Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The following are my notes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig:

Chapter 1

  • A very interesting idea that the source of the aversion to maintaining the bikes is caused by an overall dislike of technology. And there are hints that we may yet discus whether the dislike of technology is itself oversimplified. I think that the question could go deeper to "Is the technology the real problem?" but we may get there.

Chapter 2

  • Pirsig opens a discussion on the 'spectator attitude' prevalent in society, from computer manuals to mechanics not taking their jobs seriously.
  • Yet, currently we see a shift to participant. Shirky talks about the move from spectator to participant as society "waking up from a collective bender." However, rather than creating a culture of producers, I think we're heading towards a culture of dilettantes, people who participate on the surface level of many things, but are still largely spectators. Take YouTube and the sheer volume of by-the-number Windows movie maker videos. Their creators are participants, but they're really acting like spectators with the software that tells them how to produce.
  • Or take the creators of Twitter creating a brand-new product, but the letting the computer show them how to create. "The curse of the framework is that it can be very tempting to let the framework itself take the lead in handling those unique aspects too. The fact is, Twitter’s developers were in a hurry, and took every opportunity to let the framework do the thinking for them." (Kevin Yank)

Chapter 3

  • The whole argument presented in this chapter sounds like the kind of arm-chair philosophy you find in college dorms from self-important narcissists who want to impress their buddies while smoking pot. The idea is that we, the products of rationalism, have no right to discount ghosts because both ghosts and gravity only exist in our minds. I find this demeaning to both cultures that believe in more spiritual things and to cultures that believe in science.
  • My problem with the argument is that his proof requires his version of the origin of the universe to be true. He takes his point of view as truth and then uses that try to convince you that your point of view is wrong. The science of the universe's origin is shoddy at best, but rather than accepting that, he says "Here, see? This doesn't make sense, therefore gravity doesn't exist."

Chapter 5

  • Interesting point on the root word of both 'kin' and 'kind'. Now everyone is to be kind, whereas before kindness for for kin.
  • Also interesting point about John's internal model reality not matching up with reality, resulting in anger.

Chapter 7

  • Applying the knife (analytical thinking) always kills something, but always creates something as well.
  • "When you look directly at an insane man all you see is the reflection of your own knowledge that he is insane."
  • The author makes an assumption that the only point of life is to stay alive.

Chapter 8

  • The author defines 'the system' as the hierarchy of thought from which what we observe as the system arose.
  • Each component of that system is an idea (whether or not is has physical form or official power).
  • To effect change, the hierarchy of thought itself must be torn apart, not its product. Eg. revolting and tearing down a sweat shop doesn't change the system; another sweat shop will be built.

Chapter 10

  • The author here tries to prove that scientific method is bogus. He, however, makes three assumptions without offering more than anecdotal proof. These are
    • Hypothesis are infinite. (The point is well made that there are numerous hypothesis to any scientific inquiry, but the argument hinges on there being an infinite number.)
    • Truth is bound by time. (The truth, in fact, is not bound in time, only the scientific facts that are trying to approximate the truth. Scientific facts only fail if they have not yet arrived at the truth.)
    • The presence of untested hypotheses automatically invalidates a proven hypothesis. (Again, if a scientific fact is true, the presence of other hypotheses do not necessarily negate other hypotheses, but only testing them will show.)
  • One interesting point the author makes is that the duration of a fact is inversely proportional to the amount of scientific inquiry surrounding it. He assumes this is limitless and without exception, but the point itself is true and worth considering before basing too much on science.

Chapter 11

  • Nice summary of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in both its original context and as it pertains to the running analogy.

Chapter 13

  • I would disagree with the statement that "When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths […] it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt" (emphasis mine). In context, it is clear that Pirsig means that the doubting is an act of the fanatic as opposed to the fanatic's targets. While it can be the case that fanaticism is fueled by one's own inability to face facts (and Pirsig provides an example thereof), I do not think that he can use the blanket "always" here. Take his own example that "no one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow". One would shout that truth if everyone else disbelieved it and started chopping down all the trees to make torches and bonfires for light. When the sun rises the next day, and there are no trees, there will soon be no oxygen. Such a person would be a fanatic but the dogma is not failing, it is others' belief in the dogma that is failing, to disastrous consequences.

Chapter 16

  • Have Jesus' words lost relevance and comprehensibility (aside from language and cultural differences)? Whether or not one believes Jesus' words to be authoritative, the statement reveals the underlying assumption that society is the judge of truth rather than society being judged by truth. This seems like "everybody is right" wish fulfillment rather than reason. (See p.237.)

Chapter 17

  • "To live only for some future goal is shallow."
  • "Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster."

Chpater 19

  • The author uses an analogy where the dilemma is likened to a bull. To defeat the bull you can:
    • Use logic
      • Take one of the two horns but smash the horn (discredit its logic)
    • Use rhetoric
      • Throw sand in the bull's eye (insults)
      • Sing the bull to sleep (compliments)
      • Refuse to enter the arena

Chapter 24

  • 370 pages in, and all I've learned is that a person who completely adopts the "Church of Reason" cannot generate any hypotheses. That's well and good, except that no one has that problem in real life. I do not know anyone who, upon encountering a stripped screw, would have no idea how to proceed. A person may not know how to fix the screw, but they would know how to proceed (eg. call a friend).

Chapter 26

  • Making your own parts is a gumption generator
  • Gumption traps:
    • Value rigidity: You're staring right at the answer but you can't see it because you can't see the answer's importance. Solution: Slow down and go over ground you've already covered. Stare at the machine and let the facts present themselves, not just as solutions but for their own sake, before rejecting them.
    • Anxiety: Leads to fixing things that don't need fixing and chasing false ailments. Solution: Write down what you are going to do on little slips of paper. Organize the slips into the order you want to approach the problem. Start processing the slips, re-evaluating and re-organizing as necessary. (RWG: You could use a stack, pushing and popping the "in progress" pile.)
    • Boredom: Gumption is low and needs to be replenished. Solution: Sleep. Look at the underlying problem.
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