A Reflection on David Morey’s “Arthur Young and Pirsig: Can Young Help Us to Understand the Levels?”


By Steve Hannon


Part I: Individual Freedom/System Potential Distinction


After reading David Morey’s essay I was intrigued by the hierarchy displayed at the end. It used Light, Particles, Atoms, and Molecules to represent Inorganic Quality; and Plants, Animals and Man to represent Biological Quality.  The concepts of complexity and freedom were incorporated in the hierarchy.  Complexity, as it appears here, increases from Inorganic Quality to Biological Quality.  Freedom decreases throughout Inorganic Quality but increases throughout Biological Quality.  This is a problem if we want to use Morey’s hierarchy to try to explain Pirsig’s levels.  The levels show a linear relationship; Pirsig explains that each level is a kind of higher form of evolution or moral superior to the level below it.  How can we add Social and Intellectual Quality to Morey’s hierarchy if freedom doesn’t fit linearly within Inorganic and Biological Quality?  If we say freedom increases throughout Social and Intellectual Quality, then we must explain why it only decreases throughout Inorganic Quality.  If we say freedom decreases throughout Social and Intellectual Quality, then we must explain why it only increases throughout Biological Quality.  I believe that a better approach would be to differentiate between two separate concepts: system potential and individual freedom.


System potential describes what tasks the system has the capability of performing as a whole unit.  Light has only the ability to light up objects, so as a system it has the least system potential.  Particles, such as electrons and protons, can attract or repel from each other.  Atoms can react and bond with other atoms, crystallize, heat up and cool down, and radiate.  Molecules can store information (DNA), or take on acidic or basic properties.  Plants can breathe, eat, and reproduce.  Animals have the ability to move.  Man has the ability to think and conceptualize.  Thus system potential increases from Inorganic Quality to Biological Quality.


Individual freedom illustrates what happens to each individual entity, as it becomes a part of a higher level.  For example, an electron can move around space as long as it is not part of an atom.  If it does become part of an atom, such as oxygen, it could only move within a certain space around its nucleus.  The oxygen atom can move around freely until it becomes part of a molecule, such as water, where its movement would be limited to wherever the water molecule could move.  Once a plant, animal, or person consumes the water, it could only move around inside the particular organism.  Individual freedom, then, decreases from Inorganic Quality to Biological Quality.


Now the hierarchy includes three concepts: complexity, system potential, and individual freedom.  Since they are all moving along the same line, we can add Pirsig's Social and Intellectual Quality.  A society, a form of Social Quality, has more potential than an individual man, a form of Biological Quality.  Each individual man is constrained by society, usually by laws.  America’s laws must conform to the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which are a form of Intellectual Quality.  These ideals have more potential than the laws themselves.  For example, the Bill of Rights, part of American law, is specific to this country but life and liberty are ideals embraced by many societies.  The distinction between system potential and individual freedom can clearly be applied to Pirsig’s Social and Intellectual Quality.

Adding this distinction to Morey’s ideas produces a hierarchy like this:


Part II: More Characteristics of the New Hierarchy

Change is an important concept that can be applied to this hierarchy.  The actual change in nature of each of the levels I will call elasticity.  Inelastic objects can’t change much without becoming a completely different object.  For example, water, a substance vital to human life, is composed of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom.  Adding another oxygen atom produces hydrogen peroxide, a substance that blisters the skin.  Humans can change over a short period of time by aging, and over a long period of time by evolving.  Societies are easier to change, since people move in and out of them very quickly.  The United States is a collective group of people, even though at different times it could be made up of different people.  Ideals can also be changed or interpreted differently.  We are often asked to provide our own interpretations of freedom, love, or some other broad idea.  Thus, elasticity increases from left to right.


The other kind of change is what I will call applicability.  Applicability explains how easily an object on a certain level can be used or implemented.  Inorganic Quality and Biological Quality are very applicable because they are the most inelastic of the levels; they can be relied upon to resist change.  When using chemicals in an experiment, a scientist can be fairly sure his samples won’t change during the middle of the experiment.  An athlete can be relied upon to perform at the same level for about fifteen years, after which his body breaks down and he becomes slower.  At this point a younger, more agile athlete can easily replace him.  Social Quality and Intellectual Quality are harder to implement because they can change more easily.  A country undergoing a regime change in their government, such as present-day Iraq, is a good illustration of the difficulty of enforcing a new government.  Any new ideas for policy in this government would need to confront the precedent set by the old policy.  This is especially difficult to change, as witnessed in America when it took almost a hundred years to overturn the segregationist policies in the southern states and to gain civil rights for black people.  Therefore, applicability decreases from left to right.

The final concept demonstrates the difficulty of creating an object on a certain level.  This will be called ability to create.  Inorganic Quality is the hardest to create.  One of the most fundamental laws of chemistry is the law of conservation of matter, which states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed.  With modern technology, atoms and particles can be created from energy using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, though this process is extremely difficult.  Biological Quality can be created; the process takes about nine months in humans.  New Social Quality is formed when people start associating themselves with new people, such as in a new neighborhood, at a new job, or in a new club.  Intellectual Quality is created with each new thought generated in the mind, even if it is not immediately understood or connected to another idea.  Thus, ability to create increases from left to right.

Adding these three characteristics produces a hierarchy that looks like this:


I hope this can be used as a tool to help explain the nature of the levels.  Any questions, comments, suggestions or ideas pertaining to this essay or the MOQ in general can be sent to stevehannon@gmail.com.   Thanks again to David Morey for an outstanding essay and to all the people at www.moq.org.