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Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read this book about five years ago, but realized that I remembered very little of it other than that I had enjoyed it and found it quite insightful. Since I recently have been listening to quite a bit of Alan Watts’ talks on Zen and been more interested in Zen in general, I decided to re-read the book. Below are notes that I mostly took for myself while reading the book. I put some effort in to loosely connect them, but the main purpose is for me to remember my main takeaways in another five years.

Summary

The book follows the Robert M. Pirsig and his son Chris on a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to San Francisco. Descriptions of the trip are mixed with, what Pirsig calls a Chautauqua, on the concept of quality.

Years before the main events of the book, Pirsig had received electroshock therapy which led to memory loss. Much of the chautauqua follows the steps of Pirsig’s past self. He refers to the past, pre-memory-loss self as Phaedrus.

A common theme in the book is the tension between classical understanding and romantic understanding.

Pirsig:

A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.

The term quality never gets really defined. Pirsig likens it to what Socrates calls “the soul, self-moving, the source of all things”, Indian philosophy calls “The One”. He later on mentions reading The Greeks by H. D. F. Kitto. In here he finds mentioning of the role of aretê or virtue, or even better excellence:

“What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism,” Kitto comments, “is not a sense of duty as we understand it—duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek aretê, ‘excellence’…we shall have much to say about aretê. It runs through Greek life.”

He goes on relating these terms to his own concept of quality:

There, Phaedrus thinks, is a definition of Quality that had existed a thousand years before the dialecticians ever thought to put it to word-traps. Anyone who cannot understand this meaning without logical definiens and definendum and differentia is either lying or so out of touch with the common lot of humanity as to be unworthy of receiving any reply whatsoever. Phaedrus is fascinated too by the description of the motive of “duty toward self” which is an almost exact translation of the Sanskrit word dharma, sometimes described as the “one” of the Hindus. Can the dharma of the Hindus and the “virtue” of the ancient Greeks be identical? Then Phaedrus feels a tugging to read the passage again, and he does so and then…what’s this?!…“That which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek ‘excellence.’” Lightning hits! Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine “virtue.” But aretê. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric. He has been doing it right all along.

From this point on Phaedrus/Pirsig identifies as a sophist. The name for his past, pre-therapy self, Phaedrus, is derived from the character in Plato’s dialog of the same name.

What’s reality?

Earlier parts of the book explore what reality is and how we know what it is. Pirsig goes into Hume’s theory that all knowledge and thought is based on experience and Kant’s argument that some knowledge, like time and space, is based on a-priori intuitions. Later this theme continues and expands to zen’s solution/evasion to the problem of what’s real and what’s a (sensory?) illusion which solves this by seeing everything as an illusion.

Later Pirsig uses an instruction manual that starts out with “Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.” to dive deeper into how this relativity, or maybe even illusion of reality, impacts what truly makes quality:

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really,” I expound. “It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.” […] “It’s an unconventional concept,” I say, “but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.”

DeWeese asks, “What if the machine is wrong and I feel peaceful about it?” Laughter. I reply, “That’s self-contradictory. If you really don’t care you aren’t going to know it’s wrong. The thought’ll never occur to you. The act of pronouncing it wrong’s a form of caring.” I add, “What’s more common is that you feel unpeaceful even if it’s right, and I think that’s the actual case here. In this case, if you’re worried, it isn’t right. That means it isn’t checked out thoroughly enough. In any industrial situation a machine that isn’t checked out is a ‘down’ machine and can’t be used even though it may work perfectly. Your worry about the rotisserie is the same thing. You haven’t completed the ultimate requirement of achieving peace of mind, because you feel these instructions were too complicated and you may not have understood them correctly.”

What matters isn’t just physical properties of an object, but how they make us feel. Our own understanding plays a significant role in this. This is part of a common theme in the book on how quality relates to our life experiences. Pirsig makes it clear that neither romantic nor classical understanding can lead to a fulfilled, “quality” experience.

He uses his friends John and Sylvia to describe what happens when romantic understanding and quality goes without classical understanding and quality. John and Sylvia are frequently frustrated with technology, see it as cold and uncreative and are unwilling to learn about it. This leads to a lower quality life experience for them.

Pirsig spends much more time laying out how purely analytical thought also destroys a quality experience. Dissecting things in too much details takes “the magic” away. In our western culture classical understanding also has been so successful that a hybris towards romantic understanding has developed. True quality, however, must combine both.

Quality, System 1 and How We Build Our World

Pirsig moves away from applying quality only to distinguish between things that lack it and things that have it. He starts to describe it as a source of reality itself.

Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This preintellectual reality is what Phaedrus felt he had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this preintellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.

He also describes quality as the means by which we decide what data we use to expand our world view and on how researchers decide in what direction to look.

What he neglected to say was that the selection of facts before you “observe” them is “whatever you like” only in a dualistic, subject-object metaphysical system! When Quality enters the picture as a third metaphysical entity, the preselection of facts is no longer arbitrary. The preselection of facts is not based on subjective, capricious “whatever you like” but on Quality, which is reality itself. Thus the quandary vanishes.

the track of Quality preselects what data we’re going to be conscious of, and it makes this selection in such a way as to best harmonize what we are with what we are becoming.

Much of this reminds me of what Kahnemann and Tversky describe as System 1. It’s our quick, intuitive and maybe unconscious decision making. It includes decisions that we make without fully understanding them or being aware of them. This also reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind in part of which he makes the point that we intuitively make moral judgement and use moral frameworks to justify these after the fact. We ourselves end up believing that the judgement is based on our moral framework whereas in fact it’s a post-facto justification.

Pirsig early on presented us with the problem that we cannot easily decide what is real and what is some kind of illusion. He wiggled his way out of it by talking about consistency and persistence across different moments. However, I believe that this is a convenient way out of a dilemma that is in fact unsolvable and goes much deeper. Not only is it unclear what reality is, but we are to some degree a passenger within our own mind.

While this is how our mind works, it doesn’t mean that that’s good or leading to some kind of truth or even happiness. The pre-selection of facts that lead to a harmonious whole is certainly something we have more evidence for. Unfortunately it also means that it’s hard to convince someone otherwise if they have taken a particular view. This is harmful to discussions and our larger political discourse.

I’d in fact describe this as one of many biases that are inherit to how we think as humans. Another one is that we are pattern matching machines and are always looking for those. This is what helps us to generalize, discover rules in nature and exploit these to make our survival easier. But we also have a tendency to find patterns where there are non. This leads to conspiracy theories and superstitions. Complex theories like this can satisfy both our romantic and classical understanding and give a experience that feels more quality than simply accepting that there is chaos. However, it doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness and is also highly subjective rather than a guide to some universal quality.

Towards the end of the book the Greek concept of mythos and its relationship to the logos are introduced.

The term logos, the root word of “logic,” refers to the sum total of our rational understanding of the world. Mythos is the sum total of the early historic and prehistoric myths which preceded the logos. The mythos includes not only the Greek myths but the Old Testament, the Vedic Hymns and the early legends of all cultures which have contributed to our present world understanding.

Of course this mythos is build by quality:

Because Quality is the generator of the mythos. That’s it. That’s what he meant when he said, “Quality is the continuing stimulus which causes us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it.” Religion isn’t invented by man. Men are invented by religion. Men invent responses to Quality, and among these responses is an understanding of what they themselves are. You know something and then the Quality stimulus hits and then you try to define the Quality stimulus, but to define it all you’ve got to work with is what you know. So your definition is made up of what you know. It’s an analogue to what you already know. It has to be. It can’t be anything else. And the mythos grows this way. By analogies to what is known before.

To me this connects to my believe that intellectual understanding can only break our lived reality down so far. Eventually we hit into intuitions that are controlled by our basic brain functions or base believes that cannot be broken down further. I am sure we’ve all seen this play out in debates in which one tries to justify a moral system without resorting to existing ones like religion-based ones. Eventually it all comes down to examples and stories. This is because we are trying to invoke our intuitive understanding that our conscious builds intellectual understanding around. There are of course alternatives. Peter Singer builds hiw moral system solely on the avoidance of suffering. While I like the intellectual tidiness of that approach, it also results in ethics that feel off. It at times collides with our intuitive understanding and feels off.

Detours

From here on I’ll largely move away from the main path the book takes and dive a little bit into some things the book touched on that weren’t key to understanding the general point of the book, but are either interesting on their own or even of practical value.

I really liked this quote

Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster.

Quality and Schooling

Pirsig first introduces the concept of quality in the context of teaching rhetoric. To prove that everyone has an intuitive understanding of quality rhetoric he omits all grades in his class and stops passing judgement. This leads to improved learning for most students, since they start learning to learn, rather than to get a good grade and pass the class. From here Pirsig imagines a system in which students wouldn’t pursue higher education right after they finish high school. Instead they would start working simple jobs first till they gain an understanding and appreciation of what they would like to learn. This might take years to kick in. However, at that point grades in university would be useless and university in general could be less structures, since motivated students would guide themselves to whaty they need to be successful.

This resonated very much with me and was one of the few things I remembered since I had read the book about five years ago. I wish we could live in such a world but I wonder if it would be possible with competitive pressure today even taking spare time away from the schedules of pre-schoolers. I like to believe that it would lead to more capable, motivated and diligent people, but wouldn’t want to take the risk to find out.

Gumption

Pirisig spends a little bit of time talking about the concept of gumption:

Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.

It’s certainly a valuable concept to keep in mind and to monitor once own gumption when doing work. Fortunately there is a wikipedia article on the concept of gumption traps. It’s certainly worthwhile studying those and keeping them and their remedies in mind.

I do particularly like the ending of the section on gumption traps:

You’ve got to live right too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together. But if you’re a sloppy thinker six days a week and you really try to be sharp on the seventh, then maybe the next six days aren’t going to be quite as sloppy as the preceding six. What I’m trying to come up with on these gumption traps, I guess, is shortcuts to living right.

Production vs Maintenance

I have heard that there are two kinds of welders: production welders, who don’t like tricky setups and enjoy doing the same thing over and over again; and maintenance welders, who hate it when they have to do the same job twice. The advice was that if you hire a welder make sure which kind he is, because they’re not interchangeable.

As a software developer, I couldn’t help but wonder how this translates to my own profession. I work on a old code base where maintenance plays a large role. This leaves some folks frustrated, because they want to work on “new and exciting” things. However, I personally find some work that others would classify as “maintenance”, refactoring in particular, quite rewarding. I feel that a “complete” software developer, like a crafts person, should feel passion for all parts of the profession and want to hone their skills in everything that’s involved. Am I expecting too much or maybe the concept just doesn’t translate cleanly?

My Impression

By and large I still liked the book. It touches on a lot of very meaningful topics. Some aspects of the book feel a little hard to connect to the rest in hindsight.

In general I wish the book did a better job being cognisant of how our minds work and how observations about reality might be more observations about ourselves. I understand that the point is that there is no clear delineation between our minds and reality, but I think in some ways that could have been even clearer with more recent insights into how we work. There clearly is a line somewhere, it’s just impossible to put down. Even if we buy that ultimately we are all part of a greater One, we still have these shortcuts that our brains take. Pirsig describes these in some occasions, but doesn’t seem to understand that that’s what he is describing. I wonder how different the book would be if it had been written today rather than about 50 years ago.

I also wish the term quality had initially been approached slightly differently. Starting from rhetoric quality is immediately a quite blurry concept. However, this isn’t the case to the same degree in other areas. For example motorcycles, as in the title of the book, have qualities that are easier to grasp. Like durability, performance, etc. I think there might be an interesting discussion of how easily grasped quality metrics like those would be incomplete and ultimately lead us to the harder to grasp quality that Pirisig is focused on. On the other hand, I wish some discussion of art could have happened. I feel that what is art and what isn’t inevitably gets closer to the definition of Pirsig’s quality. Especially looking at modern art this could have been a fascinating discussion.

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