Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 2, Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

The narrator announces his meditations have now arrived at a point where it's possible to discuss Phaedrus's "break from the mainstream of rational thought in pursuit of the ghost of rationality." He recalls the effect of a speech by Albert Einstein on the young Phaedrus when he entered college at 15. One passage in the speech describes the various motives driving people who become scientists. Some think of science as a sport "to which they look for vivid experience," while others pursue a scientific career "for purely utilitarian purposes." Phaedrus, a member of the first group, plans to major in biochemistry. But the issue of scientific hypotheses troubles him.

Phaedrus believes hypotheses are a mystery. "Until it's tested," explains the narrator now, "the hypothesis isn't truth. For the tests aren't its source. Its source is somewhere else." Phaedrus finds it easy to come up with hypotheses—too easy. "It pleased him never to run out of hypotheses," explains the narrator. Phaedrus reasons that if the purpose of the scientific method is to choose from among many hypotheses, and the number of hypotheses keeps growing, how can all the hypotheses about any given issue be tested? They can't be, and if they can't be, all experiments are inconclusive. Therefore, the scientific method is useless. Phaedrus concludes "it is science itself that is leading mankind from simple absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones." Science itself is causing chaos. Clearly, Phaedrus has taken his analysis too far, too deep to reach such a wrongheaded conclusion—a conclusion that spurs on his obsession with finding a solution.

Years later, the narrator still agrees with the conclusion of his much younger self—Phaedrus—"The cause of our current social crises ... is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself." But none of the adults at the university could (or wanted to) help Phaedrus solve the conundrum he had set up. So he flounders on until, at 17, the university expels him for "immaturity and inattention to studies."

Analysis

This chapter ends with the pronouncement that it is "better to travel than to arrive." The scientific method is the journey here. This is both a limitation and an asset for Phaedrus, who did not enter the study of science for "ambition or utilitarian purposes."

The narrator references Einstein. Notably, in the very next line, the narrator says, "Phaedrus had finished his first year of University science at the age of fifteen." He does not state outright that Phaedrus—Pirsig himself—was a genius. The implication is made by contextual placement and the fact of finishing advanced science so young. Pirsig's IQ (intelligence quotient) was 170. MENSA, the high IQ society, requires only a score of 132 on one IQ test, the Stanford-Binet. This set of details is again a way for the narrator to establish authority.

Once authority is asserted, the question of the "flaw" of the scientific method is addressed. The flaw lies in the infinite number of potential hypotheses. If there are an infinite number of hypotheses, they cannot all be tested, and if that is true, the method is inherently flawed. The narrator does not definitively state the system is flawed. He addresses it as a potential and points out that Phaedrus, when faced with this possibility, struggled with it. It would be "completely nihilistic," the narrator says. (Nihilism, in brief, is a kind of extreme skepticism where nothing is real.)

Since Phaedrus may not have been thinking clearly when he arrived at this conclusion, the flaw is not asserted or dismissed. It is merely a potential. Additionally—as part of this contemplation—Pirsig notes that a remark of Einstein's created a similar difficulty for Phaedrus. Einstein's inclusion of the phrase "at any given moment" in a statement on evolution—according to Phaedrus's interpretation—implied "truth was a function of time." From Phaedrus's perspective, this concept "would annihilate the most basic presumption of all science." The conclusion that the narrator offers to all of this is rather simple. Scientific truth is not absolute. It is a "temporal quantitative entity that could be studied like anything else." There is no "seed crystal," no specific underlying truth that will remain true for all time.

The reader may again want to think of the closing line of the chapter: "it's a little better to travel than to arrive." The traveling, the process of getting there, is more valuable than drawing conclusions—a very Zen-like idea. Pirsig has offered no true conclusions, but he has raised questions. It is the journey, the thinking, that matters more.

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