Recently I finished reading Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. In this book Pirsig introduces a concept of Quality which is so weird that it cannot be defined. I found concept of Quality so intriguing that I went ahead and read his another book “Lila” in which he explains Quality in more detail and introduces some new concepts.

He describes Quality as something that cannot be defined because whenever you try to define it, it loses its essence and what we end up defining is something inferior to the Quality itself. He argues that we all know what Quality is but we cannot define it. For example we often talk about things having high quality and things having low Quality but when asked why, the answer usually varies from person to person and also from time to time.

My original intention here was to put down the concept of Quality in as much detail as I understand and in as simple terms as possible. But while writing this I quickly realized that it’s very difficult if not impossible to nail down the concept of Quality. Trying to talk about Quality in its full genrality is like shaking a bee hive. Therefore, I will not attempt this. Instead, I will first present a simplified model of our universe and define what quality is in that universe.

This Model Universe ( or ‘MUniverse’ for short) consists of an arbitrary number of entities. These entities represent anything and everything of our real universe. An entity could represents something as small as a grain of salt or an atom, or something as big as mountain. It could represent something as simple as an atom or something as complex as a human being. In MUniverse these entities constantly interact with each other by exchanging messages.

Now these entities have an internal state which gets modified as they send and receive messages. Change in state of these entities can be small or large or there maybe no change at all. One other property of these entities is that usually these entities would not like their state to be changed, and when a message arrives they may either ignore the message completely or modify it so that change in their state is very small. So there is some discrepancy in the message that arrived and the message which actually took effect.

Analogy to our real universe

       MUniverse      |      Real Universe
       Entities       |     everything from atom(or subatomic particles 
                      |     to human beings, thus group of entites is also 
                      |     entity
       Interactions   |     events, anything from motion, collision
                      |     or even thought.

In this model of universe “Quality” is the message that originally arrived. And since it is we humans who have created the concepts of subject and objects, this distinction between subject and object arises only after message has been perceived either after modification or without any modification.

Prisig in his book further clarifies it by introducing two new concepts that of Static Quality and Dynamic Quality. Dynamic Quality is what we have been referring to as “Quality” so far. Static quality is the state in which entities have become stuck and are resisting any further change.

Now as in the Model I made it clear that a group entities can also form another entity which can have its own state and a state where this group as whole is stuck. This gives rise to a hierarchy of Static Qualities. Pirsig Identifies four levels of Static Qualities. Intellectual Quality, Social Quality, Biological Quality, Inorganic Quality.

Now according to Pirsig we normally perceive only Static Quality or in other words we are trying to ignore the original message (Dynamic Quality). This works well for some time as long as the descrepancy between Dynamic and Static Quality is not too much. When the difference between Dynamic Quality and Static Quality of entity is too great a change occurs which create a new Static Quality. This manifests itself as revolution in society when current Static Quality of society is replaced by new Dynamic Quality that someone or some group of people perceived which forms yet another Static Quality ( or state) which would last as long as it can model Dynamic Quality or the actual messages being sent quite well.

Pirsig also explains that when we solve a problem, one first tries everything one knows to find the solution. At some point it may also seem impossible to solve problem and we find ourselves stuck. It happens because we always were try not to percieve original message and are stuck within our state (Static Quality). After trying everything we know, we reach a state of mind where we have no idea good or bad in our mind. This is the state according to Pirsig that zen budhists try to achieve through meditation. In this state mind becomes empty and ready to accept original messages which are required to solve the problem at hand. In this state the problem and the solver become one. That is, there is no distinction between them just as there is no distinction between the entities of the Model universe they are just exchanging messages to each other. Ability to come into this state of oneness is what distinguishes as expert problem solver from a novice.

With this I hope I have been able to record the concept of quality that Pirsig wanted to communicate.