to reflect certain wavelengths when they form composite particles such as atoms or molecules.

The Theory of Static Value Patterns

Objective quality in the Analytic Metaphysics of Quality.
Part of tangible quality in the Analytic Metaphysics of Quality.

Pirsig's theory of static value patterns states that the more emergent a pattern is the greater its value is. The four levels, then, are an apparatus for grading the amount of emergence within a pattern. As the higher, more valuable levels are subsets of the lower ones the hierarchy could be said to prize some kind of rarity or uniqueness. Some singular instances of uniqueness, such as the Pythagorean theorem, seem to bestow more meaning to the city of Croton than any of Croton's military endeavors or the food people ate there back then in the sixth century before the Common Era. Given that the Pythagorean theorem is something someone once thought it is indeed remarkable that that particular thought proved so important it has not been forgotten even though most thoughts are always forgotten.

The four levels in Pirsig's theory of static value patterns are, in ascending order of the value of a typical pattern on each level, the inorganic level, the biological level, the social level and the intellectual level. By "typical" patterns I mean excellent patterns that do not also belong to a higher level.

Not all patterns on the same level are equal. Caloric theory is an intellectual pattern that describes heat as a weightless liquid that flows from hot bodies to colder ones and can pass through matter. Although that theory explains how the heat engine works it fails to explain why a cannon can be heated by boring it even though the cannon and the boring instrument are cold before the boring starts. Modern thermodynamics, on the other hand, explains both cases. This means that although caloric theory and modern thermodynamics are both intellectual patterns the latter is better even though the theory of static value patterns does not express this difference in terms of levels. The inadequacy of caloric theory enslaves scientists to serve a flawed worldview: a better theory would spare the them from unnecessary work.

Note that I wrote: ”in ascending order of the value of a typical pattern on each level” instead of "in ascending order of the average value of a pattern on each level" or "in ascending order of the average value of all patterns on each level". It seems difficult to estimate the total value of all patterns on a particular level at some given moment. Also, because lower levels may have more elements than higher ones we have no solid reason to rule out the possibility that a lower level is more valuable in terms of total value even though it would have a lower average value for individual patterns than a higher level does.

In the Analytic Metaphysics of Quality the most valuable typical pattern of a lower level can be more valuable than the least valuable pattern of a higher level, because some patterns have negative value. Pirsig, too, made some tentative attempts to compare the value of patterns on different levels in his letter to Paul Turner. However, he ended up asserting that colonies of ants are not social patterns yet didn't state anything informative about why that would be true. Rather, the justification of the stance seemed to be to make the Metaphysics of Quality "work" instad of being "broken". I find Pirsig's argumentation unimpressive here. In terms of complexity a blue whale would appear more impressive than saying ”Gesundheit!” after a sneeze, but the former is a biological pattern whereas Pirsig declares the latter a social pattern. What would it mean for an instance of saying ”Gesundheit!” to be categorically more important than a blue whale due to the sociality of the former and the biologicality of the latter? I don't think Greenpeace activists would buy that.

Pirsig's theory of static value patterns bears a striking resemblance to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. As such, some of the justification for the latter might also apply in the case of the former. Maslow's hierarchy has more than four levels but this only means its grading is finer. Admittedly, Maslow's theory does not include anything that would correspond to the inorganic level. I guess that animals have a need for sensory experiences because I've read that people placed in rooms that are completely quiet get anguished after a while and want to leave. In ordinary conditions, however, the need for sensory experiences is so easily met that Maslow didn't bother to include it into his hierarchy. Nature does not seem to spontaneously produce conditions of sensory deprivation unless that is how it feels to be dead.

The Dynamic–Static-Split

Part of nonrelativizable qualities in the Analytic Metaphysics of Quality.
Judgement and The Tower in Tarot.

Dynamic Quality is an undefinable variant of Quality that, as a concept, appears to function quite similarly to the concept of Quality. Whenever a pattern is perceived to have a lot of unidentified value it would be correct to state that pattern to have, or to be, a lot of Quality but also correct to state it to have, or to be, a lot of Dynamic Quality. However, if we could identify the value of the pattern as inorganic, biological, social or intellectual the latter statement would mislead others to believe that we can't do so. This is not a property of Dynamic Quality but of the way in which people are accustomed to using the concept of Dynamic Quality according to my own experience. If people can identify the level of a pattern they tend to report that instead of describing the pattern as Dynamic Quality.

In some ways the concept of Dynamic Quality is similar to the concept of surprise in emergence theory. In his paper Toward a Formalization of Emergence (non-free, 2003) Aleš Kubí reports some authors to state that an object or property must be “surprising” in order to be considered emergent. Kubí deems it unsatisfactory to try to define emergence by using the concept of surprise and he is quite right. He is seeking to formalize emergence and in that context it does not seem satisfactory to explain emergence in terms of some indescribable occurrence which, instead of “surprise”, could even be called “magic”. Despite its uselessness in defining Dynamic Quality the concept of surprise seems useful for intuitively describing it.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance features an analogy Pirsig uses to explain the romantic–classical-split. According to the analogy the theoretical and technical knowledge engineers use to construct a train is classical quality but the movement of the train is romantic quality. That is to say, to have the mental blueprints of a train is different from having a working train that really transports things from place A to place B. This analogy is interesting as it can be used to illustrate the romantic–classical-split but not the Dynamic–static-split. At first glance one might be inclined to categorize technical knowledge of the train as a static pattern and the actual working train as Dynamic Quality. But this does not seem to adequately emphasize the surprisingness of Dynamic Quality. It sounds quite ordinary to find out that what looks like a train also works like a train: it moves and can transfer goods from one place to another. Hence, the movement of the train is not a good example of Dynamic Quality even though it is a good example of romantic quality. Instead, the movement of the train is static quality. Static quality refers to the whole of things that we can identify and are familiar with. From a logical point of view the notion of static quality is as context-free as that of Dynamic Quality. The only things beyond static quality are Quality and Dynamic Quality. Neither one of these can be logically defined but it seems like Dynamic Quality is the complement of static quality within Quality. In other words, Quality is Dynamic to the extent that it is not static.

Although Dynamic Quality is supposed to be undefinable or to have no properties, Pirsig uses anthropological anecdotes to descibe what he considered manifestations of Dynamic Quality. In Lila he introduces the concept of Dynamic Quality via an account of a certain Pueblo Indian who is an outcast, a “weirdo” and a torture victim and is feuding with an influential and respected priest. Unexpectedly the priest gives up his power. The outcast wins, passes the tribe's folklore on to anthropologists and becomes the governor of his native Zuni tribe. This feud was Dynamic Quality because the outcome was not expected and the static reality of the tribe was not the same after the outcast won the feud.

The publication of Gödel's incompleteness theorems in 1931 was another manifestation of Dynamic Quality. In Gödel's time the best mathematicians thought it would be possible to prove every mathematical statement or the negation of that statement. They didn't always even bother to mention this – it was considered self-evident. But Gödel made two ingenious and comparatively short proofs that demonstrated this to be false. Instead, there are mathematical statements that cannot be proven or disproven. Their truth or falsehood may only be assumed. This implies that manifestations of Dynamic Quality could depend of a cultural context. If Western mathematicians of the time had studied The Fundamentals of the Middle Way they might have been less surprised by Gödel's result. Chapter 15 of that work says:

  1. It makes no sense to say that essence arises from causes and conditions. If essence were caused or conditioned, it would not be essence.
  2. Essence cannot be created or otherwise come to be. Essence is not artificial, nor does it depend on another.
  3. If there are essences, then there are real differences between things . . . .
  4. Are there entities without essences? Then there are no real differences between them . . . .
  5. If we cannot find an entity with an essence, that does not prove the non-existence of such entities. Some say that an entity that changes is a nonentity.
  6. Those who think in terms of essences and real differences, and who cannot recognize entities without essences, do not grasp the truth taught by the Buddha.
  7. The Buddha . . . counseled against saying “it is” and “it is not.”
  8. If only entities with essences [really] exist, then there is no non-existence, nor can anything change.
  9. Some will say, “If there are no essences, what is there to change?” We reply, “If there are essences, what is there to change?”
  10. To say “it is” is to be attached to essentialism. To say “it is not” is to lapse into nihilism. Therefore, judgments of “it is” or “it is not” are not made by the wise.
  11. “An entity with an essence cannot not-exist.” This is essentialism. “It existed before, but now it doesn’t.” This is nihilism.

If Western mathematicians in the thirties hadn't had essentialistic belief in the decidability of every mathematical statement – if they hadn't believed that each one of them can be either proven or disproven – Gödel's result would have been less Dynamic. This is how Dynamic Quality seems to manifest when circumstances that seem essential turn out false, nonexistent or irrelevant all of a sudden. It could be said that the more essential a truth is the more static it is and that it forms a background against which Dynamic Quality manifests in stark contrast. The stark manifestations are how we get acquainted with Dynamic Quality because they are the easiest to identify. But Pirsig portrays Dynamic Quality as an omnipresent force and seems to use the stark manifestations only as a gateway through which he seeks to lead the reader to a generally Dynamic reality. I suppose that many common people find a Dynamic reality without such help. However, people with a keen and able mind might get used to dominating their surroundings with intellect in a way that delays their attainment of maturity. They seek certainty and safety within static patterns for a prolonged period of time because if anything like that is to be found, they consider themselves exceptionally likely to find it due to their outstanding cognitive abilities. I see no need to condemn this assumption but it is not what the ancient Nāgārjuna recommends in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way. Nāgārjuna seems to advocate a reality in which manifestations of Dynamic Quality can be harmonious and subtle. This might be a good attitude for a philosopher who has already established his position, faces no opposition and doesn't need to take risks.

Is the Metaphysics of Quality Static or Dynamic?

See also: The Metaphysics of Quality.

Logicians could have avoided the conflict that tore apart the Metaphysics of Quality online community. In his letter to Paul Turner Pirsig states that the Metaphysics of Quality is an intellectual pattern and that he does not understand why it would not be an intellectual pattern. This was a response to Bodvar Skutvik who asserted that the Metaphysics of Quality is not an intellectual pattern. Pirsig wrote:

The argument that the MOQ [Metaphysics of Quality] is not an intellectual formulation but some kind of other level is not clear to me. There is nothing in the MOQ that I know of that leads to this conclusion.

Pirsig’s stance is correct in the sense that the Metaphysics of Quality is intended, among other things, as a freedom pattern that liberates us from "subject–object-metaphysics", which I prefer to call essentialism as Nāgārjuna used that word for what appears to have been either the same thing or at least the reason why subject–object-metaphysics is so bad. Said liberation is achieved by the Metaphysics of Quality featuring numerous ontological categories that are emergent subsets of each other. Due to the nature of emergence any pattern can be thought to belong to any static level described by Pirsig. It makes sense to refer to an inorganic book as the Metaphysics of Quality. Suppose you’re speaking to a librarian: “No, I don’t want idealism, I want the Metaphysics of Quality”. If there are two books on the table, one of them by Pirsig and another by Leibniz, the librarian will give you Pirsig's book – not a lecture on what is Quality. It also makes sense to refer to a biological pattern as the Metaphysics of Quality. When Pirsig is writing he is the Metaphysics of Quality. He might change his mind later about something but at the moment of writing he conveys the Metaphysics of Quality to the exoteric world and is the most important prequisite for the very existence of that kind of metaphysics. Furthermore, upon looking at the Metaphysics of Quality communities it becomes obvious that the Metaphysics of Quality is also a social pattern, and upon looking at Pirsig’s interpretations of anthropological data the intellectuality of the Metaphysics of Quality is evident. The Metaphysics of Quality can manifest as any pattern on any level. The same goes for my Analytic Metaphysics of Quality even though it has four quadrants, as the quadrants are connected to each other via strong emergence.

If the Metaphysics of Quality consisted only of the theory of static value patterns that would be all there is to the debate. However, Skutvik’s criticism becomes cogent when we remember Dynamic Quality which is undefined but included in or referred to by the Metaphysics of Quality. Isn’t Dynamic Quality then defined by the Metaphysics of Quality? If so, how can it be undefined? Isn’t it an intellectual pattern instead? Absolutely not, but it seems equally impossible to state that Dynamic Quality cannot be defined as a referent of the Metaphysics of Quality. If the Metaphysics of Quality didn’t refer to Dynamic Quality, Lila would not be about Quality but about static quality.

What is Pirsig’s conception of metaphysics? In the fifth chapter of Lila he states:

Quality is indivisible, undefinable and unknowable in the sense that there is a knower and a known, but a metaphysics can be none of these things. A metaphysics must be divisible, definable and knowable, or there isn’t any metaphysics. Since a metaphysics is essentially a kind of dialectical definition and since Quality is essentially outside definition, this means that a “Metaphysics of Quality” is essentially a contradiction in terms, a logical absurdity.

Note how Pirsig uses the word “essentially” instead of “subject–object-metaphysically”. It seems that for Pirsig, essentialism is essentialism when he does it but subject–object-metaphysics when someone else does it. Essentially, Pirsig is shooting himself in the foot here. The attitude he is displaying is that of a retired metaphysician. A working metaphysician does not regard metaphysics as essentially a kind of dialectical definition. Curiously enough, soon after the previous passage Pirsig also writes:

To the intellect the process of defining Quality has a compulsive quality of its own. It produces a certain excitement even though it leaves a hangover afterward, like too many cigarettes, or a party that has lasted too long. Or Lila last night. It isn’t anything of lasting beauty; no joy forever. What would you call it? Degeneracy, he guessed. Writing a metaphysics is, in the strictest mystic sense, a degenerate activity.

Here “metaphysics” is portrayed as different from “writing metaphysics”. I see the distinction makes sense but what does a working metaphysician answer when you ask him what is he interested of? He says he’s interested of metaphysics. But if he’s creating metaphysics he cannot be interested of a pre-existing dialectic definition. He’s interested of invoking Dynamic Quality in order to make a new one! This is how Metaphysics of Quality is not essentially an intellectual or any other kind of a pattern: it might also be a process, a work-in-progress.

The controversy over this issue split the Metaphysics of Quality community and denying the intellectuality or non-intellectuality of the Metaphysics of Quality will not resolve it. It is puzzling that the Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was context-aware enough to refrain from answering “yes” or “no” to the question: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” After all, either answer is easily interpreted to mean that the responder has a history of beating his wife. However, the same Robert Pirsig, who thought the Metaphysics of Quality is essentially a pattern, had apparently lost that ability.

I call this curiosity the process–pattern-duality. It is similar to the wave–particle-duality which holds that all particles of matter also have a wave nature and vice versa. The Metaphysics of Quality appears as a process if you think of it as such, but it appears as a pattern if you think about it in another way. There’s no rational argument that its essence is strictly that of a process or strictly that of a pattern. Such arguments could only be justified within a gnostic epistemology in which rational arguments are irrelevant.

The correct answer to the question "Is the Metaphysics of Quality static or Dynamic?" is: "The Metaphysics of Quality is meta to static and Dynamic." Given that Graham Priest has already argued that reality is a non-well-founded set, it should not be problematic that the Metaphysics of Quality turns out non-well-founded, too. Science is inherently non-well-founded in the sense that it is open for revision. Pirsig may have failed to resolve this issue because he tried to do so within the oriental mindset which aspires towards emptiness of mind instead of meta-levels.

A Note For Advanced Readers: By the way, Pirsig only calls writing metaphysics a mystically degenerate activity because in Lila he is creating a theory of static value patterns that only features the objective quadrant. I presume he intuitively understood that quadrant is the opposite of the mystical quadrant. The mystical degeneracy of metaphysics is therefore particular to the theory of static value patterns presented in Lila and does not pertain to metaphysics in general. If you don't believe me try to get to know some occultists. Many of them are both mystics and metaphysicians and would regard neither discipline as essentially degenerate because then they'd have a hard time explaining themselves why they ever had anything to do with them.

See also