Evolution and the Metaphysics of Quality
“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 knowledge that if the past is any guide to the future this explanation must be taken provisionally; as useful until something better comes along.”
–Robert Pirsig, Lila (1991)1
Debates between philosophers and intellectuals about the ‘truth’ about reality have raged on for centuries, never with any definite conclusions. But what are these truths that they are trying to determine if they are not just mere intellectual constructs overlaid on top of an ultimately unknowable universe?
Pirsig then continues that:
“One can then examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find out which is the “real” painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value.”2
Is this not a much better and more relaxed way to approach philosophical thought? To understand that any construct of words will ultimately fall short of the immediate perception of reality? To understand that to try and come up with any pedantic definition of reality is ultimately a fool’s game? That it would be an impossible task much in the same way that it would be for a bacteria cell inside your stomach to try and determine the nature of the world outside of your body?
Pirsig’s way of looking at intellectual realities as if they were paintings in an art gallery benefits not only those seeking truth and knowledge, but also anyone who loses faith in science when it is constantly disproved by a newer and better theory. Would we lose faith in a respected artist if someone new came along and made a better painting?
This way of thinking is all based on what Pirsig calls his Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ); a metaphysics that if it were to replace the subject-object metaphysics that dominates Western thought (he argues), would naturally solve many of the problems that we currently face. The MOQ differs from the standard subject-object metaphysics first and foremost where it makes the first split. As opposed to a subject-object dichotomy, the MOQ makes a dichotomy between static and dynamic, thus allowing room for both subject and objects as well as things that are neither: intangibles such as values, morals, and beliefs; things that formerly had no place in the subject-object metaphysics. Is it any wonder that spirituality and God-like states have had no place in the Western scientific world? If they are neither a subject nor an object, if they can’t be scientifically proven to exist, then according to this whole line of thinking, they cannot exist at all.
It is too easy for science to disprove intangible spiritual experiences, thus having people give up their beliefs and coming over to science because it is something you can touch and feel and document specifically, but then when science itself gets disproved over and over again, the thing that people thought was going to save them from a life of ambiguity turns out to be just as unstable. People then get lost in a cross-fire that they have no way to protect themselves from.
Pirsig defines life as: “a migration of static patterns towards Dynamic Quality.”3 By this he means that all life is a movement away from the status quo; and this is exactly the force that has evolved life from inorganic material to single-celled bacteria to more and more complex organisms. What is evolution if not a breaking free from established norms? He claims that this is all done based on a moral or value choice of the cells. It may be strange to think about cells as making a value choice, but it makes sense when you understand that at a particle and subatomic level, there are no stable patterns whatsoever and that it appears as if particles can do whatever they wish; i.e. light photons behaving as both a wave and a particle with apparently no rhyme or reason as to why.
“One could show that the degree to which an organism disobeys this law [gravity] is a measure of its degree of evolution. Thus, while the simple protozoa just barely get around on their cilia, earthworms manage to control their distance and direction, birds fly into the sky, and man goes all the way to the moon.”4
This idea that the evolution of a species can be represented by its degree to which it flaunts the laws of nature is an interesting one. In his MOQ, he defines five patterns of value: chaotic, biological, social, intellectual, and Dynamic change, with each one being superior to it’s previous. By superior he means that it is moral for a higher order to consume a lower order to propel itself further, i.e. it is moral for intellectualism in the form of the writ of habeas corpus to keep society in check, it is also moral for society (police) to keep biological urges such as fighting in check.
Pirsig claims (along with many others) that there is a degeneracy that has been occurring in recent decades, to which I pose the question: Is this degeneracy not fitting the exact definition of his own Dynamic Quality? Is this ‘degeneracy’ not a blatant disobedience of the natural law that states a living organism must work and fight for it’s own survival? Is being able to do nothing your whole life while at the same time not having to worry about food or your survival not a flaunting of the natural laws in the same way Pirsig claimed man’s superiority by way of defying gravity? It’s easy to point to countless examples of what we believe to be degeneracy, but in the end we know nothing until ample time has passed to allow us to see where our path is taking us.
So then what comes next? What’s the next cultural wide dynamic shift that will occur? It is impossible to know, but it appears as though it has something to do with technology and artificial intelligence. The term artificial intelligence itself is inherently very egotistical, assuming that our intelligence is the real one and anything else, any intelligence that we ourselves create for that matter, is artificial. Is it not the same intelligence that we’re all tapping into? Where does the intelligence to create a robot come from? A collection of carbon based matter inside our heads? Can a collection of biological matter in and of itself design and create something so grand as New York City? I think it’s clear that we are receiving this information from somewhere, or moreover that we are at least building towards something. So can this artificial intelligence that we are creating perhaps be the things that are going to replace humans as ‘the highest evolved beings’? Are we not creating something that can more efficiently tap into the greater intelligence that we are all receiving? It appears to me that humans are no more than a transitory period in the evolution of life on this planet, with some form of robot life being the next evolutionary choice.
This may come off as dismal, but it’s not if you think of it as us being the honorary evolution bearers, the ones who will advance intelligence to realms higher than we ever could on our own. It’s easy for some of us to drag our feet, to denounce technology, because there are always people who are more resistant to change than others; not to mention that it takes a very holistically minded person to accept the fate of their species and their family as ultimately doomed and only paving the way for something greater than themselves, like a modern day slave worker, but is it really just a coincidence that we are facing potential massive population devastation in the coming decades, right at the same time that artificial intelligence is predicted to be able to stand on its own? Only time will tell the true answers to these questions.
 Static Quality is that which exists and doesn’t change. Dynamic Quality is that which occurs at the edge of reality and which brings about change. You can’t have one without the other, static Quality is what provides substance and form, without which there would be chaos, and dynamic Quality provides the change, without which anything would stagnate and die.