A classicist's road to the Metaphysics of Quality

by Magnus Berg


The Metaphysics of Quality originated from a wish to join the classical and the romantic world views. So, it is natural that the people approaching the Metaphysics of Quality sees the world through either one of these lenses.

I come from the classical side, so my main reason to walk the road toward the Metaphysics of Quality was that it seemed to resolve many of the contradictions that appeared when applying the current subject object metaphysics on scientific observations.

I have no direct experience of walking the road from the romantic side, but I've sensed that people from that side regard the Metaphysics of Quality as a relief from the valueless and dry science mostly practiced today. And a relief it is, but I've also sensed that many take this process one step further and regard it as a metaphysics in complete opposition to the subject object metaphysics. In taking this added step, they also strip away fundamental scientific methods such as rationality and consistency. But if you do that, and only rely on Dynamic Quality to explain the world, you end up with more contradictions than any metaphysics can ever produce.

As I have experience of approaching the Metaphysics of Quality from a classical view only, I'm confined to describing that road. My hope is that someone else will take the time to describe the other.


After having read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZMM) and LILA: An Inquiry into Morals, I emerged on the far side of the books with a sense of loss. The books had come to an end, there were no more beautiful words of the great author to read.

Then the thoughts came. Was this "Metaphysics of Quality" really something to work with? It seemed relevant when talking about fuzzy things such as societies and cultures, but could it really stand up to the Metaphysics part of the name and be equally relevant when discussing physical phenomena? As a classicist, the latter was the crucial question. If the Metaphysics of Quality didn't do a better, or at least equal, job in explaining natural phenomena than the subject object metaphysics, then it didn't matter how powerful it was in other respects. I wouldn't use it anyway.


At first, I saw some problems with the metaphysics part but I didn't bother and just went around applying what I'd learned on all kinds of dilemmas that came up. Mostly dilemmas that involved persons or groups of persons. My old way of thinking was very vague on this point but the Metaphysics of Quality had given me tools and a terminology and I realized that I could reason in those terms and sometimes even get some answers.

But after a while of this, static latching if you will, the problems I mentioned earlier got more and more emphasized. At this point, it is important to note that I, coming from the classical camp, regard the four static levels as a way to classify all things. This classification must not be just any classification, it must be complete and consistent, there must be no contradictions within it. I take Pirsig literally when he says: "They are exhaustive. ... - nothing is left out. No 'thing', that is. Only Dynamic Quality, which cannot be described in any encyclopedia, is absent.".

Directly after reading LILA, I had the following image of the four static levels:

  • Inorganic patterns are simply matter. Every dead thing is inorganic patterns.
  • Biological patterns are everything that are alive.
  • Social patterns are groups of biological patterns. Societies, cultures and so on.
  • Intellectual patterns are somehow built upon social patterns. I had no idea what this meant and couldn't see any manifestations of this anywhere. I thought I just wasn't looking enough.

The problems I saw with this image were:

  • The intellectual level seemed to have a stupid name. Why name the level after something known and then define it as something completely different?
  • Assuming that what he meant by intellectual patterns was indeed what we usually think of as intellect, another problem popped up. If humans are biological patterns, and given that each level is dependent on the one beneath, then how is it possible for us to have individual intellect? Intellectual patterns were supposed to give humans individual freedom from society and become unconstrained by social rituals. Human individuals seemed to skip the social level altogether.
  • What was the novel LILA in terms of the static levels? Of course it was inorganic paper and ink but so were the manuals for my computer so that didn't explain much. It was certainly not alive so it couldn't be anything else either it seemed. Pirsig wrote in LILA about a novel being inside a computer and I thought that the novel LILA in my computer would do just as good as the ink and paper version. So, the essence of the novel LILA couldn't be the ink and paper either!
  • My understanding of the biological level was quite vague. Simply referring to life didn't say much since the definitions of life I've seen weren't very elaborate. All it took was to eat, shit and reproduce and it wasn't hard to imagine that being faked. Once a machine can do this, there will also be an, in all other respects, identical machine that can't. This would mean that one machine would be biological and the other not, and I refused to buy that. Also, the term 'biological machine' is as bad a contradiction as 'military intelligence'.
  • Pirsig writes in LILA, "...collective organizations of cells into metazoan societies called plants and animals.". Does he mean that plants and animals are social patterns? Why not? A cell is certainly biological, and a cooperative collection of cells is a society in the same way a flock of wolves is a society. This left the question "is an animal biological or social patterns?" wide open.
  • The ramification of never being able to construct an artificial intelligence was most disturbing. Intellect required a society of biological beings, and a computer was neither biological nor many.
  • I also tried the approach to define the biological level as carbon based organisms, but that didn't last for long. On the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, scientists recently found sulphur based organisms that use the heat from the lava streams between the continental shelves as their primary source of energy. I consider them to be of the biological level too so I dropped the carbon idea. Also, Arthur C. Clarke's wonderful idea about the methane clouds of Jupiter being alive is a good argument against it.

Somewhere around this point, I stopped looking for problems. I thought that if I didn't stop this trouble making, I would soon despair. But if I could resolve these, I would certainly be able to resolve a few more. In retrospect, I'm not really sure where I started digging in this mess of contradictions. For a while, it almost seemed like the Metaphysics of Quality created more contradictions than it solved.


I think I started with the problem with the novel LILA. What I really wanted, was to place the essence of LILA, or any other written text for that matter, in the intellectual level. I thought, since it wasn't anything solid like ink and paper, or even magnetic ones and zeros on a hard disk, it must be something else. It seemed ridiculous to place it in the biological or social level and the inorganic level was already abandoned. But how could the novel LILA be intellectual patterns when there were no social or biological patterns between the novel and the inorganic patterns to support it?

I was really confused here. I refused to let go of the assumption that patterns of a certain level was absolutely dependent on patterns of each lower level to sustain itself. I thought that was one of the most appealing things about the static ladder. It was what gave the ladder its specific order and defined the relationships between the levels. I saw no way out and gave up on this mystery. I wasn't far off, but I needed one crucial bit of the puzzle first.

Artificial intelligence

Around the time of this first defeat, the Lila Squad got started and some of you reading this might remember my early posts about AI. I was devastated by the thought that the Metaphysics of Quality seemed to make further research in the AI field obsolete since it was impossible anyway. If you think about it, there was actually a contradiction within the Metaphysics of Quality itself! It was supposed to explain reality, humans are intelligent and a part of reality, but at the same time it forbade intelligent machines to be built. Why could nature build something that we couldn't? Was it necessary to make a society of biological robots to create intellect? And in that case, what was the difference between that society and a human one? But the big question here was, why did it seem possible to create intelligence using biological building blocks but not by using steel and silicon? What is the difference between flesh and bone vs. steel and silicon?

My approach to this puzzle was the experiments made by scientists that involved small, insect like robots. The robots weren't very usable by themselves. The point was that they were able to communicate and cooperate as a team to accomplish their task. Each robot wasn't very crucial to the group, if one robot broke, the group was still the same group and could pursue their task without the broken member. I thought this group of robots was a society in the same way that a group of wolves is a society. The group was a social pattern composed of... hmm there were still no biological patterns in between.

As I saw it, there were three ways out of this dilemma. I could let go of the idea that it was a social pattern, I could give up on the inter level dependency to allow social patterns to use inorganic patterns directly, or I could consider the robots as biological patterns. I went for the last one and I'll try to explain why.

The first way out, letting go of the social pattern idea, was never considered. It was what made me look at the experiment at the first place. The scientists actually call them social robots and I saw no reason not to. When I was talking about the group of robots, I was talking about the group, not robot a, b, c and so on. Just as you can talk about a class of students without calling every student by name, or talk about the country of Sweden without specifying every citizen. If that wasn't a social pattern, then I didn't know any at all.

Giving up on the inter level dependency thing was, as I explained earlier, unthinkable. It's much more than just an appealing aspect of the static ladder. It is the one thing that eliminates the 'just' out of Ph¾drus' dilemma from the English faculty at Bozeman. The dilemma being, "Quality is just what you like". Later in LILA Pirsig writes: "The physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe. ... It was not a new idea. It was the oldest idea known to man.". If you let go of this relationship between the moral and physical ordering of things that the static ladder represents, all that is left is old fashioned, just-what-you-like-subjectivity.

I should also confess that I really wanted to dig some more into the biological level. As I said earlier, I had a quite vague understanding of it and this was a good opportunity to do some digging.

So, I put the biological level under the microscope. I think I started by asking, what does the biological level add to its inorganic building blocks? What's the difference between a cell before and after death? The inorganic building blocks that are left when the cell is dead looks exactly like the cell did when it was alive so what disappeared at the moment of death? Life? But defining the biological level as life said nothing. It only changed the question, it was not an answer. One might argue that you can always spot life when you see it, but that was also the case with up and down before Columbus.

I soon realized that this was a dead end. The mystery of life was not about to clear up just because I wanted to. I just went around in circles and got nowhere.

Next, I switched perspective and put myself above the biological level and asked, what feature of the biological level does the social level need to evolve? I mean, social patterns are dependent on biological patterns. So, biological patterns must offer something that inorganic don't, the question was what?

My first suggestion was 'the function'. If social patterns use the function of its biological building blocks, then the individual robots of the robot society became biological because they performed the functions needed by the society. The function of the different robots were almost the same, so they were exchangeable. In other societies, specific building blocks performs specific functions. So in a city, the fire department extinguish fires, the police keeps the peace, the school educates children and so on. The city doesn't need exactly this or that particular inorganic building blocks to form the school. If it burns to the ground, another school built with other inorganic building blocks will do quite all right. The city needs the function of the school, not the particular instance. That's the difference between the inorganic and the biological level. Around this time, I started calling the level organic instead of biological. I thought of it as the organs of a society.

This seemed fine for a while but then 'the function' started to sound a bit too general. 'Function' sounded almost like feature or attribute and every level uses some feature of the lower to sustain itself. There was nothing special about it. So, I started looking for something else to separate the organic level from the others.

The answer was of course in LILA. Pirsig says that language is provided by society. Language is derived from culture. The thing that confused me was that my old conception of society was so unlike my new one, and I thought Pirsig only spoke of my old conception. But of course my new kind of society was included in the Metaphysics of Quality also. The language in the robot society was their communication protocol. Each robot, each organ, in a society needs to know the language used within the society. At least to the extent that it can contribute to the society in the way it's supposed to.

What is needed to form a society is organs with an ability to interact and tell each other what it wants other organs to do. Social patterns are founded on symbiosis between organs. Social patterns are better, more moral, than the organs used to sustain it, because it's more dynamic. It is, as I said above, not dependent on any specific organ to do the job, any organ with the same language and functionality will do just fine.

Another useful and very dynamic feature of the social level is that it can build large hierarchies of societies using societies as organs in a larger society. The society a mentioned above with fire department, police and so on, can be divided into smaller organs using this hierarchical feature. The fire department consists of firemen, the building, fire engines and so on. On the other hand, another larger society, the country, uses the city as an organ.

The obvious question here is, how far can you take this organ-izing? If you keep splitting up societies into smaller and smaller organs, when does it stop? Well, going upwards, you actually don't hit the wall until you see the entire universe as a society. In most cases however, you're not interested in the whole universe so you can just view the society you're interested in as the top level. You should always have in mind though, that this society really is playing a part as an organ in a larger society.

Going downwards, or inwards if you like, there's a tradition in the subject object metaphysics called reductionism, which says that everything is composed of smaller parts that together adds up to the thing. Technology have been constructing societies ever since the first flint stone was mounted on a stick to form a spear. In science, this method is used to split the object under observation into smaller and smaller parts to get an understanding of the structure of the observed society. The problem with this method comes when the lower border of the inorganic level is reached. Here, patterns are no longer built like societies because there are no longer any inorganic patterns to support organic ones. Whether this "level" should be considered a level below the inorganic or pure dynamic chaos is not relevant to the social level. The point is that it is not inorganic patterns.

For example, Bohr's atom model is constructed like a society but that might not be the best way to view it. The laws of nature are features of the inorganic level and below that level, they are as meaningless as the concept of taste below the organic level. I'm not saying that the smallest building blocks of the inorganic level are atoms. I'm just saying that reductionism has its limits.

Organs are not only used to communicate within the society, they are also capable of interacting with the world outside of the society. It is such organs that makes it possible for a society to function as an organ in a larger society. Examples of such organs are sensory organs which are the subjects involved in organic Quality Events.


The new insights about language and societies opened huge doors and the answers to my previously so impossible questions became crystal clear. The answer to "are animals organic or social patterns?" is, both. The animal is an organ in its society. Many animals, i.e. wolves, have a well developed social structure. But the animal is in itself also a society made of many different organs. The robots in the robot society is also societies made of organs, man made organs but nonetheless.

Artificial intelligence was also made possible. A computer is a society made of organs such as keyboard, monitor, hard drive, memory, processor and so on. The languages between them are called interfaces but they are languages capable of supporting intellectual patterns such as instructions and data. Computer languages have an inorganic representation such as voltages, magnetism and so on, but so have all languages. Written language needs ink and paper, spoken language needs audio waves. Ultimately, all languages are understood by organs in a society. A society is formed by two or more organs with a common language. Intellectual patterns can then use this language for support.

Here, another answer popped up, the novel LILA in the computer was intellectual patterns supported by the language of the computer. The novel LILA in the book was intellectual patterns supported by the written language of our human society.

The problem about human intellect was also solved. Humans are societies in themselves and are capable of supporting intellectual patterns with their internal language. Humans are also organs in a larger society and have invented human languages to exchange intellectual patterns with other humans.

The evolutionary path

Suddenly, every computer in the whole world became societies capable of supporting intellectual patterns. And not only capable, they actually had intellectual patterns in the form of instructions and data. Then, how come they weren't intelligent? The answer is that we inhibited them from being intelligent by building them so static that it is impossible for them to exercise any dynamic choices of their own. We have crippled them by specifying the voltage levels for ones and zeros so wide apart that there's no chance for Dynamic Quality to have any influence whatsoever.

So, what would happen if we let them make their own choices by partially closing the gap between ones and zeros? Would the computer spark to life and start talking to us like HAL 9000 from 2001? Well, not exactly. What usually happens when Dynamic Quality changes the value of a bit is that an error occurs. Recently, airplanes flying at high altitudes have had problems with this. Radiation from space is not sufficiently attenuated at these altitudes and may cause a transistor to switch its state. Transistors on silicon chips are getting smaller and smaller and it's getting more likely that radiation may cause a switch. But this effect is purely negative, it has never caused any positive changes. Why?

Part of my answer is that all of these man made societies -- computers, robots, airplanes, spears - are static and only static. They are designed to be static. We don't want them to act dynamically, we want them to act exactly as we designed them to act. Another part of the answer is what Pirsig says in LILA "without Dynamic Quality, things cannot grow, and without Static Quality, things cannot last.". Put these two parts together and you get what I call an evolutionary path. Our evolutionary path starts, at least at a first glance, with the carbon atom with its great capability to form large molecules. The carbon atom is dynamic enough to grow, but it's also static enough to last. This path eventually leads to the cell and later arrives at plants, animals and human beings.

What we do when we create computers, robots and other man made societies, is that we make them so static and so far from this evolutionary path that even if it was allowed dynamic influence, it would never have a chance to evolve into something better. It is almost static enough to last, but it is nowhere near dynamic enough to grow.

What we must do if we want to create true artificial intelligence, is to make it on an evolutionary path and let it evolve on its own. That means that it would be out of our hands and may or may not like us. I say an evolutionary path, not the evolutionary path. Another path starts not with the carbon atom, but with the sulphur atom, deep down in the Atlantic ocean. This path hasn't reached as far as ours, and maybe it won't. Maybe that path is futile and will never reach the intellectual level.

I will even go so far as to define life as something walking an evolutionary path. That would allow life to be carbon based, sulphur based, clouds of methane or whatever.

The reason I discovered this evolutionary path was that in my search for the essence of the four levels, I usually compared two patterns of what I thought were of the same level. I deliberately chose two patterns that were very different, such as the robot society compared to a human society. I didn't really know what the difference was at the time, but it turned out to be Dynamic Quality. The pattern that wasn't influenced by Dynamic Quality are often mistaken for inorganic, just because it isn't alive, i.e. not on the evolutionary path. The other pattern, the dynamic one, often seemed too fuzzy to get a real grip on. It was easy to spot which level it belonged to, but it was always hard to define exactly why. If spotting what level something belonged to was all you could do, it would mean that the four levels were purely inductive. No deduction was ever to be performed using them, and that would be fatal.


It would even allow computer viruses to be called life. Recently, it appeared so called macro viruses that are capable of mutating with each other. Once in a while, one macro virus overwrites another macro virus with parts from itself. Sometimes, this mutation is able to spread and a complete new virus is born. This new virus may be a step back or a step forward on its evolutionary path, but it's a dynamic change nevertheless.

The intriguing thing about the evolutionary path of computer viruses is that it doesn't start in our inorganic level. It has an inorganic level consisting not of particles, but of ones and zeros. Ones and zeros are the entire world for computer viruses. The laws of nature that defines the interplay between the bits are determined by the microprocessor's Machine Language Instruction Repertoire. These laws are very different from ours but given enough time, I bet the viruses would develop intellectual patterns and figure them out. The way a microprocessor executes a string of bits, usually called a program, has striking resemblances to the way a string of DNA is executed. I'm just waiting for the day someone reverse engineers the Machine Language Instruction Repertoire of the DNA processor. Maybe we'll find some clues to the most elusive of our own laws of nature there?

Being into computers, as you might have noticed by now, I also see other levels manifested in this world of bits. Some organic patterns are called functions, procedures or methods. Put a few of these together and you get a society with organs sharing the same language. These computer societies are usually called programs. The programs we usually design are just as static as the robots and airplanes I mentioned earlier. The computer viruses however, are dynamic enough to grow and develop organs and languages of their own.

The only really big difference between the "real world" and a virtual world in a computer is that the designers have complete control of the laws of nature in the virtual world. Often, they are designed very similar to what we're used to. That's more or less the point in flight simulators, car racing games, interactive splatter movies etc.

It is also the same difference between the real world and our imagination. When we imagine something, we build as complete an object of it as we can. We are then able to manipulate this by simply changing the rules.

In computer science, we often use virtual machines to simulate real machines in software. They are sometimes used to speed up development so that you don't have to build a real machine every time to test something. Sometimes they are only used to get an extra layer of abstraction. However, a virtual machine really defines another layer of inorganic patterns built on top of intellectual patterns. So, we now have a computer built using steel, plastic and silicon from the real world. In this computer, we have a virtual machine ultimately supported by the ones and zeros of the computer. Then, there's another layer of inorganic patterns defined by the virtual machine. These patterns need not be restricted to ones and zeros however. They can as accurately as possible reflect our real world.

This may sound very imaginative and wishful thinking. Well, I don't know. The power of the social level is that it can be anything it wants to be within the constraints of its world. A society can encompass anything from the tiniest cell to its entire universe. That's the fantastic power and dynamic feature of the social level. The intellectual level on the other hand, are able to create a universe of its own and decide the rules and laws of nature in that universe. It isn't that strange really if you think about it. Every level is recursive. Patterns of a certain level are able to use patterns of all levels up to and including the level itself.

So, is our universe such a constructed universe too? I don't really expect anyone to answer that. We can't, per definition, exist outside of our universe, so we can't pop outside for a while to take a peek or anything like that. But I guess that is the ultimate question that physics are trying to answer by going backwards in time to, and in some sense beyond, the Big Bang.

The levels

I now had a quite different mental image of the four static levels from what I had before. Or was it really that different? It was more general, that's for sure. But patterns I used to place in a certain level were still in the same level, and patterns I wasn't sure about were now much clearer. The only real difference between my view of the levels before and after was Dynamic Quality. Before, Dynamic Quality blurred my eyes. Now, I was able to see what was static and what was dynamic and thereby isolate the static levels. Now afterwards, I see the importance of why the first split of Quality is into Static and Dynamic Quality. The conceptual difference between them is much larger than the conceptual difference between the four levels. If Dynamic Quality is the conceptually unknown, then Static Quality is the conceptually known. The moment a thing becomes known, it becomes static. It is the moment, the Quality Event, which is dynamic.

Every such dynamic Quality Event is the origin of two static things. They are usually called subject and object. The subject is the observer and the object is the observed. Which is which is often considered obvious but the Metaphysics of Quality says that either one, or rather both, are subjects and objects at the same time. Both static patterns in a Quality Event are subjects from their point of view, and both are objects from the other's point of view.

The Quality Event is a transformative event. What the subject observes is never the actual object, but the result of the transformation. This is one of the reasons why the universe can never be deterministic for any observer inside the universe. To get a deterministic universe, you have to observe it from the outside.

Now, I have the following image of the four static levels:

  • The inorganic level provides stable building blocks and a set of rules, laws of nature, that these building blocks obey. Inorganic Quality Events are often called effects of the laws of nature.
  • Organic patterns are able to interpret incoming signals and act upon them differently than the inorganic building blocks would. A dead cell has lost its ability to interpret signals. Every interpretation is a Quality Event, hence dynamic. They can be senses, muscles, servo motors etc.
  • Social patterns combine two or more organs into something better and more dynamic than the organs separately. To be able to use two organs, they have to use compatible signals. This set of signals is called language. Social Quality Events are events that changes the society, a school is built, the government changes or the a cell dies.
  • Intellectual patterns use the language provided by the society to simulate another layer of static quality. By doing this, intellectual patterns can build models of its own reality and manipulate the models without manipulating the reality. Intellectual Quality Events are associations, inspiration etc.

I know that some thinks that this image does not conform to the way the four levels are described in LILA. But I honestly think it does. It is perhaps more formal and rational, but that's because static quality is formal and rational, it's part of the definition. The description of the four levels above doesn't really contradict anything in Lila. Ok, I use a different name for the biological level but that's not important. It's just to emphasize that biology is just one of many manifestations of the level.


I hope that these pages can hint to other classisist's that the Metaphysics of Quality doesn't need to be as fuzzy as it might seem at a first glance. Maybe you won't be totally convinced by my answers but you might recognize some of my doubts. I also hope to show romantics what I and probably other classisist's burn for. The cause of our never ending rationalizing is not dry and mechanical but driven by a deep and honest urge to know ourselves and our reality.

On to bigger and better things.

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