Herds of Platypi?

A Critical Reading of Chapter 8 of Lila

Thomas Op de Coul
December 2002


Let me start with a quote from a book I read recently: "There are two kinds of people. In different fields they go by different names. In comparative linguistics they are known as the lumpers and the splitters. The lumpers like to put many languages into few families. The splitters like to inspect the resulting lumps and find fault lines."

As the author of the book, I am a self-confessed splitter. I am not a person, at the moment at least, for big systems. I have the tendency to try and find anomalies, cracks, small holes in these systems. So please do not think of me as primarily negative towards the MOQ - it is just my way of dealing with texts and theories. And it is definitely a way to get through to the heart of both the theory and yourself.

Let's go to the heart then. In the second half of Chapter 8, Pirsig identifies four Platypi in SOM: Quality, Scientific Reality, Causation and Substance. I will take these one by one.

I. Quality

As for Quality, the first half of chapter eight covers this, although at that point Pirsig does not call it a platypus yet. (A bit futile, but anyway: the second sentence says "only objects are supposed to be real"; I would say that subjects are just as well supposed to be real in SOM.)

Pirsig is comparing the view that Quality emerges from SO to the view that SO emerge from Quality. Later on, as mentioned, he will identify the former as the first of his platypi. Either view must be tested for truth. Tests of truth: the view needs to be:

Logically consequent,
Agreeing with experience
Economical in its explanation.

Although I am unsure about the last one, these seems to be worth taking for granted for the time being.

Then follows an important passage. Pirsig makes the following statements:

1) If a thing can't be distinguished from anything else, it does not exist.
2) If a thing has no value, it isn't distinguished from anything else
3) A thing without value does not exist.

If we accept physics' 1) and Pirsig's own 2), then 3) must be true - and this 3) is, to me, an acceptible statement. But then Pirsig goes on:

A) A thing without value does not exist.
B) "The thing has not created the value. The value has created the thing".

This I do not follow. Replace 'thing' with 'tree' and 'value' with 'wood' and you will see the strangeness of this conclusion. From A) to B) is not a logical step by any means. It is a bit of an egg-hen problem. And it reminds me of the eternal form-content discussion...

Then, although earlier Pirsig relied on three tests for truth to support MOQ, he writes "the [MOQ] does not insist on a single exclusive truth". And then follows, just as contradictory: "[...] 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'." What, now, is the difference between ultimate reality and absolute truth?

Pirsig goes on (a few lines onwards), "saying that a Metaphysics of Quality is false and a subject-object metaphysics is true is like saying that rectangular coordinates are true and polar coordinates are false. [...] in some circumstances rectangular coordinates provide a better, simpler interpretation." As I now understand it, SOM is just as true as MOQ; its just a different way of "interpreting reality" [NB], but MOQ is for Pirsig the 'better' of the two "to interpret the world".

Now follows another series of statements with which Pirsig tries to show that MOQ is better than SOM:

1) "[MOQ] can explain subject-object relationships beautifully"
2) "a [SOM] can't explain values worth a damn".
(then follows a passage to support 2)
3) "Value is not a subspecies of substance. Substance is a subspecies of value"

Here, as in the first sentence I quoted, Pirsig leaves out the S of SOM. Value could be a subspecies of S and O TOGETHER. Obviously you cannot position value in eiter S or O absolutely, but you COULD position it in both
(Aside: the term 'subspecies' I do not like. I cannot conceive of S, O, or value seperately. They could be intertwined. Then you do not need any hierarchy. It could be a sort of constellation of forces that form our experience... but this is speculation obviously.)

So what are we left with concerning Pirsig's arguments against a SOM and Quality? As Pirsig himself states, both are equally 'true', only MOQ is better in explaining things. So we do not have to bother proving the 'truth' of either, in spite of Pirsig's mentioned tests for 'truth'
Therefore, Pirsig insists that MOQ is better in explaining things. The two places where he is giving arguments for MOQ and against SOM are, unfortunately, logically weak. Furthermore Pirsig makes contradictory statements in trying to support MOQ.

A last point is that it seems to me that Pirsig is not really fighting a SOM, but an 'OM'. He continually leaves out the S in SOM, from the second sentence onwards. Pirsig places MOQ not against SOM, but against 'a thing having value' and against 'value being a subspecies of substance'. I will return to this.

II. Reality and science

Then we arrive at the second platypus, 'Scientific Reality', which seems to assume SOM as its basis (it is pursued by S and aimed at knowledge of O). Pirsig has two comments on this scientific reality:

1) only a few persons (physicians / mathematicians) apparently are able to understand it. No normal person apparently understands reality correctly.
2) scientific reality is subject to continuous change, as scientists are continually proposing different theories and ways to see this reality.

I agree with 2). Many scientists still hold a pretty naïve way of seeing Reality (NB contrasting with many scholars in the humanities - here alternative ways of seeing things are less seldom). They still have the idea of an Absolute truth which can be known through scientific methodes. As absolute truth implies an immobile quality, this contrasts with scientific practice, where 'truth' changes continually.

A problem which Pirsig also correctly identifies is the fact that science confuses all their theories and mathematical formulae with truth. There always remains a gap between Reality and the Language (be it linguistic or formalistic) that tries to describe it.

Then to 1). I must say I am sympathetically inclined to Pirsig's comments. Intuitively I would also say that it is strange to say that only few can 'understand' reality. Yet as an argument it is not particularly strong. I could, as the advocate of the devil, ask why many people have to understand this reality. What's wrong with reality being complex? I cannot think of an argument as to why reality needs to be simple and immediately, easily comprehendable.

In short, I share Pirsig's view on science and scientific reality. In my view, Science is another big system, theory, in which one can be a succesful 'splitter'. Science is extremely exclusive in its attitude - it brackets out, as Pirsig writes, many aspects of life, especially the whole of humanities. Science was in its position very anti-metaphysical, but it has created an extremely metaphysical conception of absolute, 'scientific' reality. And the ultimate language of positivistic science, logic and mathematics, are no more than extremely formalised metaphysics.

III. Causation

Next is the third platypus, 'Causation'. Pirsig states that this is a "metaphysical term, [that] can be replaced by 'value'". He also maintains that "you never experience causation". He then shows how 'causation' can be replaced by 'value':

A causes B = B values precondition A

Thus, "the term 'cause' can be struck out completely from a scientific description of the universe". Pirsig stresses that this is only a matter of words: the world (he writes, strangely, "the scientific data" - compare the previous platypus) remains unchanged. There are two problems here.

1) While Pirsig first states that "you never experience causation", we apparently experience "B valueing precondition A" (which according to himself ONLY is a difference in words) without any problem. I do not see why something in one description IS experienced and in another isn't.

2) The problem of what this phenomenon, whether it is called 'causation' or 'value', actually IS, is not solved in any way. One can still, in Pirsig's words, consume amounts of paper equalling forests of pulpwood, in dissertations on it.

I cannot escape the conclusion here that MOQ does not really solve the problem of describing or explaining causation. As Pirsig himself says, he has just renamed the whole issue.

Apart from all this, I do not see why this is a Platypus in SOM in the first place. What does causation have particularly to do with SOM? Most strands of Buddhism, which definitely do not adhere to a SOM, rest in their views strongly on the concept of causation (then called Karma).

One advantage Pirsig mentions that I do agree with is that 'valueing something' is not so deterministically flavoured compared with saying 'causing something'. Especially in the light of modern physics this wording has its advantages.

IV. Substance

Finally, the fourth platypus, 'Substance'. Just as with causation, Pirsig maintains that Substance is "not anything that is directly experienced [...] no-one has ever seen it. [...] All people ever see are data." And here also, he renames substance as being a "stable inorganic pattern of value". If all Pirsig does is renaming (as he himself maintains), then no-one has ever seen this "stable inorganic pattern of value" either. (I will not go into these patterns of value, as this would lead us into the whole rest of Lila - and that would be enough, as the MOQ forum shows, for numerous essays.)

Pirsig's way of viewing substance related with experience sounds familiar - and indeed it more or less corresponds to the phenomenological way of seeing things, and this is in principle very well defendable.

V. Conlusions

Quality, (scientific) Reality, Causation and Substance are obviously central philosophical concepts that rightly attract Pirsig's attention. Still, as I hope I made clear, I do not really see why they are inextricably linked to SOM - which is the way Pirsig treats them.

What MOQ obviously does, is granting Quality a primary position in the 'world' (whatever this may be...) and renaming fundamental concepts as substance and causation in this light. But the arguments for this step: to make Quality primary - however attractive I find it - are to me very unclear. The arguments Pirsig puts forward are in my view quite weak.

So what are we to do? I feel the central issue still remains: does Quality emerge from Subjects and Objects or do Subjects and Objects emerge from Quality? At the moment, I cannot find any arguments for either position. And as I have tried to make clear in the above, Pirsigs arguments do not entirely convince me.

To summarise (to defend the last sentence): Pirsigs arguments for MOQ against SOM are in my view not convincing:

(I). Scientific Reality is not based on a SOM, but on an OM
(II). Causation is not a problem fundamentally linked to SOM
(III). Substance is just as hard to pin down as "stable inorganic patterns of value"
(IV). Especially the first three conclusions, in my view, lead to pertinent questions regarding MOQ.

They can be found at the end of this essay.

To round off this already long essay, some tentative thoughts. I have the feeling that Question 1 below cannot be answered. It is therefore not only directed at MOQ - one could turn around the question as I have suggested. As I briefly mentioned in a previous mail, this has lead me to think: why does there need to be a hierarchy between S, O and Q? Quality is obviously primary in an empiricist and pragmatic sense. I subscribe to this view - we cannot 'know' O or S as they 'really are'. S and O are no more 'concrete' than Q. I would treat them more or less equal. I believe that Q, O and S cannot be separately conceived - which does not mean to me they do not 'exist' (whatever that may be). But I will stop here.

I did not have as my aim to 'refute' Pirsig, or to present a new theory of my own - that would be foolish. I have merely tried to formulate problems which I have with MOQ, to discover my own position regarding all of these issues. I could scrutinize my own position in a similar fashion once again. And, to return to the quote at the beginning, I do not feel we should do injustice to the richness of our lives by lumping all its elements into nice and clean theories. Life is not smooth and ordered - unlike scientists and other would like to believe. It is dynamic, varied, chaotic and exciting. This is, in my view, synonymous with Quality. (So I am still ending in a theory? you might say.... perhaps that is inescapable, although I will do my best to keep on criticizing not only Pirsig and others, but also myself.)

If you have come this far, thanks a lot for your time. I hope you will also take time to criticize the above. Here follow the questions that remain for me. I look forward to what you all think of them.


1) What is the argument for saying that SO emerge from Q instead of saying that Q emerges from SO?

2) Is knowledge possible in MOQ? If it is, how? And: what does it mean in MOQ to know anything?

3) What is causation / valueing in MOQ? How does it take place? (Put differently: what keeps the world going?)