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Matt Ridley

The Rational Optimist:
How Prosperity Evolves

Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 2:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

In this lecture, based on his new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves) Matt Ridley demonstrates that life is getting better — and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for 200 years…
READ more about this lecture.

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Kids’-Eye View

Over the past five years, Skepticality hosts Derek & Swoopy have been inspired by noteworthy scientists and skeptics — and by the many podcasters producing popular programs about science and critical thinking.

This week’s guests are science podcasters with a little something extra. Princess Scientist’s Book Club are both podcasts hosted by children under the age of nine. This week on Skepticality, Swoopy talks with both hosts (and their parents) about the unique challenges and rewards of creating online programming by and for young science enthusiasts.

In this week’s eSkeptic, Chris Edwards provides some much-need maintenance on the fallacious reasoning found in Robert Persig’s ever-popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Chris Edwards is a frequent contributor to Free Inquiry magazine, and the author of Disbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism which is written under a pseudonym of S.C. Hitchcock. His philosophy of education has been published by the National Council for Social Studies.

Motorcycle Maintenance Without the Zen
How Pirsig’s Mistakes About Atheism Continue Today

by Chris Edwards

ROBERT PIRSIG, AUTHOR OF THE WILDLY POPULAR and perennial bestseller, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, could be seen as the founding father of modern pop philosophy. Pirsig may also be the first modern writer to rework old religious fallacies into mysticism/New Age philosophy. Many of his errors have been passed on to modern day gurus and shamans such as Deepak Chopra. Pirsig’s book, first published in 1974, sought to undermine scientific thinking and created an audience of cult-like followers who persist in believing in Pirsig’s non-material claims. Those who doubt Pirsig’s continuing influence might look to Mark Richardson’s recently released book Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In this book the author, like so many of Pirsig’s devotees, traveled the famous route that Pirsig did on his motorcycle. I too would like to follow Pirsig’s path, but with a different intention. I’d like to provide maintenance on his logic. Perhaps debunking Pirsig, even at this late date, will be helpful for addressing the claims of the many pop philosophers and gurus who have begun writing for the niche market that he created.

In the Introduction to the 1999 paperback edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author mentions schizophrenia. In reference to his own battles with what appears to be some version of split personality disorder, he wrote: “There is a divided personality here: two minds fighting for the same body, a condition that inspired the original meaning of ‘schizophrenia.’”

The more psychologically correct definition of schizophrenia is a diagnosis of an individual who cannot distinguish between the images in his head and images in the world. When the condition of this definition is chronic it is defined as a mental disorder. When it is selective we call it faith. Pirsig’s philosophical mistakes are all schizophrenic in that he cannot always tell the difference between things that merely exist in the mind and things that exist in the world. New Age philosophers often try to distance themselves from their more dogmatic religious cousins. However, a close examination of Pirsig’s writing shows that the errors he makes are carnival mirror distortions of those that plague religion.

In the book, which Pirsig informs us is a chatauquah — a long philosophical discourse told through an individual narrative — the central theme is Pirsig’s search for something that falls outside of the traditional philosophical arena. His alter ego “Phaedrus” (Pirsig’s personality before a long bout with mental illness) became consumed with the concept of “Quality” and went into a deep cavern of philosophical thought in search of what it meant. In order to prevent his search from becoming a scientific quest, Pirsig makes a few clumsy attacks on scientific materialism, otherwise known as atheism. Here is what he writes:

Phaedrus felt that … scientific materialism was by far the easiest to cut to ribbons. This, he knew from his earlier education, was naïve science. He went after it … using the reductio ad absurdum. This form of argument rest on the truth that if the inevitable conclusions from a set of premises are absurd then it follows logically that at least one of the premises that produced them is absurd. Let’s examine, he said, what follows from the premise that anything not composed of mass-energy is unreal or unimportant.

He used the number zero as a starter. Zero originally a Hindu number, was introduced to the West by Arabs during the Middle Ages and was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans. How was that? He wondered. Had nature so subtly hidden the zero that all the Greeks and all the Romans — millions of them — couldn’t find it? One would normally think that zero is right out there in the open for everyone to see. He showed the absurdity of trying to derive zero from any form of mass-energy, and then asked, rhetorically, if that meant the number zero was “unscientific.” If so, did that mean that digital computers, which function exclusively in terms of ones and zeros, should be limited to just ones for scientific work? No trouble finding the absurdity here. (297–298)

Pirsig’s brief dismissal of “scientific materialism” aka “atheism” has an outsized importance for his book. Once he has gotten those pesky rules of science out of the way, he is free to meander through the mystical and philosophical caverns until he finds his Quality — a strange trip given the fact that he doesn’t want to be able to touch or even define it. The problem with the quoted passage is that he reduced the wrong argument to absurdity — his own.

First of all, the number zero was invented not discovered in the same way that Newton invented calculus or that Darwin invented evolutionary theory. This does not mean that moving objects began with Newton or that evolution began with Darwin, it merely means that humanity finally created a language that could describe a real world phenomenon.

The notion that the Greeks and Romans could not see zero is about as significant as saying that the citizens of a landlocked country could not see a ship. In Charles Seife’s wonderful book Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea, he pointed out that Greek mathematics concerned itself primarily with geometry because it was useful for farming and building. They could not conceive of negative landholdings, for example. The concept of zero was created sometime during the 5th or 6th century in the Gupta Dynasty when Hindu thinkers began to contemplate the infinite and the void. Gupta mathematics was impressive and the calculations they were able to do amounted to a scientific revolution.

This being said, it would not be proper to say that Indian mathematics was right and Greek mathematics was wrong. This would be like saying that the French language is wrong and German is right. What could be said is that Indian mathematics is more expressive than Greek. The Greeks seem not to have spent much time contemplating the infinite or the void, which is why they had no names for them. The Hindus, driven by a religion that encouraged contemplation of such things, did. Central African tribesmen could hardly be expected to have a word for snow.

The Greeks did not contemplate the infinite or the void therefore they had no terms for them. Yet snow, particles, the infinite, and the void exist (or in the case of the last, don’t exist but the concept does). It is only when cultures are made aware of things that they needed language for them and then, because the knowledge of these things was borrowed, so too, were the mathematical and linguistic “names” for them. We see this process occurring all the time. When Americans first encountered Mexican salsa we borrowed not only their sauce but their word for it as well.

If we were given a certain limited amount of sensory data — say the observation of the sun peeking over the horizon every morning — we could develop two different mathematical models, or languages, to describe this phenomenon. At first, the Ptolemaic view and the Copernican view would both suffice and there would be no way of saying which was more descriptive. However, let us say that we get a new piece of sensory data, as Galileo did when he used his telescope to see the rotation pattern of the moons of Jupiter, and that one of these models more accurately predicts and describes these new facts, then we would be able to say that one model was the better descriptor of all the facts.

The Copernican “theory” is more descriptive of sensory data and gives us a more accurate description of what is really happening in the universe. Thus, because this language was more effective, it displaced the Ptolemaic version. If we understand this we can see that Zeno’s famous paradox, for example, was not a paradox at all. Zeno was simply showing the Greeks that their mathematics (devoid of zero) had no way of describing movement.

Modern mathematics, far from being a hard objective “thing” is instead a mish-mash of concepts that arose from a process of cultural synthesis (almost entirely in Eurasia, where cultures were easily able to intermesh because of war and trade). The Greeks contributed geometry, the Gupta Indians the numbers 0–9 and the decimal system, the Muslims gave us Al-Jabr, the English gave us physics, calculus, and the Germans contributed the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Each time, a culture’s language was adopted and added not because they were “right” but because they were more descriptive of objective phenomena and therefore a “better” language.

In Zen, Pirsig devoted several pages to the mathematician Poncaire’ (1854–1912) and the supposed mathematical crisis of his time, which involved the “discovery” that two different types of mathematical language — one called Lobachevskian and the other Euclidian (which became known as the Riemann) — could be used. Pirsig wrote:

We now had two contradictory visions of unshakable scientific truth, true for all men of all ages, regardless of their individual preferences. This was the basis of the profound crisis that shattered the scientific complacency of the Gilded Age. How do we know which one of these geometries is right? If there is no basis for distinguishing between them, then you have a total mathematics which admits logical contradictions. But a mathematics which admits logical contradictions is not mathematics at all. The ultimate effect of the non-Euclidian geometries becomes nothing more than a magician’s mumbo jumbo in which belief is sustained purely by faith! (335)

We see here that Pirsig is again confused by what mathematics is. We cannot ask the question “which of these geometries is right” anymore than we can ask whether Portuguese or Inuit is the “right” language. What we could ask, is, which is more descriptive for the sensory data we have? Therefore, a paragraph down, Pirsig answered his own question: “According to the Theory of Relativity, Riemann geometry best describes the world we live in.” (335)

Reification is not a small mistake. Pirsig’s claim that computers run on Liebniz’s binary code, which works through a series of zeros and ones is not helpful. Does he actually think that computers run on concepts? There are no zeros in a computer but rather a series of electrical “holders” that are either switched on or off. Humans simply describe this in terms of zeros or ones. Again, this is subjective.

Once this is understood, all of Pirsig’s philosophy falls apart. Consider this oft-quoted passage of a conversation between him and his son:

“…the laws of physics and of logic … the number system … the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”

“They seem real to me,” John says.

“I don’t get it,” says Chris.

So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”

“Of course.”

“So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”

John is frowning and wondering what I’m getting at.

“What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”


“Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere — this law of gravity still existed?”

Now John seems not so sure.

“If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a singe attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.”

John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”

“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.

“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that the law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious as our own.” (41–42)

Again, Pirsig mistakes the law of gravity for a thing. Of course the law of gravity could not have existed before there was anything because without matter then objects would not be attracted to each other because there would be no objects. If we define the “law of gravity” as a description of real-world phenomena, in the same way that the word “rock” is used to describe a slab of granite, then no, the law of gravity did not exist before Newton. However, if we describe the law of gravity as the attraction that objects, depending on weight, have for each other then of course it existed — just as sound waves came from the falling tree even if no ears were around to hear it.

Pirsig might as well be saying that the word “rock” was floating around in the universe before there were ever rocks, or that poems about flowers existed before there were flowers or poets to write about them. He might as well be Plato.

This fallacious thinking is what eventually leads him to this conclusion about his central conceit, which is the search for Quality:

Quality is not just the result of the collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality! Now he had that whole damned evil dilemma by the throat. (304)

Actually; he was just strangling a reification, holding a shadow in a headlock. Because Pirsig had so often committed the philosophical sin of reification, he had turned something called “Quality” which is elusive by definition, into a kind of creator god. It existed before matter, apparently. This is like saying that the painting of a mountain created both the painter and the mountain. Quality is a subjective term in that it differs from person to person. The fact that most of us recognize Quality in the same way is not particularly remarkable given that the human race has similar DNA. Neither is it historically remarkable that separated human civilizations developed mathematics, language, mythologies, and religions.

The mistake is when these human developments become reified, such as when people mistake subjective human-made gods for actual Gods. Pirsig’s “philosophy” is different only in degree, not in kind, from any other religion.


Bishop‘s University library, c. 1993

Ode to joy

In this week’s Skepticblog post, Daniel Loxton revisits fond memories of an “Ode to Joy” moment wherein he discovered the vast collection of knowledge available in his university library.

READ the post



  1. Dan Jensen says:

    As much as I enjoyed Pirsig’s book, we can certainly do with a skeptical review of its content. However, this reviews seems a bit loose:

    “Pirsig makes a few clumsy attacks on scientific materialism, otherwise known as atheism.”

    Atheism does not equal scientific materialism. Come now!

    I personally believe that there is room for a profound appreciation of the “quality” intrinsic to human experience without going as far as Pirsig went. Most of what is worth keeping in Pirsig was taken from Henry David Thoreau, who was more methodical (and sane) about delving into the moral nature of human experience.

    • Chris Edwards says:

      Hi Dan,

      I agree that Pirsig’s book is a good teaching vehicle and an interesting primer on philosophy. My intention with this article was to show that Pirsig’s misunderstandings in regards to mathematics and “materialism” set him on a course that led to a wrong conclusion. I also wanted to show that non-material philosophy goes wrong in the same places that religious thinking does.

      Thanks for the post.

    • Chris Edwards says:

      Scientific materialism is the assertion that the only things that exist are made of material that can be examined scientifically. Atheism makes the same claim, but does so through refuting religious or supernatural arguments. The two terms are different ways of saying the same thing depending upon the context of the conversation.


      • Loughlin Tatem says:

        Atheism does not claim anything similar to religion’s claim of there being a place in the sky(or anywhere else)where people’s invisible souls go after the body dies.I fail to see the similarities in the claims made by religion and those made by atheism.

      • Loughlin Tatem says:

        Love is invisible. I don’t think atheism denies that love exists.

        • Dan Delaney says:

          Love is an abstract concept that refers to something that people do and feel. It is not a thing that exists.

          • G. Bennet says:

            I would argue that abstract concepts do in fact exist; although whether they exist in three-dimensional space is something I am in multiple minds about.

      • McNihil says:

        I know that different people use the word “atheism” in different ways which seems to suggest that there is at least more than one definition for the word. However, I think the way you are describing it is demonstrably false. Your way of describing it doesn’t fit into any of the general definitions that I am aware of, even considering the “wiggle room” that I am granting its definition.

        At its most naked core it simply means “the rejection of claims that gods exist.” From this core, it sometimes spreads out to encompass stronger/positive claims like “there are no gods” but that’s about it. It has nothing to say about scientific materialism or anything else except the (non-)existence of gods. For example, Buddhism is often called an atheistic religion because certain strands of it include the belief in supernatural phenomena but it doesn’t include the belief in any god or gods. Further, an atheist can still believe in the duality of body and mind, the notion that the mind is somehow seperate from the body and can’t be reduced to a material foundation. Atheism itself says nothing about this subject. It simply rejects any kind of god claims but it does not make any other claims about non-physical/supernatural phenomena.

        I personally happen to be an atheist AND a materialist and one might find and argue that those notions most often go hand in hand and possibly even that materialism implies/includes atheism. But as I tried to show above, the reverse doesn’t hold true. Atheism does not imply/include materialism.


        • Mal Gaff says:

          A definition for atheism cannot be got at, for, since no description may be attached to anything that lacks the fundamental character of sub-particle-initiated energy then trying one out leads to absurdity: denying the existence of nonexistence.

  2. Jeffrey Eldred says:

    Pirsig’s book is about the archetype (stereotype?) of science being irreconcilable with that of art. If you define terms slightly differently, Pirsig’s book can be seen to be arguing that there is more to empiricism (science) than just the clumsy conceptions about science and that true science includes all of art, just as easily as his book can be seen to be condemning “science” for not being enough. Pirsig’s style might not be clear on this, but because it addresses the point head on which is why it is so easy to pick it apart. Viewed as a science manifesto, Pirsig’s work is much more valuable.

  3. Dr. Sidethink Hp,D says:

    I have always thought that Pirsig’s main theme
    about “Quality” was skirting the edges of New Age Solipsisy.
    ” I can’t tell you. but I know it’s mine”

    At the time I found him inspirational as he was interested in a lot more than the FIRST LAW OF AMERICAN LIFE
    ” The value of something is measured by the marketing
    profile of a particular consumer”

    At present I would struggle with his tendency to equate Things with their Names
    The idea presented in this review sounds to me like a worse version of the “tree-forest-sound” exercise:
    The version presented here would be
    “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it fall, there would be no sound because nobody would be able to give the sound a NAME”

    I believe that my 74 years on this planet have been of a high “quality” but not as Ideally high as I qould have envisioned”

    In reality there are multitudes whould sould say that my whole life “SUCKS”
    To which I must say
    “Honi soit qui mal y pense”
    (Honey swatted Molly in the pants)


    RJ Pease

  4. Bob says:

    They must blame science, attack it, denounce it as a charlatan. It reeks of distraction from the real issue bothering them. That they realize they can’t know everything and this isn’t very comforting.

    New Age philosophy is just people coming up with new mental contortions with the end goal of feeling smug in the (false) assurance that they know what it’s all about. Pitiful.

    • Bad Boy says:

      I think Pirsig’s work needs to be taken in the context of the time: It came after a decade of so of “Rah-Rah Sciencism.” This should not be confused with actual science literacy and appreciation for the natural understanding produced by science. This is stuff like “Four out of Five Doctors Smoke Camels” (IOW: Some smart authority sez so) Yes. This intellectual authoritarianism runs counter to a philosophy (or value) common in science: even the experts can be wrong.

      This ‘Sciencism’ was destined to provoke anti-science attitudes, because at its heart it was utterly wrong. It was worse than wrong: it was manipulative and deceptive.

      Alas, too many people in rebelling against the intellectual authoritarianism (which was a good thing) mistook it for being tied with science (which is was not) and so they rebelled against science (which was a bad thing).

      If Pirsig had had a passing understanding of what a scientific theory was he would not mistake Newton’s theory (mislabeled a law) of gravity with the natural phenomenon of gravity. Theories are models or explanations – i.e. human creations. All theories exist in the heads of humans – the phenomena they attempt to describe and explain exist independent of us … or even of our noticing them.

      The sophomoric question “Does gravity exist even where there’s no matter” is kind of analogous to “Is someone an alcoholic even where there’s no booze?” That is – the *propensity* of something to behave a certain way under certain circumstances exists regardless of which particular circumstances are present for the discussion.

      Oh. And it’s easy to answer the question:
      “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it,
      does it make a sound?”
      The answer is:
      “That depends on what you mean by sound.”

      Sigh. Mankind wastes so much time in logomachy

      • Chris Edwards says:

        Bad Boy,

        I absolutely agree with your last point. If “sound” is defined as what occurs when sound waves come into contact with sound wave detection devices (laymen call them ears) then no, the tree doesn’t make a sound if no one is around. If the “sound” is defined as the existence of sound waves then we can be almost certain it made one.

        Part of the problem with “scientism” so-called, comes from the way that science is presented. For example, physicists often say something to the effect that light is both a particle and a wave, or that it acts as both a particle and a wave. Light is just light- it is sometimes useful to describe it as a particle and sometimes useful to describe it as a wave. Thanks for the post.

        • Dr. Sidethink Hp,D says:

          My point was:
          According to the review, Pirsig supplants this with a surprising THIRD ( but hardly original ) Definition.

          Even if the sound waves are given off AND heard by someone, NO sound exists UNLESS someone has already ginen or
          COULD give a name to the phenomenon just observed

          All three conditions are necessary.

          Isn’t this called “Nominalism” and is useful to prevent folks from declaring that they KNOW things but can’t TELL you about them.

          From my viewpoint, Def #1 is ok for Science .

          #2 usualy gets resolved in 7th grade by kids interested enough

          #3 is like Like Occam’s razor in that it saves you time by rejecting windbags . linguists, or nuts

          Bob Pease

  5. Steven Schafersman says:

    The section on “Philosophical content” in the Wikipedia article ( about Pirsig’s book contains a much more accurate description of what Pirsig was trying to accomplish than Chris Edward’s critique. Pirsig was trying to reconcile or find a synthesis for two different human views of the world, the idealistic view (which Pirsig terms the “romantic” approach) and the rational or scientific view (which Pirsig terms the “classical” approach because he associates this view with the classical Greek philosophers). He sees value in both approaches, writing that the romantic or irrational view and the view of reason, science, and technology can both provide creativity and understanding. When I read the book, I thought that its main message is that people can and should derive equal emotional fulfillment and romantic satisfaction from science and technology, such as repairing motocycles, as from the usual irrational, non-scientific or non-logical sources.

    Surely Mr. Edwards is not suggesting that anything not composed of physical substance or essence–such as matter or energy, things susceptible to sensory and empirical investigation–is unimportant. Humans have an entire realm of logical, mathematical, and natural ideals, forms, natural laws, syllogisms, and relationships that don’t exist in material or physical form but are ideas created by our minds. This realm is sometimes referred to as the Second World by philosophers (the First World is the physical one of matter and energy, the objective reality, and the Third World is the speculative one of the supernatural and spiritual). The modern metaphysics of materialism or physicalism takes into account this Second World, claiming knowledge of it is dependent on our human physical brains but it would still exist without sentient understanding. Materialism, physicalism, and naturalism, of course, reject the existence of the supernatural Third World. I found Pirsig’s personal philosophy to be consistent with these views.

    Finally, as some have noted, atheism is not the same as materialism. Both are consistent, however, in rejecting the Third World. Romantic, emotional, subjective, and irrational aspects of human behavior fit quite nicely into the first two Worlds without requiring supernaturalism. Pirsig doesn’t deny this but rather celebrates it, and what’s wrong with that?

    • Chris Edwards says:

      Hi Steven,

      In my book, Disbelief 101, I present something I call the 2 columns argument. One column is labeled “science” and the other is labeled “faith”. (This is not a new argument, but a simplified presentation.) The two, by definition, cannot interact since once there is evidence for something faith is no longer needed. Ideas, mathematics etc. exist as brain patterns and we have evidence of their existence. Without the “stuff” of the brain, they don’t exist.
      As for the “second world” it is my contention that the brain evolved to help us survive on the African savannah, but it can think abstractly after rigorous training. In the same way that our legs and feet evolved for walking but can be made to do elaborate martial arts kicks with effort. The “second world” is made up of things we have discovered our brain can do beyond its original evolutionary purpose. Education, for example, is the process of training hunter-gatherer brains how to live in a relatively newly evolved civilization. Think of a high school hallway- no one has to teach students how to flirt, jockey for position in a hierarchy, or threaten rivals, but once they enter the classroom they have to “learn” what their brains are capable of doing beyond what comes naturally. Thanks for an interesting post.

      • Norman says:

        Here’s a paragraph from your review I would like to talk about:
        Again, Pirsig mistakes the law of gravity for a thing. Of course the law of gravity could not have existed before there was anything because without matter then objects would not be attracted to each other because there would be no objects.

        Pirsig isn’t actually saying that the law of gravity is a physical entity, he is saying that because science deals only in physical entities we can’t apply science to metaphysical things. Scientifically the law of gravity doesn’t exist, yet common sense would acknowledge that it does because obviously the phenomenon of gravity occurred before Newton. He is laying the groundwork for introducing metaphysics, something that is not very materialist, but certainly permits atheism.

        If we define the “law of gravity” as a description of real-world phenomena, in the same way that the word “rock” is used to describe a slab of granite, then no, the law of gravity did not exist before Newton. However, if we describe the law of gravity as the attraction that objects, depending on weight, have for each other then of course it existed — just as sound waves came from the falling tree even if no ears were around to hear it.

        Pirsig wants to establish that the law of gravity must clearly not be either of the two you have proposed. The law of gravity is not description of the phenomenon, nor is it the phenomenon itself. Pirsig also has problems with the idea of the law of gravity as some platonic form that he will get to later, but he does want to admit that metaphysical objects exist, and you don’t. That becomes extremely clear in your next paragraph.

        Pirsig might as well be saying that the word “rock” was floating around in the universe before there were ever rocks, or that poems about flowers existed before there were flowers or poets to write about them. He might as well be Plato.

        Yeah basically he is saying that their is some principle floating around that is neither the event nor the description of the event yet is still important and exists, though not physically. As a professed materialist you can only accept the individual events and the neural patterns in the brain that in a way we don’t fully understand create a concept of gravity. Therefore it is totally understandable that you disagree with pirsig, and unless you (or pirsig) are going to change your axiomatic assumptions we are kind of at a standstill. Pirsig isn’t trying to convert people who are pure materialists he is trying to reach people who allow for metaphysics but try to use science exclusively.

        The problem is you act like you have caught him in a logical fallacy because you seem to assume that the belief in metaphysics is inherently logically flawed. I don’t really want to get into an argument about whether or not materialism is flawed. I think it is or at least does not really help us answer ethical questions which are definitely worth answering so is less useful then allowing for metaphysics. Materialism requires no less faith then something like platonic forms. The belief that your senses are conveying true reality to you is just that, belief, plenty of philosophers have ignored it.

        So we can go two ways with this, we can argue materialism back and forth for awhile since I am pretty sure that’s where your issue with Pirsig lies, but I don’t really think that will get us anywhere. Or you can tell me how materialism deals with ethics which seems much more interesting to me.

        • Haakon Dahl says:

          No, you are allowing Pirsig to get away with his smug ignorance. He conflates the existence of gravity as a real phenomenon with the description of that phenomenon. In things like this, the more words used , the less clear, so here’s the scoop. Gravity existed before humans described it.
          Your supposed counter-arguments depend upon getting this wrong.

          • Tim says:

            The critical point in the passage in which Persig speaks about the law of gravity is the discussion of ghosts – recognize how you are influenced by the ghosts of the past and present. Then you may be more willing to view the world in a more flexible fashion.

            Take a look at the passage again:

            “Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It is run by ghosts. We see what we see because the ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses, Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau, and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands of ghosts from the past.”

            First, I quote it here because I believe it demonstrates how the meaning of the words we use are culturally bound and new insights can be gained by the act of using the concepts associated with particular words in one culture to explore another culture where the culturally bound meanings and related concepts are different. Persig and his friends immediately realize the meaning of ‘ghosts’ differs between cultures, in this case Native American versus pan-European cultural contexts. Furthermore, it also demonstrates that we very frequently mistake the idioms we employ, and the particular ways in which we understand these idioms, to constitute the very fabric of the world that we are observing.

            It is interesting also to explore ‘believe’. Belief is often associated with religion and collocations such as ‘believe in god’. What is your reaction to: “do you believe in science,” “do you believe in the laws of physics?” The reaction might be “of course I do it is something that is verifiable through scientific proof!” In response, “Oh, so you ‘believe in science’ and the laws it produces.” The astute interlocutor may respond, “Science is a method and the laws it engenders are open to revision.” I personally believe that the ‘scientific method’ has great utility. Indoctrinating people from various cultures into the scientific method affords more cognitive resources and a greater variety of soil (culture) for thoughts and insights to emerge. Notice I use the word ‘indoctrinating’; I would also use it in terms of ‘indoctrinated into a culture, worldview (weltanschauung) and its associated language’. For sure the conclusions of science require indoctrination since the conclusions science produces are ever changing.

            Do I see belief in science as the same as belief in religion? Yes and no. Yes, it requires belief in the scientific method in terms of a system for creating our reality and accepting the conclusions generated by the method. In the same way it requires belief in a religion to accept its conclusions. A big difference between the two beliefs is what is accepted as evidence. Science tends to be more flexible than religion about what constitutes evidence as it evolves. This statement may seem to be the opposite of what one might expect given that the evidence for religious beliefs is usually considered not ‘verifiable’ and therefore requires belief. Actually, the cutting edge of science produces theories that are not always possible to verify by the scientific method at a given state and time. There must be belief in the theory for scientists to endeavor to find evidence for the theory.
            At any given time in science there are individuals that receive sainthood in that their theories (beliefs, dogma) dominate science (the belief system of the scientific cultural tribe). These people and their cognitive constructs are Persig’s ghosts. New ghosts emerge to desanctify former or contemporary ghosts. New doctrine replaces old doctrine. Science seems to have an evolutionary advantage over religion as a belief system since it appears to have greater flexibility and adaptability. Any particular religion usually lacks flexibility in terms of what constitutes evidence since its follows often construe any contradiction to the words of their prophets and scriptures as an attack on the belief system as a whole. This is clearly seen in the case of the Christians in the U.S. who appose teaching evolution in schools. It is also pervasive among many modern day ‘fundamentalist’ followers of Islam even though science flourished during the Golden Age of Islam from 650-1650.

            Sometimes religion and science come to similar conclusions. Though some people consider Buddhism more of philosophy than a religion; we can still note as an example that Buddha said, “sabbo pajjalito loko, sabbo loko pakampito,” or “the entire universe is nothing but combustion and vibration.” Quantum physicists who support string theory have basically come to a similar worldview. According to string theory, the most fundamental indivisible entities underlying all matter are strings understood to be vibrating, one-dimensional loops or segments of energy vibrating at different harmonies (it makes you wonder if there was a great deal of wisdom amongst absurdity underlying the 1960’s flower child or hippie movement in the U.S.). Everything, including electrons and quarks, consists of their oscillations.

            Newtonian physics and quantum physics are not unified. Quantum mechanics is the language spoken by the tribe living in the micro world while Newtonian physics is the language of the macro world. The tribe living in the micro world obviously also inhabits the macro world too, so they have a cultural and linguistic conflict. Those people who have not visited the micro world do not yet suffer from culture shock but they may be aware of how the culture and language of the micro world has affected their worldview with new concepts related to the words ‘relativity’ and ‘objectivity’.

            Time may help this cross-cultural linguistic problem. In relation to the purpose of the scientific method to select from among a multitude of hypotheses to explain any given observation Persig quoted Einstein, “Evolution has shown at any given moment out of all conceivable constructions a single one has always proved itself absolutely superior to the rest.” Persig was shocked by Einstein’s use of ‘at any given moment’, since it infers that truth is a function of time. Persig then pointed out, “The whole history of science, a clear story of continuously changing explanations of old facts … some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year.” So as cultures, their associated languages, and worldviews evolve surely there will be a theory of unification just in time to set the stage for the next cultural linguistic conflict.

            One final note on this topic concerns the ‘myth of objectivity’, alluded to above, that is part of the modern science historical cultural linguistic evolution. The ‘relativity’ cultural shock emerging from quantum mechanics is Dorothy’s dog from the Wizard of Oz pulling on the curtain of the Wizard of Objectivity. This is a very culturally bound analogy since it requires familiarity of the story in the movie with its North American setting. Let this analogy take us on a slight detour and look at what Sussman (2002) wrote using the analogy of this story to describe cross-cultural experience.

            Sussman wrote, “Dorothy Gale, the heroine of the Wizard of Oz, was one such sojourner although a reluctant one. She was whisked by a tornado from her rural farm in Kansas to the Land of Oz. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean. Dorothy had a lot to get used to in Oz: good and bad witches, talking scarecrows, cowardly lions, transportation via life-sized bubbles, and magic potions. Dorothy had to adjust her thinking and behavior to fit the new circumstances in which she found herself, she needed to make new friends and achieve her objectives, chief of which was finding the quickest way back to Kansas. And when she finally arrived back home, she discovered what many sojourners have learned: that no one really understands your sojourner experiences and that life back home may never be the same. In fact, had there been a sequel, Wizard of Oz 2, we might have found Dorothy moping around the farm, bored with horses that didn’t change colors, yawning at conventional transportation by bicycle, missing the adoration of the vanquished witch’s army and all of the Munchkins.”

            Objectivity is the basic tenet of the scientific method, which in essence means separation of the observer and the observed. Ever since the experimental method has been used to explain the natural world by the experimental method (empiricism or positivism), establishing laws and universal constants, someone questions the steps leading to the establishment of a particular result, even to the extent of imply that the result was brought into reality by the process of observation (a phenomenon compatible with quantum physics).

            According to Huntley (2003), if we consider the notion in quantum theory that the observer is selecting a single probability from many, that is, the observation is contextual, we might expect more obvious discrepancies and anomalies in our observations. He asserts that the reason for our expectations not matching experience may be that we overlook mass agreement, which is also determining what is observed. In other words, the individual and others collectively influence the results (collapse the wave function). The collapsing of the wave function is a superposition of different possible eignenstates being reduced to a single one of those states after interaction with an observer. That is to say, it is the reduction of the physical possibilities into a single possibility as seen by an observer. Huntley argues that the individual may still contribute an independent effect over this collective agreement, in particular, when the mass agreement has not been fully determined.

            Thank you Dorothy’s dog for exposing the Wizard of Objectivity! I get tired of people from the academic tribe using ‘the author” instead of ‘I’. It leads to such ridiculously sounding sentences when the author, writer, person communicating with you must avoid using ‘I’ and ‘my’ in order to support the myth of ‘academic and scientific objectivity’. I have a feeling this use of the third person voice in reference to the first person (‘I’) is often due in part to people giving into this tribal convention even though they may feel funny doing so and in part due to the lack of trust in intuition and perhaps insecurity. Anyhow, this phenomenon is just another example of the link between language and culture. I have seen more use of these personal pronouns in academic literature in recent years. It is great that the academic culture and its language are evolving.

  6. Malik Edwards says:

    Chris, you take this too serious. Skeptics read the book also and where not blown away by the things you consider errors. The artists who read it went to explore more science, the scientists explored more art. I purchased Physics book. Trust the intelligence of people. Maybe you needed something to write about. It was a cool read at the time. WE have learned much more since then. Keep it in the context of the time homie.

    • Chris Edwards says:

      Malik you are certainly right but if there weren’t people in the world who obsessed over abstract concepts and questions that few people cared about then where would philosophy and logic be? More importantly, what would happen to the market for pipes and jackets with elbow patches?

    • Haakon Dahl says:

      While I applaud your unruffled mastery of that’s-cool-ism, it’s simply not acceptable to say things which are plainly not true, which depend upon the most gross of mistakes, and then expect to be taken seriously in at least some measure, as Mr. Pirsig and his devotees surely do.
      I’m heartened to learn that you enjoyed the book. I destroy copies of it as I encounter them, as a matter of public health.

  7. Henry says:

    I have read ZAMM at least ten times and have used it as a teaching vehicle in a number of classes. Seems this review throws out the baby with the bath water. Pirsig presents a way of thinking, an approach to life and how to live it. I never took Pirsig’s ideas at face value, only his approach to how we get at fundamental truth–a priori knowledge, I think he calls it. I find it fascinating that his discussion of how people interact with technology is just is valid in the computer age as it was when he was talking about motorcycles or dripping faucets. By the way, for another survey of philosophy, try “Sophie’s World.”

  8. Malik Edwards says:

    Ok Chris, you guys keep us on our toes. Keep writing, I’ll keep reading.

  9. Dan Branstrom says:

    This is a great illustration of the fact that we take out of a book or situation what we’re looking for. I guess I passed over the section covered in the review.

    I remember the book as one part being about how modern man interacts with the world around him. The part I maybe misremember that was valuable to me was that he was saying it was important to understand the technology around us so we could keep it working and when it doesn’t do what we expect it to, we are more able to deal with the consequences. Pirsig’s friend on the other motorcycle just wanted to take his bike in and say, “Fix it.” That can be a costly mistake for anyone who is familiar with what a service manager who gets a commission for the amount of work orders he writes.

    I felt that Pirsig was saying that instead of cursing a bike because it doesn’t work, possibly one should understand how it works and try to figure out what is wrong. Maybe it just needs gas because the gauge isn’t working properly, or that there is possibly something simple the owner can do that would prevent the problem in the future. Even if one can’t get a bike to work, at least one should observe what the symptoms are so they can report it to the mechanic.

    Talk to anyone in customer service who’s dealt with someone whose item didn’t work because they didn’t plug it in, yet was cussing at the manufacturer when they called because they didn’t read or follow the directions that said, “plug it in to a power source.”

    I guess I ignored the new age stuff, or just considered it a point of view that wasn’t important to me.

    • Chris Edwards says:

      I’m often amazed by how often the argument of an entire book of science or philosophy can be distilled to a few pages. Pirsig’s argument really is rather small but he includes long passages of ruminations etc. which can be entertaining and thoughtful, but didn’t ultimately contribute to his conclusion. In the end, all he really ended up doing was reworking the fallacies of Plato, which are the same fallacies that infect most religions, into his search for “Quality.”

      • Ian Ross says:

        Chris, again, this is the problem with your analysis. You take the long “ruminations” as being a rambling and unnecessary discursive from what could have been a succinct “textbook-like” summary of the ideas. Whoa! Like you wish Beethoven had gotten to the final crescendo without all the warbling in between. You are not reading it as a novel but as a textbook, and that’s a big mistake. And what’s this business about “new age”? Pirsig wasn’t connected to anything New Age, hasn’t been since. Apart from the groovy cover the publishers put on it (nothing to do with him) it doesn’t even sound New Age – quite the opposite. Even the “zen” and “dharma” bits (which draw on his first hand exposure in Korea and India, with which he wasn’t especially impressed) are minor in reality – it is a solidly western novel.

  10. John M says:

    After reading and rereading this article and even checking Wikipedia and the dictionary, I still don’t understand what “reification” is or what the author is trying to say when that word is used.

    I suggest using words in common usage when writing to even the intelligent portion of the masses when practical.

    • Chris Edwards says:

      Reification is a logical error that occurs when people treat abstract concepts as if they are actual things. It’s not a common term but it is a common mistake.

      • Eric H says:

        This suggests that you do not believe the probable connections in our probable brains that create the probable patterns which we probably are talking about actually exist.

        That would seem to be a logically inconsistant on your part.

  11. Lorax says:

    When I read ZAMM in the early 80s, I thought it was tedious and unfocussed. The diverse reactions to the book recorded above appear to vindicate at least the ‘unfocussed’ portion of my reaction.

    One strand of the book in particular struck me as curious: the rejection of scientific materialism seemed thematically important; yet there was very little argument for its rejection, and what little there was was transparently fallacious.

    I had no clue that Pirsig was more than a flash in the pan, and I gratefully thank Chris Edwards for taking the time to identify the fallacy in ZAMM and to make a number of insightful remarks.

    • Joe Blow says:

      Lorax, I’m sorry that you found it tedious and unfocussed. When I first read it (1976) I found it difficult to follow, but the more often I read it, the better I admire its beautiful and subtle artistic structure, and despite the fact that I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the philosophical analysis, I deeply appreciate it as a work of art. It is anything but unfocussed – every word has its job to do, but it is subtle and you have to keep an eye out. It repays careful reading and an awareness of the growth of the underlying concepts and plot. But you know, tastes differ.

  12. DrBunsen says:

    It seems the main point missed in this review is that “Phaedrus” is mentally ill; a man so obsessed with the pursuit of an abstract that he is reduced to catatonia, sitting mute in his own faeces in a mental hospital.

    The main message I took away from the book was to live a whole and balanced life; to give due attention to the physical world, the things of the body – the “motorcycle”, if you will – rather than chasing abstract rainbows in the mind. In that, it seemed an eminently practical – indeed materialist – lesson.

    I’ll allow that a large number of other readers seem to have utterly missed this point as well, taking the mentally unbalanced Phaedrus (the narrator before breakdown and recovery) as some kind of philosopher guru.

    • Chris Edwards says:

      This is an interesting interpretation of Pirsig’s work and it is true that there were many themes to his book for readers to contemplate and enjoy. However, my essay really wasn’t intended as a broad review of “Zen.” Rather, I wanted to note that Pirsig’s errors were all of the same kind. For example, his belief that zero was an object to be discovered, instead of a man-made descriptor, was the same type of fallacious thinking that led him to think that the Law of Gravity was an object and, finally, to conclude that Quality could be something that existed before matter. The belief that abstractions take some kind of form and actually exist (despite not being made of anything) is the main tenet of most religions.

      • Eric H says:


        The error that you are intentionally making is the confusion regarding what the book says from page to page and what Robert Pirsig’s intention in writing the book was. The narrator is actualy very clear in the book as to what his purpose is but you may be making the error of assuming that the narrator and the ideas are exactly what Mr. Pirsig believed. Of course there are many concepts in the book as there would be in any book of its type which is IMO trying to lead a reader through all the schools of physophical thought in order to present some final concept…in this case the final concept appears to be that Truth is a form of The Good…

        It appears to me that your are falling into Reification…confusing the concepts in the book as actual things… ;) – and more seriously (although the former comment has some truth in it) you are picking nits when the book stands as a totality. Zen sometime is thought to teach that it is critical to understand both the forest and the trees…you appear to be seeing the trees and missing the forest.

  13. Jake says:

    Chris Edwards, that was an outstanding review of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  14. Barry D says:

    I’m with Lorax, though I read the book a few years later.

    I found the book to be tedius new age drivel (how’s that for redundant?). Thank you, Chris Edwards, for helping me to understand why.

    In short, though, I’d call the book one of the longest, most verbose straw man arguments ever written, and at that, it never really did make much of an argument.

  15. Barry D says:

    “tedious” of course… Tedius was my boring college roommate who was abducted by aliens from ancient Rome and dropped back into 1980s California…

  16. Thom F. says:

    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking review. However, a few more points, not covered by the comments above, are still in order.

    Having read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a few times over the years, I think the main difficulty with the book is that Pirsig spends an enormous time building up to his main point (“The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event” etc.), yet hardly explains this at all once we get there. This idea, which sounds bizarre and/or nonsensical when first encountered in the book, is just dumped in the our lap at the end – no wonder many readers come away feeling mystified or confused.

    Granted, Pirsig does a disservice to himself by rather loosely and interchangeably using the same word for two very different concepts – most of the time, “quality” as high value experienced in art, technology or life, and “Quality” to denote the non-conceptualized moment of reality-as-it’s-happening-right-now.

    As for the quotes above on gravitation and zero, as I read them, they are simply episodes along the way towards Pirsig’s ultimate point. For example, the pseudo-Socratic dialogue on the law of gravitation doesn’t represent these absurd contradictions as his actual statement, but simply as the basic paradoxes that any philosophically-minded person runs into sooner rather than later, at least in the context of western mainstream thought.

    It’s not until Pirsig’s later work, most notably the novel Lila (1991) that he goes into some detail about what he means with all of this. As it turns out, his “metaphysics of quality” is just a different way of looking at the world, but one that rather elegantly resolves many of the traditional paradoxes that have plagued western philosophy.

    However – and this is important to the discussion at hand – in no way is Pirsig advocating anything anti-science; in fact, his full philosophy is built at its core around the concepts of cosmological and biological evolution. As he has himself noted,

    “I think it is extremely important to emphasize that the [Metaphysics of Quality] is pure empiricism. There is nothing supernatural in it.”

    As I understand it, the only mysticism to be found in Pirsig’s work is simply the recognition that reality, or the constantly unfolding event that is our universe, is infinitely more complex than we can ever fully understand – and something that doesn’t easily divide into the categories and dichotomies with which we try to organize our experience (mind/matter, subject/object, classical/romantic etc). However, this doesn’t mean that science can’t very often provide us with the best (highest-quality) explanation for a given fact or event!

    I won’t presume to try and summarize here what is a fairly complex system of thought, but perhaps the best explanation of what Pirsig seems to be after (and more concise than his own writing) is “An Introduction to Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality” by Dr. Anthony McWatt ( This is well worth the few bucks for anyone interested in the subject.

    Being someone of a hardcore skeptical/atheist/pro-science worldview, yet having been greatly inspired and influenced by Pirsig’s work, I’m distressed to see him relegated into the category of woolly-headed New Agers and other pseudo-philosophy charlatans. Pirsig deserves more credit than this, even if an appreciation of what he’s trying to say does require looking further than the sometimes circuitous routes taken in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  17. Andy Odell says:

    When I read the book the first time, I went kind of fast, thinking I’d get to the end and know the ‘answer.’ I thought I had missed it, until I re-read the book, more slowly, and realized I hadn’t missed it, there WAS NO answer in it.

    The answer to the question of the sound a tree makes is the same as the answer to the question ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ I paid $400 many years ago (and wasted two days) – the answer is, according to that guru, “The sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping.” I wish I had both my time and money back.

    The answer to the tree-falling question is, “It is an irrelevant question.” If that doesn’t satisfy you, then a more complete answer is, “It is a stupid question.”

    • SMW says:

      I was quite confused by the combative nature of this essay and the strange claim that Pirsig is in any way “anti-science”. To relegate Pirsig to the rummage bin of New Age thought because he criticizes the bounds of science would be like categorizing Newton as a crackpot because he criticized the bounds of geometry. Both thinkers have not discarded what came before them, but actually used it to build more comprehensive systems of understanding.

      As a science teacher myself, I have an infinite awe and respect for scientific thought. Yet that respect does not preclude a thorough understanding of the bounds of science. I suspect that the author of this post may be disturbed by these limitations.

      This article is particularly frustrating because it further reinforces the perceived distance between scientific and non-scientific modes of thought, demonstrating that Pirsig is not less relevant today, but actually more relevant. It’s only been about 400 years since the birth of what we call science (previously considered natural philosophy). Unfortunately, our society is a victim of science’s success. We’ve taken it too far, applied it to too much, and blocked out other avenues of understanding.

      I suppose someone who categorizes themselves as an atheist and then equates that to scientific materialism may be insulted by some passages from ZAMM. For anyone who has thoroughly read the book, it should be obvious (especially in the section in which he speaks about gumption traps when doing technical work) that Pirsig is extremely supportive of science, and his goal is to show how rational thought can be enhanced by healing the divide between it and non-rational understanding.

      The fact that there is much debate in this thread about the nature of gravity’s existence before or after its discovery by Newton (or its naming and description, rather) seems to highlight a big misunderstanding of ZAMM. Gravity is an idea, a thought. Gravity is a scientific thought about the material world. But scientific thought is not material. It may be dramatic to call gravity a ghost, true. But it is immaterial as all science is. Of course, this may seem trivial: it is a language for understanding the natural world, you say. True. Pirsig is pointing out that we too often confuse the language for the world and have started to see the two as inseparable or the same thing. Is this language bound by the rules of scientific inquiry? If not, what are its rules? These are similar to questions Pirsig poses that you have avoided addressing.

      (Actually, the article speaks much about Pirsig’s “reification” of objects, yet Pirsig is actually doing the opposite. He is highlighting the fact that gravity is something we often talk about as if it is a thing, and then reinforcing its “non-thing”-ness.)

      Even more ironic, with respect to this critique, is how desperately Pirsig himself tries to subjugate his philosophical insights to the realm of rationality, despite his own understanding that Quality supercedes and gives rise to rational thought. His birth into the mythos of our times continually pulls him back into the very tendencies that limit our perspective and that you are defending.

      I realize that this response is erratic and woefully imprecise; however, hopefully a few points generated some thought and highlighted how this criticism, if anything, validates much of Pirsig’s concerns about our society’s current science-obsessed world view.

  18. moqman says:

    Very disappointing and dishonest, Mr. Edwards. Really, would like to know where you copied the quotes of ZAMM from – funny, my copy doesn’t have the many typographical and punctuation errors yours does. Is it a subtle try to paint Pirsig in a bad light? Shabby on your part.

    ANd indeed the combative, dismissive nature, and strawman arguments – atheism = scientific materialism – what?

    In the times I have read and written (academically) about ZAMM and Lila, and continue to use both in my teaching, I have found his views to be supportive of science, and ZAMM a worthy AND accessible intro to philosophic thought. His analogies have helped many of my students understand otherwise abstract philosophical concepts – like the crystalization of a solution as a metaphor for the epistemological grasping of an idea – what is it we mean when we say we “know” something?

    Indeed, Pirsig himself has the honesty to leave much unresolved in ZAMM, and then return and finish much in Lila. I wonder what we would have thought had we read Critique of Pure Reason halfway through?

  19. Robert C. says:

    I have read ZMM several times, first in the late 1970s and as recently as this year. I believe that the Chris Edwards essay and many of the follow-up comments have missed the point: ZMM is not philosophy or science, it is art. The “branding” of ZMM as a treatise on quality or a dissertation on the evils of modern science proves the point of the book, that the world (and ZMM) can be viewed from many different perspectives. Some critics believe that Hamlet is an exposition of flawed character, others a revenge tragedy. Robert Pirsig is not Shakespeare, but he did craft a work of art that continues to be thought-provoking and a damn good read.

    Who cares whether Pirsig’s philosophical ruminations were not scrupulous or his disappointment with the scientific method was based on unsound principles. Pirsig is not the father of the New Age. He is just an author who reflected the philosophical angst of the period in which he wrote. You can’t blame Pirsig for the rise in New Age thinking any more than you can blame Shakespeare for regicide (for the real reasons behind the resurgence of anti-materialism and psuedoscience, check out Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark).

    The fact that ZMM has caused so much controversy since its publication is a tribute to the theme and story in the book. A bike trip, some psychosis, a difficult relationship between father and son, an alienated man with the courage to think through his problems and the difficulties of the late 20th century. What could be better? Let’s not dwell on precision; even Pirsig understood that knowing the manual does not make you a good mechanic.

  20. Darryl B says:

    While I do not claim to be as erudite as the people who have commented here, I do have a couple of comments.

    “Pirsig’s book, first published in 1974, sought to undermine scientific thinking and created an audience of cult-like followers who persist in believing in Pirsig’s non-material claims.”

    I don’t accept that the book sought to do anything of the sort (or that the author did, for that matter). What I’ve found in reading the book a number of times is that Pirsig was striving to integrate the Romantic and the Rational, but not to discredit either. He spends a huge amount of time detailing the power of the Scientific Method, but he also points out the flaws that are inherent in thinking that a set of sub-assemblies can be the equivalent of a motorcycle in operation.

    As a writer, I found his discussion on breaking down the walls we create with our rules of spelling and grammar to be very helpful, and I’ve used that discussion with others having trouble writing.

    I can also tell you that as a long-time real-world technical worker, I’ve been immersed in the rational world of the corporation and where progress has occurred, it has always been where the science becomes art. Where science fails to merge, there is no progress and often disaster.

    As Pirsig has said, ZAMM became a culture bearer. Its references to hip/square are anachronisms now and it certainly spent time on the rejection of “the Man”, but at the same time as a worker in a 20-story beehive where we were all just moved to a new “collaborative” environment where we can all be evaluated more closely on how much work we’re putting out, I’d say that we still need to learn about putting the soul back into our sterile and an-ethical world.

  21. Natalie Munn says:

    I can’t believe you are promoting an essay about ZAAM with a Harley image banner? I think I will write an essay about your choice of promotional images and motorcycles. Do you ride? Fix bikes?

  22. James says:

    “The more psychologically correct definition of schizophrenia is a diagnosis of an individual who cannot distinguish between the images in his head and images in the world”

    Yeah, that’s when I stopped reading.

  23. Andrew Kovacs says:

    I have read ZAMM several times. To be honest. I have no idea what this article is talking about. Zen has nothing to do with science, philosophy, math, politics, rhetoric, logic and the rest. In the book, “quality” became the narrator’s koan. Koans are paradoxes and paradoxes have no “rational” solution. To “solve” a koan one must employ other faculties than the rational mind, must give up conceptual thinking. It is an impossibly difficult journey, one must literally tear him/herself apart- just as Phaedreus did in the book. The “solution” to the koan usually is a very profound experience, insight into far more than the seeker originally wanted. This method is employed by the Rinzai School of Zen. Phaedrus get his koan himself, Zen students usually get it from their teachers. ZAMM is the best description of the Rinzai Zen process for the layman. It is easy to understand, entertaining and well structured. It is a story of one man’s journey, the rest is only in your imagination. Don’t put “tits on the bull”, puhleeeese!

  24. Andrew Krone says:

    Chris Edwards (the author here) is putting words into Pirsig’s mouth with a smug, dismissive attitude. Sort of sad.

    Not really sure if the author even read the book other than to try and tear it apart.

    The short essay (above) and ZAMM speak for themselves.

  25. Ian Ross says:

    Chris, I’m afraid your zeal for atheism is leading you to unnecessary collateral damage. Pirsig’s novel is a “novel” ie a work of fiction (or “faction” as they would call it today). It has an artful and deeply sympathetic portrait of a human situation, drawn from life, as the author says, but also rearranged for artistic purposes. Furthermore, what the author says at a particular stage of the book (especially near the beginning) cannot be taken at face value because of the development of the plot, whereby the narrator comes to realise things over a period of time. In addition, it explores philosophical issues with a great deal of thought, but is not intended to be an academic text (anything but!). Your criticisms are inappropriate and akin to attacking “Star Wars” for its unscientific descriptions of space warfare, or “Little House on the Prairie” because of it’s devout world view.

    Looking specifically at the philosophical ideas in the book, you should note that the narrator identifies himself as an atheist and a scientist at core. Furthermore, read it in the context of the times (1968-1974) and you will realise that much of its clarity prefigures current scientific developments in neurobiology including the notion of the gap between perception and consciousness, the state of “flow” and other topics which would have been viewed as heretical in the science of the era but are mainstream today. Pirsig doesn’t try to make “quality” into a God – you have simply read him with wilful misunderstanding, in fact I suspect you set out with book in one hand and hatchet in the other. His notion of quality, expressed in the language of Greek philosophy, can doubtless be formulated in neurobiological terms now, but he wasn’t a neurobiologist he was a rhetorician and a classicist. And he was writing a work of art in the process. Your criticism just shows yourself in a bad light I’m afraid, akin to a single minded Mary Whitehouse type who can find smut everywhere – in your case, you find gods everywhere and have to stamp them out. With the best of wishes, you need to loosen up and not be such a philistine. Try some of the other classics of the 20th Century too!

    • Eric H says:

      This is also my general impression – my first thought upon reading the review was that the reviewer was ignorage of Western Phylosphical thought – then upon reading his bio it seems clear that the reviewed has rejected the skepic viewpoint of the Enlightenment and placed his faith in the belief that only the material exists. Although this is not a position that does not have some evidence to support it, at the root of the lauguage and logic we use to examin this supposed material world are the assumptions that the world is indeed material. Given the reviewer’s background it is clear that he should be well aware of the ligical issues with this point of view but is choosing to accept the materal world based on his faith.

  26. Dan Kyle says:

    A very interesting critique – Thank You! And from reading all the responses and counter arguments, it would seem that Pirsig’s main contrubution with his book has been to get a large group of very intelligent people to debate his assertions and form further arguments on either the specifics or the general conclusions. It would seem that we are indeed the Modern Philosophers.

    • Dan Kyle says:

      Here I am, back to comment on this page a year later while re-reading ZAMM for the fourth or fifth time; reading all the comments, as well as the article again, is fascinating, but I now see a parallel to the divide in the political Left and Right positions of late (ironically opposite of the brain hemispheres) and agree with those who advocate a balance. Perhaps interpreting the book from a romantic viewpoint allows for greater enjoyment.

  27. Ted says:

    A worthwhile critique. I’ve read ZAMM three or four times but hadn’t thought this critically about those points. However, while Pirsig may have discussed ghosts I never thought he advocated irrationality; I was glad to be made aware of them. I saw no sign of willful ignorance or wishful thinking. I like that the book helped me think more deeply and analytically about things I wouldn’t have otherwise. His explanation of mu was helpful to me as it exposed the potential flaw in binary thinking. I liked when he pointed out how our hypotheses exceed our ability to test them, i.e., the more science reveals the more questions are raised. I liked how he encourages deep thinking and introspection over more shallow endeavors. I never got the impression he was advocating anything irrational or supernatural.

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