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AN OPEN LETTER BY ANDRE BROERSEN TO SAM HARRIS 

andrebroersen@gmail.com

 April 2011

The ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ (or MOQ) was developed by Robert M. Pirsig in his books: ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (ZMM), 1974 and ‘LILA: An Inquiry into Morals’, 1991.  The following are responses from an MOQ perspective to the answers provided by Sam Harris in the Q&A section on Amazon.com to promote his book ‘The Moral Landscape’. The original Q & A section can be found at: www.amazon.com/Moral-Landscape-Science-Determine-Values/dp/1439171211

A brief introduction to the MOQ is provided at the end of this document.

 

 

Q1: Are there right and wrong answers to moral questions?  

Harris: Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures. If there are more and less effective ways for us to seek happiness and to avoid misery in this world—and there clearly are—then there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

 

MOQ response:  

The MOQ (Metaphysics of Quality) would rather state that there are good and bad answers to moral questions.  Moreover, the MOQ suggests that there are different kinds of moralities and, as such, there are different answers depending on the perspective taken.   For example, this allows us to see that a hungry wolf killing its prey is taking a moral action (from its biological perspective) or a Muslim society’s code of covered dress for women is moral (from its particular social perspective).  However, and critically, the MOQ also takes a wider perspective that places questions (and answers) of morality within a broad cosmological, evolutionary framework which assists us to see the best answers to certain moral dilemmas.

 

For instance, consider the simple moral issue of the germ, the patient and a doctor:

 

Is it more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than to allow the germ to kill his patient? The germ wants to live. The patient wants to live. But the patient has moral precedence because he’s at a higher level of evolution.  (Within the MOQ, the germ is a combination of inorganic and biological pattern of values while the patient also includes social and intellectual patterns).

 

This may be obvious (even though there are certain religious cults against inoculations on moral grounds!) but from a (value centred) MOQ it is absolutely, scientifically moral for a doctor to prefer the patient.  This is not just based on some arbitrary social convention but is a moral pattern of reality as real and solid as the moral pattern that holds a rock together.  As such, it applies to all doctors, in all cultures.

 

Furthermore, examine the issues dealing with ‘vice’ and the Church’s moral response to these.  Vices such as drinking, sex, dancing, drugs etc. these are all biological pleasures which the Church, with its (social) morality tries to put the brakes on.  And, of course from an evolutionary moral perspective, the Church is correct in this.  It is asserting social values over biological values. For example, excessive drinking undermining family stability, job retention etc.

 

However, the MOQ argues that it is not an exclusive (social) Church morality; it also contends that it is scientifically moral for social patterns of value to dominate biological patterns of value.

 

If we examine the historical struggle between the Church and Science we see that scientific truth (intellectual patterns of value) and orthodox theological dogma (largely social patterns of value) have always been at loggerheads because the discoveries of science often undermine the Church’s dogma. The persecution of scientists such as Galileo by the Church is well documented. The MOQ holds that the Church’s motivation to persecute or even condemn or ignore scientific advances is immoral because this asserts social moral dominance over a (higher) intellectual moral value.  

 

It must be made clear from the outset that the MOQ is not a panacea for all questions concerning values. Rather, by placing value (or, as Pirsig often calls it, Quality) at the forefront of the evolutionary process, you are left with a metaphysics that has an explanatory power far exceeding any previous conventional scientific or philosophical theory.

 

To recap:

 

The MOQ holds that the world is composed of nothing but moral value and one of the main difficulties which the MOQ has overcome is the assigning of issues of morality to their proper evolutionary level.

 

 

Q2: Are you saying that science can answer such questions?

Harris: Yes, in principle. Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors—ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics. But, clearly, there are scientific truths to be known about how we can flourish in this world. Wherever we can act so as to have an impact on the well-being of others, questions of morality apply.

 

MOQ response:  

Yes, science can assist us in answering moral questions. As noted above, it is the scientific theory of evolution which underpins the MOQ’s moral framework.  Additionally, new scientific discoveries are integrated by the MOQ to continually refine the answers it provides to moral dilemmas.   As such, the knowledge that science provides can no longer remain aloof to not only the origins but also the consequences of its own discoveries as they are applied to and integrated into ‘everyday’ social and intellectual applications.

 

“Some critics will make serious objections to the suggestion that science can say anything meaningful about values or moral questions. Science is supposedly ‘objective’ (meaning value-free) and its subject matter is the finding of facts. However, the idea that science and its offspring, technology are value free, that is ‘quality free’ has got to go.” (ZMM, p.252)

 

It is as though there are two quite different realities presumed here: on the one hand, the objective real reality based on ‘facts’ and on the other a subjective reality consisting of ‘opinion’. How we would like the world to be is just subjective ‘wishy-washy’ thinking. It has nothing to do with the real world. Facts pertain to objective reality and values are just subjective states of mind.

 

“What, however, are scientific ‘facts’ and how are they ‘found’? Are ‘facts’ just sitting ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered? Do they exist as a fixed part of man’s consciousness, independently of experience and uncreated by experience?

 

Poincaré, the French mathematician, thought not. He concluded that ‘facts’, ‘axioms’, ‘truths’ are conventions, the verity of which can be hierarchically arranged: ‘The more general a fact, the more explanatory power it has, the more precious it is.’ (ZMM, p.258) i.e. the higher quality intellectual value it has.

 

But there are an infinity of ‘facts’, so which facts are you going to observe? Which hypothesis are you going to construct?

 

In ZMM (p.260), Poincaré’s story of how he thought of (what he later) named the ‘Theta-Fuchsian Series is related:

 

“He was about to enter a bus, and at the moment he put his foot on the step, the idea came to him, without anything in his former thoughts having paved the way for it, that the transformations he had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. He didn’t verify the idea, he said, he just went on with a conversation on the bus; but he felt a perfect certainty.”

 

“He concluded that the selection is made by what he called ‘the subliminal self’ or, in MOQ terms, ‘pre-intellectual awareness’. Poincaré states that mathematical solutions are selected by the subliminal self on the basis of ‘mathematical beauty’, of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. ‘This is a true esthetic feeling which all mathematicians know’ Poincaré said ‘but of which the profane are so ignorant as often to be tempted a smile’. But it is this harmony, this beauty, that is at the center of it all.” (ZMM, p.261)

 

As Charlene Seigfried, an eminent James scholar, says: ‘What is (metaphysics) cannot be designated apart from how we know it (epistemology). Neither can it be grasped apart from what we value’. 

 

The traditional distinctions between ontology, epistemology and ethics breaks down so that knowledge and will, facts and values are fused and this is how the MOQ unites facts and values. (David Buchanan  email to André Broersen, dated 12-12-2010)

 

In the MOQ the activity known as science is an intellectual activity. Its aim is the seeking of ‘truth’ which is one of the high quality intellectual patterns. In the MOQ, the pretence of science itself to consider itself ‘objective’ (meaning value free) is simply not true. The business of science IS one of the most important moral activities that human societies can engage in.

 

This so called ‘value freedom’ has been the result of two developments:

 

Firstly, we need to go back to ancient Greece, to such figures as Socrates and Pythagoras who paved the way for the fundamental principle behind science: that truth stands independently of social opinion.

 

Secondly, in its traditional historic defence against church domination and control it was argued that science is unconcerned with social values and morals, particularly church values and morals. This was probably done initially to protect fledging scientific ideas from religious repression.  However, the MOQ makes clear that this battle of science to free itself from domination by social moral (religious) codes is in fact a moral battle. This battle is still continuing. It is the battle of a higher, intellectual level of evolution to keep itself from being devoured by a lower, social level of evolution.

 

“The separation of science and its reasoning, from its social context is a fallacy, an absurdity which is just as silly as arguing that a society does not have to take account of biological patterns. It is an impossibility.” (LILA, p.305)

 

Thus, it is correct to state that a ‘human well-being is not a random phenomenon’ nor is the activity known as science a ‘random phenomenon’ either.  What a value-centered metaphysics (such as the MOQ) indicates is that science is not value-free or outside the realm of morals or individual expression. Quite the opposite! The best physicists and motorcycle mechanics are artists in their own respective fields. In the MOQ, truth is a species of the Good; it is an intellectual pattern, the most moral level of static quality. The central idea being to improve and expand both philosophy and science; to expand our notion of rationality by incorporating Quality or Value as a central feature.

 

 

Q3: But can’t moral claims be in conflict? Aren’t there many situations in which one person’s happiness means another’s suffering?

Harris: There are some circumstances like this, and we call these contests ?zero-sum.? Generally speaking, however, the most important moral occasions are not like this. If we could eliminate war, nuclear proliferation, malaria, chronic hunger, child abuse, etc.—these changes would be good, on balance, for everyone. There are surely neurobiological, psychological, and sociological reasons why this is so—which is to say that science could potentially tell us exactly why a phenomenon like child abuse diminishes human well-being.

 

MOQ response:  

But we don’t have to wait for science to do this. Dynamically, we already have a very good idea of what is good.  The intellectual level just provides the reasons for why mistreating children is bad or why a novel is well written. Rational thinking based on the scientific evidence of cosmological evolution shows such claims are not whimsical or merely something our culture has conditioned us to believe.

 

By placing morality in an evolutionary frame, as the MOQ does, most quarrels or conflicts can be traced to evolutionary causes and this tracing can provide a rational basis for classification of the conflicts as well as a rational basis for the provision of solutions.

 

“First, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of biological life over inanimate nature. Second, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the social order over biological life- conventional morals- proscriptions against drugs, murder, adultery, theft and the like. Third, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the intellectual order over the social order- democracy, trial by jury, freedom of the press. And finally there’s a fourth Dynamic morality which isn’t a code… call it a ‘code of Art’.” (LILA, p.166-7)

 

Taking the example of ‘mistreating children’, it can be seen that there are already social level conventions in place which judge certain practices involving children as ‘abuse’, or ‘mistreatment’ (be it sexual or otherwise). However, it is the intellectual level, through child- abuse/ mistreatment laws, which defines these practices as a crime of violence and reinforces social patterns that protect the victim and put shame and humiliation on the perpetrator. Furthermore these intellectual patterns make it a criminal offence and the judicial procedures of persecution usually follow. Compare this to how, for example, how a socially dominated organization such as the Catholic Church ‘deals’ with these cases of child abuse by the clergy.  From an MOQ perspective, the Catholic Church has, until recent external pressure, largely disregarded  intellectual patterns of value… which, as the scientific evidence of evolution supports, is an immoral act.

 

Once again, this shows that, from a value centered metaphysics, child mistreatment is not some arbitrary social convention but applies to all instances of child mistreatment in all human societies.

 

 

Q4: What if some people simply have different notions about what is truly important in life?

 

MOQ response:  

Everyone has different ideas about what is important.  This is due to the different (static) life experiences that each person has and how they rationalise and incorporate these experiences for future behaviour.  

Firstly, it’s the person’s choice of what is important (what is Quality) that defines him or her.

 

Secondly, people differ about Quality not because Quality is different, but because people are different in terms of experience.

 

‘Now, he said, ‘Quality [i.e. the Tao, the Buddhist ‘Nothingness’, the Ineffable] is shapeless, formless, indescribable. To see shapes and forms is to intellectualise. Quality is independent of any such shapes and forms. The names, the shapes and the forms we give Quality depend only partly on the Quality. They also depend partly on the a priori images we have accumulated in our memory. We constantly seek to find, in the [Dynamic] Quality event, analogues to our previous experiences. If we didn’t we’d be unable to act. We build up our language in terms of these [static] analogues. We build up our language in terms of these analogues. We build up our whole culture in terms of these analogues’. (ZMM, p.243-4)

 

The MOQ provides a framework to resolve differences rationally by analysing what are the best worldviews i.e. the ones that work best from an intellectual and artistic point of view.  However, it should be remembered that such comparison can often be complex especially with relatively different cultures.  This is why texts, such as F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East & West, are useful in providing guidelines in how such comparisons can be successfully carried out. 

 

Unfortunately, some individuals and cultures are socially (rather than intellectually) dominated and, as such, beyond rational argument.  In such situations, it will be likely that conflict will be unavoidable.

 

To recap:

 

The MOQ places any activity in pursuit of ‘what is truly important’ within a broad moral framework, and can be used to ascertain the low or high quality endeavours as well as those deemed immoral.

 

 

Q5: How could science tell us that the actions of the Taliban are in fact immoral when the Taliban think they are behaving morally?

Harris: As I discuss in my book, there may be different ways for people to thrive, but there are clearly many more ways for them not to thrive. The Taliban are a perfect example of a group of people who are struggling to build a society that is obviously less good than many of the other societies on offer. Afghan women have a 12% literacy rate and a life expectancy of 44 years. Afghanistan has nearly the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. It also has one of the highest birthrates. Consequently, it is one of the best places on earth to watch women and infants die. And Afghanistan’s GDP is currently lower than the world’s average was in the year 1820. It is safe to say that the optimal response to this dire situation—that is to say, the most moral response—is not to throw battery acid in the faces of little girls for the crime of learning to read. This may seem like common sense to us—and it is—but I am saying that it is also, at bottom, a claim about biology, psychology, sociology, and economics. It is not, therefore, unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality. In fact, we must say this, the moment we admit that we know anything at all about human well-being.  

 

MOQ response:  

The MOQ would suggest that Western culture is intellectually dominated while groups such as the Taliban are socially dominated.  The West sees the latter as evil in its repression of intellectual values (e.g. discouraging girls from reading) while the Taliban sees the West as evil due to its promiscuous expression of various forms of biological quality (e.g. sex, drugs and  rock-n-roll).  The MOQ explains why the West and the Taliban take their respective views within their respective levels. 

 

Moreover, the MOQ also places intellectual and social values on a wider, universal framework that indicates (with the support of the scientifically based theory of evolution) that intellectual values are absolutely superior to social ones.  This indicates that the promiscuous expression of various forms of biological quality is morally acceptable as long as it doesn’t undermine the higher intellectual and social values.  The MOQ would therefore support the Taliban in its concern with the dangers of uncontrolled biological forces but, at the same time, also support the West’s condemnation of the Taliban in the latter’s repression of intellectual values.

 

‘We must understand that when a society undermines intellectual freedom for its own purposes (by, for example, refusing women to gain an education, denying human rights, denying democratic reforms etc) it is absolutely morally bad, but when it represses biological freedom for its own purposes it is absolutely morally good. (LILA, p.315)

This justification of the repression of biological freedom by society is given, in a value centered metaphysics, a solid intellectual, scientific foundation and not a social, religious one open to the whims of whomever comes along with varying interpretations of some sections in some book, be it the Bible, the Qu’ran or Mosaic Law. 

 

  

Q6: But what if the Taliban simply have different goals in life?

Harris: Well, the short answer is—they don’t. They are clearly seeking happiness in this life, and, more importantly, they imagine that they are securing it in a life to come. They believe that they will enjoy an eternity of happiness after death by following the strictest interpretation of Islamic law here on earth. This is also a claim about which science should have an opinion—as it is almost certainly untrue. There is no question, however, that the Taliban are seeking well-being, in some sense—they just have some very strange beliefs about how to attain it.  

 

In my book, I try to spell out why moral disagreements do not put the concept of moral truth in jeopardy. In the moral sphere, as in all others, some people don’t know what they are missing. In fact, I suspect that most of us don’t know what we are missing: It must be possible to change human experience in ways that would uncover levels of human flourishing that most of us cannot imagine. In every area of genuine discovery, there are horizons past which we cannot see.  

 

 

MOQ response:  

Noting that strangeness is no basis to decide whether or not a belief is a good one to hold it is hoped, at this point, that the MOQ’s division of Value (Quality, Morality) into the evolutionary hierarchy sheds a better light on how to view differences in people’s striving towards ‘happiness’. The Chinese, the African peoples, the Russians, the Inuit, the American peoples all strive towards Quality, Betterness, Improvement, Excellence, Freedom.

 

(For an excellent expose of world cultures, see F.S.C. Northrop’s ‘The Meeting of East and West’)

 

All are after some form of ‘good’. The world’s different ideologies, political persuasions, economic arrangements etc are all inspired by this striving. Constitutions may be seen as static intellectual expressions of evolutionary gain to stop a society falling prey to degenerative forces.

 

What the MOQ shows is that morality is not a simple set of rules. It’s a very complex struggle of conflicting patterns of value out of which arise concepts of good and evil. (LILA, p.167)

 

And when it comes to looking at possibilities to ‘change human experience in ways that would uncover levels of human flourishing’ the MOQ is quite clear. Question 5 already touched upon this issue when it is argued that:

 

‘A culture that supports the dominance of social values over biological values is an absolutely superior culture to one that does not, and a culture that supports the dominance of intellectual values over social values is absolutely superior to one that does not’. (LILA, p. 317)

 

Now, it could be argued that cultures dominated by conservative religious, theistic considerations at the sacrifice of intellectual values, such as a the Taliban, the orthodox Jew and many different fundamentalist Christian groupings in other parts of the world, are not interested in ‘changing human experience in ways that would uncover levels of human flourishing that most of us cannot imagine’. They seem largely to be just interested in maintaining the status quo. They are dominated by dogma and are very static cultures because they (similar to countries dominated by communist ideology) have largely closed the door on allowing any dynamic advance. 

 

 

Q7: What do you mean when you talk about a moral landscape?

Harris: This is the phrase I use to describe the space of all possible experience—where the peaks correspond to the heights of well-being and valleys represent the worst possible suffering. We are all someplace on this landscape, faced with the prospect of moving up or down. Given that our experience is fully constrained by the laws of the universe, there must be scientific answers to the question of how best to move upwards, toward greater happiness. This is not to say that there is only one right way for human beings to live. There might be many peaks on this landscape—but there are clearly many ways not to be on a peak

 

MOQ response:  

The Metaphysics of Quality is also biography. It connects the individual deeply within a metaphysical orientation. Man is the measure, man is the participant in the creation of the world and not some passive observer of an incomprehensible, meaningless reality ‘out there’.

 

A nice way to approach this is to compare the levels of static patterns that compose a human being to the ecology of a forest. Different patterns sometimes in competition with each other, sometimes in symbiotic support of each other, but always in a kind of tension. Evolution doesn’t only take place within societies, it takes place within individuals too. A human being may thus be seen as a complex ecology of patterns moving toward Dynamic Quality. In general, individuals [and some experience peaks, some experience valleys] are in an evolutionary battle against the static patterns of their own lives. This battle is the suffering.

 

However, if you eliminate suffering from this world you eliminate life. There’s no evolution. Those species that don’t suffer don’t survive. Suffering is the negative face of the Quality that drives the whole process. All these battles between patterns of evolution go on within suffering individuals.  (LILA, p.367) 

 

The MOQ sees the wheel of karma as attached to a cart that is going somewhere - from quantum forces through inorganic forces and biological patterns and social patterns to the intellectual patterns that perceive the quantum forces. In the sixth century B.C. in India there was no evidence of this kind of evolutionary progress, and Buddhism, accordingly, does not pay attention to it. Today it’s not possible to be so uninformed. The suffering which the Buddhists regard as only that which is to be escaped, is seen by the MOQ as merely the negative side of the progression toward Quality (or, just as accurately, the expansion of quality). Without the suffering to propel it, the cart would not move forward at all. (Robert Pirsig to Anthony McWatt, March 23rd 1997.)  

 

 

Q8: How could science guide us on the moral landscape?

Harris: Insofar as we can understand human well-being, we will understand the conditions that best secure it. Some are obvious, of course. Positive social emotions like compassion and empathy are generally good for us, and we want to encourage them. But do we know how to most reliably raise children to care about the suffering of other people? I’m not sure we do. Are there genes that make certain people more compassionate than others? What social systems and institutions could maximize our sense of connectedness to the rest of humanity? These questions have answers, and only a science of morality could deliver them.

 

MOQ response:  

The scientific paradigm in its rational method, in its present conventional form (i.e. a subject-object mode of reasoning) cannot guide us on the moral landscape. It cannot do this because it has (for historical reasons starting with Plato and Aristotle and enforced by Descartes) become detached from the Good, from Quality, from Morality.

 

It is this recognition which led Pirsig to argue for an expanded form of rationality, a ‘spiritual rationality’.

 

The MOQ’s expanded form of empiricism (radical empiricism) and the pragmatic theory of truth fit quite neatly with the levels and codes and are part of the overall expansion of rationality too. Truth is re-conceived as a particular kind of good, as a species of the good, and there is room for many truths. The primary empirical reality is DQ, not the physical universe. Instead of a metaphysics of substance, the MOQ says the primary empirical reality is not a thing at all. It is an event, the ongoing flux of life, the cutting edge of experience itself. SOM says reality is a thing. The MOQ says reality is a process and that quality or value is at the center of that process.

 

The MOQ says rational thought would be wiser and smarter if it had a heart. It’s about adding some aesthetic sensibility and moral sensitivity to our ways of thinking. It’s about reclaiming the passions, which were imagined as the wild horses of the soul in Plato’s picture of the human soul.  And as “Dynamic Quality is a higher moral order than static scientific truth... it is as immoral for philosophers of science to try to suppress DQ as it is for church authorities to suppress the scientific method. However, Dynamic value is an integral part of science. It is the cutting edge of scientific progress itself.” (Lila, p. 366)   (David Buchanan, post on MD, 06-07-2010)

 

In this way, as seen above in the example of Poincaré, science can guide us on the moral landscape.  

 

 

Q9: Why is it taboo for a scientist to attempt to answer moral questions?

Harris: I think there are two primary reasons why scientists hesitate to do this. The first, and most defensible, is borne of their appreciation for how difficult it is to understand complex systems. Our investigation of the human mind is in its infancy, even after nearly two centuries of studying the brain. So scientists fear that answers to specific questions about human well-being may be very difficult to come by, and confidence on many points is surely premature. This is true. But, as I argue in my book, mistaking no answers in practice for no answers in principle is a huge mistake.

 

The second reason is that many scientists have been misled by a combination of bad philosophy and political correctness. This leads them to feel that the only intellectually defensible position to take when in the presence of moral disagreement is to consider all opinions equally valid or equally nonsensical. On one level, this is an understandable and even noble over-correction for our history of racism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism. But it is an over-correction nonetheless. As I try to show in my book, it is not a sign of intolerance for us to notice that some cultures and sub-cultures do a terrible job of producing human lives worth living.

 

MOQ response:

Quite simply; because science (and the ‘doing’ of science) has considered itself to be value-free, as this is in many ways considered to be a measure of its ‘objectivity’…of its ‘truthfulness’…its ‘purity’. It has built around itself an almost impenetrable immune system to the exclusion of morals.

 

From the perspective of a conventional subject-object science (and for that matter philosophy, whose insights are [usually] based on scientific ‘discoveries’) the world is a completely purposeless, valueless place. Nothing is right, nothing is wrong. Everything just functions.  We find the logical positivists who say that only the natural sciences can legitimately investigate the nature of reality and you have the empiricists, most of whom deny the validity of any knowledge gained through imagination, authority, tradition or purely theoretical reasoning. They regard fields such as art, morality, religion and metaphysics as unverifiable and therefore ‘nonsensical’.

 

Question 1 has already dealt with the historical reasons for science staying out of the moral debate, a debate fostered by social (Church) morality. But the MOQ has also shown that the social level represents but one type of morals. There are four more types as also discussed in the Introduction and response 1.

 

However, the MOQ varies from this by saying that the values of art and morality and even religious mysticism are verifiable. That they have been excluded because of the metaphysical assumption that all the universe is composed of subjects and objects (call it mind/matter, body/soul) and anything that cannot be classified as a subject or an object isn’t real. There is no empirical evidence for this assumption at all. It is just an assumption. (LILA, p.102)

 

In other words, discussions about values (i.e. morality) by scientists is considered to be tainting the ‘objective’ nature of the scientific enterprise.

 

“The MOQ agrees that there are ‘some cultures and sub-cultures [doing] a terrible job of producing human lives worth living’. Since cultures are not the source of all morals, cultures can be graded and judged morally according to their contribution to the evolution of life. A culture that supports the dominance of social values over biological values is an absolutely superior culture to one that does not, and a culture that supports the dominance of intellectual values over social values is absolutely superior to the one that does not.” (LILA, p.317)

 

To recap:  It is hoped that it is clear by now that the MOQ, as an example of a scientifically based approach, has many answers in principle and in practice.

 

 

Q10: What is the difference between there being no answers in practice and no answers in principle, and why is this distinction important in understanding the relationship between human knowledge and human values?

Harris: There are an infinite number of questions that we will never answer, but which clearly have answers. How many fish are there in the world’s oceans at this moment? We will never know. And yet, we know that this question, along with an infinite number of questions like it, have correct answers. We simply can’t get access to the data in any practical way. There are many questions about human subjectivity—and about the experience of conscious creatures generally—that have this same structure. Which causes more human suffering, stealing or lying? Questions like this are not at all meaningless, in that they must have answers, but it could be hopeless to try to answer them with any precision. Still, once we admit that any discussion of human values must relate to a larger reality in which actual answers exist, we can then reject many answers as obviously wrong. If, in response to the question about the world’s fish, someone were to say, ‘There are exactly a thousand fish in the sea.’ We know that this person is not worth listening to. And many people who have strong opinions on moral questions have no more credibility than this. Anyone who thinks that gay marriage is the greatest problem of the 21st century, or that women should be forced to live in burqas, is not worth listening to on the subject of morality.

 

MOQ response:  

The MOQ agrees with this and says: “At present we are snowed under with an irrational expansion of blind data-gathering in the sciences because there is no rational format for any understanding of scientific creativity… We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.” (ZMM, p.287)

 

What the MOQ espouses is a root expansion of scientific rationality. Ethics and science should be united at a basic level. As Pirsig argues:

 

“It’s been necessary since before the time of Socrates to reject the passions, the emotions, in order to free the rational mind for an understanding of nature’s order which was as yet unknown. Now it’s time to further an understanding of nature’s order by re-assimilating those passions which were originally fled from. The passions, the emotions, the affective domain of man’s consciousness, are a part of nature’s order too. The central part.” (ZMM, ibid).

 

The MOQ would say that value (Quality) comes first and this Quality, this search for ‘betterness’ is what drives the whole process. Values determine the what (we find important to know) and gives it direction. This IS the relationship between human knowledge and human values.

 

The result IS a Metaphysics of Quality.

 

 

Q11: What do you think the role of religion is in determining human morality?

Harris: I think it is generally an unhelpful one. Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one. Of course, there are a few gems to be found in every religious tradition, but in so far as these precepts are wise and useful they are not, in principle, religious. You do not need to believe that the Bible was dictated by the Creator of the Universe, or that Jesus Christ was his son, to see the wisdom and utility of following the Golden Rule.

The problem with religious morality is that it often causes people to care about the wrong things, leading them to make choices that needlessly perpetuate human suffering. Consider the Catholic Church: This is an institution that excommunicates women who want to become priests, but it does not excommunicate male priests who rape children. The Church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. When we realize that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic Church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.

 

MOQ response:  

The MOQ would tend to say that the Catholic Church is offering a poor moral framework as this is predominantly based on traditional social values rather than the latest scientific ideas.  The MOQ instead places morality and moral questions in an evolutionary perspective which show the limits of conventional social, Church inspired, morality and the latter’s answers to moral dilemmas. As Joseph Campbell suggests: ‘Religion is a misinterpretation of myth.’

 

The MOQ is anti-theistic and offers a scientifically based moral framework; it is offering a higher intellectual quality one. However, it also implies that religion is better than having no social conditioning at all i.e. leaving people to the “Law of the Jungle”.

 

 

Q12: So people don’t need religion to live an ethical life?

Harris: No. And a glance at the lives of most atheists, and at the most atheistic societies on earth—Denmark, Sweden, etc.—proves that this is so. Even the faithful can’t really get their deepest moral principles from religion—because books like the Bible and the Qur’an are full of barbaric injunctions that all decent and sane people must now reinterpret or ignore. How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves. Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious. We are the guarantors of the wisdom we find in scripture, such as it is. And we are the ones who must ignore God when he tells us to kill people for working on the Sabbath.

 

MOQ response:  

The MOQ agrees with this. To put a finer point on it, the MOQ argues that we already live an ethical life, that we are in fact a result/representation of Quality, the moral ‘force’ driving the whole thing. Man is the measure, man is the active participant in the creation of the world. However, a subject-object metaphysics obscures this fact. The Marxist notion of ‘alienation’ is useful here to look at the processes which contribute to man’s separation from identification with his work and a resultant psychological separation from himself.

 

It is interesting when talking of ‘religion’ to go back to the root meaning of the word, ‘re-ligare’; ‘that which binds together’, (Darryl Reanney, ‘Music of the Mind’, p.144) and follow Phaedrus in his quest to find the root word of arête (a synonym for Quality) which the Sophists in ancient Greece had taught. It leads him to the Proto-Indo-European morpheme ‘rt’ or ‘rta’:

 

“One of Phaedrus’ old school texts contained a good summary: ‘RTA, which etymologically stands for “course” originally meant “cosmic order’, the maintenance of which was the purpose of all the gods; and later it also came to mean “right” so that the gods were conceived as preserving the world not merely from physical disorder but also from moral chaos. The one idea is implicit in the other; and there is order in the universe because its control is in righteous hands.’ The physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe. Rta is both. This is exactly what the MOQ was claiming. It was not a new idea. It was the oldest idea known to man.”

 

“Dharma, like rta, means ‘what holds together’. It is the basis of all order. It equals righteousness. It is the ethical code. It is the stable condition which gives man perfect satisfaction. Dharma is duty. It is not external duty which is arbitrarily imposed by others. It is not any artificial set of conventions which can be repealed by legislation. Neither is it internal duty which is arbitrarily decided by one’s own conscience. Dharma is beyond all questions of what is internal and what is external. Dharma is Quality itself, the principle of ‘rightness’ which gives structure and purpose to the evolution of all life and to the evolving understanding of the universe which life created.” (LILA, Chapter 30)

 

 

Q13: How will admitting that there are right and wrong answers to issues of human and animal flourishing transform the way we think and talk about morality?

Harris: What I’ve tried to do in my book is give a framework in which we can think about human values in universal terms. Currently, the most important questions in human life—questions about what constitutes a good life, which wars we should fight or not fight, which diseases should be cured first, etc.—are thought to lie outside the purview of science, in principle. Therefore, we have divorced the most important questions in human life from the context in which our most rigorous and intellectually honest thinking gets done.

Moral truth entirely depends on actual and potential changes in the well-being of conscious creatures. As such, there are things to be discovered about it through careful observation and honest reasoning. It seems to me that the only way we are going to build a global civilization based on shared values—allowing us to converge on the same political, economic, and environmental goals—is to admit that questions about right and wrong and good and evil have answers, in the same way the questions about human health do.

 

MOQ response:  

From one perspective, the MOQ can be seen as an example of the broad philosophical framework that Northrop claimed was necessary to underpin international understanding (see his ‘The Meeting of East and West’).

 

The MOQ shows that morals have a scientific basis and this basis is predicated upon Quality. Quality encompasses science and not the other way around.

 

“James said, ‘Truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it.’ He said, ‘The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.’ TRUTH IS A SPECIES OF GOOD. That was EXACTLY what is meant by the MOQ. Truth is a static intellectual pattern WITHIN a larger entity called Quality.” [Emphasis is Pirsig’s]

 

So long as the dominant political-economic interests are focussing their efforts at maximizing profits, i.e. economic interests dominating social level values, sanctified by Protestant ethics, the profane will continue to dominate. So long as the vast majority of the scientific enterprise continues to be used in the service of narrow political-economic and commercial interests its answers will not contribute in a constructive way.

 

“Morals can’t function normally because they have been declared intellectually illegal by the subject-object metaphysics that dominates present social thought… The end of the twentieth century in America seems to be an intellectual, social, and economic rust-belt, a whole society that has given up on Dynamic improvement and is slowly trying to slip back to Victorianism.” (LILA, p.310)

 

The MOQ lays bare the profanity perpetrated every moment of our lives whilst at the same time giving hope to those feeling most hopeless.

 

The root expansion of rationality argued for in ZMM and developed in LILA provides a scientific basis for a ‘spiritual’ rationality, upon which political, economic and environmental goals can firmly be reformulated. Science can play a significant role in this entire process.

 

“And what is good Phaedrus,

And what is not good-

Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” 

 

 

 

Addendum - A brief introduction to the MOQ:

 

For those unfamiliar with Pirsig’s work, he makes the unusual postulation that the world is composed of (patterned and unpatterned) value (or Quality) and that every day of our lives is spent empirically verifying that something has higher value than something else. (Lila’s Child, annot.121)

 

The Metaphysics of Quality is a continuation of the mainstream of twentieth century American philosophy. It is a form of pragmatism, of instrumentalism, which says that the test of the true is the good. It adds that this good is not a social code or some intellectualised Hegelian Absolute. It is direct everyday experience.’ (LILA, p.373)

 

The MOQ employs the term ‘Dynamic Quality’ (or ‘unpatterned value’) to denote the continuing stimulus that the environment put upon us.  It is the changing flux of immediate reality and is a synonym of F.S.C. Northrop’s ‘undifferentiated  aesthetic continuum’, the Buddha’s ‘Nothingness’, Lao Tsu’s ‘Tao’ and William James’ ‘ immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflections with its conceptual categories’.

 

The MOQ employs the term ‘static quality’ (or ‘patterned value’) for any patterns abstracted from this flux.  Static patterns of value are best understood as ‘conditioned’ (in the Buddhist sense of the term) and as ‘repeated arrangements’. They are not static as in ‘physically fixed or still’ but static as in ‘stable’.

 

In its attempt to clarify philosophical issues, the MOQ divides static reality into four, distinct types of static value patterns ordered by their cosmological evolutionary history. These static moral patterns (or sq) refer to any repeated arrangement whether it is: inorganic (e.g. chemicals, quantum forces), biological (e.g. plants, animals), social (e.g. cities, government laws) or intellectual (e.g. thoughts, ideas). (McWatt PhD, 2004, p.71)

The MOQ would say that inorganic objects experience events but do not react to them biologically, socially or intellectually. They react to these experiences inorganically, according to the laws of physics. (Lila’s Child, annot.30)

 

Similarly, patterns at the organic level react to their experiences according to the laws operating at this level studied by geneticists, microbiologists, botanists and zoologists. Instances of biological quality include physical health and pleasure. This is the morality of the ‘law of the jungle’ where biology triumphs over the inorganic forces of starvation and death.

 

Patterns at the third level consist of social patterns of value.  These evolved from the organic level and include institutions such as family, church and government which seek to control biological behaviour. These are the patterns of culture that the anthropologist and the sociologist study.  

 

The fourth level (which emerged from the social level) consists of intellectual patterns of value including such disciplines as science, theology, philosophy and mathematics.

 

The intellectual level is the ‘highest’ evolved static pattern and includes such values as the seeking of truth, justice, the ideas of democracy, human rights, trial by jury and freedom. The placement of the intellect in this position makes it superior to society, biology and inorganic patterns but still inferior to the Dynamic-static code of Art. The latter is not a level but a ‘code’ which says ‘what’s good in life isn’t defined by society or intellect or biology. What’s good is freedom from domination by any static pattern, but that freedom doesn’t have to be obtained by the destruction of the patterns themselves.’ (LILA, p.307)