Robert Pirsig on universal evolution

Unpredictable, unpredetermined dynamic change in Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality.

As anticipated in the last newsletter I did a few days of total immersion in the world of Robert Pirsig.


For those not familiar with Pirsig, he is the author of the two awesome philosophical fiction cult novels “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” and “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.”

I have read both books many times, but every time I read them again I find something to think about. While “Zen” is better known, Pirsig considered “Lila” as the definitive and final exposition of his Metaphysics of Quality.

Other sources consulted:

I’m impatiently waiting for the publication of “On Quality,” by Robert and Wendy Pirsig.

In Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality, “Dynamic Quality” is the undefined and undefinable wind of change that powers reality. Static Quality patterns (inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual) emerge in the wake of Dynamic evolution. This sounds quite abstract, but the everyday term “Quality” connects Pirsig’s abstract metaphysics to the world and to us: the essence of reality has, indeed, something to do with our innate concept of Good. Each layer of static Quality is better, in the sense of having higher Quality, than the one before.

I think the local, reductionist laws of micro physics are not causally closed, so there’s room for other laws to operate. This view is often called strong emergence, or downward causation. There is nothing mysterious or supernatural here: this is just the way nature works.

I wanted to find support for this view in Pirsig’s thoughts on how the universe is striving toward Quality. Of course Pirsig’s support is not the final word, but I for one take Pirsig very seriously. So here we go:

The clearest direct quote I found says that the universe “is evolving from a condition of low quality (quantum forces only, no atoms, pre-big bang) toward a higher one (birds, trees, societies and thoughts).” (Letter from Pirsig to Anthony McWatt, March 29, 1997, republished in “Lila’s Child.”)

Free will “exists at all levels with increasing freedom to make choices as one ascends the levels. At the lowest inorganic level, the freedom is so small that it can be said that nature follows laws but the quantum theory shows that within the laws the freedom is still there.” (Annotation 75 in “Lila’s Child.”)

“Dynamic Quality cannot be part of any cause and effect system since all causes and effects are static patterns.” (Annotation 56 in “Lila’s Child.”)

In SODV, Pirsig says that a Quality event “corresponds to what Bohr means by ‘observation.’ When the Copenhagen Interpretation ‘holds that the unmeasured atom is not real, that its attributes are created or realized in the act of measurement,’ it is saying something very close to the Metaphysics of Quality. The observation creates the reality.”

This is very interesting in this context because, according to quantum mechanics as formulated by e.g. von Neumann, observation (Process 1) is a non-deterministic creative process.

Some relevant quotes from “Lila”:

“Static quality… emerges in the wake of Dynamic Quality.”

“The force of evolutionary creation isn’t contained by substance. Substance is just one kind of static pattern left behind by the creative force.”

“Dynamic Quality, the source of all things, the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality, always appears as spur of the moment. Where else could it appear?”

“To the extent that one’s behavior is controlled by static patterns of quality it is without choice. But to the extent that one follows Dynamic Quality, which is undefinable, one’s behavior is free.”

“Biological evolution can be seen as a process by which weak Dynamic forces at a subatomic level discover stratagems for overcoming huge static inorganic forces at a superatomic level. They do this by selecting superatomic mechanisms in which a number of options are so evenly balanced that a weak Dynamic force can tip the balance one way or another.”

“A Dynamic advance is meaningless unless it can find some static pattern with which to protect itself from degeneration back to the conditions that existed before the advance was made. Evolution can’t be a continuous forward movement. It must be a process of ratchet-like steps in which there is a Dynamic movement forward up some new incline and then, if the result looks successful, a static latching-on of the gain that has been made; then another Dynamic advance, then another static latch.”

In summary, “spur of the moment” choices (Dynamic Quality), unpredictable and unpredetermined, orchestrate the evolution of the universe. Evolution toward what? The term “choice” implies some sort of goodness, so Quality seems a good name for the evolutionary goal of the universe. Quality has something to do with our intuitive notion of Good (e.g. life and consciousness are good). Dynamic Quality, the cutting edge of change, is undefinable.

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Rizwan Virk doesn’t mention Pirsig in his books on the simulation hypothesis, and perhaps Pirsig wouldn’t have liked Virk’s books too much. However, both see the universe relentlessly searching and moving toward better outcomes.

Cover picture from Pxfuel.