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The Role of

Evolution, Time and Order in

Pirsig's "Metaphysics of Quality"



ANTHONY MCWATT of Liverpool University, &



Responses by ROBERT M. PIRSIG



ABSTRACT Our analysis of the roles of evolution, time and order within Pirsig's metaphysical system show that they are given meanings in his writings which, on face-value, appear to be paradoxical. The cause of these apparent paradoxes stem from the roles of these concepts appearing to be both pre-requisites for Pirsig's extrapolation of his metaphysical system from "immediate experience" (or what he terms "Quality") and simultaneously being products of it. After the main body of the paper, two brief responses to this problem (and some final comments to these by the authors) are given by Pirsig.


Introduction to Pirsig's "Metaphysics of Quality"

The "Metaphysics of Quality" (MOQ) was a programme introduced by Robert Pirsig in his 1991 novel "Lila". "Quality" as referred to, by Pirsig, is "immediate, undivided, experience" [1]. That is to say immediate experience before any division consciousness may make between internal or external states. This is similar to the Cittamatra tradition in Buddhism which asserts that entities exist within the flow of perceptions but not as independent external objects [2].

Consequently, the MOQ shares the fundamental teaching of Buddhism in that an incorrect view of reality is to see a distinct and persistent mind and body supporting consciousness where a subject is discerned, along with its objects [3]. And that a correct view of reality is...

"to see no persistent mind or body - no subject - since there are no distinct and persistent mind objects available to perception." [4]

To which Guenther adds:

"Since no experience occurs more than once and all repeated experiences actually are only analogous occurrences, it follows that a thing or material substance can only be said to be a series of events interpreted as a thing, having no more substantiality than any other series of events we may arbitrarily single out. Thus the distinction between "mental" and "material" becomes irrelevant and it is a matter of taste to speak of physical objects." [5]

Therefore, for Pirsig, immediate experience (or Quality) is experience where there is no distinction between what is experienced and the act of experiencing itself. Quality is the changing flux of reality that logically comes before any conceptual distinctions such as subjects and objects are made. The concepts of subject and object are commonly confused with the essence of reality because they have become such a common apparatus for describing, understanding and analysing that reality [6].

This is not to say conceptualisation in itself is a problem (for the MOQ is a set of concepts) but the confusion of concepts for reality itself is. This is probably the most difficult part of Pirsig's philosophy to understand and is termed by Buddhists as "right wisdom" [7].

Moreover, following the thinking of Alfred North Whitehead, "immediate, undivided, experience" is interpreted as an event by Pirsig. He phrases it thus:

"Quality is not a thing. It is an event. It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object... The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!" [8]

In this quote, Pirsig is implying that an analysis of the world in terms of subjects and objects is a product of one particular worldview in which the recognition of the "event" co-exists and is dependent upon the recognition of an "object" acting on a "subject".

Pirsig opposes this view and, moreover, believes that subjects, objects, and events are only concepts applied to reality (and, as for any concepts, maps of reality, not reality itself) [9].

Another metaphysical error, according to Pirsig, is to take the notion of "event" and consider it dependent upon those of subject and object. A more faithful rendering is given by reversing the relationship, so understanding how subject and object are themselves indefinite and are devoid of continuity [10]. It is illogical to put them otherwise as Bertrand Russell states:

The stuff of which the world of our pure experience is composed is, in my belief, neither mind nor matter, but something more primitive than either [11].

Moreover, even in the MOQ, events are merely analytical tools - ways of dividing the world into units ready for further processing. This is the preference of Pirsig on empirical grounds. We experience the world as a stream of events, from which inferences are made about subjects and objects, which then serve to inform our view of the world.

Both subjects and objects, therefore, are perceived by Pirsig as generalisations from experience. Metaphysical systems which employ these concepts (explicitly or implicitly) are referred to by him as subject-object metaphysics (SOM) [12]. SOM usually refers to any metaphysical system that follows the distinction epitomised (though probably first recognized by the Ancient Greeks) by Descartes in what is called the Mind-Body distinction. This involves the division of a sentient being (such as a human being) into a Body (which is spatially extended) and a Mind (which is not).

According to Pirsig, the stream of experience is "Quality", so by inference, Quality is the fundamental building block of the world. As immediate experience (or Quality) is in a continual changing flux, it would appear impossible to produce an exact definition of Quality. This is partly because by the time any complete definition would be stated (and it would have to take some time!) immediate experience would have subsequently changed so resulting in a consequent inaccuracy of such a definition.

Pirsig also equates Quality with the Good. Therefore, he considers moral qualities to be as readily perceivable as any other. Hence, one of the defining characteristics of his work (as he draws attention to in "Lila") is that rather than dislocating morals from other fundamental studies, morals are just as readily derivable from our immediate experience as the natural sciences. The whole universe is perceived as being subject to a moral order.

Pirsig considers that (what he terms) the scientific interpretation of reality is a generalisation derived from immediate experience.

"The MOQ is truly empirical. Science is not. Classical science starts with a concept of the objective world - atoms and molecules - as the ultimate reality. This concept is certainly supported by empirical observation but it is not the empirical observation itself." [13]

The scientific view that is based on an objective world "out there" relies upon postulates that cannot be directly experienced and are, as such, less empirically pure than (and logically a posteriori) to the MOQ which starts at unmediated experience [14].

Though there are no objects or subjects as traditionally thought of within the MOQ, for pragmatic reasons (i.e. it makes human existence much easier by employing concepts) Pirsig terms the continually changing flux of immediate reality "Dynamic Quality" while any concept abstracted from this flux is termed a pattern of "static quality" [15]. It is important to keep in mind that "Dynamic Quality" is not a concept but only a referring term for immediate experience i.e.

"The purpose of the description of 'Dynamic Quality' as 'the continually changing flux of immediate reality' is to block the notion that Dynamic Quality is some kind of object. To try to take that definition as some kind of philosophic object itself is to pervert the purpose for which the statement was intended." [16]

Dynamic Quality is useful as a term as it allows reference to "conceptual unknowns" (as implied by the physicist Niels Bohr) i.e. quantities that are ineffable whether, for example, in the context of mystical and aesthetic experiences or in the context of wave-particles in quantum mechanics [17]. By "static quality" Pirsig isn't referring to anything that lacks movement in the Newtonian sense of the word but to any repeated arrangement whether it is "inorganic" (e.g. chemicals, quantum forces), "organic" (e.g. plants, animals), "social" (e.g. cities, ant nests) or "intellectual" (e.g. thoughts, ideas). Static quality is any pattern that appears long enough to be noticed within the flux of immediate experience (i.e. within Dynamic Quality) [18]. As Pirsig's theory is pan-experiential, the experience referred to by "immediate experience" applies to any entity (be it a sub-atomic particle, plant, worm, human being etc.) that is derived from immediate experience.

The static patterns of Quality are divided into four systems that are related through cosmological evolution. If the "Big Bang" is taken as the starting point of the universe, it is seen that at this point (in time) that there were only fundamental inorganic quality patterns. That is to say quantum forces. Since then, at successive stages of history, chemicals developed from quantum forces, plants and animals evolved from chemicals, societies evolved from biological patterns, and intellect evolved from societies [19] (see diagram below [20]).


The patterns subsequent to the inorganic level have gradually developed from a negligible state and have become more complex as the universe has grown older.

"...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) and in a static sense (world of everyday affairs) these two are not the same."[21]

And as the cosmologist, Edward Kolb notes:

"In perhaps nature's most miraculous transformation, the universe (eventually) evolved the capacity to ponder and understand itself."[22]

Evolution is an important consideration within the MOQ as a code of ethics is generated from these four levels of static patterns. Though each level of patterns have emerged from the one below, each one follows its own rules i.e. there are physical laws such as gravity (inorganic), the laws of the jungle (biology), co-operation between animals (society), and the ideas of freedom and rights (intellect). It is important to note that the different laws of the four static levels often clash e.g. adultery (a biological good for one's species) v. family stability (a social good) [23].

The MOQ combines the four levels of patterns to produce one overall moral framework based on an evolutionary hierarchy. It gives intellectual patterns moral primacy, then primacy to social patterns, then to biological patterns and finally to inorganic patterns. A human being is therefore seen as having moral precedence, for instance, over a dog because a human is considered (in this system) to be at a higher level of evolution [24].

"The MOQ says, as does Buddhism, that the best place on the wheel of karma is the hub and not the rim where one is thrown about by the gyrations of everyday life. But the MOQ sees the wheel of karma as attached to a cart that is going somewhere - from quantum forces through inorganic forces and biological patterns and social patterns to the intellectual patterns that perceive the quantum forces. In the sixth century B.C. in India there was no evidence of this kind of evolutionary progress, and Buddhism, accordingly, does not pay attention to it..."

"The suffering which the Buddhists regard as only that which is to be escaped, is seen by the MOQ as merely the negative side of (evolution). Without the suffering to propel it, the cart would not move forward at all."[25]

Pirsig, therefore, feels that the MOQ is a more complete "map" of reality than SOM [26]. Not only is social existence given equal ontological status with other types of existence (such as the inorganic, biological and intellectual) the "conceptually unknown" is also contained within the MOQ system as undefined "Dynamic Quality".

As everything that can be conceptualised is reduced to Quality patterns within the MOQ, the division between substance or non-substance becomes irrelevant. Inorganic-biological-social-intellectual patterns are related through evolution and are all forms of static quality. Therefore, mind and matter though seemingly very different and following different laws are both static patterns of Quality related through an evolutionary relationship [27].

Due to the lack of empirical evidence, Pirsig ignores previous theories (such as pineal glands) concerned with the connection between mind and matter and states the following about this "problem":

"The mind-matter paradoxes seem to exist because the connecting links between these two levels of value patterns have been disregarded. Two terms are missing: biology and society. Mental patterns do not originate out of inorganic nature. They originate out of society, which originates out of biology which originates out of inorganic nature. And, as anthropologists know so well, what a mind thinks is as dominated by social patterns as social patterns are dominated by biological patterns are dominated by inorganic patterns. There is no direct scientific connection between mind and matter. As the atomic physicist, Niels Bohr, said, `we are suspended in language`. Our intellectual description of nature is always culturally derived."[28]


An exposition of the problem of evolution, time and order in Pirsig's "MOQ"

Pirsig is suggesting that many of the classical errors of philosophy are due to not taking into account cosmological evolution. Without such an account, the links between mind and inorganic matter (i.e. biology and society) are often overlooked. He further criticizes SOM for failing to recognize that all explanations of the world are static and therefore limited. Though such an exposition enables a sentient being to act with a degree of certainty and confidence, it risks overlooking the nature of continuous change within reality, with unfortunate metaphysical consequences.[29]

Static analyses are but "snapshot" products of Dynamic Quality, and therefore are something less than the complete Dynamic. Moreover, for Pirsig, static analyses are just the intellectual components of reality while he equates the Dynamic with immediate experience as a whole [30]. As it's impossible for Dynamic Quality to be "captured" completely by the intellect, the Dynamic is managed by dividing it into smaller slices of static analyses. This limitation of the human intellect is recognised by Whitehead who points out:

"We experience more than we can analyze. For we experience the universe, and we analyze in our consciousness a minute selection of its details."[31]

It is doubtful that Pirsig would say that we experience the whole universe but he would certainly agree with Whitehead (and psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) that the formation of consciousness must involve a selection from the "contents" of experience.

In the MOQ, cosmological evolution is, as any concept, a product of Dynamic Quality. As such, from a human perspective, it's true to say that at some point (in time) there was no concept of evolution. It too "evolved" just like any other constituent of the universe. It is necessary to recognise a time where although the action of evolution is presumed (such as the beginning of life on Earth) from a human perspective it is invalid to recognise the existence of the idea of evolution i.e. from the viewpoint of today, evolution was occurring at a time when there was no conception of it.

Moreover, evolution is (normally considered to be) action taking place over time; in Pirsig's MOQ the ordering by time (from the inorganic to intellectual) is strongly implied i.e.

"I think it's better to say that time is a static intellectual concept that is one of the very first to emerge from Dynamic Quality. That keeps Dynamic Quality concept-free..."

"The MOQ starts with the source of undifferentiated perception itself as the ultimate reality. The very first differentiation is probably `change`. The second one may be `before and after`. From this sense of `before and after` emerge more complex concepts of time."[32]

We draw the reader's attention to the following. In the above quote, Pirsig's use of order, as described in the "very first" and "second" differentiations, seems to lead naturally to a conclusion that these differentiations mean first, second, third etc., in terms of the points in time at which they occurred (rather than, say, "first" in the way that the letter "A" is the first letter of the alphabet). This is assumed because one would expect further explication if a different interpretation was intended. When discussing the evolution of the concept of "time", Pirsig appears to accept that there were points in time before the concept of time had evolved. Indeed, Pirsig makes it clear that he does not think "time" was the first concept to have evolved, meaning that other concepts evolved at earlier points in time.

This begs the question of how the static intellectual patterns of evolution, time and change could be exhibited at a developmental stage (i.e. before human thought) when they supposedly did not exist. Or if these concepts do have some physical (or inorganic) aspect (so allowing them to have an effect before human thought) this seemingly contradicts Pirsig's statement that time (and by inference, evolution and order) are just static intellectual patterns.

Finally, the use of evolution as a constituent of the MOQ suggests that Pirsig has relied upon the suppositions of classical SOM metaphysics; a metaphysics which often overlooks the MOQ requirement for all reality to stem from immediate experience. This, therefore, raises the possibility of contradiction within the MOQ. Moreover, it is worth noting that if the theory of cosmological evolution was shown to be false then Pirsig's ordering of the four static levels (found in the MOQ) would cease to be a viable basis for a moral framework.


Pirsig's Response:

This is a careful and accurate understanding of the Metaphysics of Quality which suffers only from the same sort of sketchiness found in Lila and the MOQ itself. The subject is so large and so different from conventional understanding it needs more space than other systems.

As I understand the first paradox alleged here, the MOQ inconsistently states that time created the static universe and also states that time is not a part of the static universe. You can't have it both ways. The answer, I think, is that according to the Metaphysics of Quality, time and change did NOT act to evolve the static universe. Only Dynamic Quality did this. "Time" and "change" are primary concepts used to describe this evolution but they do not cause evolution any more than Newton's law of gravity causes the earth to stick together. Except where muscle tissue is involved, concepts do not push inorganic matter around.

The second alleged paradox is that the Subject-Object metaphysics encompasses evolution and therefore, since the MOQ opposes the SOM, evolution should be off-limits to the MOQ. But, as Aristotle would have pointed out, the fact that A includes B does not logically prevent C from also including B.

The final observation here is correct. If cosmological evolution does not exist then the ordering of the four static levels in the MOQ would cease to be a viable basis for a moral framework. The only basis for a morality would then be tradition and Dynamic Quality - pretty much what we have today.

When we speak of an external world guided by evolution it's normal to assume that it is really there, is independent of us and is the cause of us. The MOQ goes along with this assumption because experience has shown it to be an extremely high quality belief for our time. But unlike materialist metaphysics, the MOQ does not forget that it is still just a belief - quite different from beliefs in the past, from beliefs of other present cultures, and possibly from beliefs we will all have in the future. What will decide which belief prevails is, of course, its quality.


Final Comments:

The first paradox identified by Pirsig relates to the creation of the static universe. The paradox we relate does not concern this creation but the validity of Pirsig's means of describing reality. For him, Dynamic Quality creates all things manifest in the universe. One of the key methods Pirsig uses to describe the nature of this creation is to give it direction i.e. a cosmological flow which is inherent in any form of evolution. However, this means it is possible to describe the universe in terms of an ordering function that need not have itself evolved yet. We are in the advantageous position of sophisticated viewers using hindsight to re-interpret the universe by utilising concepts that came into being later than the activities these concepts are used to describe.

The nature of the paradox is Pirsig's requirement for all concepts to be subject to evolution. For him, Dynamic Quality is the true nature of reality. At any given point of time, concepts (which are static intellectual patterns within the MOQ) are only limited and provisional interpretations of the Dynamic. So the static concept of "evolution" is itself in transition. The question then arises, that for Pirsig's system to be meaningful, can "evolution" itself evolve?

If so, in what sense can Pirsig be said to giving a true description of reality? Is it true that the universe is evolving now? Does that last sentence mean something different from "Is it true that the universe is evolving now?" Though the average reader may have been expected to read both sentences in the course of a few seconds, Pirsig is implying that we are required to agree that the concept of evolution itself has evolved in the interim - even if by a minuscule amount. Pirsig asks us to believe that the proposition of cosmological evolution is true in order to justify his metaphysics. But if you understand his original intent in writing it, do you understand something already out-of-date?

We argue Pirsig requires that the universe to be ordered. We do not accept that any conception of "evolution" can be one which acts in the absence of an ordering. Within the MOQ, Pirsig makes it explicitly clear that the universe is to be understood in terms of evolution. Pirsig's system is static, like any other. He therefore has admitted to a decaying system and, moreover, one that we are supposed to use as the basis for moral decision-making. But Pirsig is clear also that his evolution is a true evolution - it has a direction rather than being a meaningless pattern of changes. In fact, it is evolving upwards towards the better from the worse.

Which has the following consequence:

In the past, there was no MOQ.

At present, there is the MOQ (an improvement on SOM).

In the future, the MOQ will be replaced or evolve into a better system.

The consequence is clear; by Pirsig's own pragmatic standards the MOQ is a stop-gap (or provisional) metaphysics; it will eventually be replaced by a superior metaphysics. So, ultimately, our means of understanding what has more (or less) Quality will also be subject to change.


Pirsig's Response to Final Comments:

It's gratifying to see that in this final criticism of the MOQ there is agreement. The MOQ is indeed an evolving system of thought. It is written in pencil, not in stone. As stated in Lila it is this same intellectual evolutionary characteristic that has distinguished scientific truth from the religious dogmas of the past. Hopefully, it will allow the MOQ to flourish and change and expand where other more narrow-minded and rigid philosophic systems have failed to adequately represent reality.


The Very Final Comment from the Authors:

Though we see no problems in the above paragraph, it is our opinion that the potential for inconsistency between the SOM roots of the concept of evolution and its crucial application in describing the MOQ, is what lies behind the main paradox that we have proposed.



[1] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1991) Lila (New York: Bantam Books) p.111.

[2] PAUL WILLIAMS (1988) Mahayana Buddhism (London: Routledge) p.83.

[3] STEVE HAGEN (1997) Buddhism: Plain & Simple (Boston: Tuttle) p.161.

[4] Hagen op.cit.

[5] HERBERT V. GUENTHER (1957) Philosophy & Psychology in the Abhidharma
(London: Random House) p.144.

[6] Pirsig op.cit.

[7] Hagen op.cit.

[8] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1995) Subjects, Objects, Data and Values, Internet paper
originally given at the "Einstein meets Magritte" conference at Brussels, June 1995,
found at

[9] Many thanks to Robert Harris for the "map" analogy.

[10] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1974) Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York:
William Morrow & Co.).
[11] BERTRAND RUSSELL (1921), from The Arguments of the Philosophers: James by
Graham Bird (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986) p.95

[12] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1991) Lila (New York: Bantam Books).

[13] letter from ROBERT M. PIRSIG to Anthony McWatt, October 6th, 1997.

[14] letter from ROBERT M. PIRSIG to Anthony McWatt, March 29th, 1997.

[15] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1991) Lila (New York: Bantam Books).

[16] letter from ROBERT M. PIRSIG to Anthony McWatt, January 2nd, 1998.

[17] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1995) Subjects, Objects, Data and Values, Internet paper
originally given at the "Einstein meets Magritte" conference at Brussels, June 1995.

[18] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1991) Lila (New York: Bantam Books).

[19] Pirsig op.cit.

[20] diagram of the Metaphysics of Quality (c) 1998 Robert Pirsig (reproduced from letter
from ROBERT M. PIRSIG to Anthony McWatt, August 25th, 1998).

[21] letter from ROBERT M. PIRSIG to Anthony McWatt, March 23rd, 1997.

[22] EDWARD KOLB (1998) Astronomy, February 1998, p.37.

[23] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1991) Lila (New York: Bantam Books).

[24] Pirsig op.cit.

[25] letter from ROBERT M. PIRSIG to Anthony McWatt, March 23rd, 1997.

[26] Harris op.cit.

[27] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1991) Lila (New York: Bantam Books).

[28] ROBERT M. PIRSIG (1991) Lila (London: Black Swan, 1991, rep. 1994) p.185/186.

[29] Pirsig op.cit.

[30] Pirsig op.cit.

[31] ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD (1938) from Peter Farleigh's Internet paper
Whitehead's Even More Dangerous Idea, 1995, found at

[32] letter from ROBERT M. PIRSIG to Anthony McWatt, February 23rd, 1998.



Many thanks to Professor Stephen Clark, Dr Robert Harris, and Bodvar Skutvik for their helpful comments in the writing of this paper and to Robert Pirsig for kindly providing the two responses.

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