Klara and Perla and an Inquiry into the Metaphysics of Quality (Second Note about Robert M. Pirsig)

When I studied at the University of Basel, in 2004/05, I was lucky to live in a funny house, not in a student living community. The person living next to me was Perla from Slovakia. I swore I shall never forget how at one of my first days in Basel I went home in the evening, after having a beer with a fellow student, and found Perla having a small party in her room. She was very responsive to alcohol, but in a cool way, she was very funny, laughing and joking all the time, dancing, singing, falling down at her room divider; at 2 in the morning she cooked me something to eat, even later I looked after her and found her pseudo-dancing in the staircase with a cool look on her face (I loved her saturated smile and her glassy eyes). She was a cool dancer, both elegant and gracious as well as flamboyant, and inspired me in this respect. Her girlfriend Zlata also was at the initial party, as well as Ian and Dave from upstairs, two roamers from England who earned money as street musicians. Back then, I also used to become somehow bizarre when I was drunk, but Perla topped me in this respect. Perla had quality and especially I liked her Slovakian accent. Should I have two daughters I will name then Klara and Perla (Klara was the name of my artist aunt). Pirsig named his second book Lila (with Lila being an example of dynamic quality, falling prey to insanity however, as she lacks the stabiliser that intellect provides).

Pirsig´s Metaphysics of Quality has not entered mainstream philosophy and many people who read Lila did not „understand“ it, or got a sense what Pirsig is actually up to. This also somehow accounts for me. Pirsig acknowledges that his refusal (or inability) to actually define quality may be the reason for the ignorance. That may be quite right, but the more general problem is that Pirsig´s Metaphysics of Quality can neither be verified not falsified. „Quality“ both refers to the consistency of something as well as to the way we perceive something based on how we resonate to it and therefore attribute a certain value to it, and that double nature (respectively that we don´t know whether „quality“ refers to anything outside our perception) establishes some kind of inner conflict within Pirsig´s metaphysics that is finally irresolvable.

Pirsig dissolves „quality“ into something abstract, somehow resemblant to that what Schopenhauer did with „will“ when he put Will as the ontological foundation of everything. Remember how Nietzsche tried to make Schopenhauer look stupid when he said that there is no „will“ per se, but just a „will to something“ (leading him to think of the „Will to Power“ as the Ding an sich). We may think that Nietzsche´s argument does not destroy Schopenhauer, maybe not even affect him, for there may be an abstract „will“, as well as there may be an abstractum of quality (yet need not be). Schopenhauer´s metaphysics of a will per se, a self-referential strive of self-actualisation as the prime mover of everything (resemblant to Whitehead´s „creativity“), may be quite right, but, from a scientific point of view, deems us as primitive and unexplicative. The same thing may go for Pirsig´s Metaphysics of Quality.

As mentioned above, Pirsig´s Metaphysics of Quality can neither be verified nor falsified. That is not uncommon for metaphysics (and likely eventually necessary since science operates within our epistemological limits whereas metaphysics tries to grasp ontology beyond our epistemological limits), and Pirsig himself notes that the endeavour to construct a perfect metaphysics equals constructing a chess strategy where you always win (i.e. any argument in favor of your metaphysics will eventually get confronted with something that either proves it wrong, undecidable, state-dependent, etc. … therefore we have to hold on to a kind of ad hoc metaphysics (as also Whitehead says)) but Pirsig´s metaphysics seems a bit too elastic in this respect (although we have to take into account that a very potent metaphysics may just be kind of tautological and trivial and, since it operates at a very high level of abstraction, unexplicative).

The problem of Metaphysics of Quality is also that it is not a tautology but self-sufficient (respectively self-serving). Everything may be explained as a quality phenomenon as long as we do not know what „quality“ actually is and how it may affect us. Things that are full of shit may be taken lightly in this paradigm and explained away as that, via the butterfly effect or so, they do something good elsewhere. Pirsig accounts that different quality patterns (inorganic, biological, social, intellectual) may actually be at war with each other, refuting our perceptions of harmony and compensation in the cosmos, but he gives (and cannot give) no outline how they actually interact and what their (scientifically graspable) patterns of interactions are and can be. And while Pirsig is fond of anything of quality, both of his books are full of examples how actual and true quality or creativity is a rare thing in the world, and under constant threat, so that the world may rather not appear as a quality phenomenon but as a lack-of-quality phenomenon.

In his efforts to prove that a „metaphysics of quality“ is the most ancient metaphysics of all and an understanding that is established across times and across cultures Pirsig ruminates about whether quality relates to the Tao – or is the Tao – (he also makes comparisons to the concepts of American Indians as well as the Rig Vedaic wisdom of India), but his metaphysics is not as enigmatic as Taoism and therefore does not produce the same undertow, and although Pirsig´s Metaphysics of Quality may be Taoism at a higher level of clarity there is no actual stuff concerning spiritual transformation involved – as well as no moral code and no actual ethics. Metaphysics of Quality may implicate a higher level of awareness and tenderness we should cultivate in ourselves, but it does not implicate any guidelines of what we should actually do – and it does not rule out that a superintelligent replacement species based on AI will make the human race extinct … because, quality.

Pirsig says that the order of the world is, in itself, a moral order, and the notion that the order that makes the world is a moral order or that there is an inherent link between metaphysics and ethics (respectively that they are about one the same) is common among philosophers, i.e. gentlemen who strive to establish connection and have eminent constructive abilitities. Plato, the initiator of systematic philosophy, substantialised moral. Nietzsche, a kind of revenant of Plato, shattered systematisation and rightfully noted that philosophical buildings erected upon confidence in morals have all collapsed across the centuries and millenia. – It is ok to ground one´s metaphysics in an admiration of constructiveness, nevertheless substantialisation of constructiveness is problematic, and a nihilistic worldview is logically quite consistent as well, or the notion that „deep reality“ actually consists of an evil, malicious god, and that everything constructive, beautiful, ethical or full of quality is just there to fool us in making us strive for it in a vain attempt (as is the credo of sociopathic Iago in Otello or of the anti-heroes of de Sade).

However, it is still a mystery why the cosmos is a fine-tuned as it is, or why life and evolution came into being on our planet. These phenomena are highly unlikely. Of course that could be explained with our universe, and our planet, just being the lucky guys within an infinite amount of possibilities, but the mystery still remains – and maybe there is some kind of quality behind it as the source of selection.

And while Pirsig´s Metaphysics of Quality may be ? for a human, it might be an adequate metaphysics of someone who has achieved cosmic consciousness. In his valuable book Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (1901) Robert Bucke says that what we commonly refer to as enlightenment or Satori refers to a universal experience across times and cultures: spiritual, intellectual and personal transformation of very advanced individuals to a state of „cosmic“ perception. Someone who has achieved it ceases to view the cosmos as dead and inorganic, but as spiritual and enlivened, with living beings rather being faint dots in a great living ocean; his behaviour is highly ethical; he is aware of his immortality; he is in suberb control of himself and his personality radiates harmony, dignity and grace. Individuals who have achieved cosmic consciousness include, according to Bucke: Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tse, Johannes vom Kreuz, Pascal, Shakespeare, Balzac, Dante, Ramakrishna, Whitman or Thoreau. The ways and fashions these individuals express their inner experience varies through time and through cultures in which they are, after all, embedded. So maybe the Metaphysics of Quality may be the (or: a plausible) metaphysics for someone who has achieved cosmic consiousness.

UPDATE 24/05/2017:

A Theory of Consciousness Can Help Build a Theory of Everything

Design Theory and a Changing Scientific Worldview