Date: Mon May 17 2004 - 22:04:28 BST
Mark 15-5-04: Hello Rick and Sam.
The question is "what is a level?".
I could be wrong, but I think Pirsig's first use of the term "level" comes
near the end of ch.11 (p.167 in my edition)
"Biological evolution can be seen as a process by which weak Dynamic forces
at a subatomic level discover stratagems for overcoming huge static
inorganic forces at a superatomic level."
Then again on p.169...
"What the Dynamic force had to invent in order to move up the molecular
level and stay there was a carbon molecule that would preserve its limited
Dynamic freedom from inorganic laws and at the same time resist
deterioration back to simple compounds of carbon again."
And then on the same page...
"This division of all biological evolutionary patterns into a Dynamic
function and a static function continues on up through higher levels of
Then at the beginning of chapter 12...
"...[S]tatic patterns of value are divided into four systems: inorganic
patterns, biological patterns, social patterns and intellectual patterns.
They are exhaustive. That's all there are. If you construct an
encyclopedia of four topics - inorganic, biological, social and
intellectual - nothing is left out. No 'thing', that is. Only Dynamic
Quality, which cannot be described in any encyclopedia is absent." LILA,
Notice here that Pirsig describes the four divisions as "systems." He
continues this into the next paragraph when he writes...
But although the four systems are exhaustive they are not exclusive. They
all operate at the same time and in ways that are almost independent of each
But on the next page he flows right into...
Although each higher level is built on a lower one it is not an extension of
that lower level. Quite the contrary. The higher level can often be seen
to be in opposition to the lower level, dominating it, controlling it where
possible for its own purposes.
..which suggests he's using "level" and "system" as essentially
interchangeable. From here on out it's mostly (though not exclusively)
"levels." So I went to the dictionary...
DICTIONARY.COM (top 3 definitions for "level")
1. Relative position or rank on a scale: the local level of government;
studying at the graduate level.
2. A relative degree, as of achievement, intensity, or concentration: an
unsafe level of toxicity; a high level of frustration.
3. A natural or proper position, place, or stage: I finally found my own
level in the business world.
1. A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming
a complex whole.
2. A functionally related group of elements, especially:
a. The human body regarded as a functional physiological unit.
b. An organism as a whole, especially with regard to its vital
processes or functions.
c. A group of physiologically or anatomically complementary organs
or parts: the nervous system; the skeletal system.
d. A group of interacting mechanical or electrical components.
e. A network of structures and channels, as for communication,
travel, or distribution.
f. A network of related computer software, hardware, and data
3. An organized set of interrelated ideas or principles.
4. A social, economic, or political organizational form.
5. A naturally occurring group of objects or phenomena: the solar system.
6. A set of objects or phenomena grouped together for classification or
7. A condition of harmonious, orderly interaction.
8. An organized and coordinated method; a procedure. See Synonyms at
9. The prevailing social order; the establishment. Used with the: You can't
beat the system.
From this, "systems" actually seems better when describing an individual
division of patterns (ie. each 'level' is a system of some kind). We can
see in the ordinary dictionary definition of "system" many of the attributes
of the static pattern groups (ie. Intellectual - a set of interrelated
ideas, Social - the prevailing social order, Biological - a functional
physiological unit, Inorganic - a naturally occurring group of objects). It
seems to me that the definition of the word "level" only becomes relevant
when the systems are "ranked". When we speak of the "social level," we are
not just talking about the social system alone, but the social system as it
sits relative to the other four systems as ranked by Pirsig's MoQ.
If one didn't believe, as Pirsig does, that the four systems can be ranked,
he'd probably drop the word "level" and just call them systems, to wit: an
inorganic system, a biological system, a social system, and an intellectual
system. Each system being a group of interacting, interrelated, or
interdependent elements forming a complex whole and each being governed by
their own rules (and all the other stuff Pirsig envisions about them).
They're only "levels" though, after they're ranked (sorry, I realize none of
this is groundbreaking, but this is what the question asked, no?).
That's how I read Pirsig anyway. Personally, when I think about that "MoQ
encyclopedia" Pirsig hypothesizes, I can't help but to wonder whether it
might be better to characterize the 4 components of the static moral
hierarchy as "topics" rather than "systems". What are the levels? They're
everything we talk about broken down into 4 topics and then ranked morally.
This would suggest reading the quote above from p.153 as if it read "Static
patterns of value are divided into four topics....".
That's all I've got for now.
Mark 15-5-04: Splendid work Rick.
There are some important features of what you are saying which must be kept
1. A new level is built on an old one and not an extension of it. Built on in
the way a house pays no regard to the land it is built on.
The starting point for a new level is DQ. This is where moral order, ranking
or level comes in; those protecting vestiges of dead matter which protect new
organic life are organised by the new level for example.
2. The term system must be approached with care. Systems are intellectual
aesthetics, and are primarily created in response to DQ. To suggest that a social
system is actually the very same way an intellectual description models it is
to insist on a rigid enforcement of the aesthetic 'system.' Systems are
useful. They are moral only to the extent that they promote freedom. Therefore, no
system is ever closed.
3. Topics. Topics or topos (Greek) is an interesting term. I have just been
studying this term in connection with music analysis. Topics are the subject of
rhetoric. Note how we have a conjunction of system and rhetoric with regard
to levels? Why? Because systems are rhetorical devices. They are stories and
narratives of our mythos.
So, when you can't help but think levels are topics, you are thinking well it
seems to me Rick.
However, Evolution does appear to be one of the most significant of
Therefore, Topics are evolving, and this process involves an ordering of
Therefore, we experience a 'sweet spot' or coherence between two modes of
narrative; system and topos. Level is a sweet spot between these two modes!
This is why we should retain Level rather than system or topic - Level is a
coherent balance between rational systematising and intuitive poetics.
All the best Rick.
What is a level?
I had a number of queries in my mind as to what a level was, in Pirsig's
account of the MoQ. Most of them have now been answered by Rick's post, which made
a lot of sense to me. But my main underlying interest is in finding out if we
can get some consensus on what sort of thing might constitute a level, what
sort of thing a level is - and those who know my point of view will understand
why I ask the question. This post gives my answer.
Mark 15-5-04: Sam, When anyone asks the questions you ask, disappointment
Aristotle asked the same questions, and now, 2,000 years later, so are you.
Aristotle wanted to know what 'things' are.
The MoQ gives you an answer: 'Things' emerge from the Dynamic flux of
experience. 'Things' are stable patterns of experience. But these patterns are
changing and cannot be defines, for to define them is to generate more stable
There are no definite patterns which are not open to eventual change. So,
there are no 'things' which will not eventually change.
Pirsig describes the MoQ as being a study of static latches, or static
Quality. I think the first
(obvious) thing to say about what a level is, is precisely this: that it is a
classification of static Quality (ie Quality statically latched); more
precisely, it is a
description of particular classes of patterns of value, so: (static) reality
is composed of patterns of value, these can be classified in the following way
Mark 15-5-04: Classification. The fundamental classification in the MoQ is DQ
and SQ. If you leave DQ out of the static description here.
You can indicate DQ by restating this way...
Mark's restating of Sam's (obvious)! paragraph:
Pirsig describes the MoQ as being a study of static latches, or static
Quality as they evolve in the event stream (SODV). I think the first (obvious) thing
to say about what a level is, is precisely this: that it is a description or
classification of static Quality (ie Quality statically latched) as it evolves
in the event stream; more precisely, it is a description of particular
classes of patterns of value as they evolve in the event stream, so: (static)
reality is composed of patterns of value emerging from the Dynamic flux, these can
be classified in the following way as an aesthetic response to pre-established
Secondly, Pirsig does arrange the levels in a hierarchy, with the higher
levels being more 'moral' than the lower. This is a part of his evolutionary
stance, that over time, Quality becomes more and more 'present', ('statically
Mark 15-5-04: Sam, Now you are going astray. Coherence does the job for you,
if you should only consider it at this point. So, to restate:
This is a part of his evolutionary stance, that over time, Static Quality
becomes more and more coherent.
You see Sam, coherence does the job of indicating the state of Static
patterns as they evolve - DQ is central to what coherence is all about: SQ-SQ
So there is an ascent from the inorganic to the biological to the social to
the fourth level.
Mark 15-5-04: You should say, 'there is an increase in coherence.' That would
be much better. I note you avoid the term Intellectual level, for 'obvious'
This ascent is led by DQ, and is geared around freedom, "A primary occupation
of every level of evolution seems to be offering freedom to lower levels of
Mark 15-5-04: Sam, how is DQ leading? Coherence provides an elegant answer:
SQ-SQ tension. One may talk about SQ-SQ tension or coherence, because it is at
this point that DQ may influence huge resistance.
Thirdly, although Pirsig says that the levels are discrete, they are not
_absolutely_ discrete, in other words, there are ways in which they relate to each
other. "They all operate at the same time and in ways that are ALMOST
independent of each other." (ch 12, my emphasis). The way that they relate is through
a 'machine language interface' (from his analogy with computers), "the
biological patterns of life and the molecular patterns of organic chemistry have a
'machine language' interface called DNA." (ch 12 again).
Mark 15-5-04: And what is common to all levels? DQ of course. DQ operates
where patterns are in exceptional tension.
DNA evolves when it encounters other DNA - after sex. No other time, unless
Mr. Scientist is fiddling with his pipette? (ooo-eerrrrr)! Think about it; a
quick flash of interaction, DNA with DNA. You spend the whole of your life after
this flash. It begins with exceptional tension and DQ.
Fourthly, there is a 'purpose' involved at each level. (Perhaps this could be
redescribed as saying, DQ operates or is experienced differently at each
Mark 15-5-04: All SQ-SQ tensions, even within each DNA-DNA encounter is a new
tension. How DQ may tip preference is, i think, better explained this way.
So Pirsig writes, "A primary occupation of every level of evolution seems to
be offering freedom to lower levels of evolution. But as the higher level gets
more sophisticated it goes off on purposes of its own." I don't think Pirsig
explicitly says this anywhere, but it seems to me that this 'purpose' can be
expressed in terms of laws, eg the law of physics at the inorganic level; the
law of natural selection at the biological level.
Mark 15-5-04: This is just plain wrong Sam, for it is precisely the laws of
the Inorganic that the Organic are moving away from. Pirsig uses the example of
Birds escaping gravity and Humans going to the Moon.
If you are suggesting that Organic behaviour may one day be open to
mathematical modelling like Physics is, then i would suggest that this implies the
primacy of mathematics in the Universe - a sort of Platonic Form?
Pirsig does, however, go on to talk about the different levels emerging to
give more freedom in the context of those laws, "One could almost define life as
the organized disobedience of the law of gravity", "This would explain why
patterns of life do not change solely in accord with causative 'mechanisms' or
'programs' or blind operations of physical laws. They do not just change
valuelessly. They change in ways that evade, override and circumvent these laws. The
patterns of life are constantly evolving in response to something 'better'
than that which these laws have to offer." (ch 11)
Fifthly, at least if we go from the DNA example, there seems scope for
suggesting that there is a particular pattern, (closely related to the static latch
which is the 'machine language interface'), which is the primary 'vehicle' for
the operation of DQ at each level, ie the 'migration of static patterns
toward Dynamic Quality'. "Biological evolution can be seen as a process by which
weak Dynamic forces at a subatomic level discover stratagems for overcoming huge
static inorganic forces at a superatomic level. They do this by selecting
superatomic mechanisms in which a number of options are so evenly balanced that a
weak Dynamic force can tip the balance one way or another.
Mark 15-5-04: SQ-SQ tension.
The particular atom that the weak Dynamic subatomic forces have seized as
their primary vehicle is carbon"; "What the Dynamic force had to invent in order
to move up the molecular level and stay there was a carbon molecule that would
preserve its limited Dynamic freedom from inorganic laws and at the same time
resist deterioration back to simple compounds of carbon again." (ch 11)
Mark 15-5-04: All this is in The edge of chaos but there has been no mention
of it from you Sam? Why tell me something i already know about? Not only this,
but as i say, the notion of coherence and SQ-SQ tension clears up your
problems AND gives concrete examples of evolution in action on a mundane level. I am
baffled. Please explain?
It seems to me that these are aspects (doubtless not all the aspects) of what
sort of thing a level is. So a level in the MoQ is: a classification of
static patterns of value that fits into the hierarchy of evolution led by DQ, which
relates to the other levels via a 'machine language interface' and whose
purpose can be classified according to a particular 'law' or 'laws', and which is
most easily understood by consideration of the 'vehicle' on which DQ operates.
Anyone care to refine this formulation?
Mark 15-5-04: As noted my response to Rick's post, the emphasis on systems
and laws biases severe rationality. While rationality is an intellectual
aesthetic with its own method, Rick indicates the rationale's relationship to topos
or Rhetoric - a coherence between intuited harmony and order.
You suffer from the Aristotelian bias towards systematising and ordering; the
'eternal mechanic' while suppressing harmony and aesthetic. Thus, your
formulation, which is a term derived from 'form' is inadequate. The term 'vehicle'
also suggests an underlying substantial strata which excludes a relationship
between DQ and SQ as a process.
A level in the MoQ is a process, and this is indicated as follows:
A Level is composed of patterns of Static Quality evolving in the event
stream towards DQ.
1. Event stream (DQ) --------> 3. Coherence <-------- 2. DQ Goal of evolution
1. Event stream is immediate Dynamic flux of experience. (SODV)
2. Goal of evolution is also immediate Dynamic flux of experience. (Lila)
3. Coherence is a tension between static patterns emerging from the Dynamic
All levels display preference towards coherence.
All levels display a preference towards limiting the previous levels
New levels begin with Dynamic Quality.
A level may be said to be composed of a static repertoire of patterns within
which coherence forms. Coherence is also a measure of beauty.
All the best,
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