Book Review:  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

A YouTuber explaining why he was a philosophy major posed the following question.  How can we be sure with absolute certainty that one plus one equals two?  I suppose I’m a pragmatist.  To me the question seemed akin to asking a pilot how he can have absolute certainty that he’ll be able to land an airplane safely once he’s taken it aloft.  The answer, of course, is that he can’t be one hundred percent sure, but he can be reasonably sure.  So much so that the risk is worth the reward.  If you’re a pragmatist like me perhaps it’s best that you stop reading now and save yourself some time.  But if you’re interested in philosophical questions about the nature of reality you might want to go further. 

Why did I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?  I was under duress.  As a college student I’d have happily limited my academic studies to science and my recreational reading to science fiction.  But the powers that be decreed otherwise.  They believed that in order to produce well rounded graduates physics majors should study a smattering of the humanities.  In my final semester I discovered that I was short a general education class so I enrolled in beginning philosophy.  The associate professor teaching the course was very young and idealistic.  Our class was small and he asked us to arrange our desks in a circle.  There was to be no hiding in the back of the room.   

On day one he gave the class a true or false quiz that asked all sorts of seemly unrelated questions about, well about life, the universe and everything.  After we finished and put down our pencils he informed us that while there was more than one way to answer the questions only a graduate lever philosophy student could answer them all without contradiction.  Looking back on it I suppose his point was there is more than one school of philosophy.   But even so this aversion to self contradiction stuck me as odd.  As humans we are all in a state of growth and so some some degree of inner conflict should not only be expected but welcome.  Walt Whitman said it best in his poem Song of Myself.  “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

After this the professor gave us our assigned reading. Prominent on the list was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM), a fictionalized autobiography by someone named Robert M. Pirsig.  I picked up a copy at the campus bookstore.  The blurb on the back proudly proclaimed that ZMM was the world’s all time best selling philosophy book with, I don’t know, I think it said fifty million copies in print.  This may sound like an impassive figure but even fifty million pales to insignificance when you consider that McDonalds has sold over ninety-nine billion hamburgers.  In any case I began to read.  The story started off promisingly enough.  With a ghost in hot, and his little boy hanging on for dear life, Pirsig was riding his motorcycle across America.  So far so good.  Not one for modesty Pirsig didn’t waste any time before stating flat out that he was considerably more than your average run of the mill super duper smart guy.  With an I.Q. of 170 on the Stanford-Binet he was a certified one-in-fifty-thousand genius.  And having completed his first year of University at the tended age of 15 in the demanding field of molecular biology he was a shoe-in for the much coveted Doogie Howser M.D. Child Prodigy Award.  Just like Marvin, the depressed robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Pirsig had a brain the size of a planet. 

But who says birds-of-a-feather-flock-together? Although dazzlingly brilliant by anyone’s standards Pirsig’s friends were dimwitted and gullible beyond belief.   Over dinner Pirsig asserted that since gravity existed long before Isaac Newton formulated the Law of Universal Gravitation it followed that Newton hadn’t actual invented anything.  Newton wasn’t a great scientist at all.  He was nothing but a charlatan!  But, Pirsig’s friends wanted to know, if Newton was indeed a quack why did so many people believe him to be a great man?  Pirsig explained that the Law of Gravity was just another silly superstition and that eurocentric teachers used eye contact to hypnotize their unsuspecting students into believing it.  Why the deception?  It was all to reenforce the alleged superiority of western thought and values. Why those crafty white males were at it again trying to make themselves out to be better than others!   It was however ironic that such a nefarious ruse was exposed by Pirsig who was, you guessed it, a white dude!  But no matter.  Pirsig’s friends were stupefied in the face of such overwhelming smartness. 

I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  Was this some sort of joke? It had to be!   But no, my fellow classmates were lapping it up like ravenous kittens over a bowl of cream.  To them Pirsig made perfect sense and as I questioned them further I discovered why.  They didn’t know anything at all about Newton or physics.  They thought that Sir Isaac had been sitting under a tree one fine day when he was hit on the head by a falling apple and simply assigned the word ‘gravity’ to explain what had just happened.  End of story, that was the sum total of Newton’s contribution to human thought. 

For a guy like me with an ordinary sized brain challenging a man such as Pirsig with his super-sized brain is the equivalent of Pee Wee Herman climbing into the ring with Muhammad Ali.  But even so I couldn’t hold myself back.   I feel about the Law of Gravity the way another man might feel about the music of Mozart.   To equate Newton’s work to the superstitions of a primitive preliterate culture is akin to saying that Leonardo da Vinci created the Mona Lisa by using a paint by numbers kit. 

The law of gravitation uplifts me and I can’t understand why others don’t enjoy it as much as I do so I took it upon myself to enlighten my classmates.   This is how I explained it. 

One day in the year 1666 Isaac Newton was walking the grounds of his family farm Woolsthorpe Manor when he happened to notice an apple drop from a tree.  He next glanced up and considered the moon.  Conventional wisdom held that celestial bodies such as the moon and planets were governed by a different set of physical laws than terrestrial objects such as an apple or a brick.   But Newton was convinced that the same laws of physics governed all objects regardless of location and so, genius that he was, he crafted a wickedly powerful and deceptively simple little equation that we now know as the Law of Universal Gravitation. 

     F = G(m1m2)/r^2   

• F is the force between the masses

• G is the gravitational constant (6.674×10−11 N · (m/kg)2)

• m1 is the first mass

• m2 is the second mass

• r is the distance between the centers of the masses

Can you imagine a tiny little squirt gun capable of extinguishing a raging forest fire or filling dry reservoirs to overflowing?   Impossible you say.  But the Law of Universal Gravitation was all that and more.  It empowered students with only rudimentary multiplication and devision skills to calculate the weight of a man standing on the surface of the moon, or on any world of known mass and diameter.   It enabled students to compute the force of attraction between any two bodies of known mass.  This was a mind-blowing revelation.  But even so Newton himself was deeply dissatisfied with his Law of Gravity.  He couldn’t explain how the gravitational force between two objects could travel through the nothingness of space.  But we should remember that in science laws and theories serve two different purposes.   A law states what is without explanation as to why it is.   A theory is an explanation of a physical law or of a body of facts. 

Most of my classmates were liberal arts majors, or undeclared freshmen, and they were unimpressed and unconvinced by my arguments.  I can understand why.  The liberal arts has never commanded the same respect as science and so it must have been comforting to think that physicists where simply posers and charlatans and that true wisdom and understanding of reality was the purview of philosophers.   And besides, ZMM was a multimillion copy bestseller so how could Pirsig be wrong? 

But as we read further things only got worse as Pirsig took on not Isaac Newton in particular but the scientific method in general.  Here I’ll insert a direct quote for the book. 

The purpose of the scientific method is to select from amount a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental methods can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested.  If all hypotheses can never be tested they the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of it’s goal of establishing proven knowledge. 

Okay, let’s consider this assertion and return to the Law of Gravity.  As I stated previously Newton was troubled by the fact that he couldn’t explain how gravitational force propagated through the vacuum of space.  For hundreds of years this problem perplexed the world’s greatest physicists none of whom were able to improve on Newton’s work.  But in 1915 Albert Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity and that one paper transformed our understanding of everything.   The Theory of General Relativity (GR) presents a complete and uniform description of gravity as a geometric effect of space and time, or spacetime being distorted by mass. 

General Relativity passed it first big test during the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919.   Astronomer Arthur Eddington confirmed that starlight that traveled near our Sun was deflected by the exact amount predicted years earlier  by Einstein.  This was spectacular news and it made the front page of newspapers the world over.  But did this event, as spectacular as it was, confirm each and every aspect of GR?  No, of course not.  It was only the beginning.  For over one hundred years General Relativity has stood up to every test of its veracity and it has aways prevailed.   Most recently in 2015 with the discovery of Gravitational Waves and that gives us an entirely new window into the universe in addition to optical and radio astronomy.  Are there competing theories to GR?  Sure, but only a handful and none are as viable or as compelling and elegant as GR. 

But none of that mattered to my classmates.  Our teacher said that the heliocentric model of the solar system was in no way superior to the geocentric model, and in fact was in many ways inferior, but that scientists had chosen one model over the other on a whim.  He was saying that for all we know the Sun might revolve around the Earth!   How are scientist able to send a spacecraft to Mars?  It’s simple, just point the nose of the rocket in that direction and fire the engines.  This is were I really sort of lost it and I’m sorry to say it wasn’t my finest moment.  Far from in.  First and foremost an educated person should have the ability to listen to any point of view without losing his cool no matter how absurd that position is. 

It should come as no surprise that Pirsig made reference to Albert Einstein but what is surprising his how he categorized the great physicist.  Einstein could rightfully be called in turn; a stateless person, a Swiss patent clerk, and a naturalized American citizen.  Most accurately Einstein could be described as a pacifist and as a citizen of the world.  But Pirsig used none of those adjectives.  Instead he labeled Einstein as a German.  Was Einstein German?   That’s somewhat problematic considering that the Germans viewed Einstein as a Jew and would have euthanized him had he not fled Europe.  It’s safe to assume that Albert Einstein didn’t self-identify as German and he probably wouldn’t have cared to be introduced as such. 

As I read further in ZMM I started to lose traction and get bogged down.  I mean this as no disrespect to philosophers but it seems to me that philosophical discussions have more to do with the engineering of formal argumentation, the content seems to be less important than the way it is structured. 

In conclusion I can’t help but wonder if ZMM is symptomatic of a scientifically illiterate society.  Forty percent of Americans believe that the Universe was created pretty much as we see it today about six thousand years ago.  Is it any wonder that a book touting a pseudo-intellectual and pretentious attack on the scientific method should find a wide audience and garner a million dollars for it’s self-proclaimed genius author? 

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