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Zen and the Art of Science

by Jonathan Marder (© 1998)

Like many students of the 1970s, I read Robert M Pirsig's novel "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". I have since re-read it several times, and also Pirsig's second novel "Lila" which appeared in 1992. Each novel describes a journey. In the first novel, the vehicle is a motorbike which takes the narrator and his son across America. In the second novel, a yacht carries the narrator and his female companion down America's Hudson river to the ocean. But both novels are primarily vehicles for Pirsig's analysis of the metaphysical foundations of our society. Pirsig is highly critical of what he calls our "Subject-Object" metaphysics, mainly because it tries to be a "value-free" thought system. This, Pirsig blames for the gulf between science and the arts, and the common alienation between humans and technology. Instead, Pirsig presents an alternative metaphysics which he calls the "Metaphysics of Quality" in which value is given prime place of honour. In short, all things owe their existence to their inherent value.

It seems to me that Pirsig sees himself as a rebel out to shake the very foundations of human thought. If we consider human reason as our ability to objectively analyze reality, it comes as a great shock to see that Pirsig mounts a concerted attack against objectivity itself. And yet his discussions on academic topics still seem to be reasonable. He discusses aspects of several academic disciplines including philosophy, anthropology, psychology, biology, chemistry, and quantum physics. It seems fairly obvious that philosophical arguments should feature in the first three disciplines, but many would state that philosophical argument has no place at all in the natural sciences. Moreover, one has to ask exactly who this Pirsig is, and why he might possibly have anything useful to say on the subject. Answers to these questions can be derived from autobiographical elements in his novels. He obviously has a conventional academic background which includes scientific study, and he has experience as a university teacher. Furthermore, he has career experience as a technical writer for computer hardware and software. These are not the qualifications of an impostor. Indeed, Pirsig's descriptions of motorcycle maintenance (used as a metaphor for philosophical ideas) make it clear that he is an engineer and a pragmatist, characteristics which most scientists respect. Thus we may ask, does Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality have anything useful to say about human thought, and science in particular?

Scientific method as we know it derives in large part from the empirical approach of Aristotle. Knowledge derives from observed phenomena which provide a true representation of "reality". Reality can be perceived if we experience enough of it, that is, if we collect enough data. This fully explains the intensive data gathering projects of science. This is the reason for building enormous telescopes. It is the justification for the massive project to sequence the human genome. But data collection is only a part of science. The other part is organizing and summarizing the data. Scientific theories are the summaries. They provide generalized descriptions of an infinite amount of data. Once the pattern is known, we can predict the nature of any future data. Sometimes, new data defy the pattern, the theory is falsified and it has to be abandoned. What Pirsig builds on is that we can never collect all the data. This is why data collection is a highly selective process. Scientists carefully plan experiments so that they can derive maximum meaning from the minimum amount of data. They avoid collecting meaningless data which has no value. Value - Meaning - Selection; those are interesting words to bring into a discussion on scientific method. They undermine the whole concept of value-free objectivity which is so central to scientific method.

From a practical point of view, objectivity in science is "reproducibility". That means that the conditions under which the data were collected can be defined and reproduced to collect similar data. Scientific disagreements based on differing data are usually resolved when it becomes clear that the data were collected under different conditions. The conflict then becomes one of which set of experimental conditions is better, or better representative of reality. This is much harder to settle since nobody has an absolute way to determine what reality actually is, or what is "unreal" about a particular observation.

The reality, or rather relevance, of scientific observation is of enormous importance. On this, the reputation of science and scientists depends. The layman sometimes feels that the scientist is isolated from reality in his ivory tower. The data collected in the laboratory seem to exclude the observations of everyday experience outside. Thus, science and scientists are often mistrusted, ignored or even ridiculed. When the leaders of society react in this way, scientists find themselves without funding and without influence.

Robert Pirsig would say that this is a problem of metaphysics. Our current modes of thinking satisfy scientific method and produce good science and technology, but they fail to charm. But there is a more pragmatic message too. First, we must dissolve the myth of absolute objectivity and advertise that good science depends on the experience and intuition of scientists to recognize and select valuable data. Then we must explain that the laboratory is science's recording studio. It is isolated to block out disturbances so we can clearly hear and see the patterns of nature. Once the patterns are clear, we are better equipped to identify them and enjoy them outside.

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