02 June 2011

Philosophy and Cults of Personality: Pirsig and Less Wrong

I don't really know much about anything. I will be the first to say this, often and with great enthusiasm. Pretty much every day I learn another reason to be humble - another vast field of knowledge that defeats me. It's sobering.

Part of that ignorance means that I have never been able to do more than dabble in philosophy, as well as its fascinating sub-discipline of epistemology. That's the study of how we know things - and to what extent we can know them. Plato and Bertrand Russell are pretty much as far as I have ever gotten in the discipline, which puts me at about the first toe-wiggle of a baby step.

But I do like to read some, and I keep my ear to the ground when it comes to the Net. And so I did happen to notice a remarkable similarity between the charisma-driven students of two off-the-path philosophers: Robert Pirsig and Eliezer Yudkowsky. It's a similarity made all the more remarkable by how dissimilar they are in every other way.

You have probably heard of Robert Pirsig's enduringly popular novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You may have even had the pleasure of reading the book. It's a pleasant and seductive story of a man who takes a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son and some friends. The narrator's journey across the country reconciles him with his son as well as leading him to a coherent understanding of the world that rejects the distinction between Apollonian "truth" and Dionysian "quality," returning to what he considers to be an ancient and more useful understanding of a combined notion of real Quality. It is wonderfully-written, clear and clever, and it uses a gentle series of approachable examples to usher in a radical reinterpretation of how we know things and how we see them. Pirsig's philosophy, later expanded on in his only other book (Lila), is called the Metaphysics of Quality.

I'm not going to go much into the actual philosophy here. I lack the skills and knowledge to do so intelligently. But when I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and first looked into the whole thing, I was struck with two things: that the broader philosophical community had passed Pirsig by, for whatever reason, and that a reverent group of students had nonetheless gathered to study the Metaphysics of Quality and discuss it.

I am quite serious when I say that Quality vanished into the pool of professional philosophy with barely a ripple. Published in 1974, it was read and dismissed, by and large. It's fairly nonspecific, for one thing: the very qualities that make it readable also make it difficult to take it seriously as a work of academic philosophy - essentially the same reason why books like Rick Warren's A Purpose-Driven Life and Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion didn't cause any big splashes in academia. All three books are interesting, approachable, and irrelevant.

Modern philosophical works have titles like "Appropriate Indecorum Rhetoric and Aesthetics in the Political Theory of Jacques Rancière" (a paper by Ethan Stoneman in Philosophy and Rhetoric). They sound like this:

Nevertheless, when political praxis does take place, it does not so much establish its own sensible order as it perpetually deterritorializes the partitions through which bodies are assigned value-laden identities corresponding to previously assigned roles, occupations, and functions. Dissensus is inherently recalcitrant, never yielding alternative police orders that might inaugurate newer, "better" identities or more equitable plans of distribution.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's not the readability that's actually the problem with Pirsig's work. It's the fact that he lacks the wherewithal to express his philosophy in the rigorous language used by philosophers to express exact meaning. It's a very precise jargon that is carefully constructed to minimize the very common problems of language when they discuss ideas. It is also unreadable by normal human beings, which is why it takes seven years to train someone to withstand it.

Maybe Pirsig's work does have value in that conversation. I have a hard time imagining the philosophic community turning up their nose on principle, so it seems more likely that he is instead too vague to be useful or unconsciously repeating a long-running debate. But one thing is sure: in the absence of professional engagement, a community sprang up that thrived on that very same readability and lack of rigor.

When I first check in on the matter, I saw a clumsy and old website at MOQ.org. Today, it's only slightly less clumsy and slightly less old. But thriving, always thriving, is the long-running discussion taking place over its mailing list. Hundreds of messages every month, all in a close environment of amateur lovers of Pirsig's philosophy. They speak in the abbreviations and common references of a dense community, developing their own jargon! Over the years, in fact, their language has become almost as specialized as a professional philosopher's.

From "Essentialism and the MOQ", by Heather Perella, MOQ.org:

> Would you be okay with
> "one experiences the intellectual", and to use
> Pirsig's pop-culture
> verbage of the time (the jazz club story), "one
> 'just digs' the
> preintellectual"? It's the word and meaning of
> "experience" is hanging
> me up on this one.

One does experience the intellectual. I output
superman, and I input no-superman. Then I go to this
movie and input superman, and output na, no-superman.
Preintellectual is the intellectual in 'quality talk'.
In 'dq talk' all is not defined so there is not even
preintellectual and intellectual. Static quality
defines preintellectual and intellectual and may
notice 'inputs' and 'outputs', but after all,
according to the MoQ, all of this 'sq talk' and 'dq
talk' is just plain-old quality and we're livin'
without-with hungups-no-hungups. A?


It's fascinating, and it stuck with me when I saw this remarkable small conclave of amateur philosophy, discussing an epistemology in a way that's quite off to the side of the mainstream.

A few weeks ago, they came to mind as I encountered another group at Less Wrong, a website devoted to "refining the art of human rationality," centered around Eliezer Yudkowsky, a researcher in artificial intelligence.

On the surface, the community at Less Wrong might seem to have literally nothing in common with the discussion group of Metaphysics of Quality. Yudkowsky writes a personal blog as well as a majority of the important pages of Less Wrong, and is very active with discussion. He and his students are all very technology-focused and savvy. And the philosophy is a whole world away from the Metaphysics of Quality.

Yudkowsky is a Bayesian philosopher who prides himself on his rationality - one might say he has wholeheartedly abandoned the Dionysian "quality" in his pursuit of Apollonian "truth." Again, I'm not going to go too deep into it; read one of his blogs to get the start of the Less Wrong philosophies. A big part of his writings are known as the "Sequences," a series of analyses and essays that underlie the community - they total about a million words (i.e. a couple of books' worth) and are required before you can participate in discussion.

Here is one sample, though, of his writing. Just like Pirsig, it's engaging:

There is an instinctive tendency to think that if a physicist says "light is made of waves", and the teacher says "What is light made of?", and the student says "Waves!", the student has made a true statement. That's only fair, right? We accept "waves" as a correct answer from the physicist; wouldn't it be unfair to reject it from the student? Surely, the answer "Waves!" is either true or false, right?

Which is one more bad habit to unlearn from school. Words do not have intrinsic definitions. If I hear the syllables "bea-ver" and think of a large rodent, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the syllables "bea-ver". The sequence of syllables "made of waves" (or "because of heat conduction") is not a hypothesis, it is a pattern of vibrations traveling through the air, or ink on paper. It can associate to a hypothesis in someone's mind, but it is not, of itself, right or wrong. But in school, the teacher hands you a gold star for saying "made of waves", which must be the correct answer because the teacher heard a physicist emit the same sound-vibrations. Since verbal behavior (spoken or written) is what gets the gold star, students begin to think that verbal behavior has a truth-value. After all, either light is made of waves, or it isn't, right?

Again, we see that the Less Wrong community has been largely bypassed by the philosophical mainstream, although in this case it perhaps has less to do with a lack of rigor than with an all-consuming focus on other aspects of knowledge. Yudkowsky works on artificial intelligence and much thought is expended on the future possibilities of a technological singularity, smart machines, and the like. He is similarly distant from academia as Pirsig, but more because his contributions to game theory and the like run in parallel, in the tight little Less Wrong group.

I really and truly don't know enough to tackle either the Metaphysics of Quality or Bayesian analysis in any serious way, and maybe I never will. And in some way, that is profoundly sad. Either of these ways of thinking might be a way to improve my life - or the world! I could have seen the next step in human thought in these modern-day Spinozas, and not have been able to see it.

There's a tragedy in that. I think I'll keep reading.


  1. Have you spent any more time reading Less Wrong?

  2. I have, yes. Some of the top-ranked posts are both wonderfully useful and intelligently reasoned. Oddly, the best posts are NOT those written by Yudkowsky.