Influence: Social Psychology v. Human Reason


I’ll admit it’s been a while since my last post, but these musings come and go as they please, whether I write them down or not.

I’ve finished a particularly interesting book on social psychology called Influence by Robert Cialdini. In the book, Cialdini talks about the “click, whirr” responses of humans – that is to say, those actions which we instinctively revert to once we receive the right triggers, out of some primitive sense of survival or self-interest. These are situations where we provide our compliance without thinking very hard about why, or automatically, in most cases. For example, you are more likely to do a favour for someone who have given you an unsolicited gift than someone who outright asks for the favour. Cialdini shows in his book how such responses can sometimes be conducive to poor or dangerous choices for individuals.

On first blush, these conclusions from the body of social psychology research seem to undermine the foundations of theories about human reason, particularly those of Ludwig von Mises laid out in Human Action.  According to him, human action is purposeful and rational behavior, not reflexive behaviour. People have goals and adopt means of trying to achieve them. Human action involve choice – the free will to choose among alternatives to achieve our desired ends.

So how do we reconcile automated responses like the “click, whirr” reaction with Mises’ view of human action (driven by reason)? Well off the bat, Mises goes through great lengths at the beginning of his book to differentiate his field of study, praxeology, or the study of human action, from social psychology or any other sciences. If the “click, whirr” function is based on instinct, Mises rejects the view that all human action is based entirely on instinct because a) if true, it can still be defined as human action (i.e. human trying to satisfy a goal – hunger, survival, etc.), and b) humans are capable of defying their instincts (e.g. not eat).

Mises also rejects the notion of “irrational action” or qualifying certain actions as more rational than others. For example, eating when you’re hungry is not more or less rational than saving for retirement – both are equally rational decisions, just achieved by different means. He goes on to say it is wrong to condemn any action as irrational simply because the means chosen were ill-suited to achieve the desired end. If the actor truly believes the means will achieve the end, the choice was “rational” to the actor. Whether an overweight person satisfies their hunger with a salad or a hundred donuts does not really matter for the praxeologist – as long as they have a reason.

For Mises then, the “click, whirr” reaction would be a rational action for the simple reason we as actors believe we are achieving our ends by acting in that manner. When we buy a car because we like the salesmen or because our friends have the same one, we are making a conscious judgment call (i.e. we have rationalized the decision), whether or not the car itself is in mint or poor condition. For Mises, the study of the action is more important than the study of whether or not the choice was good or bad. Only the individual can ascribe value to the “goodness” or “badness” of a choice and it is their ability to do so free of outside pressures that Mises is defending throughout his philosophical tome.

Does this make Cialdini wrong in his assessment of human behaviour? The answer lies in the end notes for each of Cialdini’s book chapters, which outlines ways to defend oneself from falling into bad “click, whirr traps”. Most of the recommendations revert to consulting “common sense”, a trust in “gut feelings”, and asking ourselves some reflective questions. It is realizing we have a choice and understanding why we are considering certain options over others based on the available information. In other words, Cialdini is calling on us to activate our rational processes when making these choices, particularly when there is a danger of making poor ones.

For both authors, humans will never learn how to be better decision makers until they learn through experience, or if you will, by the consequences of their actions. It is when they don’t learn that Cialdini becomes most concerned, but Mises would insist they must develop their own sense of reason through John Stuart Mill’s quintessential self-improvement mantra – like reading Cialdini’s book for example. Humans will always make decisions based on the best available information, whether it’s a friendly salesperson or a magazine ad – which is why so much hinges on humans learning to be better thinkers and actors.

Is there any other way to encourage humans to make better decisions? Should the state have a role to play in incentivizing, maybe even forcing, people to make better decisions? There’s an interesting case study that Cialdini writes about in his book about achieving compliance, conducted by a Jonathan Freedman. The study involved telling children not to play with a toy robot and gauging their compliance behaviour in the short-term and long-term. When Freedman provided a forceful threat not to play with the toy and stressed there would be consequences, the majority of boys tested did not play with it even when he left the room. However, six weeks later, when they were brought into the same room without Freedman, most of them started playing with the toy. Surprisingly in his second sample, Freedman issued the same threat but provided no reason for compliance other than “it was wrong to play with the toy”. Interestingly, the boys did not play with the toy both immediately AND six weeks later.

The crux of the story is individuals will take personal responsibility for their actions when they are given a moral choice. Outright coercion is not as effective for developing “good” long-term behaviour patterns as simple social cues and common sense. Perhaps this is what Aristotle meant when he thought of virtue as a creature of habit, and not of study. The onus is certainly on the individual to develop good patterns of behaviour and self-improvement, though it is up to the authorities at hand to ensure such an individual is free to pursue such ends within the boundaries of the harm principle.

2016 Reading Challenge

  1. The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria
  2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  3. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter
  4. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  5. Shopping for Votes by Susan Delacourt
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  7. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  9. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  10. Growing Up Digital by Don Tapscott
  11. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  12. The Big Shift by Darrel Bricker
  13. The Canadian Century by Brian Lee Crowley
  14. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  15. 101 Ways to Win an Election by Mark Pack
  16. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  17. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  18. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  19. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  20. Influence by Robert Cialdini

The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.
-Lord Alfred Tennyson, The Princess

Lila in Dialogue – Part 3


I found myself thinking about other philosophers and what they had to say about everything Robert Pirsig was claiming in Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. It’s funny how Pirsig recommends doing your own creative thinking first before consulting the philosophers and seeing who agrees with that point of view. In my mind, there were a number of thinkers who stood out to converse with Pirsig over the centuries – and there will likely be many more to come.

Madness & Civilization

I’ve read the first couple chapters of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. I feel like his findings might throw some light on Pirsig’s musings about the concepts of sanity and insanity.

Pirsig struggled with mental illness and ideas about insanity in the book. For him, the Metaphysics of Quality allowed him to come to grips with that dark period of his life. He noted insanity is culturally defined – what is considered an insane act in one culture may not be considered the same in another.

Pirsig notes: “Anthropologists found that schizophrenia is strongest among those whose ties with the cultural traditions are weakest” (p.381). This sort of explains why most inventors, scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, etc. with that genius strain typically stroll the line of sanity and insanity. They are pushing the boundaries of reality, spinning the world view around in multiple Copernican revolutions. When you destroy your static cultural values with statements like “God is Dead” and “Quality precedes Subject and Object”, it’s very easy to lapse into depression because no one else knows what you know. When you rip out of the foundations of your knowledge and reality, you are left with nothing until you can re-create the world with your enlightened facts (values). Insanity is for those who lost their way to that new foundational reality. I suppose this is why Pirsig hates the anti-foundationalist and cultural relativism schools of post-modern thought.

Human Action

It is also important to note that my musings are coloured by my readings of Human Action by Ludwig Von Mises, since I was reading bits and pieces of the book at the same time.

Mises also found it necessary to deal with metaphysics before proceeding with the study of human action and economic activity in the first chapter of his book. Given that metaphysical disputes can be interminable, he adopts a dualist approach to the study of human action out of “pragmatism”. He utterly rejects the positivist school because human action is motivated by values. You cannot study economics without understanding the fundamental fact that humans attach value to goods and services – and it is not governments or societies or gods who (should) attach value to such things.

Further to my earliest writings on Pirsig’s perception of education and my own interpretation, I found this pertinent quote while reading Mises: “Education, whatever benefits it may confer, is transmission of traditional doctrines and valuations; it is by necessity conservative. It produces imitation and routine, not improvement and progress” (p. 311). It echoes Pirsig’s sentiments about philosophology versus philosophy.

Nicomachean Ethics

Pirsig ends his book that morality is simply the Good, a noun rather than an adjective. While he is a fierce critic of Aristotle, I found myself thinking about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where he characterizes the Good in terms of virtue – striving towards the virtuous life. Aristotle thought it was important for a person to become good through a life’s work of striving towards excellence versus knowing the good. However, excellence through habits, decisions and actions can be misunderstood as static moral values.

Aristotle also speaks of virtue in terms of learning moderation – but I wonder if he was grasping more at the Dynamic good and static good conundrum. Aristotle also believed that complete virtue involved intellectual virtue in addition to social virtue, which seems to echo Pirsig’s sentiments about the intellectual and social moral orders.

Concluding thoughts

All this time, I felt myself searching for the Truth – singular, fixed and unchanging. After reading these two books, I find myself at the end of one long road and beginning a new one. Pirsig’s philosophy contains everything I hoped for in terms of finding “Truth” now known as “Quality”. Enlightened by the Metaphysics of Quality, I am inclined to plow ahead and see this new world. After all, the Metaphysics of Quality is only the tip of the iceberg. What new and strange things will we find with this new conception of our reality?

Applications of Lila – Part 2


Throughout Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, Robert Pirsig finds concrete examples to showcase how his Metaphysics of Quality can provide a foundation for other fields of study. Given my profession and background, I was predominantly fascinated by what he had to say about the social sciences & humanities. Here are some of my observations and thoughts. 


I found myself thinking about the questions “Does capitalism have Quality? Does socialism have Quality?” He places political organization under the intellectual moral order and I believe economics would fall under the social moral order since it is not a philosophy, but a realm of human action. However, the science and philosophy concerning economics is primarily political, and therefore, intellectual. It is an important distinction to make that Pirsig does not seem to make. He would probably have termed the two: economics and economology.

Pirsig answers the original questions by saying that “from a static point of view socialism is more moral than capitalism” (p.253) since it proposes a way for intellectual morals to guide society. However, capitalism includes the free market, “a Dynamic institution”, since it allows people to attach value to what they buy and sell. Socialism closes the door on Dynamic Quality, while capitalism effectively responds to Dynamic Quality.

What I believe Pirsig takes issue with in the capitalist system is when the rich appropriate the language of the free market to suit their own interests and contrive to manipulate the market towards artificial (read static) ends (i.e. mercantilism, crony capitalism). As soon as the market ceases to be organic and complex in its parallel patterns of value, it can no longer be labeled as “free”. I think this sufficiently addresses Pirsig’s concerns, since a truly free market disperses benefits to both the poor and the rich. 


Pirsig posits that the ultimate goal for the intellectual order is “to obtain static and Dynamic Quality simultaneously”. As a concrete example, we can see why modern day democracies are the best examples of both at work: a constitution or monarch to preserve static Quality; and a parliament or congress to act as a Dynamic force – both as a creator of Dynamic Quality and destroyer of static Quality in the making of laws – what Pirsig calls a “Dynamic eraser”. According to Pirsig, such a system prohibits degeneracy from destroying the evolutionary gains made by a Dynamic institution or law or force of progress.


Instead of blaming capitalism for the evils of colonialism, Pirsig blames the static set of value patterns perpetuated by the Victorian social order. As such, “inferior societies” were a threat to such patterns. Justification for the slaughter and exploitation of aboriginal peoples was made on moral grounds, not necessarily on economic ones. Under the social moral order, one society can find justification for destroying or exploiting another to preserve itself. 

The free market is also part of the social moral order, but arguably stands on a higher moral ground than the morals espoused by colonialism. The free market seeks to benefit both sides because both sides attach value to the seller & the buyer, what is bought and what is sold – and therefore there is mutual respect between the two parties for the preservation of exchange to achieve mutual benefits. Where unfair trades are made, the free market ceases to exist because both parties have engaged in an unfair exchange and the reason for the breakage can be attributed to inferior social moral values (i.e. imperialism; racism; sexism). Voluntary labour is higher on the scale of the social moral order than slavery because the individual freely chooses and finds dignity in work, whereas slavery strips the individual of the dignity and benefits of work. 

What of the exchange of European alcohol for aboriginal goods? Was this capitalist enterprise not harmful to aboriginal societies? Again, this is a conflict between the social and the intellectual moral orders. The aboriginals only attached value to mass amounts of alcohol because they were losing everything in the inferior social order of colonialism, the subjugation of one society to another. Such subjugation would have happened with or without alcohol, but alcohol certainly made the subjugation of aboriginal groups easier. The intellectual moral order condemns subjugation, but can make no comment on the sale of alcohol – only the social moral can and in its eyes, the act of the sale of alcohol is not morally wrong in and of itself. It is more pertinent to examine the reasons why aboriginal groups felt the need to turn to drink. To ask any question about the capitalist enterprise misses the fundamental point of examining the inferior set of social morals that is imperialism.

There are whole lists of moral dilemmas that can be questioned here, but one has only to think of them in the context of Pirsig’s hierarchy of moral orders to make sense of them. It is sufficient to say that the colonialist enterprise was not guided by intellectual patterns of value and required Dynamic Quality to overthrow its static social patterns of value.


Pirsig makes an important distinct between philosophy, the act of thinking, and “philosophology”, the study of philosophers. According to him, the “best way to examine the contents of various [philosophers] is first to figure out what you believe and then see what philosophers agree with you (p. 372). In this way, you’ve already done your creative thinking and are not limited by any “dead-ends” in the philosopher’s thought. You are able to critically assess what the value of the philosopher’s words means to you and your world view.

He goes on to add that “real science and real philosophy are not guided by preconceptions of what subjects are important to consider” (p.375). As humans, we each attach value to the study of different subjects and objects as we please. When you think about it, it’s the only way that the study has any meaning and why progress in all fields is driven forward by individuals passionate about the subject, no matter how objective they say they are. We study philosophers because we care about philosophy, we care about having correct (for lack of a better word) perceptions of knowledge, reality and morality. We philosophize because we care about getting this body of knowledge straight before pursuing all the other forms of thought and fields of study.

That is perhaps the fundamental thing left out of education, after years of seeing fellow students not care about reading Plato or Aristotle or Machiavelli or Hobbes. Students have failed to find their world view in these particular philosophers. I have read these philosophers because I care about being cultured, about expanding my mind with their ideas and perhaps to find the perfect system of socio-political organization for the human race. Where other people may find him tiresome, I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books because I see a reflection of what the world could be like, irrespective of the physical differences between my world and Middle Earth. If you do not attach care to what you are learning, how can you be expected to learn anything at all? How can you expect to be enlightened?

Western society is so hell-bent on making sure our students are creative independent thinkers. Yet the education system, so static and cumbersome, does anything but foster that creativity. We are shown how to copy equations and they say we are “doing arithmetic”, we are told to copy chemical experiments and they tell us we are “scientists”, we are told what books to read and then told we are “cultured” and “literate”. What absurdity!

However, I do think there is one limitation on Pirsig’s view because sometimes you need to teach someone the basics before they can start delving into the complexities of quantum physics or what have you. But I do understand how you can pursue “education” so far and then get mired into the same dead-ends as your predecessors and get nowhere with the theories and problems of the day.

Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals – Part 1


It’s kind of hard to know where to start with penning my thoughts on Robert Pirsig’s sequel Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. I’ve read it like someone given water after wandering through the desert. It is perhaps fitting that my last post on this blog was on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and my thoughts here will simply be a continuation.

You will remember that I was disappointed that Pirsig mentioned little about morals in his first book. While this book certainly tackled those questions, it also appeared to be an elaboration on Pirsig’s philosophy, dubbed the “Metaphysics of Quality”.  I have chosen to organize my thoughts into three posts as I did last time, since each has a different purpose.

Metaphysics of Quality

Pirsig rejects the positivist school that seeks to create value-free sciences. Adopting the positivist approach has hampered the progress of studies like anthropology and social sciences that have spun around in circles and continued to contradict each other.  The simple reason is that positivism does not solve the metaphysical conundrum of dualisms: the objective and the subjective, the romantic and the classical, reason and values.

Pirsig’s newly minted philosophy, the Metaphysics of Quality, claims that values are not outside empirical experience, but part of those experiences. Values are in fact more empirical than subjects and objects themselves because it is needed a priori to understand subjects and objects. We do not pursue the study of objects and subjects unless we attach value to understanding them – that we find Quality in studying them. Therefore, you cannot empiricize values or morals by locating them in the brain, in the physical, as Descartes once tried to do.

For Pirsig, there is no distinction between Quality and morality. Quality is morality. Morality is thus the primary reality of world and the world is primarily a moral order. This conception thus allows for more than one set of truths or morals to exist.

Quality & its many names

Pirsig tackles four different concepts that are platypuses or platypi when it comes to understanding our reality: metaphysics, scientific reality, causation and substance. These are concepts that do not fall neatly within the realm of experience.

Pirsig has already tackled the platypus of metaphysics by noting Quality precedes all cognizance and perceptions of reality. He also debunks the “scientific reality” myth by saying that if it were true, no one but the scientists, physicists, chemists, etc. would know what reality is – which is an absurd conclusion. He notes that scientists are describing a static set of patterns of value concerning reality, but the patterns are not the whole of the reality that they describe.

He uses the Metaphysics of Quality to replace the word “causality” used by the sciences with “value”, preferring induction to deduction when studying the world. Absolute causes are simply very consistent patterns of value. Saying “A causes B” is the same as saying “B values precondition A”.

As for substance, we can only ever observe data, since substance stripped of properties calls nothing to mind. Substance is something continuous in time even if it has no observable properties. Substance is a subspecies of value, a pattern of inorganic values.  Since subatomic particles make up the whole universe and they are deemed substance, then they are also deemed a static pattern of value.

Thinking of causation and substance as synonymous with value allows the crossover application to other fields of knowledge that also involve value, albeit much more dynamic patterns of value.  In this way, the Metaphysics of Quality is able to provide much simpler, better explanations of patterns of value.

The discrete moral orders

Science is a study of stable inorganic and biological patterns of value. Anthropology and the social sciences study a network of social patterns of value. Political science is the study of intellectual patterns of value.

All life and everything in the world is an ethical activity for Pirsig, but these are governed by a hierarchy of orders of morality or “betterness”. Inorganic patterns are governed by the Laws of Nature – physics & chemistry. Biological patterns seeks to triumph over the inorganic and is governed by survival of the fittest. Social patterns rise above the biological and are governed by social institutions such as criminal law and the family. Intellectual patterns that seek to contain society are governed by philosophy and Dynamic Quality.

Therefore, “it’s more moral for a social pattern to devour a biological pattern than for a biological pattern to devour a social pattern” (p.252).

What about the age-old dilemma that asks whether one person should die for the good of society? Pirsig says the man is not just a biological creature, but also a source of thought, and therefore intellect and ideas. This is a case of intellectual moral versus social morals, where it is more ethical for an idea to kill a society (evolution) than for a society to kill an idea (devolution).

In modern society, the most common conflict between the hierarchy of moral orders are social versus intellectual. However, Pirsig notes that the intellectual moral order cannot control the biological moral order – only the social moral order can do so. In the instance of crime, it is not possible for philosophers to think crime out of existence, but rather have police officers, soldiers and/or social workers deal directly with biological crime.

Applications to personal life

I have been struggling of late with intellectual beasts and I have found myself utterly alone in such battles. The high country of my mind is as much a part of me as any part of my body. I love him with all my heart and I do my best to share everything I have and am with him. But in the realm of philosophy, he is not able to follow me down roads he does not fully understand. In his words, they “go over his head”.

There was a line in the book that struck me as I was wrestling with this problem after the scene where Phaedrus and Lila make love: “the way their bodies paid no attention to all their social and intellectual differences and had gone on in as if these ‘people’ that ‘owned’ them didn’t exist at all”.

No person is an island. He grounds me in a way that is necessary to my understanding of life, not just from the intellectual point of view, but also the biological, the social and the artistic. When you’re wandering in the high country of the mind, it is so easy to get lost. You spend so much time looking at the stars that you forget you’re firmly rooted to the Earth. Then, you come back to civilization and you are bitter about ever having to leave the rugged beauty and mystery of the philosopher’s world.

He is something to come back to. He is a noun, like the Good. He is neither subjective nor objective, neither classic nor romantic, neither static nor dynamic. He simply is and all those dualisms are bound up in him.

Qui es veritas?

Throughout the book, Pirsig is obsessed with the notion of Dynamic Good. But Dynamic Good is not the same as Dynamic Quality. Dynamic Quality is some combination of Dynamic good and static good. Dynamic good cannot achieve a high level without being grounded in static good, through static latching as moral evolution progresses. Static patterns and static goods provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect leaps made through Dynamic Good (Dynamic Quality) from degeneration.

Going back to the original intent of the blog, perhaps the real question for this blog should not be “What is Truth?” but “What is Quality?” – and Quality as such cannot be defined, it precedes thought, we just know what it is a priori. As he notes: “Truth is a static intellectual pattern within a larger entity called “Quality” (p.416). “Value” is more direct, more everyday experience – the primary empirical experience (p.418). In whatever field of knowledge we are invested in, we have to ask “What is the Quality of this idea?”

Contribute a Verse

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1892)

Copernican Revolutions


Finally finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and this will likely be my last reflection.  Strangely, Pirsig barely skims the surface of ethics in the remaining chapters of book.  I have found out there is a sequel to the book called Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals which tackles the subject. However, there is also a line in the book that seems to dismiss ethics as a minor branch of knowledge.  Pirsig seems quite obsessed with metaphysics, though perhaps the sequel may indicate otherwise.

I have noticed the high value that Pirsig has attached to individualism throughout the book. Take for instance the following excerpt:

I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with the talk of relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value. – Chapter 25, p.267

The high value placed on individual self-improvement and understanding of his or her reality is interesting. If the individual cannot understand how to attach quality, value and care to the discovery of facts, they cannot effectuate larger changes. They cannot “think outside the box”, not in a creative or logical sense, but in the sense of pushing the boundaries and limits of our own knowledge. What he calls the “Copernican Revolution”. Being able to turn our world upside-down and see the facts from a  different angle or different angles to get a better understanding of the truth.

And we as humans, derive a certain sense of satisfaction from breaking the barrier of existing knowledge or achieving a new field of knowledge on our own. The only problem is that the former can easily and dangerously be perceived as insanity in light of existing knowledge. Learning how to fix a motorcycle does not break barriers as momentously as breaking the barriers of reality itself, as Pirsig discovers.

This is how he arrives at value rigidity, or stuckness. To a certain extent, the modern Copernicus must be prepared to throw out old schools of thought and start with a blank slate. Most people are too afraid to let go of conventional thoughts, but Pirsig argues there is a certain freedom that occurs when we are able to break away and save ourselves from value rigidity. It is the dilemma of Plato’s cave (as much as Pirsig hates the man, the analogy is apt here): leaving the shackles to walk out into the blinding sun of enlightenment. Aristotle also repeats this notion when he says that it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it. However, even the most intelligent man on earth still runs the risk of not being able to differentiate between the love of the pursuit of wisdom and the love of wisdom itself. The word “philosophy” becomes a clumsy word in this regard.

If he does not praise ethics, he does bring up the concept of value. We attain peace of mind which in turn helps us to “get things right”. If we were purely empirical beings, we would not attach any value to the discovery of facts. As he describes, it would simply be a train of knowledge sitting there statically, objectively. The interaction between subject and object is important to producing Quality. He regards Quality as dynamic and that it is driven by care, or value, to move forward. The train picks up steam as the value increases through the discovery of more facts and the individual’s investment in them as contributing to some greater harmony of reality.

I have also discovered why Pirsig refuses to equate Quality with Truth as the “source of all things” – reality itself. It is an aversion to the founders of Western philosophy, Plato and Aristotle. They both characterize Truth as fixed, immobile and therefore objective. There is no dependence on the subject-object phenomenon described by Pirsig. They think Truth can be discovered rationally, wrapped up and filed away in the cabinets of our mind, to be pulled out now and then in moments of doubt like a ritual.

At the same time, the author seems to concede that they contribute meaningfully to Western thought, but that the interpretation of their work has set philosophers down the wrong path indeterminately in terms of thinking about Quality (or Truth in my own understanding) as precedent to creative and logical thought. Perhaps the author is a little narcissistic to think that he has unravelled the whole of Western thought, but I believe he suffers from some hindsight bias.

The end of the book leaves me somewhat disappointed for some reason. Perhaps it’s his attack on Aristotle. Perhaps it’s the fact that the author finally devolves into insanity. Perhaps he didn’t actually explain everything as he hoped. There are certainly some life lessons about learning, education and teaching here. Also some interesting ways to think about reality beyond the objective-subjective, classical-romantic divide. Either way, my thirst for philosophy does not end here, but I will continue to read such books to understand myself, my universe, and my reality better.

Pirsig and Puzzle Pieces


I continue with Pirsig who outlines another aspect of Truth, or Quality. He says that Quality and Care are internal and external aspects of the same thing. You demonstrate your understanding of quality by caring about it. Though I have never read him, Pirsig brings in Poincare’s work to explain it. He says that the contradictions in mathematical theories at all, but different forms of measurement to explain the same concepts, like the metric and imperial systems, or the Mercator and Gall-Peter and Hobo-Dyer projections of world maps.

We choose ways of understanding the facts which are more advantageous, or rather fit into the harmony of other concepts. If we had infinite time, we could sit there and explore all the evidence and facts, but we are finite beings, so we must invest ourselves (i.e. care) about certain facts over others. We are selective with our facts, in the same way when we put a puzzle together. Only in the case of the universe, we are talking about an extremely giant puzzle or a set of giant puzzles with the pieces all scattered. We only choose pieces that fit, that seem to go with colours and shapes (i.e. past experience) of knowledge seekers before us.

This does not mean our facts are subjective because we are choosing certain facts to suit our own purpose. Since Quality and Care precede and cause creativity and logic, our minds have an a priori way of organizing facts that conform to our sense of quality and care.

Pirsig is also astute in noting that the “moment of care” or the moment of crystallization of certain concepts occurs at odd times. If we were purely rational beings, we would be like computers, constantly taking in information and comparing it against known data. The flash of inspiration, or crystallization moment, occurs when we have all the necessary and advantageous facts and then something triggers our understanding to figure out the missing piece or solution.

It’s also interesting to see this element of “care” introduced. It is not a synonym for emotion at all! The closest description I can give to it, even as something undefinable in the first place according to Pirsig, is the sense of satisfaction that an individual has when he has accomplished something or learned something. Like the author’s learning and investment in troubleshooting motorcycle machinery problems.

For him, technophobia or fear of technology comes from our absence of care. We don’t understand how it works and therefore, do not feel invested in its maintenance. People who dislike philosophy dislike it for the simple reason that it is too complex and therefore, they are disinclined to pursue it. They don’t have the patience or zen to think about the meaning of life or the existence of God even though they are very important questions given man’s mortality. Or they have seen what happens to philosophers who pursue those questions and see that they have made little progress thus far or been driven to madness. Or their personal experience with religion has somehow disappointed them.

I wonder if care can be equated with morality, but it seems more of an empirical construction than an a priori one. It is the difference between good and bad and right and wrong. Perhaps there is a third aspect to join Quality and Care. Perhaps Quality and Care will produce the third which precedes the romantic and classical split.

I suppose the next part of the book may try to explain these things. What exactly triggers crystallization remains a mystery to me, though Pirsig seems to have just left it at “care” at this point in the book. That is, we are invested in certain facts and we are bent on finding a solution to make the whole machinery of thought work. Or maybe he will tackle morality, which seems to plague 20th century philosophers and is the third branch of philosophy (it is known as Ethics). He has already covered epistemology and metaphysics. Whatever the following chapters harbor (and there are few left!), I am eager to see what else I can learn and apply to my own understanding of Truth.

2014 Reading Challenge

I have promised myself to read 20 books this year. I read 15 last year and thought it might be reasonable to push myself to read a bit more this week, now that I am no longer in school. Here are some of the books on my shelf waiting for my 2014 self to start and/or finish them:

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
  2. Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
  3. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  4. Reflections on the French Revolution by Edmund Burke
  5. Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. Margaret Thatcher: The Autobiography
  8. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter
  9. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  10. Every Nation For Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World by Ian Bremmer
  11. The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper, 2006 – by Paul Wells
  12. Human Action by Ludwig Von Mises
  13. The Tamuli  by David Eddings
  14. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  15. The Elenium by David Eddings
  16. Fearful Symmetry: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Founding Values by Brian Lee Crowley
  17. Return of the Native by Thomas Harding
  18. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  19. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  20. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka