07 January 2008

The Metaphysics of Quality Rears its Head Again

Ok, I admit it: beyond college courses, my philosophical awakening was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and I'm a sucker for Robert Pirsig. I bought Lila in '91 or '92, but I must admit it made less impression on me than ZAMM did. However, I recently came across someone touting the Metaphysics of Quality as a way of resolving the apparent gulf between science and religion, and I zeroed in on that, visited the MoQ.org site, pulled out my copy of Lila, and began to root around to see if it had anything to say with which I now identify.

I clearly recall the single biggest message I took from ZAMM. It comes from an episode that is fresh in my mind after 30 years plus (which, if Steve Grand is right, means that none of the atoms of my present body were part of my body back then!). The traveling companions of Phaedrus and his son develop loose handlebars on their BMW motorcycle. It seems that some shim stock is required so that the handlebar clamp can regain a grip on the bars. Now, the BMW Company likes to cultivate an aura of high quality surrounding its products, and likes to charge a premium for that aura. Part of this is a strident insistence that only approved parts and supplies should be used on BMWs, and that only approved BMW mechanics should work on them, to assure observance of BMW's ultra high quality standards. Well, Phaedrus proposed to cut a shim from an aluminum beer or pop can, but this approach was roundly rejected by the owner of the BMW, who insists on taking the bike to a certified BMW dealer where the repair is made, presumably using "official BMW shim stock" (made from aluminum can stock?). From this I took the message that Quality is a concept that can be manipulated and misunderstood. An yet, there is a clear recognition that quality is very important, difficult as it may be to define.

Now I've done a bit more reading on the MoQ site, especially the essay collection, including "Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality," by Anthony McWatt from the Philosophy post-grad Seminar, University of Liverpool, February 12th 1998. After a lot of general discussion and background, he gets down to a Socratic Q&A exchange with himself:

How do [Pirsig's] four static patterns of quality relate? (intellectual, social, biological and inorganic)

The MOQ recognizes that the four static patterns of quality are related through cosmological EVOLUTION. A graphical representation is offered for this:

If the Big Bang is taken as the starting point of the universe, it is seen that at this point of time there were only inorganic quality patterns. That is to say chemicals and quantum forces. Since then, at successive stages of history, plants and animals have evolved from inorganic patterns, societies have evolved from biological patterns, and intellect has evolved from societies. "...the universe is evolving from a condition of low quality (quantum forces only, no atoms, pre-big bang) toward a higher one (birds, trees, societies and thoughts) and in a static sense (world of everyday affairs) these two are not the same." (letter from Robert Pirsig to Anthony McWatt, March 23rd, 1997)

As the cosmologist, Edward Kolb notes:
"In perhaps nature's most miraculous transformation, the universe evolved the capacity to ponder and understand itself." ("Astronomy", February 1998, p.37)

Well! that sounds a lot like Alan Watts and Carl Sagan, who both waxed eloquent about the role of humans as the conscience of the universe. I don't care much for Pirsig's nomenclature, and I would identify biological "static quality patterns" (SQP) as being equivalent to DNA information and its refinement through evolution. And, in my view, social SQP are equivalent to the social organization of living things into communities. Finally, intellectual SQP are equivalent on the written literature of humankind, which undergoes a refinement process much like that of the information in DNA, except that it is edited much more frequently and without life and death, except possibly for memes. Of these, you can see that I'm having the most trouble finding a form of information that is social in nature.

But the next question is:

Why is evolution an important consideration in the MOQ?

Evolution is an important consideration in the MOQ as a code of ethics can be generated from the four basic levels of quality patterns. Though each level of static patterns have emerged from the one below, each level follows its own different rules i.e. there are physical laws such as gravity (inorganic), the laws of the jungle (biology), co-operation between animals (society), and the ideas of freedom and rights (intellect). It is important to note that the different laws of the four static levels often clash e.g. adultery (biological good) v. family stability (social good).
The MOQ combines the four levels of patterns to produce one overall moral framework based on an evolutionary hierarchy (as seen on the MOQ diagram). The entity that has more freedom on the evolutionary scale (i.e. the one that is more Dynamic) is the one that takes moral precedence. So, for instance, a human being is seen as having moral precedence over a dog because a human being is at a higher level of evolution...

The MOQ follows a form of Darwin's "survival of the fittest" where the fittest is equated with the best. As Pirsig points out:
"...'survival of the fittest' is one of those catch-phrases... that sounds best when you don't ask precisely what it means. Fittest for what? Fittest for survival? That reduces to 'survival of the survivors', which doesn't say anything. 'Survival of the fittest' is only meaningful only when 'fittest' is equated with the 'best', which is to say 'Quality'." (Robert Pirsig, LILA, Black Swan, 1991, rep.1994, p.179)

On the other hand, Darwin defined "fitness" this way: "it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change".

In this context, the best generally refers to the choice which produces the most freedom for a given situation. It is an increase of freedom all the way. For instance, quantum forces can change their energy levels, earthworms can control their distance and direction, birds are able to fly in the sky while people manage to get to the moon.

"The MOQ says, as does Buddhism, that the best place on the wheel of karma is the hub and not the rim where one is thrown about by the gyrations of everyday life. But the MOQ sees the wheel of karma as attached to a cart that is going somewhere - from quantum forces through inorganic forces and biological patterns and social patterns to the intellectual patterns that perceive the quantum forces.

In the sixth century B.C. in India there was no evidence of this kind of evolutionary progress, and Buddhism, accordingly, does not pay attention to it. Today it's not possible to be so uninformed. The suffering which the Buddhists regard as only that which is to be escaped, is seen by the MOQ as merely the negative side of the progression toward Quality (or, just as accurately, the expansion of quality). Without the suffering to propel it, the cart would not move forward at all."
(letter from Robert Pirsig to Anthony McWatt, March 23rd 1997)

I find these ideas a bit fuzzy, but it seems to me they can be made more rigorous by identifying "freedom" with "free will" and a propensity to freely respond to change, as Darwin posed it.

And finally:

So what's the value of such a moral framework?

By removing morals from social convention and placing them on a scientifically based theory of evolution the MOQ removes much of the cultural subjectivity that is inherent in many ethical beliefs.

Pirsig produces the following example:

"Is it immoral, as the Hindus and Buddhists claim, to eat the flesh of animals? Our current morality would say it's immoral only if you're a Hindu or a Buddhist. Otherwise its OK, since morality is nothing more than social convention."

"An evolutionary morality, on the other hand, would say it's scientifically immoral for everyone because animals are at a higher level of evolution, that is, more Dynamic than are grains and fruits and vegetables. But... it would add ... that this moral principle holds only where there is an abundance of grains and fruit and vegetables. It would be immoral for Hindus not to eat their cows in a time of famine, since they would then be killing human beings in favor of a lower organism." (Robert Pirsig, LILA, Black Swan, 1991, rep.1994, p.190/191)

Lila is billed as "An inquiry into Morals" and Pirsig is clearly trying to devise an objective source of morals by basing it on Quality of life and evolutionary science. So he postulates an evolutionary ordering of life forms, a pecking order of "who may eat whom for dinner." If nothing else, this is certainly an effective rationalization for human omnivorousness!

To wrap this up, note that I have mapped Pirsig's quality patterns into a hierarchy of information. For inorganic SQPs, there is no memory or medium in which to store information. When DNA came to be used as a genetic storage medium, nature began to take notes on its progress with replicating life forms, and to keep and preserve the notes from generation to generation, and to practice mutation with natural selection. The result is 3.5 billion years of evolution that has recently produced a species that keeps its own notes from generation to generation and is busily refining them using a process analogous to evolution, but using memes in place of genes. The editing is going on much more rapidly than once per generation, however, so the pace of change has speeded up greatly.

All of which is a very long preamble to the overall point I'd like to make, which I believe to be supported by the Metaphysics of Quality. And my point is that DNA plays the role that humans have previously ascribed to an "immortal soul". The genome is scrupulously specific to each individual, is preserved for millions and billions of years so that it can be refined through selection, and is a ghostly reality that can be copied from physical medium to physical medium, with no substance of its own. As argued by Richard Dawkins and artificial intelligence expert Steve Grand, matter is merely "used" by genes and memes to propagate and test themselves. While not entirely satisfying as an analogue of the immortal soul of religion, the genome clearly shares many characteristics of that hypothetical construct, and is the closest thing we are likely to find to a scientifically defensible "soul" of each living thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting a rationally satisfying. I too read Pirsig many years ago and his two books have shaped my philosophical outlook ever since. His MOQ is a very intellectually satisfying framework on which to pin many notions and ideas about just what this Universe of ours is all about. Although I still refer to God, I no longer profess to have a religion. To me religion is just politics by another name and so can be tested like any other political theory or practice. Buddhism is not like Western Religion though, since the basis of it falls very much into the category of humanaturalism by definition.