Robert Pirsig was riding around in circles
After his recent passing, I spent two weeks re-listening to the audiobook version of Robert Pirsig’s perennial classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If you haven’t read/listened to it, drop whatever you’re doing, borrow it from your local library, Amazon, or wherever and put it on your shelf to collect dust with all your other books. At least that way your collection will be complete.
It’s a beautiful tale of Pirsig’s journey across part of the Midwest with his son, Chris. All on the back of a motorcycle. Pirsig weaves between the reality of what’s taking place along the journey–the motels; hot, dusty towns; his son’s angst; and his own musings on philosophy. Pirsig relates his innermost thoughts through a series of discourses that he refers to as Chautauquas.
As part of his Chautauquas, he discusses a character from his past, who he refers to a Phaedrus. Phaedrus, Pirsig details, was an introspective, solitary intellectual who became obsessed with the concept of “quality.” Phaedrus’s struggle, at its heart, was an attempt to define “quality.” He began by asking Is “quality” subjective, i.e., we all decide what it is for ourselves, or is it objective, i.e., there are certain things that implicitly have it, something that is simply fundamental to our nature. Prior to listening to the book, I had never thought about. When we something is of quality, what do we really mean? It starts to fuck with you.
An example of this exploration in the book is exemplified by Phaedrus posing the question of quality to his students in the context of writing. While none of them could define it either, they nevertheless knew what it was. Any of them could tell when a piece of writing was “good” or when it was “bad.” They recognized quality when they saw it. But what makes the “good” piece of writing “good?” Phaedrus eventually drives himself to insanity by the end of the book in this pursuit of quality.
For his part, Pirsig continues the discussion of quality around the motorcycle and its maintenance. He concludes, as did Phaedrus, that quality cannot be defined, but is nevertheless in everything. Quality, whether you are working on motorcycles or instruction manuals, is a force whose presence or absence makes something good. But the minute you try to lay a finger on quality itself, it evaporates.
During both readings of Zen, I’ve gotten incredibly frustrated with Pirsig and Phaedrus. By refusing to define quality and instead just leaving it as a mysterious kinda “dark matter”-y force at play in the universe, neither ever actually answers his own question. While many things in the scientific and philosophical realms lack complete, holistic definitions, that does not stop us from putting some basic parameters and modifying as we go. In the case of quality, the refusal to define it transforms quality into something mystical and, despite much of Phaedrus’s training, altogether unscientific.
The definition for quality at its most basic (at least that I can see), is actually far simpler than Pirsig or Phaedrus would have us believe. Quality is merely a the observable relationship between two things. In other words, we determine quality by comparing whatever we’re looking at with what we know. You actually don’t have a concept of the quality of any object or idea until you have something to compare it against. Let’s take a weird example: Let’s say aliens finally arrive on earth. They arrive in a shiny Z345X model spaceship. Is this a quality spaceship?
You have no fucking clue. There is no way for you as the observer to know or determine this. You could look at the puny rockets that we’ve been throwing up into space and say, “Well, the Z345X certainly seems to be of better quality than what we’ve got lying around.” You are able to recognize that one is better than the other, but to do so, you must first compare the two. Otherwise, the concept of quality disappears, as the observer has no measuring stick to know where each falls (no pun intended).
Let’s add to the previous example: Let’s say a second group of aliens arrived in the EE324B model. Which one is the higher quality spaceship? Same problem. You haven’t a clue. Quality, not unlike Schrodinger’s cat, lays in a box of ambiguity until observed. In order to make determinations about anything’s superiority or inferiority you have to give it context. Quality, despite Phaedrus’s insistence on mythology, has a foot in both the subjective and the objective. On the one hand, it is objective because a good apple, free of defects, has all of the characteristics to make it superior to a bad apple that has bruises and worms. It is subjective however, to the extent that an observer must exist to recognize that one is better than the other. You know, the whole “if a tree falls in the forest” kind of thing. In other words, a bruised and wormy apple in a vacuum is neither good nor bad, it just is, because it’s the only one of its kind.
I realize in a way, my definition kinda fails to truly define what quality is. But it does so in the same way that explaining gravity by calling it the force of attraction between two objects fails to bely gravity’s true nature. As Pirsig relates in Phaedrus’s descent into madness, I also recognize the foolhardiness in trying to aptly describe something that is so fundamental to existence. Phaedrus may as well have asked why is there light or what is the color green or why does Michael Bay get to make more Transformers films (what number are we at now, 17?)? We can explain these things as they relate to other things (except for Michael Bay, that one is beyond anyone’s cognitive reach), but we cannot explain something fundamental about them unless we know something even more fundamental.
It will make your head hurt. Or in Phaedrus’s case, force you to be hospitalized and undergo shock therapy. For all of the book’s other thoughtfulness and beautifully crafted scenes, Zen’s relentless pursuit and failure to grasp quality has landed Pirsig a fair bit of criticism (maybe unfairly at times) for being too pseudoscience. Quality does not exist independent of its relationship with us. In its own way, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, was and is quality, staring back at Pirsig every time he sat down to write, even if he didn’t recognize it.
Originally published at millren.wordpress.com on August 2, 2017.