Lila: an Inquiry into Morals

What is quality and what are values? This is the integral question Robert Pirsig asks in his book “Lila”, which is a sequel to his famous novel “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. City Connect reported on the latter book previously, and now we will continue the philosophical debate.

Just like the prequel, the book is written as a narrative and again incorporates a beautiful story helping the author conveying his ideas in a way that is relatively easy to understand. Pirsig uses a lot of metaphors and examples of every day life to communicate his ideas to the reader, making his philosophy accessible to a wide audience.

Robert Pirsig put a new idea forward. Instead of everything being defined as objects and subjects, he argues that everything has an underlying innate quality or value, which can be interpreted by an individual. This quality is an underlying characteristic of any object or idea and exists as an entity before it is integrated into a system.

Furthermore, so he argues, life is undergoing dynamic changes, which in most cases are unanticipated. This he calls “dynamic quality”. On the contrary, certain value sets help a system to survive in its current state, which he calls “static quality”. For example, the law system of a society may represent a static set of values, which is needed to keep a society functioning. On the other hand, the evolution of a society is determined by dynamic changes, which can either be deleterious or help society reach a higher level in complexity and evolution.

The argument about dynamic quality is one of the main themes through the entire book, and one example that he gives goes as follows:

Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban short hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say in an old hotel in Key Largo, in a hurricane… . Why is it that a man riding a good commuter train from Larchmont to New York, whose needs and drives are satisfied, who has a good home, loving his wife and family, good job, and enjoys unprecedented “cultural and recreational facilities” often feels bad without knowing why?

Why is it if such a man suffers a heart attack and, taken off the train at New Rochelle, regains consciousness and finds himself in a strange place, he then comes to himself for the first time in years, perhaps in his life, and begins to gaze at his own hand with a sense of wonder and delight?

These are for sure daunting questions, as Pirsig states, but with the division of Quality into dynamic and static patterns, a way of explaining them emerges.

This very man is experiencing the difference of dynamic quality breaking the static patterns of his life and perceives the change as something refreshing and invigourating.

Equally, the book tries to explain why scientific advances have in many places replaced religion. He argues that science is more apt to response to dynamic changes, whereas religion is connected to a static value pattern that does not really allow change. Only if religion is open to change and can adapt to the changes in society, will it survive. It has to be noted that Pirsig does neither refute, nor support science or religion. He just states factual observations. Furthermore, he highlights the weaknesses of science by the fact that even scientific value patterns prohibit advancements and often changes take a long time to be understood by individuals and society. He quotes the famous example of the Platypus. Being neither a mammal, nor a bird, the mere existence of the creature was disputed my many scientists for decades as it just did not fit into the known classification of mammals or birds. What was it?

The definition of mammals and birds had to change and science allowed this dynamic change eventually.

Besides Pirsig’s new proposition of the metaphysics of quality being able to replace the old subject and object metaphysics, which was in great part shaped by Aristotle, he also put forward a challenging thought about our existence.

Why is it that man, being on the top of the evolutionary ladder, is sacrificed for society in times of war? In other words, what justifies the sacrifices of lives in the name of society?

Pirsig argues, that society is actually a higher form of “life” and on the top of the evolutionary ladder. Just as a single cell in a body does not really comprehend the fate of the organism, one human being cannot understand the fate of a society. Just as a cell in a body is replaceable, so is a single man in society. He further argues, that society, for example the city of New York, has its own driving forces, which cannot be controlled by a single person. The city consists of thousands of people, each individual fulfilling one small task in a huge organism. When I first read this statement it made me feel uncomfortable, vulnerable and replaceable. But the more I thought about the concept, the more a saw how much sense this idea makes.

So what does this new metaphysics of quality teach us?

Why is it superior to the simple division of life into subjects and objects?

As a concluding remark, Pirsig gives a comment on our possible future. He argues that life superimposed itself upon death billions of years ago. Man superimposed itself upon life a hundred thousand years ago. Society superimposed itself upon man thousand of years ago and now we are fighting the battle of intellect superimposing itself upon society. Should we maybe not scared about the “decay of values” of our society but see it as a chance to built a new level of our evolution?

Image reproduced from http://robertpirsig.org/LilaCoversmall.jpg

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About Sebastian Müller

Sebastian Müller was born and raised in Leipzig/Germany and moved to England as an adolescent. He is a trained research chemist and geneticist and is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institut Curie in Paris/ France working in cancer research. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and is still actively involved at the university today. He is fluent in English, German and French and has many fortés and interests including science, philosophy, linguistics, history, competitive sports such as rowing, fitness and nutrition. He is a freelance writer also drawing from his experience as an author in peer-reviewed scientific journals. “I love writing and putting my thoughts down on paper. The written word to me is one of the most powerful ways of conveying thoughts and initiating discussions.”

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