Lila in Dialogue – Part 3

emerging

I found myself thinking about other philosophers and what they had to say about everything Robert Pirsig was claiming in Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. It’s funny how Pirsig recommends doing your own creative thinking first before consulting the philosophers and seeing who agrees with that point of view. In my mind, there were a number of thinkers who stood out to converse with Pirsig over the centuries – and there will likely be many more to come.

Madness & Civilization

I’ve read the first couple chapters of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. I feel like his findings might throw some light on Pirsig’s musings about the concepts of sanity and insanity.

Pirsig struggled with mental illness and ideas about insanity in the book. For him, the Metaphysics of Quality allowed him to come to grips with that dark period of his life. He noted insanity is culturally defined – what is considered an insane act in one culture may not be considered the same in another.

Pirsig notes: “Anthropologists found that schizophrenia is strongest among those whose ties with the cultural traditions are weakest” (p.381). This sort of explains why most inventors, scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, etc. with that genius strain typically stroll the line of sanity and insanity. They are pushing the boundaries of reality, spinning the world view around in multiple Copernican revolutions. When you destroy your static cultural values with statements like “God is Dead” and “Quality precedes Subject and Object”, it’s very easy to lapse into depression because no one else knows what you know. When you rip out of the foundations of your knowledge and reality, you are left with nothing until you can re-create the world with your enlightened facts (values). Insanity is for those who lost their way to that new foundational reality. I suppose this is why Pirsig hates the anti-foundationalist and cultural relativism schools of post-modern thought.

Human Action

It is also important to note that my musings are coloured by my readings of Human Action by Ludwig Von Mises, since I was reading bits and pieces of the book at the same time.

Mises also found it necessary to deal with metaphysics before proceeding with the study of human action and economic activity in the first chapter of his book. Given that metaphysical disputes can be interminable, he adopts a dualist approach to the study of human action out of “pragmatism”. He utterly rejects the positivist school because human action is motivated by values. You cannot study economics without understanding the fundamental fact that humans attach value to goods and services – and it is not governments or societies or gods who (should) attach value to such things.

Further to my earliest writings on Pirsig’s perception of education and my own interpretation, I found this pertinent quote while reading Mises: “Education, whatever benefits it may confer, is transmission of traditional doctrines and valuations; it is by necessity conservative. It produces imitation and routine, not improvement and progress” (p. 311). It echoes Pirsig’s sentiments about philosophology versus philosophy.

Nicomachean Ethics

Pirsig ends his book that morality is simply the Good, a noun rather than an adjective. While he is a fierce critic of Aristotle, I found myself thinking about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where he characterizes the Good in terms of virtue – striving towards the virtuous life. Aristotle thought it was important for a person to become good through a life’s work of striving towards excellence versus knowing the good. However, excellence through habits, decisions and actions can be misunderstood as static moral values.

Aristotle also speaks of virtue in terms of learning moderation – but I wonder if he was grasping more at the Dynamic good and static good conundrum. Aristotle also believed that complete virtue involved intellectual virtue in addition to social virtue, which seems to echo Pirsig’s sentiments about the intellectual and social moral orders.

Concluding thoughts

All this time, I felt myself searching for the Truth – singular, fixed and unchanging. After reading these two books, I find myself at the end of one long road and beginning a new one. Pirsig’s philosophy contains everything I hoped for in terms of finding “Truth” now known as “Quality”. Enlightened by the Metaphysics of Quality, I am inclined to plow ahead and see this new world. After all, the Metaphysics of Quality is only the tip of the iceberg. What new and strange things will we find with this new conception of our reality?

Applications of Lila – Part 2

chains

Throughout Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, Robert Pirsig finds concrete examples to showcase how his Metaphysics of Quality can provide a foundation for other fields of study. Given my profession and background, I was predominantly fascinated by what he had to say about the social sciences & humanities. Here are some of my observations and thoughts. 

Economics

I found myself thinking about the questions “Does capitalism have Quality? Does socialism have Quality?” He places political organization under the intellectual moral order and I believe economics would fall under the social moral order since it is not a philosophy, but a realm of human action. However, the science and philosophy concerning economics is primarily political, and therefore, intellectual. It is an important distinction to make that Pirsig does not seem to make. He would probably have termed the two: economics and economology.

Pirsig answers the original questions by saying that “from a static point of view socialism is more moral than capitalism” (p.253) since it proposes a way for intellectual morals to guide society. However, capitalism includes the free market, “a Dynamic institution”, since it allows people to attach value to what they buy and sell. Socialism closes the door on Dynamic Quality, while capitalism effectively responds to Dynamic Quality.

What I believe Pirsig takes issue with in the capitalist system is when the rich appropriate the language of the free market to suit their own interests and contrive to manipulate the market towards artificial (read static) ends (i.e. mercantilism, crony capitalism). As soon as the market ceases to be organic and complex in its parallel patterns of value, it can no longer be labeled as “free”. I think this sufficiently addresses Pirsig’s concerns, since a truly free market disperses benefits to both the poor and the rich. 

Politics

Pirsig posits that the ultimate goal for the intellectual order is “to obtain static and Dynamic Quality simultaneously”. As a concrete example, we can see why modern day democracies are the best examples of both at work: a constitution or monarch to preserve static Quality; and a parliament or congress to act as a Dynamic force – both as a creator of Dynamic Quality and destroyer of static Quality in the making of laws – what Pirsig calls a “Dynamic eraser”. According to Pirsig, such a system prohibits degeneracy from destroying the evolutionary gains made by a Dynamic institution or law or force of progress.

Imperialism

Instead of blaming capitalism for the evils of colonialism, Pirsig blames the static set of value patterns perpetuated by the Victorian social order. As such, “inferior societies” were a threat to such patterns. Justification for the slaughter and exploitation of aboriginal peoples was made on moral grounds, not necessarily on economic ones. Under the social moral order, one society can find justification for destroying or exploiting another to preserve itself. 

The free market is also part of the social moral order, but arguably stands on a higher moral ground than the morals espoused by colonialism. The free market seeks to benefit both sides because both sides attach value to the seller & the buyer, what is bought and what is sold – and therefore there is mutual respect between the two parties for the preservation of exchange to achieve mutual benefits. Where unfair trades are made, the free market ceases to exist because both parties have engaged in an unfair exchange and the reason for the breakage can be attributed to inferior social moral values (i.e. imperialism; racism; sexism). Voluntary labour is higher on the scale of the social moral order than slavery because the individual freely chooses and finds dignity in work, whereas slavery strips the individual of the dignity and benefits of work. 

What of the exchange of European alcohol for aboriginal goods? Was this capitalist enterprise not harmful to aboriginal societies? Again, this is a conflict between the social and the intellectual moral orders. The aboriginals only attached value to mass amounts of alcohol because they were losing everything in the inferior social order of colonialism, the subjugation of one society to another. Such subjugation would have happened with or without alcohol, but alcohol certainly made the subjugation of aboriginal groups easier. The intellectual moral order condemns subjugation, but can make no comment on the sale of alcohol – only the social moral can and in its eyes, the act of the sale of alcohol is not morally wrong in and of itself. It is more pertinent to examine the reasons why aboriginal groups felt the need to turn to drink. To ask any question about the capitalist enterprise misses the fundamental point of examining the inferior set of social morals that is imperialism.

There are whole lists of moral dilemmas that can be questioned here, but one has only to think of them in the context of Pirsig’s hierarchy of moral orders to make sense of them. It is sufficient to say that the colonialist enterprise was not guided by intellectual patterns of value and required Dynamic Quality to overthrow its static social patterns of value.

Education

Pirsig makes an important distinct between philosophy, the act of thinking, and “philosophology”, the study of philosophers. According to him, the “best way to examine the contents of various [philosophers] is first to figure out what you believe and then see what philosophers agree with you (p. 372). In this way, you’ve already done your creative thinking and are not limited by any “dead-ends” in the philosopher’s thought. You are able to critically assess what the value of the philosopher’s words means to you and your world view.

He goes on to add that “real science and real philosophy are not guided by preconceptions of what subjects are important to consider” (p.375). As humans, we each attach value to the study of different subjects and objects as we please. When you think about it, it’s the only way that the study has any meaning and why progress in all fields is driven forward by individuals passionate about the subject, no matter how objective they say they are. We study philosophers because we care about philosophy, we care about having correct (for lack of a better word) perceptions of knowledge, reality and morality. We philosophize because we care about getting this body of knowledge straight before pursuing all the other forms of thought and fields of study.

That is perhaps the fundamental thing left out of education, after years of seeing fellow students not care about reading Plato or Aristotle or Machiavelli or Hobbes. Students have failed to find their world view in these particular philosophers. I have read these philosophers because I care about being cultured, about expanding my mind with their ideas and perhaps to find the perfect system of socio-political organization for the human race. Where other people may find him tiresome, I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books because I see a reflection of what the world could be like, irrespective of the physical differences between my world and Middle Earth. If you do not attach care to what you are learning, how can you be expected to learn anything at all? How can you expect to be enlightened?

Western society is so hell-bent on making sure our students are creative independent thinkers. Yet the education system, so static and cumbersome, does anything but foster that creativity. We are shown how to copy equations and they say we are “doing arithmetic”, we are told to copy chemical experiments and they tell us we are “scientists”, we are told what books to read and then told we are “cultured” and “literate”. What absurdity!

However, I do think there is one limitation on Pirsig’s view because sometimes you need to teach someone the basics before they can start delving into the complexities of quantum physics or what have you. But I do understand how you can pursue “education” so far and then get mired into the same dead-ends as your predecessors and get nowhere with the theories and problems of the day.

Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals – Part 1

sailing

It’s kind of hard to know where to start with penning my thoughts on Robert Pirsig’s sequel Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. I’ve read it like someone given water after wandering through the desert. It is perhaps fitting that my last post on this blog was on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and my thoughts here will simply be a continuation.

You will remember that I was disappointed that Pirsig mentioned little about morals in his first book. While this book certainly tackled those questions, it also appeared to be an elaboration on Pirsig’s philosophy, dubbed the “Metaphysics of Quality”.  I have chosen to organize my thoughts into three posts as I did last time, since each has a different purpose.

Metaphysics of Quality

Pirsig rejects the positivist school that seeks to create value-free sciences. Adopting the positivist approach has hampered the progress of studies like anthropology and social sciences that have spun around in circles and continued to contradict each other.  The simple reason is that positivism does not solve the metaphysical conundrum of dualisms: the objective and the subjective, the romantic and the classical, reason and values.

Pirsig’s newly minted philosophy, the Metaphysics of Quality, claims that values are not outside empirical experience, but part of those experiences. Values are in fact more empirical than subjects and objects themselves because it is needed a priori to understand subjects and objects. We do not pursue the study of objects and subjects unless we attach value to understanding them – that we find Quality in studying them. Therefore, you cannot empiricize values or morals by locating them in the brain, in the physical, as Descartes once tried to do.

For Pirsig, there is no distinction between Quality and morality. Quality is morality. Morality is thus the primary reality of world and the world is primarily a moral order. This conception thus allows for more than one set of truths or morals to exist.

Quality & its many names

Pirsig tackles four different concepts that are platypuses or platypi when it comes to understanding our reality: metaphysics, scientific reality, causation and substance. These are concepts that do not fall neatly within the realm of experience.

Pirsig has already tackled the platypus of metaphysics by noting Quality precedes all cognizance and perceptions of reality. He also debunks the “scientific reality” myth by saying that if it were true, no one but the scientists, physicists, chemists, etc. would know what reality is – which is an absurd conclusion. He notes that scientists are describing a static set of patterns of value concerning reality, but the patterns are not the whole of the reality that they describe.

He uses the Metaphysics of Quality to replace the word “causality” used by the sciences with “value”, preferring induction to deduction when studying the world. Absolute causes are simply very consistent patterns of value. Saying “A causes B” is the same as saying “B values precondition A”.

As for substance, we can only ever observe data, since substance stripped of properties calls nothing to mind. Substance is something continuous in time even if it has no observable properties. Substance is a subspecies of value, a pattern of inorganic values.  Since subatomic particles make up the whole universe and they are deemed substance, then they are also deemed a static pattern of value.

Thinking of causation and substance as synonymous with value allows the crossover application to other fields of knowledge that also involve value, albeit much more dynamic patterns of value.  In this way, the Metaphysics of Quality is able to provide much simpler, better explanations of patterns of value.

The discrete moral orders

Science is a study of stable inorganic and biological patterns of value. Anthropology and the social sciences study a network of social patterns of value. Political science is the study of intellectual patterns of value.

All life and everything in the world is an ethical activity for Pirsig, but these are governed by a hierarchy of orders of morality or “betterness”. Inorganic patterns are governed by the Laws of Nature – physics & chemistry. Biological patterns seeks to triumph over the inorganic and is governed by survival of the fittest. Social patterns rise above the biological and are governed by social institutions such as criminal law and the family. Intellectual patterns that seek to contain society are governed by philosophy and Dynamic Quality.

Therefore, “it’s more moral for a social pattern to devour a biological pattern than for a biological pattern to devour a social pattern” (p.252).

What about the age-old dilemma that asks whether one person should die for the good of society? Pirsig says the man is not just a biological creature, but also a source of thought, and therefore intellect and ideas. This is a case of intellectual moral versus social morals, where it is more ethical for an idea to kill a society (evolution) than for a society to kill an idea (devolution).

In modern society, the most common conflict between the hierarchy of moral orders are social versus intellectual. However, Pirsig notes that the intellectual moral order cannot control the biological moral order – only the social moral order can do so. In the instance of crime, it is not possible for philosophers to think crime out of existence, but rather have police officers, soldiers and/or social workers deal directly with biological crime.

Applications to personal life

I have been struggling of late with intellectual beasts and I have found myself utterly alone in such battles. The high country of my mind is as much a part of me as any part of my body. I love him with all my heart and I do my best to share everything I have and am with him. But in the realm of philosophy, he is not able to follow me down roads he does not fully understand. In his words, they “go over his head”.

There was a line in the book that struck me as I was wrestling with this problem after the scene where Phaedrus and Lila make love: “the way their bodies paid no attention to all their social and intellectual differences and had gone on in as if these ‘people’ that ‘owned’ them didn’t exist at all”.

No person is an island. He grounds me in a way that is necessary to my understanding of life, not just from the intellectual point of view, but also the biological, the social and the artistic. When you’re wandering in the high country of the mind, it is so easy to get lost. You spend so much time looking at the stars that you forget you’re firmly rooted to the Earth. Then, you come back to civilization and you are bitter about ever having to leave the rugged beauty and mystery of the philosopher’s world.

He is something to come back to. He is a noun, like the Good. He is neither subjective nor objective, neither classic nor romantic, neither static nor dynamic. He simply is and all those dualisms are bound up in him.

Qui es veritas?

Throughout the book, Pirsig is obsessed with the notion of Dynamic Good. But Dynamic Good is not the same as Dynamic Quality. Dynamic Quality is some combination of Dynamic good and static good. Dynamic good cannot achieve a high level without being grounded in static good, through static latching as moral evolution progresses. Static patterns and static goods provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect leaps made through Dynamic Good (Dynamic Quality) from degeneration.

Going back to the original intent of the blog, perhaps the real question for this blog should not be “What is Truth?” but “What is Quality?” – and Quality as such cannot be defined, it precedes thought, we just know what it is a priori. As he notes: “Truth is a static intellectual pattern within a larger entity called “Quality” (p.416). “Value” is more direct, more everyday experience – the primary empirical experience (p.418). In whatever field of knowledge we are invested in, we have to ask “What is the Quality of this idea?”

Contribute a Verse

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
 
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1892)