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zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, universal explanations, robert pirsig, metaphysical quality

Question the Premises of Society and Science

Author: Gwydion

Written December, 1991.

Question the ultimate validity of the basic premises of society, in particular, scientific theory. Do not accept concepts or statements as truthful simply due to weight of tradition or learned opinion. The synthesis of these statements is a healthy skepticism of the accepted.

This idea is especially important to me in the realm of science. Science seeks universal explanations for all things - events and objects. Robert Pirsig has shown, through Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that ultimate explanations and universals exist. They are created and maintained by the unchanging metaphysical Quality that creates all interaction between subjects and objects. The problem is that, where it is possible to see the Quality, the true nature of things, in their interaction, the conceptualization of that very Quality is itself clouded by several things. First, one's perceptions are inaccurate to an indefinite degree. (One can never know how inaccurate because we could only measure such things with other senses which are also inaccurate.) Secondly, as soon as one perceives the Quality, one submits it to one's own storehouse of knowledge and categorization. The true nature of something's Quality is seen only for a short time before being transformed by preconceptions and expectations. Pirsig calls this short time before Quality is intellectualized, one's pre-intellectual awareness.

The problem scientists face, myself included, is that, as Pirsig says, they have the most difficult time seeing the Quality in its pre-intellectual form. Scientists are adept at instantaneously intellectualizing everything, generally discounting the pre-intellectual Quality as an "unimportant transition point between objective reality and the subjective interpretation of it." (p222) Consider the scientific method. Simplistically, it's purpose and method is to predict, hypothesize and explain the world based upon observation. This observation is, in particular, one's perception of the Quality linking the observed and the observer. Would it not be most beneficial to observe the true nature of things, their Quality, without preconceptions attached? Because those who hypothesize and delve into the rhelms of science, due to their intellectual skill, so often either cannot see Quality of discount it, it follows that much of what is scientific "knowledge" today is possibly a superficial understanding completely or partially wrong.

How can this be so? How can our functioning society be based on wrong scientific concepts? The concepts we posses may be accurate to our current ability to test them or understand that which they describe. Because we might not see the true Quality defining the scientific principles, we may be only understanding a small aspect of a concept that is really transcendental. To refer to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig relates how the life of a scientific theory is inversely proportional to the intensity of scientific effort. As scientific effort increases, people continually "discover" new and better theories to explain occurrences. What they are actually doing is slowly moving closer to a universal expiation defined by Quality itself, only they approach it by testing the infinitude of hypothesis provided by reason (as per Phaedrus' law of infinite hypothesis). Obviously, without being able to fully perceive the underlying Quality, the likelihood of discovering the ultimate truth is infinitely small. An example of this supplanting of hypotheses is as follows: Newton, regarded as the perfect scientist for centuries, whose words were law, had 'discovered' a theory explaining gravity as a force based upon an inverse square law (the force of gravity on a object is proportional to the reciprocal of the square of the distance between the objects and directly proportional to the product of their masses). This law explained everything observable and experiencable to incredible accuracy until the late nineteenth century. In the beginning of our century, Einstein, with his General Theory of Relativity, redefined gravity as not a force but a bend in the fabric of the universe. His theory supplanted Newton's through increased accuracy and explanation of much that Newton's theory did not (but were not known of until recently). Centuries of people thought Newton's theory of gravity was indisputable as many do of Einstein's now; these theories, not really laws, simply reflect the best effort to explain nature to date and are by no means necessarily correct. Therefore, one should be somewhat as Socrates and question the findings even those who seem most wise.

This concept of general skepticism is very close to Plato's theory of forms, the forms being the Quality defined universals. Although, through dialectic reasoning, one could never come to fully understand these forms because one works solely with intellectualized concepts (the classical structure of ideas)and intellectual wordplay. Rhetoric, which encompasses both the rational and irrational parts (the romantic reaction to surface appearance of things) of the mind has a much greater chance of seeing the Quality inherent in something than dialectic - whether Plato will ever admit it or not. Ultimately, whatever method of searching is used, the potential for achieving truth will depend upon the receptiveness of the seeker's mind to the underlying Quality of things - not solely their structure or surface appearance. To see, the seeker must suspend judgement, suspend preconception.

Aristotle understood that ultimate truths could only come through observation. He formed his hypothesis though the synthesis of known concepts and observations (to hopefully eliminate the erroneous ones and merge the half-truths) to achieve the best answer to problems such as morality. Many other philosopher's theories and observations are based to differing degrees upon their own preconceptions interfering with the Quality of that which they discuss. Rousseau believed that the pre-intellectual state (where man lacked reason and thus could not intellectualize observation) was best for mankind. In retrospect, in this state, man would have the clearest view of the Quality inherent in everything. He would see the world in ways no longer possible, only, lacking reason, he could never apply this knowledge to purposes other than the knowledge itself (which, Rousseau held, would prevent all forms of vice and strife). Kant's synthetic and analytic a priori concepts can be viewed as an attempt to categorize and define the ultimate relations between things defined by Quality. To be a priori, the concept must be defined before experience. Quality is the only entity that defines all other concepts before experience. Kant's list of a priori concepts, then, reflects his understanding of the ultimate nature of the universe (which may or may not have been complete). The Freudian conceptions of id, ego and superego and their relation to the self and society can also be seen as simply the expression of Freud's perception of the Quality defining the inner and social workings of mankind - by nature an incredibly complex subject. Obviously, understanding the nature of Quality in the workings of the world and observation is essential to any form for scientific or philosophic inquiry. Through this knowledge, one can also better analyze and accept of refute the conceptions of others. One can also see why those who are younger are often more perceptive of Quality than those who have more experience; The younger have fewer preconceptions affecting their observations and judgement.

While it is necessary to at least conditionally accept that which we think we know as valid to function in the world, we must realize, and I am beginning to, that all which we believe to be veracious man not be. "Keeping and open mind" has a very literal and real meaning in perceiving the Quality in the universe. I must be willing and unreserved to accept that which I first see - pre-intellectualy (to the extent personally possible - even if it is only the awareness of Quality). Only this way can I move closer to understanding Quality and being a more effective and enlightened person.

The following works were influential on this writing:

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig, Bantam Books, 1974.

  • The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, Oxford University Press, 1980.

  • Great Dialogs of Plato, Penguin Books, 1984.

  • A Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Penguin Books, 1986.

  • Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1950.

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