Zero to Pirsig

This is a 2023 Annotation of a 2005 paper prepared originally for the Liverpool Conference on Robert Pirsig and his Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ). The text is unchanged except for correcting a few obvious typos and formatting errors, and to keep me honest the original “It’s Evolutionary Psychology Stupid” remains here complete with old broken links and some cringe-worthy naivete. The annotations are italic inset in the text or italic added to the footnotes. 

Although it’s 20 years old and two decades of research and writing have significantly changed my focus and many of my positions and opinions away from Pirsig – I’ve learned a lot – it remains a remarkably true statement of my thought trajectory. In terms of Systems Thinking or Cybernetics it contains references then which I still use to this day, eg in multiple recent posts. It also reminds me – and many others who claim Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – how formative and influential that read was and remains to this day.

So for example in 2024, Me, Psybertron and Pirsig and 5o Years of Pirsig and Systems Thinking.


It’s Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid.

[A deliberately provocative title. “EvoPsych” already had a bad name, like any abused and mis-applied thinking, but the thought is nevertheless essentially true. “It” really is.]

A personal view of the Metaphysics of Quality (*1)
by Ian Glendinning of

[(*) Reference to numbered footnotes, below.]

Prepared for the MOQ Conference
University of Liverpool on July 7th 2005
Organised by Dr. Anthony McWatt of

[Note that the state of on-line Pirsig resources is maintained in the “Psybertron Pirsig Pages” with latest updates and news here. And, having maintained several “Pirsig” domains over the years, that dead “” site has been repurposed as The Robert Pirsig Association in Oct 2023.]



I’m no Philosopher, probably not even a Philosophologist (*2)

I was a late developer. It’s only 3 years since I first read ZMM & LILA (*1), and in fact to my shame, with barely a handful of mainly popular science exceptions, its only 4 years since I read anything that wasn’t a technical manual (*3), a specification or a set-text. ZMM was in fact un-read on one of those set-text reading lists.

Anyway, back at school in the north-east of England in the early 1970’s I was headed for Chemistry and/or Biology. The latter I dropped in 6th form, but surprised everyone by going off to University to study Aeronautical Engineering (*4). I was a plane-spotter too.

In 1974 I set off south to the big smoke on my (badly maintained) Honda CB72/77 Superhawk, but that’s another story (*5).

For almost 30 years now, I’ve been an engineer and a manager – batchelor, masters and chartered practising professional. My earliest mentor Jeff, once said to me “Anything interesting, note it down, one day when your memory’s not as good as it is now, you’ll want to write about it.” Sadly until 4 years ago, I ignored that advice.

[But I’ve made up for it in the two decades since,
as the Psybertron “What, Why and How do we Know?” blog attests

Doing the Business

From the late 70’s through to the early 90’s I was doing the business; engineering and quality management. A full description of my engineering experience is not appropriate here, suffice to say I started 1977 in aerospace, working on Tornados, Harriers and Hawks, but for over 25 years I’ve been involved with engineering and construction of process plant facilities, mainly the design, supply and fabrication of pressure systems. These facilities ranged across everything from oil & gas through refineries, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, power (fossil and nuclear) plus a few food, transport and infrastructure projects. There were a few things I encountered that are germane to our agenda here.

As far back as the early 80’s I recall noticing significant ambiguities in all sorts of standard business documents, not just complex specifications, but even the simplest standard forms and reports. It was intriguing that despite the clear and objective ambiguity, 100’s and 1000’s of people in the business organisations using them seemed to get along fine and deliver successful projects and generally safe operating facilities. In some cases ambiguity appeared almost essential to allowing different interpretations in different contexts. For a number of years, specification writing became one of my main strings.

The human endeavours were somehow better than the objective information with which they were working. Human teams delivered not just despite technical and contractual ambiguities, they seemed almost necessary to achieving success.

During the 80’s the process industry underwent a major uptake of quality management partly driven by fall-out from a number of high profile disasters demanding better control, regulation and auditability , and partly by commercial considerations to drive out the cost-of-poor-quality and to foster total quality management, continuous improvement, organizational learning and so on. That is the adoption of management philosophies, arising with the likes of Juran, Argyris or Deming, in the latter case drawn from Japanese Kaizen and similar concepts.

Partly through techniques learned from other industries already having adopted Total Quality Management (TQM), and partly through learning through direct experience, it became clear that there was always an incompleteness, a balance or trade-off between prescriptive detail and the need to define more loosely the bounds of fitness for purpose. This was partly recognition of the need to leave room for flexibility and creativity, and partly acknowledgment that prescriptive specifications could never be complete enough to cover every eventuality. (And if they were, who would actually ever have time to benefit from reading and understanding them – would they be doomed to exist solely for the lawyers to pick over in contractual and literal post-mortems ?)

The same early mentor also quoted to me “Specifications and standards (rules) are for the guidance of wise men, and the obedience of fools”. (*6)

As well as placing bounds on specifying fitness for purpose, the other side of the coin was the recognition of the need to encourage (by whatever management techniques and organisational processes available) a culture of feedback and learning, rather than blame and fix. TQM needs a culture that sees errors and omissions as opportunities.

In some industries and businesses, a great deal of this (then new) jargon is well embedded, and indeed superseded by newer fashionable jargon, and ever more formal management approaches.

[In fact management consulting in business or government organisations continues to adopt methods of Systems Thinking to this day.]

A Little Learning Goes A Long Way

During that same period, I benefited from assorted management training courses and in particular did a masters management degree (*7), which amongst other things involved some research and a dissertation on cultural aspects of managing change in business technologies. Choosing culture as the subject, was part of my recognition that hard and soft management issues demanded equal weight of consideration, even in a hard tangible engineering sector.

Organisational behaviour, or anthropology in anyone’s language, represented the key soft subject, whereas management science and quantitative methods and the like represented the harder subject matter. Strangely, accounting and budgeting subjects turn out to be much softer than one might naturally think, from their bean-counting metaphorical aspect.

Most people will relate to day-to-day decision making by tabulation and comparison processes (tabulating relative costs, or costs & benefits, pros & cons of just about anything). It is perfectly normal to base a decision on having a prior holistic overview as well as the detailed objective quantitative comparison together, and if an objective rationale is needed for justification, to be selective and/or subjective in interpreting the values tabulated to support the decision.

The presentation may be objective; the selection of what to present is not necessarily so.

[How true this remains.]

With the fall-out of major recent accounting scandals, and the consequent passing of Sarbanes-Oxley, I guess I need a caveat here. We need to distinguish between necessary and normal interpretations that go into compiling tables of values for comparison and decision making, and the abnormal and fraudulent distortion of accounts for personal gain. It could be a very fine line in the final analysis, but the intent is a very important line none-the-less, significantly so where our subject matter here is values and morals

These same human behaviours are recognisable in things like post-rationalization of causes of outcomes and personal attribution of credit or blame for outcomes and such things as budgetary games; any process with any element of negotiation in fact.

Another significant area relevant to this paper, was motivation theories, particularly Maslow, but also Ouichi, Hertzberg and others, which seemed to yield simple rules of thumb about true individual human behaviour ascending through levels of motivation, despite the underlying complexity of social behaviours and diversity of contexts.

Incidentally, during the same management course and dissertation research, ZMM turned up (and remained un-read) as a quality management reference on a reading list, and indirectly as a reference in books by fashionable management “airport-bookstall” writers, and others like Charles Handy and Tom Peters. Many management gurus at this time were emphasizing human attitudes and organizational cultures as key determinants of successful business organisations, and many more were also pointing out the non-scientific nature of decision-making where organisational environments were genuinely complex, paradoxical and chaotic. Decision-rationality could be seen as action-irrationality, with hypocrisy an almost essential part of the process. (Brunsson) (*8)

[It turns out that “management consulting” draws heavily on systems thinkers, including the early-20thC pioneers that pre-date post-WW2 Wiener’s cybernetics and Bertalanffy’s general systems sciences, like Bogdanov and Hitchins say,  and guru Peter Drucker’s own guru Mary Parker-Follett.]

At the Sharp End

Anyway, enough of the fluffy stuff for now, back to the hard stuff. I spent several assignments in the early 90’s at the sharp end of projects – completing construction and organising testing, commissioning and handover of plants into productive operation, after anything from 2 to 5 years of engineering and supply.

The level of not just intrinsic ambiguity, but also inconsistency in the information being worked with was mind-boggling. Scary in fact, were in not for the larger-than-life characters in this area of the business that just knew what they were doing and when to check. (Again with enormous quality, health and safety and environmental consequences of serious error, there was always a formal audit trail in the information, but the level of human interpretation and interpolation needed to get the job done, was immense.)

Completion of plant facilities construction and documenting their handover into commissioning and operation seemed more of an art than a science, but either way it seemed clear it could benefit from better definition and tools for the job.

Information Modelling & Standardisation

Later in the 90’s, returning from the sharp end with a passion for getting information better organised, I discovered I was not alone, and got actively involved in industrial consortia whose aims were to establish high quality information models as part of international (ISO, IEC & W3C) standards. (*9)

It’s only fair to point out that my original concerns described above, about ambiguity and inconsistency arose in paper forms, at a time when the Internet and WWW, even the PC and Microsoft Excel (the engineer’s favourite tool), hadn’t been invented, and what few computer programs there were, were specialist mainframe applications for specific analytical tasks. By this time personal computing is of course the norm and almost all creation and manipulation of information was computer aided if not automated, with electronic communication and integration of the same information – so these information modelling standards were very much aimed at computer-based implementations from the outset.

Although I was only vaguely aware of it at the time, much of the information modelling being done had a recognized philosophical basis, though that too evolved during the timescale in which the models were developed. eg Aristotle, Wittgenstein and Russell were all references in supporting papers. The principle concerns were ontology, a model of what existed, based on pragmatic interpretations of classification and set-theories, avoiding over-reaction to such anomalies as Russell’s Paradox, so that anything useful could be said about anything. (*10) That work was of course primarily pragmatic.

Despite that, a number of doubts stayed with me. One was a moment when one member of a modelling work-group (anon) confided in me that he was a philosopher by training and had previously expressed doubts about issues being overlooked, and feeling guilty at having introduced Wittgenstein’s work to the group (!) Another penned a comedic skit on the possible consequences of the modelling team adopting various schools of art as philosophy over a weekend (*11).

[To people in the hard sciences “STEM” domain, philosophy was seen as something of an Aunt Sally.]

The second was a realization that a large number of problematic definitions (of entity types in our model) turned out to be linguistic issues. Names of many object types and classes were clearly based on metaphors or other indirect associative idioms, and this kept leading to enormous confusion and debate in assigning classification relationships in our taxonomy (*12). A related point is that one form of the model developed and used in preference by many people, and as the basis of several implementations, is a human-readable semi-natural language form (*13).

[Fair to say that this area of ontologies and language models has boomed since then.]

Another longstanding set of issues revolved around objects that were defined in terms of their functions but were manifested physically during their working life. Pragmatically this was resolved by adopting a time-slicing, many possible worlds view of spatio-temporal extents. I was left with the feeling that we might have been better focusing on the essential functions and intents, rather than the temporary physical objects. (These are classic problems of identifying the eternal essence of whole objects, going back as far as Plato. If component parts of a physical object are progressively replaced until no original parts remain, but the object – eg the Ship of Theseus made of wooden frame and planks – retains its functional continuity throughout, do we have the same object we started with, is there continuity of essence ? The more modern metaphor is Trigger’s Broom after the road-sweeper character in Only Fools and Horses who’s had the same broom for 10 years, despite having had several new heads and handles in that time.)

[Prioritising an “informing” process view of functional relations over the seemingly objective physical view, has come to dominate my thinking. Very much inspired by Pirsig in this early context, but following through the radical empiricism of James and the process metaphysics of Whitehead and more since then.]

Notwithstanding those concerns, I have for the last 8 years worked in the area of development and delivering computer software built around these generic models and principles, still essentially in the process plants industry. The main relevance of that experience is seeing that however functional software requirements are presented, and whatever formal methods are used to capture those, developers inevitably need to interpret user intent expressed in those requirements. Not surprisingly the context in which the developer makes those interpretations is not the same as the user’s original intent. Unsurprisingly also, in the field of application software, the software behaviour itself is deterministic by design and inflexible to the user’s future intents.

In this same period, there were also numerous stories entering wider human consciousness, about massive overruns and failures in public domain IT projects, defence, health, welfare and the like. In fact why IT projects fail is almost a subject in its own right.

Something’s Not Quite Right

Pragmatic or not, I had become aware gradually I was seeing lots of clues that something was missing from the business information models I was dealing with, all the more so as the word information became replaced in more contexts with knowledge, as in knowledge management.

We had management gurus, and the evidence of our own experience, telling us that quality (excellence) came from human passion, attitude, culture, motivation and the like. We had others pointing out the chaos and complexity in the “blooming, buzzing, confusion of paradox” (*14) in the workings of any real organization. We had yet more contrasting decision rationality with action irrationality and others pointing out the distinction between the world models we actually use and those we espouse – what I do, what I say and what I say I do are three different things – hypocrisy being a normal part of the process.

When we try to formally model information and systems, using objective requirements to create deterministic functionality, we are surprised when we bump up against things like idiom, metaphor, intent, understanding and context. Modelling the objective and tangible we were ignoring the human and subjective. It was the classic hard objects vs romantic soft human behaviour dichotomy.

But what is this “non-objective stuff” ?
Could it be usefully modelled ?
What, why and how do we (really) know ?

So that’s what I started researching in Summer 2001.

Tennis, Elbow, Foot …

To some extent the trail of research started as a matter of word association led by curiosity, I didn’t really have any clear plan at this stage. There were some no-brainer starting points, though I had little more than general knowledge of these.

Clearly deficiencies of IT systems, to reflect real human decision processes, were already the realm of AI (Artificial Intelligence) or cybernetics. And at root – kybernetes – is about governance, management of human systems, long before computer automation.

[Fascinating to me in 2023 to see this sentence in one of my first serious pieces of writing over 20 years ago, given how much (human) systems thinking has come to dominate. And here for comparison a piece from 10 years ago about half-way through this journey.]

Clearly there were already whole subject areas of chaos and uncertainty relating to seemingly indeterminate behaviours in complex (and simple) systems, even inanimate ones, and holistic systems engineering approaches well documented.

[Though not explicit in my words, the idea of cybernetics and systems thinking as a response to complexity in the real world of human and living ecosystems is already here.]

Clearly also, my “What, Why and How do We Know ?” question had a fundamental philosophical or metaphysical angle from the outset, but I did not intend or suspect this to become my main thread.

[Yes indeed. From philosophy as “Aunt Sally” to metaphysics, ontology and epistemology as the main attractions.]

With a new found thrill of reading because I wanted to, and awoken (by the aftermath of 9/11) to the scale of possibility of reading via the web, and then recording and linking what you find using a web-log or blog (*15), I was reading and making connections in ever increasing circles.

By free association, the linked subject matter very quickly grew to encompass many new subjects. Not just hard objects and soft behaviour, but also brain vs mind dualism, epistemology and ontology, philosophy generally, then linguistics and so on. Not just complexity, paradox, uncertainty, but chaos, fuzzy-thinking, and alternative logics, statistics, Bayesian-methods and the like. Not just AI, but applied cognitive science, ethnographic software development, learning, game-theory, evolution and emergent patterns. In a different direction uncertainty led to quantum physics, quantum information, quantum computing, quantum genetics – whoah! – ever more, spiralling loops, leading where ?

One feature of the widening remit, was that it became clear my concerns with business decision making, were much more general. Everywhere the smallest individual human decision to the actions of the greatest social, political or governmental bodies faced the issue of rational objective justification of decisions concerning massively complex issues, and an undercurrent of moral intent existed in all of them. The aftermath of 9/11, and the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq escapades, but also the fall out from the Andersen and Enron accounting scandals, the Shell over-reporting of oil & gas reserves, and many more, threw this starkly into the public media spotlight.

There were two initial dawnings in my thinking. The first was that almost everything held to be static reality, appeared at some level to be a meta-stable outcome emergent from the interaction of dynamic processes, and a second was that whilst I was actually I trying to model information about reality, there was some real sense that information may actually be underlying reality, both hard and soft.

The third dawning, probably my seed-crystal moment (*16) (should my thoughts eventually crystallise into something recognizable) was whilst reading the work of Henry Stapp and one particular collaborator, Nobel prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson, running a mind-matter unification project in Cambridge. I came across this quote :

“… the idea from eastern philosophy that in certain states of consciousness the subjective states of mind closely reflect objective reality … and … the parallel between quantum and biological views is not that the former underlies the latter on a human scale, but that both are in fact manifestations of some other underlying physics.” (*17)

Quantum physics and eastern philosophy on a human scale – from a serious scientific source ? Did not compute.

The penny dropped. Talbot’s “Mysticism and the New Physics” and Capra’s “The Tao of Physics” were next, quickly followed by the vague thought

“What was the name of that book again,
the one about engineering, with the Zen title ?”

At last I saw the point, of reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, followed quickly by Lila too, and then the Einstein Meets Magritte paper (*18).

[So, aside from the centrality of Pirsig in this context, there is so much in those last few paras that presage the wider  “world-view” I’ve come to hold and articulate increasingly firmly.]


After Robert Pirsig

It’s fair to say ZMM and Lila had a major impact on me.
Epiphany perhaps, but more a statement of the blindingly obvious, articulated in a way I’d never been able to do myself, nor previously seen expressed by anyone. The fact that, in my naivete, I’d never seen it expressed does not of course add much weight either way, but nor does it mean I believe the ideas behind the MOQ were necessarily wholly original either. But, that implied criticism should be weighed against a recurring adage of mine that there is nothing new under the sun. The expression of the ideas was nevertheless new to me.

Clearly I identified with the author, on many levels, recognizing even that fine line between mental conviction and madness. There but for the grace of god I heard myself voicing more than once.
The blindingly obvious aspect of MOQ was the recognition of a simple layered model of progress in the world, with dynamic tensions between the meta-stable static layers (or stages of evolution).
The other blindingly obvious fact exposed by MOQ was Quality itself. Whatever existed in the world, whatever we could know of it (whatever existed for all practical, pragmatic purposes) could never be divorced from the subject object interaction. (And of course I know now of the existence vs perception saga is in the words of Owen Barfield that most philosophy – at all events since Kant – has heavily emphasized the participation of man’s mind in phenomena.) The participation in the subject-interaction-object triplet event was in some sense relatively more fundamental than either subjects or objects. Whether absolutely fundamental or not in any metaphysical sense did not really concern me.

I had found in Pirsig’s MoQ the best working model of the world of which I could conceive.

[Since then, maybe not “the best model” overall, but a framework that still fully supports my evolving worldview to this day. Here my 2012 version of the MoQ Framework. Here in 2017 probably the most developed version(s) of such framework(s). And here in 2018 a much more reflective consideration of my journey with fellow Pirsigians.]

Equally significant for the direction my research took, was the fact that I had found it in a work of literature that I’d found enthralling and moving on so many levels. That was quite a shock to the system for an engineer hoping to deal in objective realities.

The following section elaborates the state of my thinking on the MOQ. But before I go there, just a quick round up on my research and reading from that point to the present. True to my beliefs on information, being inextricably linked with the context and intent of its originator, with Pirsig, as with some of the other writers whose work I’ve tried to assimilate, I considered biography to be at least as important as bibliography. I’ve found that in order to understand what someone is saying (and why) I needed to empathise with where they were coming from.

(I have several web pages on my weblog dedicated to my research on Mr Pirsig, including a biographical timeline, which recently benefited from input from him directly

[The current links are
and ]

Starting with philosophy and physics, and now historical biography, reading Pirsig also created a whole new avenue in my explosion of reading. Literature; poetic and linguistic and not just with overtly philsophical literary content. Prompted by George Steiner’s reviews of ZMM, I headed for Melville and Dostoyevsky. The drive to read more was only further reinforced when I read in Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s “Mechanization of the Mind – The Origins of Cognitive Science” of his

“deeply held conviction that literature is a superior form of knowledge to science”.

If I hadn’t just read Pirsig, (and recalled previously reading T E Lawrence) that objective engineer in me would probably have responded, “Pull the other one” to that line. As it is, my appetite for books is now insatiable.

[Significant here, now, is that Dupuy (1991) reference is another inspired by the 1946 and onwards “Macy Conferences” – the origins of cybernetics – and its title a siren call that the intended human aspects were being overridden by the late 20th C momentum of mechanistic interpretations. It made a big impression at the time, but it’s even harder to estimate the depth of its eventual significance.]

Here is not the place to describe my entire journey of literary discovery, but relevant highlights and general flavour may be worth noting. Reading the philsophical writings of both Heisenberg and Schroedinger, after Pirsig’s “Subjects, Objects, Data and Values” paper I realised that the weird philosophical implications of quantum physics were recognised as genuine from the outset, and the likes of Talbot and Capra were not simply creating a new fashion in writing. A whole raft of “brain scientist” writers described abnormal, philosophical and chemical-induced states of mind, Austin, Sacks, Edelman and Zeman to name a few. James Joyce was read as a source of an ontology of the human condition, prompted by ex-AI researcher Jorn Barger. James, Northrop and Barfield followed Pirsig naturally. Eco, Blake, Cervantes, Foucault, Tartt, Martel, Suzuki, Herrigel, Lao Tsu, Voltaire … and more. Most recent reading being Sue Blackmore, David Deutsch, Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.

For a full picture of my meanderings through these and references to many more sources, you need to browse my Psybertron weblog

One little known writer with whose views of Pirsig I identified very strongly, is Dr James Willis, a UK general medical practitioner. The main theme of his writing has been the risk to the human side of healthcare management as more scientific management procedures and systems have been introduced – so I clearly empathized with his issues. It turns out he also cites ZMM as a major inspiration to his ongoing thinking …

“The relevance of this book
to our present-day situation
seems to me impossible to exaggerate”

… he says.

So, how do I see the MOQ fitting reality ?

It’s important to note, that if I had a tightly reasoned thesis (concerning the MOQ or not) it would be the main subject of my paper. As it is, the main subject has been my personal and naive journey of enlightenment. My current views on the MOQ remain necessarily speculative and incoherent, so the format of this section is mainly things I believe, and why these fit with my view of the MOQ.

[With that “speculative and incoherent” caveat, I can fairly leave the remainder of this section without further annotation, save to say that all these ideas have developed considerably in the decades since.]

Metaphysics & Incompleteness

I don’t buy metaphysics as I understand it. There can be no absolute foundation for a complete model of reality ever. Just a quality of fit, and a plausible explanation for why holes in knowledge of reality exist. Clearly philosophers and scientists will forever question and push back those boundaries of the unknown, but somehow I suspect Godel is right. We will never find a complete model of everything that includes itself. If there is a cosmic bootstrap, we can never know it. So my view of MOQ is as the best pragmatic model of the world as it is; something that can no doubt be improved and added to constructively, but looking like the right framework none-the-less.

Physics & Quality

I’m probably a physicalist; what would in earlier times have been branded materialist, though I wasn’t when I started out. But in claiming that tag, I am of course pushing the idea of physics somewhat, beyond the tangible and material – so far that some critics have said I may be rendering the concept meaningless. I firmly believe that I’ve seen no evidence yet that modern physics cannot explain everything that can be known to exist. So far even the knotty dualist issues like mind and consciousness look amenable to explanation as part of physics. Even the hardest tangible aspects of the physical seem at base to be built on dynamic, even ephemeral, patterns of information. So why not mind and consciousness ?

That said, it’s important I place some bounds on science if we are to see physics as simply the most fundamental of the sciences. Scientific method (empirical disprovability of hypotheses) is merely the method of scientific experiment, not the whole of science. Don’t get me wrong, that’s the most important thing that distinguishes science from any other -ologies or -isms, but it is not even half the story. The important majority of science is about creativity – inventing hypotheses, and credible explanations of sufficient quality. Simple logical induction and the like represent only one means, an attractive but highly dubious one at that, for arriving at the right quality of explanation.

There is more to reality (and science) than objectivity, there is quality too.

As I’ve already implied, I’m attracted to the idea of referring to the triplet of immediate experience (subject-interaction-object) as Quality. One reason is that whatever difficulty we have defining clear boundaries of S & O, this triplet remains the essence of what can be known (to exist). People in the world beyond philosophy have struggled with the fact that Quality has been difficult to pin down objectively, and have uncomfortably accepted that. Accepting Quality in its own right with subject and object as derived / interpreted / subsidiary entities removes any such discomfort – for me.

So whatever I previously thought of Quality in a general business or technical sense, nor yet in the aesthetic sense, I see Quality as a highly fundamental entity. I see more than just linguistic coincidence in Pirsig’s choice of this word for patterns of value.

Brain & Mind

Almost whatever direction one approaches the reality of existence, or what is known about it, all roads converge on mind, individual and collective, via metaphorical and linguistic interpretation of experience. This includes mental experience per se, and mental representation of experience received via the other senses.

This immediate experience, or Peircian firstness, seems at the very least to be analogous to Pirsigian quality.

Barfield’s Kant quote earlier indicates the ubiquity of this subject. This is clearly too large a subject for any further naive discussion here, since I doubt I have anything specific to say, other than as I already have, that mind and consciousness are amenable to physical explanation, in my broadest sense of physics. Intriguingly, given that explanation, there seems no reason to tie consciousness or even intellect to individual human brains, any more than life to carbon-biological foundations, so collective consciousness is a valid concept given the right physical substrate and an open mind.

Evolution & Levels

I’m almost a pan-Darwinist. I probably wasn’t when I started. For example, when I saw Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (and similar) as a picture of what progressively motivates people to new actions, I might have thought of that individual person’s developing life as evolution metaphorically, but I doubt I would ever have used the word. Certainly as groups of people in organizations change, or the systems and processes develop, organic views of organizations would often characterized such changes as evolution. Certainly Darwinian survival of the fittest (best fit for the environment, adaptation of the right Quality) would seem to apply.

Evolution jumps right off the page when you see the four progressive levels of the MOQ, or at least it did for me. I remember being shocked when other MOQites challenged evolution in principle, since Pirsig himself already recognises the consistent fit. (*19)

What is more important is not any progressive direction of evolution (markets can go down as well as up), but the existence of the apparently static levels, the latches, the safety nets. The parallels with biological (and other) evolution models are striking. Red in tooth and claw is one characterization of Darwinian evolution, but neo-Darwinists like Dawkins and many more, readily point out the nurture aspect of that must also exist in nature for evolution to work. For speciation to occur, for a new thing to exist long enough to be worth naming, there needs to be isolation from destructive environments, predators and over-advantaged close-rivals for resources. Most individuals must survive to reproductive adulthood, or we have non-starter species-wise.

Some static environments must exist, at least for a long enough period relative to the dynamic processes, as latches (supports) for future creations to build on. As such the new developments must also be very careful not to undermine their foundations, whilst at the same time the supports must not constrain the layers of evolution above. This is exactly the static levels and dynamic quality relationship in the MOQ.

Of course much neo-darwinism has itself evolved during and since the time that MOQ itself was created and disseminated in parallel. There can be little doubt (or at least this is not the place to debate) that evolutionary processes can explain the evolution of biological life from the physical and chemical, as well as the evolution of diverse biological life-forms and structures of living things. Not everyone buys the idea of memes as distinct replicators analogous to genes, any more than just the general concept of ideas, though I have to say I do find these explanations highly convincing. I have little doubt that memetic evolution of social and cultural patterns, and intellectual patterns to explain these (or anything else that benefits from mentalisation) is at least analogous to the interactions of dynamic quality between social and intellectual levels of the MOQ.

As to whether the 4 levels in the MOQ are in any sense fundamental and fixed, I have to say the jury is out for me. In my view physical & chemical are one clear layer, but life is the next, carbon-biological or otherwise. The precise dividing line for life is open to debate, but the emergence of replication is a key quality that comes in at this level. I still struggle with clear demarcations between the social and intellectual, seeing more a socio-cultural-politico-intellectual continuum, with many possible incremental attributes, once consciousness itself has emerged from life, possibly with more of a heterarchy (network) than a hierarchy. However the axis and general direction of MOQ is right, and these concerns no reason to devalue its essential correctness. Again I’m comfortable with less distinct layering because another of my adages is that everything comes in (three) layers, even the layers – whichever set of levels we decide are significant, there will always be bases on which to identify more levels within those levels – like peeling back onion skins.

I’m also not the first person to discover this relationship between the MOQ, and evolution up the Maslow hierarchy of human motivation. Francis Heylighen, has written papers on satisfaction and happiness (leading to Satori) which also reference both Pirsig and Maslow (*20). Coincidentally, Heylighen at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) was one of the organizers and participants in the Einstein Meets Magritte conference at which Pirsig presented.

[Maslow has fallen in and out of fashion, but with an open mind avoiding dogmatic / prescriptive takes, the thinking remains relevant in more modern management theories. eg See Dan Pink here.]

Satori of course, leads us to the Zen aspect of Pirsig’s work behind the MOQ.

All Things Zen

Harking back again to the hard, tangible, objective nature of my engineering starting point, the mystical, religious flavour of Zen presented a problem initially. I do however consider myself to be a spiritual person, even if I retain belief in a physical explanation of what we characterize metaphorically as spirit. That belief is of course not blind faith – it’s a suspension of disbelief, based on the quality of explanations forthcoming in good science generally – if one cares to look, and is prepared for the effort to understand.

That said, the many parallels drawn by serious scientific writers, concerned with both the new physics and with neuroscience and states of mind has meant I’ve kept an open mind. Open minded even to things that would be called para-normal, though in my case, normal physics has doors open to communication channels beyond electromagnetic speed of light mechanisms. (Sue Blackmore’s work on the para-normal is an interesting lesson in the limits to open-mindedness.) (*21)

My current reading of Zen, is probably best summarized by my most recent read – Douglas Hofstadter. It is clear that Zen has been a fashionable tag for opening up alternative thinking modes evident in Latin America, Native Americans, and all points east of western thinking, including the near and far Orient. The very fact that one can point to western thinking itself tends to support the Dawkins / Dennett / Blackmore angle that thought patterns are memetic, inherited in large interacting communities, by communication and replication – but that’s another story. What it does warn is that what we have grown to accept as objective, rational, scientific thinking and decision-making is open to question.

What Hofstadter says about Zen, having previously been drawn to it (with some remarkably parallel life experiences to Pirsig it has to be said) can be summarized as follows (*22).

Zen is holism, carried to its logical extreme. If holism says that things can only be understood in wholes, not as sums of their parts, Zen goes one further in maintaining that the world cannot be broken into parts at all [by the duality of the words we subjects use to name distinct objects within it.] Zen, eg in its koans, and meditations is trying to break the mind of logic.

So for me, the real value I see in Zen is that it breaks this logical comfort zone, even if it doesn’t itself provide any real alternative, beyond the individual state of mind. The alternative is simply to seek alternatives, if you will. To study it is to miss the point of it. The way is unattainable, it’s a meta-way, a way to the way. To name or reach it is to miss it. Zen is not about to ignore its own lesson. By breaking our comfort zone, what Zen does is remind us of the pitfalls in our established patterns of thinking and the linguistic traps in identifying and naming objects, which common sense and cultural history have made appear more concrete than perhaps they are.

Another source (in business management consulting) is David Snowden and his Cynefin organization (ex IBM). Cynefin is approximately Welsh for comfort zone. David is another person who draws on Pirsig in his work, using this ZMM quote to introduce recent workshops (*23):

“Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.”

[Again fascinating to me that I was re-quoting Dave Snowden and Cynefin as recently as last month.]

Where Does That Get Us ?

It’s clear that the MOQ is itself subject to much varied interpretation from a philosophical perspective, and despite Pirsig’s own responses to clarifications, the range of people who claim an interest in it, support a diverse range of world views – from deist to atheist, from pragmatic interpreters to absolute literalists.

I’m not entirely sure what a test of a good metaphysics would be and what conclusion would indicate success. I see it as a set of principles presented as a coherent whole, that can be agreed to describe that’s the way the world really works.

For me, those principles are in the simplest terms ..

Quality – The most fundamental atoms in the world are interactions. When we look at the world, needn’t restrict ourselves to objective views, we must look for the quality of the relevant interactions. (So in my information modelling domain, when I see a piece of information, look for the communication that caused it, and characterize the communication itself, eg what’s happening, why, intent, purpose, when, under what circumstance, etc.) In some sense the interactions may themselves be nothing other than information or its communication.

Dynamism – Take a process view of the world as a whole. At the level of individual interactions, this is the same as the first point. At higher levels treat all fixed situations as meta-stable, the temporary equilibrium of many more dynamic interactions and counteractions. These meta-stable situations support other dynamic (and meta-stable) levels, but are them selves affected by those additional dynamic interactions. These interactions are recursive strange loops.

Evolution – Whatever the atomic stuff, a long run overview of the organization of things in the world, arising from the processes above is the evolution of species (significant layers of stuff). What is emergent in these layers is built on the more atomic layers below and influenced by the more highly evolved layers above, but cannot be wholly explained without addressing the pseudo-cyclic dynamism between these layers. The significant layers (or species) are long-lived in human terms, but are nevertheless the result of the dynamic processes. In the layers where intelligent consciousness have evolved, social and above, the predominant species are memetic, patterns within which all the other information interactions (communications) occur, but which are nevertheless evolved patterns themselves.

Hence the glib title “It’s Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid”.

ie Just about everything can be characterized as evolved and evolving patterns of information, the highest evolved levels being consciousness, intellect and free-will themselves, and the thought patterns representing contemporary cultures, values and norms that govern individual and collective behaviour.

This is clearly a speculative conclusion, but I see it well supported in much promising work since Pirsig. It’s interesting that the US Science of Mind movement, based in Tucson (*24), came into being at exactly the same time as the European Einstein Meets Magritte conference was being put together. Many of the same people were involved initially, but the US intiative, with the less poetic name, is the one that has taken off, with many active participants.

My own line of investigation is continuing down the avenues of quantum information and pattern emergence, as well as consciousness and perception themselves, many of whose writers incidentally, continue to be associated with the Tuscon conference.

Hofstadter picked Escher for his seminal Pullitzer prize-winning book title Godel Escher Bach; had M been a note in Bach’s musical notation, he could easily have picked Magritte instead of Escher, and who knows what might have happened to the participants in the Einstein Meets Magritte conference ?

Anyway, I live in hope that the enormous explosion in philosophy of mind and consciousness research, that has happened since computer geeks got interested in AI, will yield a credible explanation for consciousness, and I believe when it does, it will hang nicely on the MOQ framework Mr Pirsig has provided. And, when that happens, the world will have a credible model for decision-making at the highest and most complex levels of human endeavour. It will not be until such a model is widely accepted however, that any majority of individuals can be expected to abandon old objective rational ways.

“These are the dreams that stuff is made on”

to quote Moser’s play on Shakespeare’s words.
Or, in the words of another of my heroes, T E Lawrence:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible”.


[As I’ve said once or twice already, fascinating reading my own naïve words from 20 years ago.

Robert Pirsig – “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Lila” remain immensely influential in my thought journey. Whether it’s the most important writing I’ve read, I couldn’t say. After the classics of literature and the standards of cybernetics and systems thinking, I’d hold three writers to the same level of importance:

Dan Dennett – “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” (B2BnB) – how understanding evolution really does explain mind and consciousness and how we use these to make good arguments about what we believe to be true. “Our very rationality”.

Iain McGilchrist – “The Matter with Things” and his earlier “The Master and his Emissary” – how our minds and world-views depend on our left-right brain systems architecture and how denial of this is leading us badly astray.

Mark Solms – “The Hidden Spring – A Journey to the Source of Consciousness” – how systems thinking applied to our old-new / higher-lower brain architecture supports both consciousness and our first-person “subjective” perspective, and how denial of the subjective – the failure of science to “Cross the Rubicon” – leaves orthodox science cut off from ever understanding reality.]



(Note these references are not comprehensive,
and many are secondary links to original sources
via my own web-pages.)

(*1) MOQ – A Metaphysics of Quality, propounded by Robert M Pirsig in his 1974 work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an Inquiry into Values (ZMM) and his subsequent Lila – An Inquiry into Morals (LILA) in 1991. [Back to text]

(*2) Philosophologist is a term coined pejoratively by Pirsig, to denote those who wrote about the philosophy of others, without originating any new philosophy. Philosophologist is to philosophy as literary critic is to literature. [Back to text]

(*3) Reading and writing technical manuals, and his experience as a teacher of English and rhetoric, are fundamental to Pirsig’s development of the MOQ. Relevant exceptions to my pre-2001 reading list included – everything by and about T E Lawrence (starting with David Lean’s 1962 film, with interest re-kindled by the 1995 anniversary of TEL’s death; reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom was probably the first time it ever occurred to me that men of letters could be as significant as engineers and scientists); Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man (1973 TV series and the book re-read several times since); and everything by Douglas Adams (though not before 1996, when my sons were reading him, highly thought provoking as well as entertaining). [Back to text]

(*4) Pirsig’s earliest direction was towards biochemistry, until he dropped out, and well, the rest is his story. [Back to text]

(*5) Pirsig’s ZMM narrative involves a 1968 cross-USA ride on his 305cc Honda CB72/77. Its maintenance becomes an archetype for technology as seen through the eyes of mid-20th century man, compared and contrasted with a wider perspective of values. (Mine was the 250cc model – here in 2024, re-reading this essay, I was prompted to elaborate on that story of my low-quality involvement with a badly maintained Honda CB72/77. ) [Back to text]

(*6) Variants attributed variously to Douglas Bader, David Ogilvy, and others. [Back to text]

(*7) My MBA dissertation “Managing Change & Flexibility – Attitudes & Organisational Culture”. [Back to text]

(*8) For a fuller discussion and references on these so-called irrational and chaotic views of management decision-making, see (*7) above, particularly chapters 3 and 4. [Back to text]

(*9) EPISTLE / ISO-15926 Web-site [Back to text]

(*10) Assorted reference papers on Matthew West’s site. [Back to text]

(*11) Ian Bailey’s post on the EPISTLE mail exploder, captured here. [Back to text]

(*12) Alan Thomson’s STEPlib problem classes (not in public domain). [Back to text]

(*13) Andries van Renssen’s Gellish or General Engineering Language [Back to text]

(*14) Quinn and Cameron. (See also (*7) above). [Back to text]

(*15) Web-Logging or Blogging, on-line personal web publishing in the style of a journal, typically consisting of “snippets” of information posted, with personal thoughts and links back to the source materials, exploded after 9/11, as more and more people took to sharing their thoughts with the rest of the world, and tools to enable blogging became freely available and user friendly. I was struck later by Pirsig’s descriptions in Lila of organising his research thoughts as index cards, was pretty much analogous to blogging (without the benefit of public interaction). [Back to text]

(*16) Seed Crystal moment. Pirsig uses this metaphor in ZMM (see *1 above) when Sarah mentions the word quality, whilst he is struggling articulate his thoughts. [Back to text]

(*17) Stapp & Josephson quote. [Back to text]

(*18) Pirsig’s 1995 paper Subjects, Objects, Data and Values presented at the Einstein Meets Magritte conference in Brussels. [Back to text]

(*19) Anthony McWatt’s paper The Role of Evolution, Time and Order in Pirsig’s “Metaphysics of Quality” [Back to text]

(*20) Francis Heylighen’s Happiness Paper [Back to text]

(*21) Susan Blackmore’s Open Mind [Back to text]

(*22) The Mu Offering in Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach [Back to text]

(*23) David Snowden’s Cynefin quote. [Back to text]

(*24) Tucson Science of Consciousness Conferences? [Back to text]