This post contains excerpts from Robert Pirsig's book Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

The words are all his, the editing choices are all mine, the consequences of reading are all yours.

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Metaphysics of Quality

The idea that the world is comprised of nothing but moral values sounds impossible at first. Only objects are supposed to be real … but we see objects and subjects as reality for the same reason we see the world right side up although the lenses of our eyes actually … present it to our brains upside down … The culture in which we live hands us a set of intellectual glasses to interpret experience with … and the concept of primacy of subjects and objects is built right into these glasses.

If someone sees things through a somewhat different set of glasses or, god help him, take his glasses off, the natural tendency of those who still have their glasses on is … to regard his statement as somewhat weird, if not actually crazy … As Einstein said, common-sense (non-weirdness) is just a bundle of prejudices acquired before the age of 18.

The Metaphysics of Quality … [says] that the values of art and morality and even religious-mysticism are verifiable [empirical] … They have been excluded because of the metaphysical assumption that all the universe is composed of subjects and objects … There is no empirical evidence for this assumption at all. It is just an assumption … that flies outrageously in the face of common experience.

Unlike subject-object metaphysics, the Metaphysics of Quality does not insist on a single inclusive truth … then one doesn’t seek the absolute “Truth”. One seeks instead the highest quality intellectual explanation of things with knowledge that if the past is any guide to the future this explanation must be taken provisionally … until something better comes along … One can then examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find the “real” painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value.

… 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 … A map with the north pole in the center is confusing at first .. but in the Arctic it’s the only map to have. Metaphysics of Quality provides a better set of coordinates with which to interpret the world … because it explains more of the world … and better … [it] can explain subject-object relationships beautifully … but a subject-objects metaphysics can’t explain values worth a damn.

“... one can then examine intellectual realities the same way he examines paintings in an art gallery, not with an effort to find the 'real' painting, but simply to enjoy and keep those that are of value.”


  1. Posted July 17, 2010 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Yes. I like this. Thank you.

    I always say: the phenomenal world is real and the physical world is hypothetical. I think this is clear from the fact that the phenomenal world is what matters most to us. It's what we care about, fundamentally.

    • Posted July 17, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      That can't be completely true. You would be hard pressed to not care about the physical world when you are underwater and needing air, when you are hungry … we are born into a physical body and that is one heck of a physical reality. In Pirsig's words:
      "There are no chains more vicious than the chains of biological necessity into which every child is born."

      I invite you to delve deeper into Lila. It contains, in my opinion, one of the most profoud and applicable philosophies born in the western world.

      Thanks for visiting 🙂

  2. Nathan Smith
    Posted July 17, 2010 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Oh, of course, the physical world matters to me, too. It's just that our fundamental explanations of the physical world (forces, sub-atomic particles, etc.) have a "hypothetical" status relative to the immediately obvious world of everyday experience. There's no absolute distinction between these two worlds, but they are different aspects or different ways of looking at things.

    Yes, I am getting interested in Lila. Thanks for posting these excerpts.

    ::My wife has just handed me the book:: Maybe I'll read it. : )

    • Posted July 17, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      This is one aspect of Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality – four levels of moral patterns – inorganic, biological, social & intellectual (and a Dynamic 5th). I suppose he would ask "What is the 'Me' to which the physical matters?" There is a 'biological me' – patterns that care primarily about a physical world. Then there is the 'intellectual me' that is partly interested in the phyical world just enough to appease the 'biological me' and get on more with more interesting things like "hypothetical" realities … then there's the dynamic – which isn't quite 'me' …

      I wrote a summary of all this a while back … it's not as good as I think it could be – but can provide a quick overview:

    • iamronen
      Posted July 17, 2010 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      … and most imporant – hurray for your wife 🙂 Enjoy the book.

      I'd love to hear from you as you move through it … the excerpts are broken down into sections which makes it possible/ easy to converse to different parts of the book 🙂

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