2016-07-26

On "Metaphysics of Quality" of Robert M. Pirsig

"It's more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than to allow the germ to kill his patient. The germ wants to live. The patient wants to live. But the patient has moral precedence because he's at a higher level of evolution"

In "Lila, an Inquiry into Morals", Robert M. Pirsig brings intriguing reflections about the philosophy of moral using as pretext a river journey he had on a boat. Here I will bring my insights based on this book. Many of this reflections will be my own re-interpretations that were inspired by the book. Even my understanding on Pirsig's views might not fully correspond to the original author's intention.



With this said, let's begin

Pirsig comes with this interesting view of a layered Moral, based on higher and lower level patterns. For example, a biological level will have a "morality" concerned with the individual survival and reproduction. A higher, social level, would bring a superior level of moral that has "higher quality" and that conflicts in some respects with the biological moral. According to a social moral you must respect some rules on how you eat, how you reproduce and so on.

At social level there is also the religion that brings some "quality patterns" at social level. Higher than social, Pirsig puts an "intellectual" layer of moral, that is more concerned with scientific "Truth" than with social norms and social peace.

Below the biological level there is an organic level and an inorganic level, each having their own kind of "moral" that is already too far from what we normally call moral. However such generalization of moral brings more structure into his morality construction, allowing us to better understand the layers that are too close to us for having full objectivity (Biological, Social, Intellectual).

Actually Pirsig does not use "layer" in his book, however I find this name more suggestive. To recap, the main "Quality layers" are:
  1. Intellectual
  2. Social
  3. Biological
  4. Organic
  5. Inorganic
Pirsig uses this comparison for understanding Quality layers: there is nothing in the way transistors are connected in a microprocessor that tells us about how a spreadsheet program will run. It's just a different layer (software) that adds on the layer below (electrical).

Going back to our 5 layers, at each layer, a certain pattern could have a certain level of Quality, that translates to a "more or less moral" assessment. Usually, humans judge morality at social level (rules, laws, politeness) and recently some at Intellectual level (care for scientific truth).

There are many cases when Social morality enters in conflict with a "lower layer of morality" that cares for Biological needs and often disturbs social norms. This explains somehow some paradoxes of human behavior and, in the same time, offers a structure in evaluating different behaviors regarding moral. This hierarchy also includes patterns that we don't usually apply moral on. For example a human body could have a higher or lower biological "quality", and even inorganic matter have a certain "quality" that follows from it's physics laws.

I would say Pirsig's "Quality" is a kind of "Tao" from the eastern philosophy, because it flows in all things and cannot be fully defined in words according to Pirsig. BTW, you can get a glimpse of  TAO by reading this programming joke: The TAO of Programming.

However, Pirsig still accepts that we can talk about some "qualities" of the "Quality" (pun intended). This can be a real headache at intellectual level, however this is the most that the intellect can do about Quality. Normally, "Quality" is better understood by intuition and non-intellectual reflection, possibly by meditation. However, intellectual reflection could dislocate some misconceptions we have about moral.

What is interesting is that each layer is based on the lower layer. We cannot have a social structure without having the biological needs fulfilled. We cannot have science and intellectual undertakes without having a social structure to support it. You can, of course, imagine an a-social individuals pursuing science, but this would be far from the results of having a "scientific community" that can do cross-reviews on each theory and experiment.

Pirsig believes that we have a natural instinct of judging the morality on various levels, a sense of "Quality" regarding various patterns we encounter.  However, we don't judge facts at the same layer of "morality/quality" and this is resulting often in conflicts. For example there is a tension between biological inclinations and social norms and between religion and science. Pirsig recognizes all these as being valid patterns of "Quality", however they operates at different layers. Because each layer depends on the layer below, it's hard to directly discard a "lower" layer in the favor of the "higher" layer, because this could destroy the "higher" layer altogether.

One difficulty is that most of our Quality patterns are "static", they are the patterns that we learned they have "Quality". However, new situations requires new patterns, for example new social laws. These patterns are not recognized to have "higher Quality" until they reach a certain critical mass. Until then, they are "dynamic Quality", that is an emerging form of Quality. For example the theory of "planets orbiting earth" was a static quality pattern until the "earth and planets orbiting sun" came as dynamic pattern and replaced the first. Now the former became a static Intellectual pattern also.

Other dynamic patters are constantly replacing old static patterns, for example the Einstein's theory of relativity disrupted and modified the understanding of Newton's mechanics. At social level, new patterns are emerging constantly in history, like slavery abolition, human rights and so on. Even biological quality evolves - some time ago the women having "some weight" was considered having higher biological Quality (more attractive) than a "skinny" one. Before humans, a higher biological quality emerged when first multi-cellular organism emerged.

Everything "aims" to go toward higher Quality patterns considers Pirsig, however this higher Quality level cannot be known until you reach it. Even at the inorganic layer is possible to have evolution in organization. For example, considering a "Big Bang Theory", the matter went from a soup of undifferentiated energy to a soup of atoms of different and more complex particles: electrons, protons and neutrons.

Another difficulty in assessing Quality is: it's not until you reach a higher "Quality" yourself that you can correctly evaluate a higher "Quality" in your surrounding. However, you could still recognize sometimes a higher level Quality when you see it, while you were not aware that it was possible (think a new great music theme).

A higher layer of Quality is like a "more global" optimum that you can get. You can select great individuals by biological patterns, however you can obtain even better results using a social organization between individuals (social patterns of Quality).

We can think about these layers of Quality as more and more "global" optimizations. Even if global optimizations often requires local optimums, there are many cases when optimizing globally means to sub-optimize the parts (an idea from Fred Kofman).  One example is a cars factory when each employee produces components at maximum speed. Some will produce a little more than needed, so this would waste resources (raw materials) that costs money. It is more efficient globally that such employees to not produce at their maximum capacity to prevent wasting resources. So is the Quality optimum, it might be better not not reproduce at maximum possible rate in order to achieve higher Social goals.

Quality is a kind of "good", however "good" is too overused in our world. Pirsig imagine a kind of "Good" that is not adjective, but noun. In this way, "Good" is not a "quality" of a certain thing of person, but is the very pattern that produces that thing or person. It is like information embedded into that thing or person.

Quality has a self-referencing "quality" that is hard to reason about. We recognize a certain level of Quality because we are in certain level of Quality. This is because Quality is something not local to a certain thing, but it lives in relation with the rest of things and people, as part of a higher "Good" (I would say a "more global" optimum). In a way, we can thing about Quality as "adequate" (or good for) a higher Good (Quality). It is somewhat similar with Gödel's incompleteness theorems, each time when you need to fully define the "Quality" of a system you need a bigger system to work in, and this system will have slightly different "Quality" features.


The missing layer

I think we can define additional layers of Quality. Above the "Intellectual" layer I see another layer, even "more global". To learn the Truth by intellectual reasoning is nice, however this only lives as long as the Life will leave. If the life on Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid  I would consider this a very low Quality situation, no matter how you look at it.  If, from the point of view of the Intellectual quality, it has Quality to just find a higher and higher order Truth, in an even higher level layer this might appear sub-optimal sometimes. In order to preserve this Truth we must assure the survival of the Life itself. And how can we do this?

I would say, at this moment, the only reasonable way is to start colonizing other planets before Earth is destroyed by a random inorganic or organic event of lower Quality (meteorite or disease).

Considering this, I would say that there is great Quality in a Morality derived from Space Colonization ;)


Please share this article if you find it interesting. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment