I am mid way through the second book, 'Lila: An Inquiry into Morals', by Pirsig on his Metaphysics of Quality. Although the first book (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) is standalone, the second book takes on the task of formalizing the term quality in a metaphysics. I am not done, but have reached a checkpoint where there is an interpretation possible. This post is about that.

1 Quality

Although Pirsig asks to keep it undefined, there is this statement from the first book:

Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

What is a direct experience? One analogy used in the book talks about 'touching a hot stove' which makes you react instinctively and afterwards you create a story in your mind about what happened. The quality of stove created both these things, your physical reaction and your mental story. But do we gain something by parenting out these two?

Other than the question of why we need a thing like quality, I also want to get a sense of what it is capable of doing and how. This looks like a reasonable expectation even with something undefined since we are talking about projections in our own well-defined world.

2 Value = Q ≈ Force?

If I read things alright, the aim of writing about quality is to have a framework for providing justification of events in terms of it. Why did something happen? Why is something the way it is?

In the first book, the focus was on unifying subjective and objective understanding/appreciation by taking the example of a motorcycle. In the second book, we do something similar by saying that Value is the same as Quality. This paves the way for an idea put later which tries to unify all kinds of drives under one umbrella.

Assuming these terms to not have the exact English definitions, let's first abstract quality out in a symbol Q. Now keeping Q as the fundamental entity lets you talk about a certain unification of subject and object. There are some examples concerning this in the books, but not all feel convincing. For me, the whole proposition feels too anthropomorphic.

Something that really helps here is the statement on survival of the fittest (from an evolutionary sense) from the second book where we ask what is the meaning of fittest. Q is now divided in two parts, one dynamic and other static (with their regular English meanings). According to the dynamic/static split, a thing with higher dynamic Q is fitter in evolution. One way I am finding the pieces to fit is to read Q as force, which is a similar abstraction and the sole actor that does things. The dynamic Q is then a contextual force that makes something happen locally. A particular species might be fit in this environment, but might not be fit in the overall static sense ('entropy should increase' kind of things?).

Though I am not sure if this solves things. Saying that an apple fell from the tree because of gravitational force is circular since that force is defined in just that way. But I guess the focus here is on unification of various inquiries instead of getting rid of them.

3 A hierarchy of Q

An interesting idea comes up when fuzzing the mind-matter duality. A hierarchy of Q working at different levels:

  1. Inorganic
  2. Biological
  3. Social
  4. Intellectual

The Q for all can be grouped together and called the same Q. This clumping together doesn't hurt the unification if things are cohesive and anyway Q is just an abstraction.

These levels of Qs remind me of an example from another book I recently read, 'I Am a Strange Loop'. There is an example that talks about a physical mechanism 'domino chainium' which tells if a number is prime or not by making a domino fall. If a certain decisive domino falls, one explanation goes on the line of bits of a computer (intermittent dominoes) changing a pixel (the final domino). Another explanation says the fall happened since the number was prime (composite). Both explanations are equivalent.

4 Randomness

There is a high risk of getting into teleological arguments concerning Q, specially dynamic one (since thats the creator of new things). But the author suggests a way out by saying dynamic Q goes against all goals. Is this also a goal? Maybe. But probably not if that 'going against' is random. Then you can't say that the goal is to explore everything or something on those lines.

From what I have read and known, this dynamic/static split indeed feels like an acknowledgment of some sort of randomness at work (otherwise, of course, there is no split). At all levels. This randomness helps in creating pockets of anomalies which otherwise feel surprisingly rare (like life) even when the same static rules are being followed.

To sum up, the Metaphysics of Quality looks like an attack on the mind-matter separation with focus on unification of forces that drive things at various levels. An idea is as real as a physical object and the evolution of both involve a tussle between randomness and rules 1.

I am okay with the idea, but don't know if this is actually assisting me in understanding things more clearly. I guess a lot of this is contextual and digging into other philosophies is going to help.


I probably am trapped in a confirmation bias here.