Field of Science

Robert M. Pirsig's Zen shot to pieces

In eight grade a teacher of mine highly recommended Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I never read it, though, and today I'm glad I didn't waste my time with it. (It's not that I mind reading about theories and philosophies that are wrong - for example, I enjoyed Velikovski a lot).

In Motorcycle Maintenance Without the Zen How Pirsig’s Mistakes About Atheism Continue Today, Chris Edwards explains on eSkeptic what Pirsig's big fallacy was:
“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.

“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that the law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious as our own.” (41–42)
Again, Pirsig mistakes the law of gravity for a thing. Of course the law of gravity could not have existed before there was anything because without matter then objects would not be attracted to each other because there would be no objects. If we define the “law of gravity” as a description of real-world phenomena, in the same way that the word “rock” is used to describe a slab of granite, then no, the law of gravity did not exist before Newton. However, if we describe the law of gravity as the attraction that objects, depending on weight, have for each other then of course it existed — just as sound waves came from the falling tree even if no ears were around to hear it.

Pirsig might as well be saying that the word “rock” was floating around in the universe before there were ever rocks, or that poems about flowers existed before there were flowers or poets to write about them. He might as well be Plato.
How inane is that!?

Gravity existed the moment there was matter. The law of gravity was formulated by Newton to describe gravity.

I really wish my eighth grade teacher would have made this clear right away. Hopefully none of my classmates - or any of the many other pupils he ever recommended this book to - went on to be persuaded by anything Pirsig wrote.

Let's not even mention that Pirsig appears to have suffered from schizophrenia, and what we can expect from writers who can't distinguish what goes on in his head alone from what goes on in the world everyone else can sense. Oh heck, I mentioned it.


  1. A phrase that keeps cropping up for me lately, whether it be in regards to some interesting existential conversations I have had with a True Believing Christian co-worker, or in regards to the Fodor/Piatelli-Palmini What Darwin Got Wrong travesty, or in regards to Pirsig's mental error highlighted in this post:

    The map is not the territory.

    kthxbye. hehehehe

    (On a side note, in the existential conversations with the co-worker, it was I who needed to be reminded that the map was not the territory, not him... so we all fall down on that point here and there! Like you say, if such an error is good enough for Plato, I guess it's no surprise us modern joes might make the same error from time to time....)

  2. so we all fall down on that point here and there!

    Speak for yourself.

    Could it be the schizophrenia? You got it?

    But okay, jokes aside... speak for yourself.


  3. DM (aka Dave Mabus, I'm told), you comment was off-topic and has thus been removed. Besides, we all know already that you hate atheists, particularly James Randi. Now get lost.

  4. @DM:

    you are crazy and need professional help!

    Cheers Arend

  5. @DM:

    you are crazy and need professional help!

    Cheers Arend

  6. @Bjørn Østman:

    I think this is what Pirsig meant:

    "We are suspended in language." Our intellectual description of nature is always culturally derived.” -Niels Bohr

  7. What does the territory of the map's surface look like?


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