An Inquiry into Robert Pirsig’s Works Part I: Notes on Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

Robert Pirsig is responsible for the best selling philosophy book of all time Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values and his much less read follow-up Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Much has been written on his ideas, including many an undergraduate dissertation. They had a huge influence on me in developing my ideas about spiritual materialism. Over a couple of posts, taking each book in turn, originally written a couple of years ago, I present what I think he is trying to say and you can see how my ideas developed.

The thesis of Pirsig’s first book is that there is a problem that internal reality, the landscape of the mind, has been divided by humans into what is ‘good’ (subjective quality) and what is ‘true’ (objective knowledge). Following this division people have been divided into:

1) those who see what is Good as more important worship it as the source of all things; if defined it is called The Way (The Dao)/Braman/The One/God/Good, not only a religious idea but the thing all religions point to, the mysterious thing all religions some to be getting at but can’t quite pinpoint. What is True is often seen as Not Good and can be dismissed if it does not fit with Good. It is only argued why True does or does not fit with Good so much because True dominates modern culture. (The Zeitgeist is represented as a mythos train, a phrase appropriate to this blog!) And if it cannot be dismissed it is feared or reviled.

2) those who see what is True as more important and ‘worship’ it as the source of all things, the Good is seen as not True and is dismissed as shallow, whimsy or delusion or not objectively in existence or relegated to the subjects or aesthetics or ethics, subordinate to subjects which discover what is True.

This is not necessarily original and life-changing, Pirsig has not really discovered something new, but the book’s main use is in helping understand people in general, and particularly the two types of people understanding the other. I’m putting aside the criticisms valid of any such simple dichotomy and I found it especially helpful for understanding religious believers. To his credit since it is the best selling philosophy book it may be because Pirsig’s ideas are now so much integrated into modern culture that it seems obvious. Similar ideas are also expressed in the highly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. The reason for my excitement is that it helped me to collect a lot of disparate thoughts. I realise that I’m seeing what I want to see based on my line of thought, rather than Pirsig was necessarily writing to answer my questions; I’m reading things into it and now I’m using it to my own ends, but it gave me a vocabulary to use for things I’ve previously thought and never felt I’ve expressed well. Here’s my attempt to do so.

This ‘Quality’ is not the source of all things in terms of an external reality (i.e. a Truth/Fact), if it was science would probably have something to say about it, especially if, as Pirsig hints and believers believe, humans can detect it. Quality is the source of all things of an internal reality (of course neuroscience tries to discover the reality of thoughts caused by brain states in the human mind, but I’ll get to that). ‘Internal reality’ is not meant to suggest something non-material, but tries to describe how people feel; the internal, subjective reality of the human mind. The brain and brain states have no qualitative difference from any other part of reality from an objective perspective, but from a subjective perspective I hope it is intuitive what is meant by internal reality. To use platitudes: What is Good other than what fits well into our subjective, internal reality? What is True other than what fits into external reality as revealed by science? How I would bridge the dichotomy would be less grandiose than Pirsig: How we judge what is True, in scientific theory and scientific application, still involves use of internal reality – a sense of what is Good, some ideas just seem ‘right’, as do some practices (think of the tinkering engineer). Accepting this ‘rightness’ should also mean that what is True is also Good, at least it is to a scientist or mathematician, the correct knowledge of what is True guides our feeling of what is ‘right’, there is no need for a choice between them. (The words ‘True’ and ‘Good’ are close to other dichotomies such as ‘intuitive’ and ‘rational’ or ‘Art’ and ‘Science’, but not quite interchangeable with them.)

In this sense I think Pirsig is wrong when he tries to claim there is something that precedes object and subject, Quality does not precede ‘Truth’, it is not the source of external reality (as the religious claim), but it precedes ‘Good’ as when, in meditation, one tries to cultivate a state of mind which precedes judgment, or subjective thought.

Human mental life is the interface between internal subjective reality and external objective reality, this (I think) is Pirsig’s Quality, a combination of what is Good and what is True, the reality of just being a human being. The mistake all religions make is that there is an external reality (by which I mean some supernatural reality, rather than the natural/material reality they are part of) that they can become a part of rather than one that they can only study for what is subjectively Good using their internal reality. Therefore, believers feel they have to deny scientific materialism to preserve subjective experiences; some external reality is denied or ignored for the sake of internal reality. The mistake atheists make (or at least how it appears to believers) is that in the eagerness to deny a non-material reality they dismiss the importance of looking after internal reality of subjective experience, something that neuroscience and psychology are bringing ever more into the realm of objective evidence. Hence also believers deny that non-believers can have this sense of ‘Good’ (because to them ‘Good’ is ‘god’) either in morals or aesthetics, or their sense is undeveloped. Again, I stress I’m not trying to promote dualism when I talk of internal and external realities, but just discuss the sense that humans have that there are two types of things (consciousness and matter), by using ‘internal reality’ I’m trying to show the mind of what it is: a label for a very localised part of reality.

What we are starting to see is the objective study of internal realities (the science of the art, the Truth of Good) and the secular development of the practices (the art based on the science, cultivating the Good without compromising understanding of Truth). I find the current research very exciting and looking forward to this growing more and more.

I’m not convinced, as Pirsig is, that the division between subject/object and True/Good is a historical one due to Aristotle disparaging rhetoric as the foundations of Western culture but more likely represents universal human psychology – different areas of the brain process emotion and imagination and process complex reasoning. A non-believer knows the source of all things is not an extra-external reality, there is no god, but should acknowledge there is Good to be cultivated internally and applied externally by what the Greeks called arête. As usual with Greek terms this is hard to define but is usually, roughly, translated as excellence i.e. living life to the full, or virtue i.e. living life well and probably best comes across as both; a life of excellent, virtuous quality. One practice cited to do both, to improve personal well-being and good behaviour toward others, is mediation; and its comparative look at the use of meditation and other practices that bring about transcendent experiences make a good case study of what has been stated above: Mediation has been described as to become One with Oneself, to become One with the universe, with the Braman, to become One with god or to lose one’s sense of self. My reading of Zen & The Art of Motorcycle helped form a hunch is that it is not about becoming one with an external reality (obviously), but calling together disparate mental energies and dismissing distracting thoughts to become ‘One’ with one’s own internal reality (or you could say the immediate external reality of the brain and brain states). Although limited, my survey of recent scientific studies of meditation, which I discuss elsewhere, seem to be converging on the same idea, (perhaps bearing out my ‘scientific intuition’). In Eastern religions people who mediate feel they become one with themselves (a singular internal reality); in Western religion those who worship feel they become one with the congregation (a shared internal reality). If ‘shared internal reality’ sounds like telepathy or similar consider a fictional story two people have read, they can discuss in with one another because they have a shared internal reality from the interaction of the story with their thoughts and imaginations and each other (like we are hopefully doing right now), but the stories created to explain these spiritual experiences are just-so stories, Good rather than True.

Both worship and meditation are called ‘arts’ or ‘virtues’, they are ways of experiencing the feeling of being outside of oneself and joining with the external reality, when actually it is more like observing oneself not ‘from the outside’ as it can seem subjectively (which doesn’t mean anything to a materialist), but by becoming aware of one’s internal reality. To put it another way mediation and worship, and perhaps ritual too, are ways of looking after one’s internal reality. This might be why believers are consistently reported to be happier than non-believers, because they are schooled in looking after their subjective experience and being finely tuned to changes in it. As you may know much of Buddhist philosophy involves exactly this tending to your emotional life.

As I said the main use of the book is understanding people (I think I could argue that as the main use of life, mine at least) and when trying to get in people’s heads, particularly believers (usually Christians) I try to keep the concept of Quality in my mind a see how they might be viewing things subjectively and accepting or rejecting things and statements not because of their Truth, but because of their Good.


– The Spiritual Materialist


4 thoughts on “An Inquiry into Robert Pirsig’s Works Part I: Notes on Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

  1. Pingback: An Inquiry into Robert Pirsig’s Works Part II: Notes on Lila: An Inquiry into Morals | The Spiritual Materialist

  2. Pingback: Science & Values: Is Spiritual Materialism Reductionism or Scientism? | The Spiritual Materialist

  3. Pingback: Science & Values: Is Spiritual Materialism Reductionism or Scientism? | The Spiritual Materialist

  4. Pingback: Religion, Sex & Personality | The Spiritual Materialist

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