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Quote Unquote

In Quote Unquote on July 5, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise

From Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

After a while he says, “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“No,” I say.

“Why not?”

“Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”

The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”

The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. “Of course,” I add, “the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.”

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One Response to “Quote Unquote”

  1. Doubt is a wonderful thing, so are word plays. The beauty of science is that you do not need to believe in it for you to be able to use it successfully.

    It is the Art of motorcycle maintenance because it doesn’t matter if you call it science or how you feel about it. You can feel and the feelings matter, perhaps more than the combustion engine. But the engine you can repair even without understanding it, and as Pirsig so strikingly explored, some things are beyond repair.

    “The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.
    The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws… which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.”

    But what is the effect of picking on the classic?

    “In recent times we have seen a huge split develop between a classic culture and a romantic counterculture… two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself.”

    But note that one can doubt anything. One can doubt things that are valid. One can doubt thinks that have high degree of certainty and emotional value.

    Where I disagree with Pirsig’s narrative on doubt:

    “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

    Unknown, uncertainty and doubt are different things. Things unknown and uncertain can receive no doubt. And things perfectly clear and well explored can be doubted. To doubt is human.

    Science is the process of understanding the unknown and reducing uncertainty. One does not need to doubt to do science. One can if one must.

    But one can doubt science and not understand how science relates to the unknown and the uncertain.

    To doubt is easy. To be careful in describing what we can say and what we cannot, is much more difficult.

    And if people are honest with themselves they doubt much less than it is fashionable to claim. People do not doubt their car is sound when they get into it and turn the key. They do not doubt that the steering will be consistent between turns. There is no doubt that filling the tank with gasoline rather than water is the right choice.

    But it is very fashionable to claim doubt on science. It is not false, but it is also not honest, because the politics of it is to create a false equivalence between the unknown, the uncertain and the doubted. It is to conflate epistemology with aesthetics.

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