Paper from April 2003 by Sam Norton, concerning an alternative interpretation of the “intellectual level” in Pirsig’s MoQ. I only skim-read it previously, and because I didn’t “get it” I’ve been unable to participate in some of Sam’s debates. So here goes … (this is a long one) …
The standard model – Sam describes the standard view of the MoQ in his own words. Only a couple of quibbles. Inorganic Level – Sam admits to being no physicist, so let’s not worry about errors of popular science detail – let’s just agree to call it the “Physical” level (the level where only physics prevails – in its widest sense). Similarly the Biological Level – a few quibbles on where physics and chemistry become biology and life. Let’s agree to think of this as the “Living” level, where life prevails over mere physics.
First actual disagreement. Sam says this is the layer where “natural selection” occurs. No, I say that exists in all the levels and is one of the major mechanisms of evolution throughout the MoQ.
Second actual disagreement. Sam says only humans participate in the “Social Level”. Not sure why we need to make such a constraint. Clearly a lot of social patterns in other animals may be purely biological evolved instinctual social behaviours, but I have no doubt other intelligent species can and do use inter-individual communication – language of sorts – in their own lifetimes to organise social patterns too. (But “inteligence” is part of the subject under discussion here, so let’s hang fire.)
In the Social Level Sam also talks, as does Pirsig, about the celebrity principle, setting and spreading cultural standards. My only quibble would be to update this with the concept of “memes”.
In the Intellectual Level, Sam re-iterates Pirsig’s idea that this is distinguished by “symbolic manipulation of information” and by the idea of “truth over opinion” and quickly goes on to point out what he sees as failings with the intelectual level, the subject of the essay.
OK – just to put my stake in the ground – I see the intellectual level as the advent of “formalised reason” – “scientific thought” – this is the lowest layer of the top level. The start of the whole problem. The idea of truth and right being derivable from concepts and axioms, as distinct from what social and below had just been “better” for those involved. So what I’m looking out for is the meta-problem. Is Sam saying the world model for “reason” is wrong or that the MoQ statement of it is not a good one ? If the former – I’m right with him, as is Pirsig’s MoQ of course, that’s its point.
A second stake in the ground – I’ve never actually seen the Intellectual as totally distinct from the Social. I see a socio-politico-intellecto-cultural continuum, with many different static latches, not just one clear social vs intellectual demarcation. The definition of “intellect” is a cultural issue. I prefer one Cultural level. There is a level at which the formal intellectual gets added to the social, but it never displaces it, just adds to it. I think we’re going to be debating which kinds of reason are higher quality – “intellect” is a crude approximation. The intellectual Quality level is going to need a definition that involves “Quality” as part of it, or else it is going to get hooked on the very defintions of “reason” it aims to supplant. This is Godel. This is the meta-problem. The “top” level in any MoQ may always have to have this cosmic bootstrap problem.
Sam expresses concerns 1 to 5. Clearly I share something like them. (Let’s just ignore further popular science quibbles about biological life, evolution and DNA, being irrelevant to the point.) Basically the Intellectual Level is badly defined – either absolutely or distinct from the social – intellectual is certainly not the best word for it
So Sam “Eudaimonia” is your alternative to “Intellect” as the fourth level ?
Sam suggests “The autonomous individual” as the esence of the fourth level. No, that’s not it. Though Sam re-defines autonomous. Not just free to act but free to rationlise / reason how to act. This is looking promising. Its the communicable formalisation of reason – beggining to look like memes to me.
Sam says “My society says that this is good, but is my society right to say so? – in other words, there is a questioning of social values.” Spot on. In the social level value are right because they are social, in the intellectual (or whatever) they are right because the reason can be formalised independent of the social acceptance. Super-social-reason.
The middle third of the essay is a pre-and post-Socratic history of the of judgement of individuals independent from their social roles. So what are those units of judging, units of choosing ? (Interestingly the Chalmers stuff I’m still reading, has a big play on “judgement” in terms of what can be known – but I digress.)
Aha, it’s happiness – Sam says Eudaimonia is human flourishing or happiness. I say, or Satori or Quality. This is beginning to crystallise – the top level of the MoQ is highet level of quality itself, where quality is defined by the MoQ, dynamic quality. MoQ is its own grandpa. This strange-loopy recursiveness is very attractive (to me). Maximising happiness is also very “pragmatic”.
Sam goes on to highlight artistic, aethetic quality that is not amenable to “logical” analysis. This is not new or contentious.
Sam says “I consider intellect (in the Western sense) to be something of an anti-DQ death-force, precisely because it seeks a ‘closed’ and formal understanding.” I say I wish I’d written that first. Spot on. This is Godel / Hofstadter again.
Sam concludes (before pre-loading ammunition for his critics)
[Quote] Again, I think this is something that Pirsig himself articulates in ZMM, not least when he discovers the Sophists properly, and their teaching that ‘man is the measure of all things’, and Pirsig writes, “Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! not ethical relativism. Not pristine ‘virtue’. But arete. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. He has been doing it right all along.” Rhetoric – the development of the capacity to discern quality – is the pre-eminent technique for developing autonomous individuals. It seems fitting for this to be the most notable characteristic of the fourth level. [Unquote]
Sam, I think I agree. Not sure re-naming the fourth level Eudaimonia helps enlighten. We should just re-label it with any existing name for the highest quality – you list plenty. Quality or Dynamic Quality or MoQ itself, and damn the recursion.
Alternatively, let’s just maintain the “Intellectual” label for the fourth level, but make sure we have a clear definition that this is what MoQ means by intellectual. Least resistance line to the right conclusion, no ? MoQ is the highest intellectual pattern. (So much ongoing discussion misses this meta-problem of discussing the MoQ within the MoQ – this would expose that beautifully.)
Wot, still no god ? đ