An introduction: Quality (the Greek's earth-splitting hemorrhage?)
Updated: Jul 15
What follows is a quick look into the endlessly multiplying directions of thoughts I catch glimpses of. These elusive rays pierce through the twisting caverns that surround me and lay before me; they seem to just barely reach. I see them reflecting in clear springs of blessings, a steady source of life. Steady drops of time from low ceilings splash over my warm face and damp hair. I must admit, the feeble light often casts deep shadows: yet, this dim illumination still somehow warms my young bones, and though low, invasive stalagmites may bruise me, I venture forward with anticipation.
Agapge, Sophia will be focused on philosophical “Meditations” or “Pensées.”
What follows is me wrapping up some of my thoughts into a mess, like a four-year-old picking up as much wrapping paper on Christmas as he can throw away. Let me warn you: I’ll definitely litter the path with loose pieces as I try to stuff them into the trashcan to be in one place. And now that I’ve compared this reflection paper to a trashcan and my thoughts to trash, permit me to begin.
I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, a book that moved culture in the ’70s with its heavy thoughts, superior clarity, and approachability in novel form. It weaves together an intriguing story along with insightful philosophy. The novel eases the reader into the study of metaphysics as one eases into a hot bath with pleasure. Amateur philosophers will find it enjoyable and challenging. Its careful examination of traditional categories of Western philosophy and observations about Eastern thinking brings a fresh perspective on the objectivity versus subjectivity discussion. (Which is, in a nutshell, is truth found intrinsically in objects or imposed by minds—subjects?)
The setting for the book is a motorcycle tour with the main character's son. The narrator starts his reflections with the observation that some motorcycle enthusiasts prefer to take their cycles to “experts” and mechanics when something breaks, and never desire to touch their motorcycle if it needs maintenance. This mindset fundamentally opposes the narrator’s approach: if you love riding, then you should fix it yourself. Why are these two diametrically opposed ideas exist? The narrator would say to approach the problem with grit and see the beauty in being a part of the whole process.
In this difference of approaches to motorcycle maintenance, he begins to unfold underlying ideals and presuppositions that span centuries and seem to split down Eastern and Western lines, also Romantic and Enlightenment thinking, and finally along the lines of subjectivity and objectivity. The points of climax in his thought deals with issues of Being. I capitalize “Being” here to refer to its status apart from “being.” The capitalized “Being” refers to the transcendent which gives beings (things) being (existence). Anyway, recently strands of my thoughts have started to pull together into a web of questions, and Zen provides a good catalyst for them. In a loosely organized fashion, I will now clear away some rough ideas like algae on a hot lake to see clearly to the bottom to start fishing for truth. This paper encapsulates some preliminary questions.
Subject and Object
What is the relationship between our mind's prerogative to impose reality on perception and the external world’s prerogative to impose truth onto our perception? That is a complicated, and probably flimsy way of asking: does truth reside in the subject or the object? Is the rock a rock because it possesses innate rock-ness or because we’ve decided to call it a rock? Is it both? How does one move worlds and bring together the subjectivist idealists and objective realists together? Well, I’ll just say that the answer is not easy. Along with those fault lines, this question shakes things up for me: what is the relationship between myth and truth? That’s something I’ve thought a lot about as a Christian.
Countless other specific inquiries become important amid this tangle of thoughts on subjectivism and objectivism. Pirsig will say this emphasis on the distinction between subject and object is a product of Greek philosophy that split One truth into two.
Biology and Truth
Here’s another question along this fault line: how does biology play into our understanding of the world (evolution’s interplaying with epistemology)? In other words, I grunt and point as an early human. Do I mean the rock or the stick? Helga hands me a rock, but I wanted the stick. Next time, we decide to grunt a different way for rock and stick. Then a different way for heavy rock and pebble. There you have it: categories. Was the small rock a pebble before we invented the appropriate grunts and was the big rock a boulder? If I point at a stick and say “That is a rock” isn’t that pretty arbitrary? No, it’s not arbitrary in one sense, because one was materially “larger.” Hmmm. By definition, "larger" is relative. Interesting. That's food for thought. Anyway, that kind of origin for language has implications for our understanding of truth, and it's something that needs to be explicated.
Now, if you think only rigid new atheists would take this line of inquiry about evolution, think again. Un-nuanced new atheists miss an entire world of truth even in their own camp of science. Zen points this out early on. True philosophers will not so easily fall into scient-ism from the pedestal of Darwin’s thinking. I remember encountering Alvin Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism” and I wrote a paper on it a couple of years ago. That’s an excellent example of a new perspective on evolution that cannot be so easily dismissed.
Left and Right Brain
This discussion of biology segues into the notions about the left and right brain. The brilliant psychiatrist and philosopher Jordan Peterson intertwines evolution and biology with his psychiatric knowledge and clinical practice. I’ve followed Jordan Peterson’s wrestling with meaning and biology. One particular interview on his podcast struck a chord with me. Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist by training, particularly struck my curiosity. What follows is my limited understanding of his position, I haven’t read his book yet (though I plan to). McGilchrist argues that left and right brain functions draw roughly the same lines along East / West and Romantic / Enlightenment emphases.
Think of the left brain as the naming, logical side that makes distinctions and puts everything into boxes with labels (like “rock is not a stick”). In some sense, Western philosophy is denoted by the left brain’s dominance. This, according to McGilchrist, subordinates the wrong hemisphere. The left brain’s duty to keep rigid linguistic and conceptual categories disposes important truths, but ought to be the emissary of that truth, not the master. Hence the title of his book, The Master and His Emissary. Instead, the right brain’s openness to experience, feeling, intuition, and etc. all ought to drive our minds more prominently toward truth. The right brain deals with learning and art, poetry, and beauty. To be properly aimed at truth, we must allow the right brain to drive our left brain, not vice-versa. At an early developmental level, this seems undeniable. When you are three months old, you have not categories, to begin with, but must utilize the right brain to fill in white space with color (see parallels to Locke’s ideas on knowledge). On the other hand, clearly, babies possess built-in indicators: instinct, the predisposition to learn to begin with, etc. Hmm. (This is another massive point of contention in philosophy.)
The right brain may be more tuned to the right values, and I make the inference as well that its better attuned to Pirsig's “Quality” (which I will touch on). McGilchrist believes we can trace left and right brain dominance and misplacement of their functions to various lurk in various zeitgeists in history. The project of McGilchrist is to reconcile the hemispheres and put them in their proper places, so that the portal(s) to truth may open with rightly applied brain functions. This psychiatrically informed philosophy opens up a fascinating realm of inquiry. Do not misunderstand McGilchrist, he despises reductionism. He believes values, aesthetics, and morals actually exist. To attune us to them, reciprocally as we inform them as well (I think), we must allow the right brain to lead the left brain on its course. I won't go any further until I've read his book.
Now, Robert Pirsig deals with similar ideas in Zen by delving into a discussion of “Quality” (the Thing beyond beings and being, which cannot be defined but makes things “better” and “worse”). Though Pirsig does not use this language, Pirsig argues that Quality cannot be defined by the left brain—that’s one way of thinking about it. People must attune to Quality by careful, measured, and reflective striving. Pirsig argues vehemently that the subjective and objective dichotomy does not provide a choice between two opposing ways of understanding Quality. Rather, he argues that Quality must exist prior to language, subject, or object. The strict split of subject and object came from classical thinking in Greece to begin with. Quality informs them both. Fair enough. But all this talk of informing and moving comprehending Quality is still talking. Do you see the pickle we're in? Saying that Quality exists beyond talk is fine enough, but we’re still talking about the damn thing. For the nerds, this “Quality” of Pirsig's comes very, very close to Plato’s “One”, though in Pirsig’s estimation Plato got a couple of things wrong. That bridges perfectly into the Eastern and Western approaches to truth.
The East and the West
When we think about Zen Buddhism, Vedantic Hinduism, and any Eastern religion that inspires meditation and seclusion in its followers, we scratch our heads. What do they believe gets at the final truth? Silently contemplating without internal dialogue, much less writing papers, to get at truth seems too… illogical. Yet if particulars only dimly reflect Quality, and one desires to align with Quality, then one might ditch the subjective and objective altogether and just meditate. One may say it differently: the East holds that the more we understand without pesky categories and nuances, the closer we get to understanding everything as a whole, the closer we get to the truth. Namely, we get closer we get to knowing Quality. Remember, "knowing" does not necessarily mean knowing the true / false state of black and white categories. That either/or presupposes a Western outlook.
That we know things without the language to put it to or full analytical comprehension is self-evident. I mean, think. We can’t quite fit love into boxes or describe it. The best we can do there is poetry and art. And, since Quality is beyond categories, anyway, might as well get to it by emptying our minds of those categories. This can be seen as an extreme form of right-brain dominance, in my view, to the detrimental neglect of the left brain.
This is an oversimplification, and what I just said probably does not reflect McGilchrist’s beliefs and doesn’t nuance it nearly enough (there I go, being all Western again), but it gets in that general range. So, this discussion clearly underpins Eastern and Western directions of thought.
The Greek’s earthshaking split
This raises another important question: how did humanity get at the truth before this split? The simple answer is: Myths. Myths are how humanity broadly approached truth and knowledge at a cultural level and still continued to do so after the Greek split that had naturalistic logic supersede the right brain. Naturally, before this language existed, and many civilizations developed written languages. However, cultures often interpreted reality through orally transmitted myths at a macro level (at least, according to the thinkers I’m grappling with), and when they did begin to write things down, they communicated in myths that did not see rigid, natural reality as opposed to these grand myths about meaning and purpose—they simply were not in conflict.
Now, these Greek pre-Socratic thinkers (the thinkers who existed before the great split) were of great interest to a German thinker named Martin Heidegger. I wrote a paper for Professor Kappelman on the use of the “poetic” in Heidegger’s references to Nietzsche and his references to a Greek myth. Here is an excerpt from my paper:
The two gods of Nietzsche’s pantheon must be engaged in eternal conflict in our
poetry and expression to uncover the truth, that is Apollos and Dionysius. Thinking
cannot be reduced to science and empiricism, which leads only to Nihilism. This is
why, to Heidegger, “Philosophy stands in a completely different domain and rank of
spiritual Dasein [minds]. Only poetry is of the same order as philosophical thinking.
Although thinking [the contemplative spirit of Apollos] and poetry [the willful,
ecstatic reflection of Dionysius] are not identical.” (Heidegger, Par. 20)
Although Nietzsche’s gods and Heidegger’s use of the terms thinking and poetry are precisely and absolutely correlated, these ideas help us to grapple with Heidegger’s understanding of doing things poetically.
Heidegger references (from Nietzsche’s interpretation) two Greek gods to symbolize the mythological struggle between the left and right brain, the Romantic and Enlightenment, the logical and feeling. All of those ideas have their own nuances, but you can see how they get at similar meanings.
In Heidegger’s mind, this poetic, mythical comprehension of reality that dominated before Socrates and subsequent Greek philosophers (that together with Christianity, built the foundations for the West) should not be forgotten. Though as my professor Todd Kappelman would say, even if we need to use 95% quantity of rational brain throughout the day, the 5% of our time spent on poetic thinking is just as important. Indeed, to face reality with courage means to grapple with it through poetic thinking.
Consider: if we only rely on logical, left-brain thinking, then we inevitably encounter paradoxes, and we must stop. When we encounter paradoxes, the need for poetic thinking must fill in and take center stage. I’ve intuited this before I rationally grasped it: understanding truth does not mean merely holding propositional data. Humans are not computers, and our epistemology should not and does not rely merely on ones and zeros. We eventually dig down to encounter the rules of logic, which themselves cannot be proven through logic, and we simply shrug. When I read Lord of the Rings as a boy, I knew it connected to my core and exposed deep truths. When I read Brothers Karamazov as a man, I know it’s gotten at human nature better than any analytic, systematic theological definition. This knowing most profoundly arises from the Bible.
Robert Pirsig goes more in-depth into Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle’s progression that split the world in to the logical "correct" side and the mythical or poetically "wrong" side. He brings up that Plato uses the dialectic of Socrates to destroy the credibility of “rhetoricians” or “Sophists” through logic traps. I think Pirsig misses something crucial here in tearing down Socrates, but I see his point. Plato recounts Socrates’ viciousness in disproving his adversaries, that's fair. But Plato and Socrates also retold myths, like the creation myth in the Timaeus. Anyway, that’s for another day.
The main character in Pirsig’s novel studies Aristotle and hates him. Aristotle’s entire prerogative was like that of a natural scientist: phylum, genus, species, sub-species, of everything, including the arts. I digress, the progression from pre-Socratic Greeks (mainly Heraclitus and Parmenides) to Socrates, Plato, then Aristotle would take too long to extrapolate even briefly. My point is this: something fundamentally changed about how Western humanity approached reality, and that much is obvious to everyone. Logic, left brain takes the throne.
It may be that the dichotomy itself between objective and subjective arose from this emphasis on the dialectic in the third century BCE. This certainly seems to be a divergent point from East and West. Of course, the left brain thinking still exists in the East and the right brain in the West, but it remains that the emphases are different. We can test this by noticing who sits at the top of the hierarchies of learning in each community. Monks in the East (insofar as it hasn't been Westernized) and Professors in the West. All that to say, Pirsig eventually identifies “Quality” as the transcendent which informs reality and does not reside in language, or in the subjective or objective, East or West, but precedes both understandings.
Do not think that this transcendent Quality lies far afield from Christian thought. C.S. Lewis in one place called the universal moral touchstone the “Tao” in reference to the Eastern religion of Taoism in his essay The Abolition of Man. We seem to just… know that morality exists and what it asks of us. Humans encounter this in ourselves and one another essentially universally, even if we break that transcendent Tao law through willful evil and brokenness or mistake. Christianity provides explanations of this absolute that lies beyond our comprehension, beyond our ability to categorize and “logic” things, beyond our ability to make black-and-white claims. Naturally, these issues will need to be straightened out more, for Jesus certainly claimed to provide the only way to truth, whatever that is supposed to mean. Even that statement of Jesus itself seems to challenge a rigid Enlightenment model of reflecting on truth. In some ways, Evangelical Christianity is being challenged for its dependence on Enlightenment rationality by the culture, and giving way in some places, and in others standing firm. We will see where it needs to hold and where it should not.
For the future, some lines of exploration could include extrapolating Pirsig’s thought more, extrapolating some of my paper on Heidegger, some thoughts on Plato’s works, reading and exploring McGilchrist’s work, Nietzsche, explicating one of my papers on Christian Monism and Vedantic Hinduism, etc., as I explore the idea of “Quality” or the “One.” Or, more narrowly, the next paper may reflect on Eros and Civilization by the Poststructuralist Herbert Marcuse, because I recently read Carl Truman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which also is getting me thinking. Whatever my thoughts become enamored by I’ll write about, and that freedom to write whatever I want to write about is pretty sweet!
Feel free to join in my reflections by commenting or bringing it up in person to me and we can talk.
Soli Deo Gloria