Pirsig’s Quality Theory Of Reality


My last post, I wrote about how Pirsig discusses, in his book Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, the split between The System and Counterculture.  Today I want to write the first of what will be a few posts covering what the book was really about:  Pirsig’s Quality Theory Of Reality.  I’ll try to put my terms in italics and save the big bad bold for Pirsig’s terms.

Pirsig’s theory states that there is Underlying Reality beneath or beyond the reality of which we are conscious.  He does not call it Underlying Reality.  That would be too easy.  Instead, he uses the far more confusing and fairly worthless term, Quality.  Except for the new name, this part of Pirsig’s Quality Theory is nothing new.  The Pre-Socratics were proposing Underlying Reality 2,500 years ago.  There was also Plato with his Forms, or Ideals, and of course, superstar Kant with his view of an Underlying Reality that did not intrinsically possess Time or Space or even Cause And Effect.

Most people have little problem with the idea of an Underlying Reality.  We know, for example, that just because we can’t perceive the sound of a dog whistle, that it still makes a sound; the sound merely occurs outside our Realm Of Perception.   Same goes for radio waves or molecules; they are there, but they occur outside of what our bodies can sense.

No one really knows how much of the Underlying Reality we are not sensing.  Could be most of it.  My bet is that it is most of it.  There are even those who believe, or who at least pretend to believe, that there is no reality at all!—that we just create all this crap in our head, that everything around us “illusory.”

This is a tricky word “illusory” or “illusion.”  It is entirely possible for something to be an illusion and yet still have some basis in reality.  For example, a mirage in a desert is an illusion, yet it has a basis in reality and can be explained scientifically.  But where people mess up is when they read the term “illusory” and believe it to mean that there is no reality there whatsoever.  In this sense (the wrong sense of the term in this area of philosophy), there is a difference between “illusory” and “incomplete,” and I think that some of the people who claim that all the world is all illusion don’t get that distinction.  We only see one side of the moon, but that doesn’t mean the moon has no real existence.

At the other extreme, I doubt there’s many who believe that there is an objective reality out there and we perceive ALL of it.  Humans seem to have always sensed there was more to life than meets the eye.

In Pirsig’s book, one character cannot accept it when a teacher of a certain Eastern school of thought claims that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were merely “illusory.”  Tell that to the folks at ground zero.

Pirsig, like me, believes that our perception of the Underlying Reality is limited in several ways.  As a group, I call these different layers of interference between our consciousness and the Ultimate Reality, Distortions Lenses.

The most obvious Distortion Lens, the one most people can agree to right away, is the one we’ve talked about:   what I call our Sense Filter.  There are sights too small for us to see, compounds that our taste buds cannot taste, chemicals that our olfactory sense cannot smell, objects too subtle for our skin to feel, and sounds too high or low for us to hear.

What I call the Standard Model Of Reality, the view of reality currently shared by the plurality of philosophers, also posits other Distortion Lenses.  These I group under the heading, Mental Constructs.

ASIDE:  I don’t know how to do graphics, or else I’d do a Venn Diagram here.  Perhaps you draw your own if I set it up for you parentheses style.  Each set of parenthesis is like a circle with other sets of parentheses contained within:

{ULTIMATE REALITY [Distortion Lenses (Sense Filter) (Mental Constructs) ] }

Mental Constructs are, in one way, the opposite of the Sense Filter.  The Sense Filter shuts out part of the Underlying Reality.  Mental Constructs impose something on the Underlying Reality.  There are two to three Mental Constructs in the de facto Standard Model Of Reality:  Time, Space, and (depending how you count it) Cause And Effect.  I say “depending on how you count it” because it could be argued that Cause And Effect is simply a side-effect of our impositions of Time and Space  (It could also be argued that Time and Space are side effects stemming from our need to impose Cause And Effect).

Hume believed that the falseness of our imposition of Cause And Effect is actually pretty easily spotted:  for instance, when a billiard ball hits another billiard ball, we only believe that the other ball will move because our past experiences cause us to bet that way; we’re using the past to predict the future— most of us could not present a good logical argument for why the other ball will move.

Although, I wonder if with modern atomic theory and our expert mathematical understanding of the conservation of energy, if we could not today actually provide a sound argument for the existence of Cause And Effect???

The Standard Model, following Kant, says that we impose these Mental Constructs upon the Underlying Reality in order to make sense of it.  Pirsig assumes that is the same reason we have a Sense Filter, also, and I tend to agree with him.  I think sometimes we just have to suspend the argument of Planned Universe versus Accidental & Evolved, and just keep pushing forward our understanding.

So far, the Distortion Lenses I’ve talked about are all ones that were presented long before Pirsig was even born, though he does agree that they exist.  Pirsig sees the Sense Filter and the Mental Constructs as providing “a kind of screening function for what sense data we will accept.”  Pirsig, following the Standard Model, believes that “the forms of Space and Time are applied to data as they are received from the object producing them.”  When speaking of Time, Pirsig points out that, unlike most things we perceive, or think we perceive, our knowledge of Time does NOT come through our Sense Filter:  “You don’t see Time,” he says.  “Neither do you hear it, smell it, taste it, or touch it.”

He also agrees that our minds distort reality for a PURPOSE:  “Unless we apply the concepts of Space and Time to the impressions we receive, the world is unintelligible, just a kaleidoscopic jumble of colors and patterns and noises and smells and pain and tastes without meaning.”  [People on acid trips sometimes get a glimpse of a slightly different view of the world when their drug of choice causes their minds’ filters and screens and constructs to become knocked askew.]

So far I’ve listed several layers of interference between the Ultimate Reality and ourselves; we have:  the Sense Filter, Time, Space, and Cause And Effect.  These Distortions are what I call Universal Distortions.  All of us have them (typically speaking).  It is fundamental to the (typical) human condition to experience the world through the Sense Filter and to experience Space and Time and Cause And Effect.  In truth, we cannot be certain that we all experience the same Space and the same sense of Time and the same sense of smell, taste, et cetera (it’s well-known that a colorblind person does not experience “green” the same way a non-colorblind person does).  But the exact specifications of each individual’s set of Universal Distortions is not the point at this juncture; the point is that we all have a set of them.

Personally, I add something else to the list of Universal Distortions:  Awareness.  Awareness is a filter, or layer of interference, that comes between what we perceive through the Sense Filter and what we actually become conscious of.  Awareness, in my interpretation, is the abode of Intuition.  Awareness is like the staging area before full consciousness of an event.

For example, our Sense Filter may perceive the colors and shapes of a deer in the woods, so in that sense we are AWARE of it at some level; yet we may not grow CONSCIOUS of the deer until it moves.  All those times when our Intuition is whispering something to us, it is speaking from this pre-conscious area of Awareness, the mental area between what our senses register and what we consciously perceive.

I also contend that there are other layers of reality-distortion we could add to the Sense Filters and the Mental Constructs.  This additional set of Distortion Lenses would have varying degrees of universality, and sometimes would even operate merely on the individual level.

The biggest example I can think of here is the Psychological Distortion:  our “hang-ups” can cause us to see the world in a distorted way.  There are also less severe Psychological Distortions, such the person who sees the world “through rose-colored glasses” and someone who sees the world as if everyone is out to get him.

Pirsig says that our subconscious Psychological Distortions can cause us to repeatedly set up and support patterns of behavior both in ourselves and in society as a whole— even as we consciously think we are working to destroy these very same patterns!

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing,” Pirsig says, “then that rationality will simply produce another factory.  If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.”

There is one area that I may outright disagree with both Pirsig and the Standard Model.  But then again, it may not be so much a disagreement as a muddle.  Pirsig says that “causes and effects are a result of thought.”  I think that goes too far to say that Cause And Effect are a RESULT of thought.  My feeling is that there is SOMETHING in the Ultimate Reality that contains an attribute that we perceive partially, and we call this partially perceived attribute “Cause And Effect.”

In the same way, I’m personally NOT convinced we impose Time and Space on Underlying Reality in the way that Standard Modelers seem to believe.  My guess is that we are meeting Underlying Reality part way.  It’s not ALL in our heads.  Time may not “really” exist, but I bet there’s something in the Underlying Reality that has an attribute that comes to us as Time.

In the next post, I’ll write about where Pirsig is going with all this talk about Reality.  Basically, he will try to convince us that separation from true Reality is the cause of some of the problems we experience in this world.


Me & Not Me:  Pirsig On Subject-Object Duality

Zen And The Art Of Romanticizing Science

Pirsig, Patterns, Thoughts, And Language


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