Although Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sometimes feels like an existential crisis book for baby boomers, it does surface themes and questions which evoke good conversation and deep thought. One of the most compelling themes I found was that of reality building. Throughout the book, characters face experiences that crack, and sometimes shatter, their reality. This conflict is first introduced as the tension between two schools of thought, classical and romantic. What starts as a discussion of the merits of maintaining one’s motorcycle by oneself, evolves into an observation on the shortcomings of Western thought to reconcile personal reality with observable phenomena.
It’s the objectivity, the dualistic way of looking at things underlying technology, that produces the evil.
Pirsig’s separation of the “classical” way of scientific and technical thinking from the “romantic” world of artistic ( and in a way, more humanizing ) thought is one of the underpinnings of the whole book. His obsession with the undefinable Quality is a journey to unite these two worlds and raises questions about why they seem so distant. He describes the classical world view as one of intellectual sterility, dehumanizing in the sense that it has no room for emotion, breaking down the immediate appearance something–be it a motorcycle, an idea, or reality itself–into its underlying form.
When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.
As part of his Chautauquas on classical thought, Pirsig dives into the idea of reality building, stating of those who venture into what he calls “irrational areas of thought”: “…feel the inadequacy of classical reason to handle what they know are real experiences” (page 152). This begs the question, how can breaking something down to its parts inadequately describe its sum? For those whose reality is built upon a romantic school of thought, exposing the underlying form of an idea or an object obscures reality instead of shining light on its nature. This is exemplified by the anecdote of John getting exasperated when his motorcycle’s engine fails to start:
It was an intrusion on his reality. It just blew a hole right through his whole groovy way of looking at things and he would not face up to it because it seemed to threaten his whole life style. In a way he was experiencing the same sort of anger scientific people have sometimes about abstract art, or at least used to have. It didn’t fit their lifestyle either.
What classical reasoning fails to do is provide a meaningful “why” to the questions which it provides the answers. Breaking down a motorcycle into a collection of parts and systems does little to explain why someone would want to own a motorcycle in the first place, let alone be interested in maintaining one. As human beings, we are constantly searching for evidence and explanations which maintain consistency within our personal and shared mythos. As we experience the linear passage of time, we are trying to stitch together a coherent story which we can use to reason about our reality. Early mythology is a great example of this happening on a societal level. How do you explain the phenomenon of the sun rising every morning and setting every evening? You construct a narrative based on the reality which you experience. For the ancient Greeks, this meant a chariot being driven across the sky containing the sun.
Exposing underlying form with the knife of objectivity does not provide the narrative foundation to build and expand our personal reality. Instead, it gives us the abstraction tools needed to describe observed phenomena and construct new paths of thought. Using classical thought, we can know that it is not Helios driving the sun in a chariot across the sky that causes it to rise and set, but rather the rotation of the earth. In this case, the knife kills the myth and its associated mysteries ( what would happen if we angered the gods? Could Helios be commanded to stop driving the chariot, leaving us in everlasting darkness or light? ) and presents an infinite number of questions and hypotheses to take its place. Objectivity strips the mysticism from the fact that the earth rotates on its axes. Objective thinking does not contain any inherent moral or narrative value, nor does it embody any sort of grander ideal, making it seem boring to some and inconsistent to others.
For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.
Classical thinking’s ability to rapidly shape reality through chipping away at the infinite hypotheses for every fact can be–depending on the philosophical framework of your reality–the distillation of truth or a shifting tide ready to sweep you away into a sea of confusion and self doubt. The idea that scientific method (embodied by classical thinking) is inherently “value free”–meaning that there are no morals to be derived from scientific discovery and progress–further illustrates the duality of classical thought. Take an advance like the Haber Process, whereby ammonium is synthesized from hydrogen and nitrogen; this led to fertilizers which feed millions of people today, but also provided materials for the munitions needed by Germany’s army during the first World War. The process of synthesizing ammonium itself is not good nor evil. It can be a means to a good or evil end, but the knowledge itself, and the technology responsible for its existence lay outside moral frameworks.
everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided.
Everyone carries with them the scaffolding to construct their reality. This scaffolding is made up of lived experiences, opinions, religious persuasions ( or lack thereof ), and is firmly attached to the reality it helps to expand through our internal mythos. For those whose ability to reason about and construct their reality is rooted in the idea of absolutes, the objectivity of classical thought can be destabilizing. Enshrining certain ideas as absolute truths places your reality on a collision course with the observable universe. As infinite hypotheses are continually being tested, you will be forced to re-evaluate what you thought you knew. At this point of confrontation, your reality has been ripped at its seams and you must choose whether you will expand it to incorporate new evidence, or you will mend the tear by reinforcing your existing viewpoint.
The idea that our reality is continuously facing cracks and fractures is one that Western thought may not be well suited to address. We like to believe in our personal narrative, an individual mythos which offers a linear view of our life’s experiences. Pirsig is confronted with the dichotomy of linear personal narrative and ever changing reality when he embarks on his failed pilgrimage in India:
He never reached the mountain. After the third day he gave up, exhausted, and the pilgrimage went on without him…. He regarded himself as the fixed entity, not the pilgrimage or the mountain, and thus wasn’t ready for it.
When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
Technology, and the underlying classical thought that advances it, allows us to test more and more hypotheses–leading to more and more situations where one’s reality comes in conflict with what we are able to observe. This places us in a position where we must either expand our reality at a dizzying rate, or become more and more devoted to the dogmas and ideologies we now see in doubt given the increased observational abilities afforded to us by technology. It is this conflict that runs throughout the book: the Sutherlands seeming aversion to technology, the Church of Reason, the quest for Quality. All are examples of the friction that arises from the intersection of hyper observability and the desire for cohesive, linear personal narrative.
Our society is driven by the technology produced through classical thought; but often we are unequipped to shape and reshape our reality according to the phenomena we are able to observe. For Pirsig, this drove him to search out Quality as the source of all truth. The quest for purity drove Phaedrus out of the societal mythos and into insanity, and lead to narrator Pirsig admitting to chasing his ghost. By illustrating this conflict, the book allows readers to focus on where they might be fighting against their own reality.