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.