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

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


I have been reading Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I had been warned previously that the book spouted some leftist nonsense, but the people who had told me are guilty of their own ideological hackery. I have found nothing of the sort thus far, though am just about halfway through the book.

High Country of the Mind

The author had a few turns of phrase, almost prose, which I liked. The sort of thing that I do in my blog, the exploration of higher orders of thought, Pirsig calls the “high country of the mind”. Similar to travelling to the countryside or to a remote area or to a mountain in Pirsig’s book, your mind is travelling to higher orders of thought away from the tumult of everyday thoughts. In essence, you enter the world of philosophy and philosophizing.

Pirsig says not many people come up to the high country of the mind. Those who do sometimes get lost or confused (i.e. mental illness, explaining the eccentricities and sometimes madness of some philosophers). Some may never come back because there is no civilization there to help you back. You are essentially following trains of thought where no one has been before. Like the countryside, it is a treacherously beautiful part of the mind.

Maintenance of the Mind

I think there is a subtle comparison between the maintenance of a motorcycle and the maintenance of your mind through philosophy. He says anyone who is interested in learning about or improving their motorcycle to make sure it runs better and “feels right” must have a peaceful state of mind when working on the machine.

I think a parallel line of thought can be drawn for philosophizing, to understand and invest yourself in the understanding of how your mind, your existence, your consciousness and your reality works. You have to have a certain state of mind, like zen for lack of a better word. For myself, the higher orders of thought come more often when I have the time to think, usually spurred by something I’ve read or something I’ve seen or a moment of reflection on past life experiences when I’m writing in my journal.

The Romantic & The Classical

I like how he divides the world into two meta-concepts about the human mind: the romantic and the classical. The romantic approach sees the beauty of things in and of themselves, like an appreciation for the outward appearance of a motorcycle in the book. The classical approach appreciates the underlying form of things (remember Plato?), such as the mechanics and moving parts of the motorcycle’s machine. Pirsig seems to think that the whole of philosophy is bent on reconciling these two concepts, which are constantly at war with each other. Beatniks & squares, art & science, right & left, soul & mind.

My own thoughts on the subject are that the brain is already structured to harmonize both aspects.  They are not meant to be split up or favour one over the other, though sometimes it is easier for people of simpler minds. Your mind is capable of harmonizing the creative soul with logical reason. You reach your full potential by exercising both. Probably what Aristotle meant by being virtuous, I suppose.

Quality & Truth

Pirsig, or rather the first person character, also struggles with the notion of Quality. He posits that defining Quality puts it under the analytical knife because there is no rational or creative way to approach it, since it is precedes rational thought and creative thought. He brings in Kant to explain it as a priori knowledge, like time and space (although Kant himself is a slave of reason). He also proves that we know what Quality is when we see it. That’s how we know it exists. We can make value judgments that something is better than another thing. Quality itself is neither subjective nor objective, but perhaps a third entity unto itself used to understand the real world.

In this blog, I know Quality by another name: Truth. In my first blog post, I asked whether truth was subjective or objective and whether it was rational. I think Pirsig answers the question so far in his book. But the other questions in my post, those remain to be answered. Perhaps not by Pirsig, but there is still half a book to read. It is nonetheless discouraging to know that the first person character went crazy in the pursuit of understanding the concept of Quality and now refers to the ghost of his philosopher as Phaedrus.

Concluding Thought

I have no intention of stumbling into madness in the pursuit of Truth, however much I may be intellectually tired and disturbed by the burden of philosophical questions and answers. Perhaps enlightenment of what the truth is will be a lifelong endeavor. I am prepared to wait for all the pieces to fall into place. I rather enjoy my escapes to the high country and hope there are many more trips to come.