The Eudaimonic MoQ

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.

Reading on.

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 ? 😉

6 thoughts on “The Eudaimonic MoQ”

  1. Ian – thanks for giving the paper some serious consideration. I’ll come back in substance on MD, but I have to say I’m feeling quite excited at the possibility of some fruitful synergy going on between a handful of us, as to what the fourth level is all about.

    When you say “let’s just maintain the “Intellectualâ€? 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 ? I am strongly tempted to agree. I’ve always said that if ‘intellect’ was redefined or broadened then I would have no problem. It’s just that on MD the working assumption (ironically enough) is that intellect is SOM. Which might also underly your concern with ‘formalisation’ – but we’ll come to that.


  2. Oh, two more things – on ‘memes’ have you read Mary Midgley? I’d be interested in your take on her arguments that they are philosophically vacuous. And 2. if you’re ever able to say a bit more about the popular science fallacies, I’m still eager to learn :o)

  3. The Midgley book I most like is ‘Science as Salvation’, and I came across her views on memes in the ‘Alas Poor Darwin’ collection. I recently bought both ‘Evolution as a religion’ and ‘Myths we live by’ but haven’t got far in either as yet. You say (724) that she takes the ‘atomistic’ view of memes. Can you point me to an explanation of memes which isn’t atomistic (either on your blog or elsewhere). I think the fundamental objection Midgley has is to anything which undercuts human responsibility. Which I am in agreement with, of course.

  4. With you 100% on the last point. As I say she speaks a lot of sense to me.

    Atomistic view of memes ? As I said it’s the atomistic view of anything that bothers me memes, genes, even atoms I dare say. At least partly the same issue as my gentle sideswipe at you around “popular science”. I’d expect Midgley (if not you :-)) to have a slightly more sophisticated notion of physical science than that. I may need to draft something inteligible to back this up. Don’t let me off the hook.

    In a few words. There are two issues here.

    One is the idea that atoms alone “explain” their derived concepts at all – water shows none of the properties of hydrogen or oxygen, in fact none of the properties of water can be explained by the direct properties of hydrogen or oxygen at all (except by analogy when in similar states in other compounds).

    DNA has none of the properties of its bases or genes. Living organisms have none of the properties of their DNA or their genes. etc… New things “emerge” as a matter of synthesis, and that synthesis is a process, something with a historical narrative. Something awfully like evolution.

    My other specific point is about the inconsistentcy of her accepting a genetic description of life but not a memetic description of psychology or culture, was that whatever the mechanisms of synthesis and emergence, she is wrong to believe that a “gene” is any more distinct than a “meme”. There’s agood deal of statistics and agreement by convention as to where such things begin and end.

    Less so for elemental “atoms” (they seem to be pretty distinct) which is why physics and chemistry can easily be condemned to the same physical layer, but the atoms of physics (quantum or whatever) are a different kettle of fish. Highly “uncertain” again.

    Clear as mud ? I’ll need to work on it.

  5. Clearer than mud (lot of mud around where I live). So instead of atoms etc being like planets, they’re more like mountains (and where the mountain changes into a valley is all a bit blurry)?

    Re: emergent properties, presumably that’s an essential part of the MoQ? At least so far as I understood it.

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