Dharmakãya Light

I think I could have easily ended my discussion of Pirsig’s Lila with the entry on the conflict between Victorian morality and the intellect, because those seem to be the most important ideas in the novel. Actually, the work tends to just trail off at the end, rather than building to a climax as in ZAMM.

However, I found the following discussion rather curious, perhaps because if you’ve looked carefully at some of the photographs I’ve included on my site you have noticed that at times I’ve enhanced what Pirsig refers to as “the Dharmakãya light,” a concept that I’ve heard about but never in Pirsig’s terms.

It introduces the idea as an example of cultural “blindness:”

It was a parable for students of scientific objectivity. Wherever the chart disagreed with his observations, he rejected the observation and followed the chart. Because of what his mind thought it knew, it had built up a static filter, an immune system, that was shutting out all information that did not fit. Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.

If this were just an individual phenomenon it would not be so serious. But it is a huge cultural phenomenom too and it is very serious. We build up whole culture intellectual patterns based on past “facts” which are extremely selective. When a new fact comes in that does not fit the pattern we don’t throw out the pattern. We throw out the fact. A contradictory fact has to keep hammering and hammering and hammering, sometimes for centuries before maybe one or two people will see it. And then these one or two have to start hammering on others for long time before they see it too.

Just as the biological immune system will destroy a life-saving skin graft with the same vigor with which fights pneumonia, so will a cultural immune system fight off a beneficial new kind of understanding like that of the Zuñi with the same kind of vigor it uses to destroy crime. It can’t distinguish between them.

Phedrus recognized that there’s nothing immoral in a culture not being ready to accept something Dynamic. Static latching is necessary to sustain the gains the culture has made in the past. The solution is not to condemn the culture as stupid but to look for those factors that will make the new information acceptable: the keys. He thought of this Metaphysics of Quality as a key.

The Dharmakãya light. That was a huge area of human experience cut off by cultural filtering.

Over the years it also had become a burden to him, this knowledge about the light. It cut off a whole area of rational communion with others. It was not something that he could talk about without being slammed by the cultural immune system, being thought crazy, and with his record it was not good to invite that suspicion.

Though I’d never heard of the Dharmakãya light I identify it with the luminous glow often found in Morris Graves’ paintings, one of the striking elements that first drew me to his bird paintings long before I’d taken up bird watching as a hobby. I’d always associated the use of that techniques in my own work with Graves. Now I wonder if there isn’t actually something more to it.

Pirsig ties this phenomena to paintings that most of us are familiar with:

Once when Phaedrus was standing in one of the galleries of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he saw on one wall a huge painting of the Buddha and nearby were some paintings of Christian saints. He noticed again something he had thought about before. Although the Buddhists and Christians had no historic contact with one another they both painted halos. The halos weren’t the same size. The Buddhists painted great big ones, sometimes surrounding the person’s whole body, while the Christian ones were smaller and in back of the person’s head or over it. It seemed to mean the two religions weren’t copying one another or they would have made the halos the same size. But they were both painting something they were seeing separately, which implied that that “something” they were painting had a real, independent existence.

Then as Phaedrus was thinking this he noticed one painting in the corner and thought, “There. What the others are just painting symbolically he is actually showing. They’re seeing it second-hand. He’s seeing it firsthand.”

It was a painting of Christ with no halo at all. But the clouds in the sky behind his head were slightly lighter near his head than farther away. And the sky near his head was lighter too. That was all. But that was the real illumination, no objective thing at all, just a shift in intensity of light. Phaedrus stepped up to the canvas to read the nameplate at the bottom. It was El Greco again.

Most of us have been struck by this symbolism because of our religious and cultural upbringing. We don’t have to be told what this signifies; we know it without asking.

But Pirsig is right that:

Our culture immunizes us against giving much importance to all this because the light has no “objective” realty. That means it’s just some “subjective” and therefore unreal phenomenon. In a Metaphysics of Quality, however, this light is important because it often appears associated with undefined auspiciousness, that is, with Dynamic Quality. It signals a Dynamic intrusion upon a static situation. When there is a letting go of static pat- terns the light occurs. It is often accompanied by a feeling of relaxation because static patterns have been jarred loose.

He thought it was probably the light that infants see when their world is still fresh and whole, before consciousness differentiates it into patterns; a light into which everything fades at death. Accounts of people who have had a “near death experience” have referred to this “white light” as something very beautiful and compelling from which they didn’t want to return. The light would occur during the breakup of the static patterns of the per- son’s intellect as it returned into the pure Dynamic Quality from which it had emerged in infancy.

During Phaedrus’s time of insanity when he had wandered freely outside the limits of cultural reality, this light had been a valued companion, pointing out things to him that he would otherwise have missed, appearing at event his rational thought had indicated was unimportant but which he would later discover had been more import- tant than he had known. Other times it had occurred events he could not figure out the importance of, but which had left him wondering.

He saw it once on a small kitten. After that for a long time the kitten followed him wherever he went and wondered if the kitten saw it too.

He had seen it once around a tiger in a zoo. The tiger had suddenly looked at him with what seemed like surprise and had come over to the bars for a closer look. Then the illumination began to appear around the tiger’s face. That was all. Afterward, that experience associated itself with William Blake’s “Tiger! tiger! burning bright. The eyes had blazed with what seemed to be inner light.

If it’s a form of insanity, I probably shouldn’t admit that I often sense something like this when I’m taking photographs. Perhaps it’s even what I’m trying to capture in nature, but can, at best, only approximate.

I don’t think it’s entirely irrelevant that Morris Graves moved to the northern California coast where these beautiful birds are prevalent:


Preening Great Egret

Egret Taking Off

Flying Egret

Pirsig’s View of Science and Victorian Morality

The central conflict that Pirsig explores in Lila is the conflict between Victorian morality and modern morality, which he sees as being driven by “patterns of intellect,” more specifically subject-object science:

Intellect has its own patterns and goals that are as independent of society as society is independent of biology. A value metaphysics makes it possible to see that there’s a conflict between intellect and society that’s just as fierce as the conflict between society and biology or the conflict between biology and death. Biology beat death billions of years ago. Society beat biology thousands of years ago. But intellect and society are still fighting it out, and that is the key to an understanding of both the Victorians and the twentieth century. What distinguishes the Victorian culture from the culture of today is that the Victorians were the last people to believe that patterns of intellect are subordinate to patterns of society. What held the Victorian pattern together was a social code, not an intellectual one. They called it morals, but really it was just a social code. As a code it was just like their ornamental cast-iron furniture: expensive looking, cheaply made, brittle, cold, and uncomfortable.

The new culture that has emerged is the first in history to believe that patterns of society must be subordinate to patterns of intellect. The one dominating question of this century has been, “Are the social patterns of our world going to run our intellectual life, or is our intellectual life going to run the social patterns?” And in that battle, the intellectual patterns have won.

Though I suspect that the invention of birth-control pills and the constant use of sex to sell products has more of an effect in undermining traditional morality, Pirsig makes a number of interesting points in his argument that seem worth considering.

First, he offers some interesting insights into the mentality of Victorian society, a perspective I doubt I’ve ever really considered:

If one realizes that the essence of the Victorian value pattern was an elevation of society above everything else, then all sorts of things fall into place. What we today call Victorian hypocrisy was not regarded as hypocrisy. It was a virtuous effort to keep one’s thoughts within the limits of social propriety. In the Victorian’s mind quality and intellectuality were not related to one another in such a way that quality had to stand the test of intellectual meaning. The test of anything in the Victorian mind was, “Does society approve?”

To put social forms to the test of intellectual value was “ungracious,” and those Victorians really did believe in the social graces. They valued them as the highest attributes of civilization. “Grace” is an interesting word with an important history, and the fact that they used it the way they did makes it even more interesting. A “state of grace” as defined by the Calvinists was a state of religious “enlightenment.” But by the time the Victorians were through with it, “grace” had changed from “godliness” to mean something close to “social polish.”

To the early Calvinists and to ourselves too this debasement of the word seems outrageous, but it becomes understandable when one sees that within the Victorian pattern of values society was God. As Edith Wharton said, Victorians feared scandal worse than they feared disease. They had lost their faith in the religious values of their ancestors and put their faith in society instead. It was only by wearing the corset of society that one kept oneself from lapsing back into a condition of evil. Formalism and prudery were attempts to suppress evil by denying it a place in one’s “higher” thoughts, and for the Victorian, higher spiritually meant higher socially. There was no distinction between the two. “God is a gentleman through and through, and in all probability, Episcopal too.” To be a gentleman was as close as you would ever get, while on earth, to God.

My first real encounter with Victorian society came through reading Thomas Hardy novels, and he clearly portrayed Victorian culture as a predatory one, one that oppressed individuals, keeping them “in their place.” And from my West Coast 20th century perspective, their “grace” and “social polish” couldn’t counter the moral hypocrisy depicted in novels of that era.

Pirsig argues that World War I brought an end to the Victorian social system:

The Victorian social system and the Victorian morality that led into World War I had portrayed war as an adventurous conflict between noble individuals engaged in the idealistic service of their country: a kind of extended knighthood. Victorians loved exquisitely painted heroic battle scenes in their drawing rooms, with dashing cavalrymen riding toward the enemy with sabers drawn, or a horse returning riderless with the title, “Bad News.” Death was acknowledged by an occasional soldier in the arms of his comrades looking palely toward heaven.

World War I wasn’t like that. The Gatling gun removed the nobility, the heroism. The Victorian painters had never shown a battlefield of mud and shell holes and barbed wire and half million rotting corpses-some star- ing toward heaven, some staring into the mud, some with- out faces to stare in any direction. That many had been murdered in one battle alone.

Those who survived suffered a stunnedness, and a lostness and felt bitter toward the society that could do that to them. They joined the faith that intellect must find some way out of old Victorian “nobility” and “virtue” into a more sane and intelligent world. In an instant it seemed, the snobbish fashionable Victorian social world was gone.

For Americans, at least, Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s novels capture this “lostness” in excruciating detail, as protagonists struggled to free themselves from the last throes of their society.

Pirsig argues that this social upheaval was driven by “intellectual experimentation:”

The events that excited people in the twenties were events that dramatized the new dominance of intellect over society. In the chaos of social patterns a wild new intellectual experimentation could now take place. Abstract art, discordant music, Freudian psychoanalysis, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, contempt for alcoholic prohibition. Literature emphasized the struggle of the noble, free-thinking individual against the crushing oppression of evil social conformity. The Victorians were damned for their narrow mindedness, their social pretentiousness. The test ‘If’ what was good, of what had Quality, was no longer “Does it meet society’s approval?” but “Does it meet the approval of our intellect?”

Personally, I would question whether abstract art and discordant music were really intellectually driven or merely a continuation of artistic trends as a new generation of artists attempted to distinguish themselves from their predecessors and still capture the mood of their times. This doesn’t seem too different from the Classical-Romantic shift that had been going on in the arts for centuries. Such changes seem historical norms.

Nor do I agree with Pirsig when he argues that

And so, from the idea that society is man’s highest achievement, the twentieth century moved to the idea that intellect is man’s highest achievement. Within the academic world everything was blooming. University enrollments zoomed. The Ph.D. was on its way to becoming the ultimate social status symbol. Money poured in for education in a flood the academic world had never seen. New academic fields were expanding into new undreamed-of territories at a breathless pace, and among the most rapidly expanding and breathless fields of all was one that interested Phaedrus more than any other: anthropology.

Education has undoubtedly taken on more importance in modern society, but does anyone really believe that it ever became the “ultimate social status symbol?” This sounds more like a Beat attack on academia than a realistic appraisal of what the 20th century society values, which continues to be, purely and simply, Wealth.

Considering that Pirsig is probably more of an intellectual than an artist, this argument against intellect puts him in a rather awkward position, one that he is careful to extricate himself from:

Now, it should be stated at this point that the Metaphysics of Quality supports this dominance of intellect over society. It says intellect is a higher level of evolution than society; therefore, it is a more moral level than society. It is better for an idea to destroy a society than it is for a society to destroy an idea. But having said this, the Metaphysics of Quality goes on to say that science, the intellectual pattern that has been appointed to take over society, has a defect in it. The defect is that subject-object science has no provision for morals. Subject-object science is only concerned with facts. Morals have no objective reality. You can look through a microscope or telescope or oscilloscope for the rest of your life and you will never find a single moral. There aren’t any there. They are all in your head. They exist only in your imagination.

From the perspective of a subject-object science, the world is a completely purposeless, valueless place. There is no point in anything. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Everything just functions, like machinery. There i nothing morally wrong with being lazy, nothing morally wrong with lying, with theft, with suicide, with murder, with genocide. There is nothing morally wrong because there are no morals, just functions.

Now that intellect was in command of society for the first time in history, was this the intellectual pattern it was going to run society with?

So, it’s not intellect, per se, that he is opposed to; it’s subject-object science’s lack of “provision of morals.” And, as noted previously, I tend to agree with that view. Science seems by it’s very nature amoral, “unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of something.” While that attitude may well benefit scientific research, even be necessary in some cases to arrive at accurate conclusions, it’s unclear whether society can continue without more of a moral foundation than science provides.

I was a little surprised when Pirsig argued:

Thus, throughout this century we have seen over and over again that intellectuals weren’t blaming crime on man’s biological nature, but on the social patterns that had repressed this biological nature. At every opportunity, it seems, they derided, denounced, weakened and undercut these Victorian social patterns of repression in the belief that this would be the cure of man’s criminal tendencies. It was as a part of this new dominance over society that intellectuals became excited about anthropology in the hope that the field would provide facts upon which to base new scientific rules for the proper governing of our own society. That was the significance of Coming of Age in Samoa.

First, historically it seems just plain wrong to ascribe this view to modern intellectuals when it clearly began during in the Enlightenment with philosophers like Rousseau. In fact, it’s precisely that philosophy that Jefferson relied on in writing the American Constitution.

Of course, when I taught American literature, I emphasized that our society has long struggled to balance the freedom of the individual against the demands of society. Our greatest artists, beginning with Emerson and Hawthorne, have held opposing viewpoints as they struggled to arrive at a balancing point that allows individual freedom while still meeting the needs of society.

That said, I found it a little strange that, in the end, I still agreed with Pirsig when he states:

What the Metaphysics of Quality concludes is that the old Puritan and Victorian social codes should not be followed blindly, but should not be attacked blindly either. They should be dusted off and re-examined, fairly and impartially, to see what they were trying to accomplish id what they actually did accomplish toward building a stronger society. We must understand that when a society undermines intellectual freedom for its own purposes it is absolutely morally bad, but when it represses biological freedom for its own purposes it is absolutely morally good. These moral bads and goods are not just “customs.” They are as real as rocks and trees. The destructive sympathy by intellectuals toward lawlessness in the sixties and since is derived, no doubt, from what is perceived to a common enemy, the social system. But the Metaphysics of Quality concludes that this sympathy was really stupid. The decades since the sixties have borne this out.

Personally, as an INTP, I’ve never been too concerned with society’s rules unless they personally made sense to me. From the outside, though, most people would probably conclude I was a social conformist because I’ve followed most of society’s moral rules. In fact, I laughed heartedly at Heller’s portrayal of Major Major who was rejected by his elders because he followed all their rules because that fit me to a “T.” But I followed those rules not out of some fear of God’s punishment or fear of social condemnation but because they made good sense to me. Long before I had ever heard of Buddhism, I was convinced that karma, or perhaps just that damned conscience of mine, would punish me for taking advantage or hurting others.

For better or worse, society’s Christian values had become a permanent part of me, and I guess I would never have wanted it any other way.

Pirsig’s Patterns

Another idea I grew to appreciate in Lila was the concept of patterns and the importance of understanding them. It’s obviously not a new idea. The concept of “patterns of behavior” is an old one, but Pirsig’s emphasis on the importance of patterns makes the reader see them in a new light.

Particularly important is Pirsig’s division into dynamic patterns and static patterns:

In the past Phaedrus's own radical bias caused him to think of Dynamic Quality alone and neglect static patterns of quality. Until now he had always felt that these static patterns were dead. They have no love. They offer no promise of anything. To succumb to them is to succumb to death, since that which does not change cannot live. But now he was beginning to see that this radical bias weakened his own case. Life can't exist on Dynamic Quality alone. It has no staying power. To cling to Dynamic Quality alone apart from any static patterns is to cling to chaos. He saw that much can be learned about Dynamic Quality by studying what it is not rather than futilely trying to define what it is.

Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration. Although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world. Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other. In traditional, substance-centered metaphysics, life isn't evolving toward anything. Life's just an extension of the properties of atoms, nothing more. It has to be that because atoms and varying forms of energy are all there is. But in the Metaphysics of Quality, what is evolving isn't patterns of atoms. What's evolving is static patterns of value, and while that doesn't change the data of evolution it completely up-ends the interpretation that can be given to evolution.

This actually seems like an amazing revelation in the book, because Phaedrus had been so strongly opposed to the Victorian viewpoint expressed by Rigel. Phaedrus realizes that constant change is not only impossible but is dangerous to any society, which is not to say that stasis cannot be equally dangerous. Pirsig seems right on when he argues that “ although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world.” The genius of America’s Constitution, in fact, seems to be its ability to balance these two forces, preserving the freedoms our ancestors fought for while allowing us the freedom to adjust to a constantly changing world.

Seeing the world in terms of dynamic and static patterns allows us a very different view of morality:

As Phaedrus had gotten into them he had seen that the isolation of these static moral codes was important. They were really little moral empires all their own, as separate from one another as the static levels whose conflicts they resolved:

First, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of biological life over inanimate nature. Second, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the social order over biological life-conventional morals -proscriptions against drugs, murder, adultery, theft and the like. Third, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the intellectual order over the social. What was emerging was that the static patterns that hold one level of organization together are often the same patterns that another level of organization must fight to maintain its own existence. Morality is not a simple set of rules. It's a very complex struggle of conflicting patterns of values. This conflict is the residue of evolution. As new patterns evolve they come into conflict with old ones. Each stage of evolution creates in its wake a wash of problems.

It's out of this struggle between conflicting static patterns that the concepts of good and evil arise. Thus, the evil of disease which the doctor is absolutely morally committed to stop is not an evil at all within the germ's lower static pattern of morality. The germ is making a moral effort to stave off its own destruction by lower-level inorganic forces of evil.

Although every pattern is originally designed to maximize something positive, when one pattern conflicts with another it is often seen as “evil,” even though it is certainly not evil when seen from the earlier perspective. Although we cannot always accept the consequences of a pattern, seeing it and understanding the reason for its existence helps us to better deal with it, perhaps even to coexist with it, if not downright adapt to it.

Pirsig certainly sees patterns on a larger scale than I’ve ever imagined them:

Where has he been during this whole century? That's what this whole century's been about, this struggle between intellectual and social patterns. That's the theme song of the twentieth century. Is society going to dominate intellect or is intellect going to dominate society? And if society wins, what's going to be left of intellect? And if intellect wins what's going to be left of society? That was the thing that this evolutionary morality brought out clearer than anything else. Intellect is not an extension of society any more than society is an extension of biology. Intellect is going its own way, and in doing so at war with society, seeking to subjugate society, to put Society under lock and key. An evolutionary morality says it is moral for intellect to do so, but it also contains a warning: Just as a society that weakens its people's physical health endangers its own stability, so does an intellectual pattern that weakens and destroys the health of its social base also endanger its own stability.

Better to say "has endangered." It's already happened. This has been a century of fantastic intellectual growth and fantastic social destruction. The only question is how long this process can keep on.

Those of us who’ve devoted much of our live to contemporary poetry and fiction have long been aware of this conflict, and it’s increasingly clear that even the general public has begun to react to it in unpredictable ways.

Most artists, at least most of those who’ve become famous, have challenged traditional values. Thomas Hardy, often seen as the first modern author, vigorously assailed a society that suppressed those on the lower rungs of society, those who dreamed of rising above their position, only to be destroyed by the bureaucracy developed to maintain the status quo.

Few famous artists, on the hand, have spoken about maintaining our social patterns, perhaps more time should be devoted to doing so, particularly if Pirsig is right when he argues that:

"What holds a person together is his patterns of likes and dislikes," he said. "And what holds a society together is a pattern of likes and dislikes. And what holds the whole world together is patterns of likes and dislikes.

Of course, perhaps it’s just that I’m older and no longer have the energy to challenge the system, but I think I’ve always felt that most of the old-fashioned morality served a real function if not imposed arbitrarily or too harshly. But, then, I’ve always lived in a pretty liberal, West-Coast-kind-of society where people pretty much accept you for who you are as long as you don’t go out of the way to irritate your neighbors, whoever they might be.

Pirsig Questions Science’s Role in Society

One of the more interesting topics Pirsig explores in Lila is whether or not science offers us the best view of “reality,” an assumption that I’ve generally conceded, but not with a lot of thought about it.

For me, one of his most telling arguments is:

Should reality be something that only a handful of the world's most advanced physicists understand? One would expect at least a majority of people to understand it. Should reality be expressible only in symbols that require university-level mathematics to manipulate? Should it be something that changes from year to year as new scientific theories are formulated? Should it be something about which different schools of physics can quarrel for years with no firm resolution on either side? If this is so then how is it fair to imprison a person in a mental hospital for life with no trial and no jury and no parole for "failing to understand reality"? By this criterion shouldn't all but a handful of the world's most advanced physicists be locked up for life? Who is crazy here and who is sane?

Seeing science in this way made me reconsider my assumption that science offered the best way of seeing reality. It does seem ridiculous to allow others to determine what is or is not real for us. In essence, we’ve ceded to scientists the same power that our ancestors ceded to church officials. Scientists are the new “priests” of reality, probably too much power to cede to anyone.

Of course, Pirsig’s purpose in challenging science’s grip on our perceptions is to offer his own alternative:

Reality, which is value, is understood by every infant. It is a universal starting place of experience that everyone is confronted with all the time. Within a Metaphysics of Quality, science is a set of static intellectual patterns describing this reality, but the patterns are not the reality they describe. If science is a study of substances and their relationships, then the field of cultural anthropology is a scientific absurdity. In terms of substance there is no such thing as a culture. It has no mass, no energy. No scientific laboratory instrument has ever been devised that can distinguish a culture from a non-culture.

But if science is a study of stable patterns of value, then cultural anthropology becomes a supremely scientific field. A culture can be defined as a network of social patterns of value. As the Values Project anthropologist Kluckhohn had said, patterns of value are the essence of anthropologist studies. In traditional, substance-centered metaphysics, life isn't evolving toward anything. Life's just an extension of the properties of atoms, nothing more. It has to be that because atoms and varying forms of energy are all there is. But in the Metaphysics of Quality, what is evolving isn't patterns of atoms. What's evolving is static patterns of value, and while that doesn't change the data of evolution it completely up-ends the interpretation that can be riven to evolution.

It’s a good thing that Pirsig doesn’t outright reject the scientific method since most of us aren’t ready to do that. But, like Pirsig, I feel that some of the most important aspects of our lives cannot be adequately explained by science.

I seriously thought about pursuing a career in psychology and loved the beginning classes, but I was totally turned off when I observed the UW’s Skinnerian approach, particularly the electrodes implanted in the brains of white rats. While new brain scanning technology seems to offer much greater potential to understand the human brain, I still doubt that it will ever be able to truly comprehend how the human brain functions, much less explain why particular individuals think the way they do, no matter how many brain synapses they analyze.

Perhaps more important for the survival of society is Pirsig’s insistence that the major flaw in subject-object science is that it makes no provision for morals:

Now, it should be stated at this point that the Metaphysics of Quality supports this dominance of intelligence over society. It says intellect is a higher level of evolution than society; therefore, it is a more moral level than society. It is better for an idea to destroy a society than it for a society to destroy an idea. But having said this, the Metaphysics of Quality goes on to say that science, the intellectual pattern that has been appointed to take over society, has a defect in it. The defect is that subject-object science has no provision for morals. Subject-object science is only concerned with facts. Morals have no objective reality. You can look through a microscope or telescope or oscilloscope for the rest of your life and you will never find a single moral. There aren't any there. They are all in your head. They exist only in your imagination.

From the perspective of a subject-object science, the world is a completely purposeless, valueless place. There no point in anything. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Everything just functions, like machinery. There is nothing morally wrong with being lazy, nothing morally wrong with lying, with theft, with suicide, with murder, with genocide. There is nothing morally wrong because there are no morals, just functions.

Now that intellect was in command of society for the first time in history, was this the intellectual pattern it was going to run society with?

I’ve already expressed my dismay at how some scientists seem perfectly willing to prostitute their skills for dubious causes, either because they lack moral standards or because they can convince themselves that what they are doing will serve “a greater good.”

I suspect the move from liberal arts education in college to job-oriented training will add to this approach in science. In a world where technological change happens faster and faster, it’s vital that those forces be directed by those driven by more than greed and technological expertise.

An Introduction to Pirsig’s Lila

I doubt that many English teachers will be teaching Lila in their classes. Though Pirsig tries to provide a plot to tie his ideas together, the plot line is not nearly as interesting as the one in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I think the audience for this work is going to be almost exclusively readers of ZAMM who want to know more about Pirsig’s underlying philosophy, his Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ).

I know I was convinced that there’s more to the MOQ than I originally thought after reading ZAMM, though I still think Pirsig’s reasoning seems rather fuzzy for a philosophical argument and I’m still irritated by his attempts to address everything from the true nature of insanity to the American Indian influence on American culture, many of which seem to serve more as distractions than as convincing arguments.

It’s been as hard for me to start writing about this book as it was to write about ZAMM because Pirsig touches on so many different ideas, as suggested by his description of how he collected ideas for this book

It would actually be easier to lose the boat than it would be to lose those slips. There were about eleven thousand of them. They’d grown out of almost four years of organizing and reorganizing and reorganizing so many times he’d become dizzy trying to fit them all together. He’d just about given up.

Their overall subject he called a “Metaphysics of Quality,” or sometimes a “Metaphysics of Value,” or sometimes just “MOQ” to save time.

The buildings out there on shore were in one world and these slips were in another. This “slipworld” was quite a world and he’d almost lost it once because he hadn’t written any of it down and incidents came along that had destroyed his memory of it. Now he had reconstructed what seemed like most of it on these slips and he didn’t want to lose it again.

But maybe it was a good thing that he had lost it because now, in the reconstruction of it, all sorts of new material was flooding inso much that his main task was to get it processed before it logjammed his head into some kind of a block that he couldn’t get out of. Now the main purpose of the slips was not to help him remember anything. It was to help him to forget it. That sounded contradictory but the purpose was to keep his head empty, to put all his ideas of the past four years on that pilot berth where he didn’t have to think of them. That was what he wanted.

I won’t fault Pirsig’s method because it’s the same method I used to write research papers in graduate school. Heck, I would love to find a computer program that would allow me to print out numbered ideas on separate pieces of paper, re-sort the pieces, and then re-order the ideas by simply typing new numbers next to the old list of numbers. When I used to do this, I found that I sometimes threw away two-thirds of the material I’d collected because I couldn’t work it into a coherent argument. For me, Pirsig tries to include too many ideas in Lila to do most of them justice.

Trying to offer expertise in so many fields, seems to me to undercut, rather than strengthen, his overall argument, though he appears to be trying to prove that his MOQ theory provides a better framework to understand the world than our present theories. At the very least, he makes us question traditional ways of thinking and offers a new approach to consider when examining the enormous problems that confront us.

For me, the heart of Lila can be found in this rather long quotation:

The Metaphysics of Quality subscribes to what is called empiricism. It claims that all legitimate human knowledge arises from the senses or by thinking about what the senses provide. Most empiricists deny the validity of any knowledge gained through imagination, authority, tradition, or purely theoretical reasoning. They regard fields such as art, morality, religion, and metaphysics as unverifiable. The Metaphysics of Quality varies from this by saying that the values of art and morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable, and that in the past they have been excluded for metaphysical reasons, not empirical reasons. They have been excluded because of the metaphysical assumption that all the universe is composed of subjects and objects and anything that can’t be classified as a subject or an object isn’t real. There is no empirical evidence for this assumption at all. It is just an assumption.

It is an assumption that flies outrageously in the face of common experience. The low value that can be derived from sitting on a hot stove is obviously an experience even though it is not an object and even though it is not subjective. The low value comes first, then the subjective thoughts that include such things as stove and heat and pain come second. The value is the reality that brings the thoughts to mind.

There’s a principle in physics that if a thing can’t be distinguished from anything else it doesn’t exist. To this the Metaphysics of Quality adds a second principle: if a thing has no value it isn’t distinguished from anything else. Then, putting the two together, a thing that has no value does not exist. The thing has not created the value. The value has created the thing. When it is seen that value is the front edge of experience, there is no problem for empiricists here. It simply restates the empiricists’ belief that experience is the starting point of all reality. The only problem is for a subject-object metaphysics that calls itself empiricism.

This may sound as though a purpose of the Metaphysics of Quality is to trash all subject-object thought but that’s not true. Unlike subject-object metaphysics the Metaphysics of Quality does not insist on a single exclusive truth. If subjects and objects are held to be the ultimate reality then we’re permitted only one construction of things that which corresponds to the “objective” world and all other constructions are unreal. But if Quality or excellence is seen as the ultimate reality then it becomes possible for more than one set of truths to exist. Then one doesn’t seek the absolute “Truth.” One seeks instead the highest quality intellectual explanation of things with the knowledge that if the past is any guide to the future this explanation must be taken provisionally; as useful until something better comes along. One can then examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find out which one is the “real” painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value. There are many sets of intellectual reality in existence and we can perceive some to have more quality than others, but that we do so is, in part, the result of our history and current patterns of values.

Of course, it probably comes as no surprise that an English major who rejected a career in math and science would agree with Pirsig’s argument that “the values of art and morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable.” If that were not so, why would they have played such a role in every culture throughout history?

However, even I was a little surprised to find that I began to agree with Pirsig that science with its subject-object emphasis misses much of the point. Things are important or unimportant either because they have value or lack value. While there are certainly times when we need to see things objectively, and only objectively, more often than not we want to be able to judge them by their value.

And though I’m still not quite willing to concede that Quality is the “ultimate reality,” I do agree that it is wise to see that it is “possible for more than one set of truths to exist” and that one should “ examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings.” For me, one of the greatest strengths of the work was that it helped me to begin to see value systems from a new perspective. In fact, I began to see Pirsig as a sophisticated system analyst, and seeing value systems from this perspective made me begin to rethink some of my own ideas, and that’s about as much as anyone can expect from a book.