Pirsig's Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

Paper 2, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 701, Spring 2003, taught by Dr. Majid Tehranian

Lila: An Inquiry into Morals was written by Robert M. Pirsig. Pirsig seems to have largely stayed out of the limelight; it was hard to find more information about him. Both this and his first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, are quite autobiographical however. Pirsig was born in 1928. He seems to have dabbled in many disciplines, including chemistry, anthropology, English, rhetoric, and philosophy at a number of different universities. He has spent much of his personal life investigating his notion of Quality, to the detriment of his family life and his mental health. He was treated for mental illness for 2 years.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig journeys across America on a motorcycle with his son and another couple. Between short episodes of the story, he explores the ideas of "Phaedrus," who is actually himself before his time in an insane asylum. Central to these ideas is the notion of Quality. He explains that Quality is universal. While people may disagree about the level of quality in a particular object, they all do have a notion of quality. Yet it can't be adequately defined aside from particular objects. For Pirsig, Quality is essentially undifferentiated experience. Only after we first experience Quality do we divide it into surface features and underlying form, into subjects and objects.

In Lila, Pirsig maintains his thesis that Quality is the essence of reality and all experience. Though real Quality is largely mystical and undefinable in nature, he realizes that, to be a useful, working foundation for our understanding of the world, it needs a more formal metaphysics. Sketching out this metaphysics is the purpose of Lila. (In this book, Pirsig is traveling to New York on a sailboat with a woman named Lila. While this plot often forms a framework for flashbacks and discussions of Quality, I will describe here only the resulting metaphysics.)

Lila starts with Indians; specifically, the contrast between Native American and European values. While traditional European society may be steeped in poshness, social niceties, and "say one thing, mean another" manners, Native Americans are more simple, direct, and unadorned in their approach to things. American values seem to be somewhere in between. The complaints Native American had about Americans, Americans often had about Europeans, and vice versa. It seems that American values were largely generated by interaction with Native American values.

With an interest in studying this thesis, Pirsig began to explore anthropology, but he was soon stalled by the contradictions he found there. On the one hand, anthropology strives to work on the same principles as a physical science. It should be empirical and objective. Yet, one can't study a culture by sitting nearby, not interacting and being "objective." Even more troublesome, traditional science does not view values, morals, or preferences as objective entities. They are subjective. There is no way to hook a person up to an instrument to directly measure their internal values.

To overcome these contradictions, Pirsig turns to Quality. Quality is still empirical in that it is based directly on experience. When a person sits on a hot stove, they have an immediate impression of low quality. It is afterwards, when they have leapt off, that they differentiate into what qualities of the experience were objective and which were subjective. The Quality comes first. Pirsig points out that the division into subjective and objective is not empirical, but an assumption plastered on later.

Value is largely synonymous with Quality; if something has Quality, it has value or is valued. If a thing has no value, it cannot be distinguished from other things. Additionally, if a thing cannot be distinguished from another thing, it does not exist. Thus, if a thing has no value, it does not exist. Again, value (i.e., Quality) is the basis of reality.

Using such a value-based metaphysics cures many of the contradictory "platypi" of the subject-object paradigm. (A "platypus", as used here, is something that occurs naturally but doesn't fit cleanly into your categorization of the world; it more frequently implies that there is a problem with your categorization than that there is a problem with reality.) First off, values are now real things and not merely subjective reactions (which aids anthropology and other social sciences).

It cures the platypus of "scientific reality." If reality is only objective or material, a full understanding of the real world is limited to a handful of people who understand the math, chemistry, and quantum physics necessary to describe it. Yet anyone can perceive and respond to value.

Causation is another captured platypus. Causation is an metaphysical problem because there is no empirical evidence for it in the objective world. Instead of saying "A causes B", we can say "B values the precondition A". The wording may be a little strange, but the empirical data remains the same.

Substance is another. The notion was generated by ancient Greek philosophers in the first place as that-stuff-qualities-adhere-to. Yet if you extract all the qualities or attributes--hardness, coldness, brownness--from an object, you're not left with anything. This "substance" can be replaced by the words "inorganic static pattern of value." We still have a pattern of qualities, but now we are not positing the existence of some indeterminate "stuff" underlying them. Additionally, any empirical study of "static patterns of value", not just inorganic, now has a strong scientific legitimacy.

So, if the division of experience into subjects and objects is not the answer, what is? Pirsig proposes the division of Dynamic verses static. Dynamic Quality is the "pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality." It is new, fresh, and uncodified. It is that sense of total involvement and connection sought by mystics and Zen's "beginner's mind." Out of this Dynamic Quality comes static patterns, which allow for building, stability, and progress. Static Quality can be divided into four levels: inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual. Each level runs on the one beneath it, but is separate from it.

Pirsig uses computers an a concrete example of differentiated levels. At the hardware level, there are voltage levels in single electronic circuits. At the machine language level, there are bits and registers. In high-level languages, functions and procedures. In a completed, running word-processing application, you might write a novel. The plot of this novel cannot be described in terms of voltage levels in electronic circuits, or even in terms of the program functions called. You can't explain subjective experiences (social and intellectual patterns) in terms of the objective (inorganic and organic). Each level, though it needs those beneath it to exist, is independent, with its own rules and structures.

This also sheds some light on the free will vs. determinism debate. In so much as something follows static patterns, its behavior is controlled. When following Dynamic quality, it is free. It makes as much sense to say that people's actions are caused as it does to say that electrons prefer to do what they do. (See discussion of causation above.) Indeed, the data is the same. If moral judgments are the assertions of value preferences, and reality is patterns of value, then "moral judgments are the fundamental ground stuff of the world. (p.180)" The evolution towards Dynamic quality is a morally-right action.

These morals take a different form at each level. At the inorganic level, laws of nature overcome entropic chaos. Biology overcomes death and decay. Society overcomes socially destructive biological urges. The intellectual level dominates and changes society. It is moral for higher levels to control those beneath them.

Pirsig admits the difficulty of determining degeneracy. Technically, society is moral in protecting itself by controlling or killing biological members. But people are also the sources of ideas, which are superior to society. If too permissive, a society will be torn apart. But if it is too strict, it will close the door to Dynamic Quality, grow stale, and die.

Throughout the book, Pirsig discusses Victorians. Towards the end, he examines the general trend of the 20th century towards a feeling of lostness and "dis-ease" (my word). For Victorians, society was of the utmost importance. Behavior and ideas were subservient to and tempered by it. But social systems alone did not prevent World War I, and the old ideal of nobility, virtue, and death with honor did not apply to the trench warfare, complete with mustard gas, Gatling guns, tanks, and flamethrowers. The youth of that time became a lost generation, backlashing at the narrow-minded social patterns of old. Intellect became the new power. Intellect produced new technologies like airplanes, automobiles, and radio. It was opinioned that it could control society too, as with communism or fascism. Science--specifically, rationality and objectivity--held new sway.

While this change may be moral according to the Metaphysics of Quality, objective-subjective rationality does not support an understanding of value or morals as real entities. People are conceived primarily as objects, distinct from each other. This contributes to a feeling of lostness and detachment. The change weakened old Victorian society, but the now dominant objective intellectual level could offer nothing in its place.

In time, hippies backlashed against both society and intellect. This left only two ways to go--towards Dynamic Quality or towards pure biology. Sometimes the two were confused or assumed to be identical.

There was no major resolution; we are still largely lost. There is a need to control socially-destructive biology--theft, murder, harmful vice--to build a stable society capable of supporting intellectual processes.

Pirsig covers other issues--such as celebrity, insanity, and the linguistic connection of Quality with arete, rt, and rta from Greek, Indo-European roots, and Sanskrit--which I have omitted here. He ends by saying, though ultimately Quality is undefinable, a working, real-life Metaphysics of Quality boils down to: "Good is a noun rather than a adjective."

I read this book a few years ago. Though I wasn't sure if I liked it then, it stuck with me. The idea of levels of reality running on top of each other periodically recurred to me. After rereading it, I like it more. I think it has promise as a bridge from a mystical understanding of the world as a single, undifferentiated experience (which I like from some of my readings of Eastern philosophy) to a working metaphysics to replace some of our Western notions. But completely switching your metaphysical basis is no easy task. When it comes to application to specific situations, it gets tricky. But I think it would be worth the effort to think of the world in this way.

Pirsig, Robert M. Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.