Pirsig Questions Science’s Role in Society

One of the more interesting topics Pirsig explores in Lila is whether or not science offers us the best view of “reality,” an assumption that I’ve generally conceded, but not with a lot of thought about it.

For me, one of his most telling arguments is:

Should reality be something that only a handful of the world's most advanced physicists understand? One would expect at least a majority of people to understand it. Should reality be expressible only in symbols that require university-level mathematics to manipulate? Should it be something that changes from year to year as new scientific theories are formulated? Should it be something about which different schools of physics can quarrel for years with no firm resolution on either side? If this is so then how is it fair to imprison a person in a mental hospital for life with no trial and no jury and no parole for "failing to understand reality"? By this criterion shouldn't all but a handful of the world's most advanced physicists be locked up for life? Who is crazy here and who is sane?

Seeing science in this way made me reconsider my assumption that science offered the best way of seeing reality. It does seem ridiculous to allow others to determine what is or is not real for us. In essence, we’ve ceded to scientists the same power that our ancestors ceded to church officials. Scientists are the new “priests” of reality, probably too much power to cede to anyone.

Of course, Pirsig’s purpose in challenging science’s grip on our perceptions is to offer his own alternative:

Reality, which is value, is understood by every infant. It is a universal starting place of experience that everyone is confronted with all the time. Within a Metaphysics of Quality, science is a set of static intellectual patterns describing this reality, but the patterns are not the reality they describe. If science is a study of substances and their relationships, then the field of cultural anthropology is a scientific absurdity. In terms of substance there is no such thing as a culture. It has no mass, no energy. No scientific laboratory instrument has ever been devised that can distinguish a culture from a non-culture.

But if science is a study of stable patterns of value, then cultural anthropology becomes a supremely scientific field. A culture can be defined as a network of social patterns of value. As the Values Project anthropologist Kluckhohn had said, patterns of value are the essence of anthropologist studies. In traditional, substance-centered metaphysics, life isn't evolving toward anything. Life's just an extension of the properties of atoms, nothing more. It has to be that because atoms and varying forms of energy are all there is. But in the Metaphysics of Quality, what is evolving isn't patterns of atoms. What's evolving is static patterns of value, and while that doesn't change the data of evolution it completely up-ends the interpretation that can be riven to evolution.

It’s a good thing that Pirsig doesn’t outright reject the scientific method since most of us aren’t ready to do that. But, like Pirsig, I feel that some of the most important aspects of our lives cannot be adequately explained by science.

I seriously thought about pursuing a career in psychology and loved the beginning classes, but I was totally turned off when I observed the UW’s Skinnerian approach, particularly the electrodes implanted in the brains of white rats. While new brain scanning technology seems to offer much greater potential to understand the human brain, I still doubt that it will ever be able to truly comprehend how the human brain functions, much less explain why particular individuals think the way they do, no matter how many brain synapses they analyze.

Perhaps more important for the survival of society is Pirsig’s insistence that the major flaw in subject-object science is that it makes no provision for morals:

Now, it should be stated at this point that the Metaphysics of Quality supports this dominance of intelligence over society. It says intellect is a higher level of evolution than society; therefore, it is a more moral level than society. It is better for an idea to destroy a society than it for a society to destroy an idea. But having said this, the Metaphysics of Quality goes on to say that science, the intellectual pattern that has been appointed to take over society, has a defect in it. The defect is that subject-object science has no provision for morals. Subject-object science is only concerned with facts. Morals have no objective reality. You can look through a microscope or telescope or oscilloscope for the rest of your life and you will never find a single moral. There aren't any there. They are all in your head. They exist only in your imagination.

From the perspective of a subject-object science, the world is a completely purposeless, valueless place. There no point in anything. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Everything just functions, like machinery. There is nothing morally wrong with being lazy, nothing morally wrong with lying, with theft, with suicide, with murder, with genocide. There is nothing morally wrong because there are no morals, just functions.

Now that intellect was in command of society for the first time in history, was this the intellectual pattern it was going to run society with?

I’ve already expressed my dismay at how some scientists seem perfectly willing to prostitute their skills for dubious causes, either because they lack moral standards or because they can convince themselves that what they are doing will serve “a greater good.”

I suspect the move from liberal arts education in college to job-oriented training will add to this approach in science. In a world where technological change happens faster and faster, it’s vital that those forces be directed by those driven by more than greed and technological expertise.

4 thoughts on “Pirsig Questions Science’s Role in Society

  1. Loren, thanks for the visit and comment. Mr. kenju and I had a discussion just today about how his diet will change once he comes home. The sodium level of nearly everything (including juices) is out of sight! I know I have to be extra careful now, to buy items that are healthful. He has always been bad to sneak candy and donuts when he goes out of the house, and now, he may not be able to get them so easily. I hope that when he IS once again able to drive, that he will remember what he is not supposed to eat and stay away from those foods.

  2. It is hard to see the whole elephant. We try, but who can say if we succeed? Case Western Reserve University requires all students to take an intensive multi-semester course in the humanities called Sages. Classes focus on social issues such as poverty and health care, and the arts, such as photography.

  3. Hi Loren,

    I was a bit surprised this post didn’t get more commentary so I’ll add some thoughts, some of which are expansions of comments you also made.

    Science is a method (actually several methods) for learning about our natural world. It certainly can be used as a noun to describe the discoveries of science or fields of study but I think it is more appropriate to use it as a verb. Science also has as its goal to produce discoveries that allow us to predict and/or control natural phenomena. I don’t think science is meant to be able to express everything worth expressing as you pointed out.

    Regarding some of Pirsig’s points

    “Should reality be something that only a handful of the world’s most advanced physicists understand?”

    I would answer no. This is why science education is so crucially important.

    “Should it be something that changes from year to year as new scientific theories are formulated?”

    Yes. Its non-dogmatic nature is what makes science so powerful. It can self correct. If it couldn’t we might still hold that the earth is flat and the sun is the center of the universe.

    I’m glad your comments about morals specified “some scientists” rather than most scientists. I think this reflects a typical distribution of people regardless of their professional vocation.

    All that said, I think the humanities are under appreciated. It sounds like Case Western Reserve has some insightful employees.

  4. Pirsig has constructed a definition of science that functions as a strawman in opposition to his Metaphysics of Quality. While it’s certainly true that science does inform us about reality, it is not intended to function as a full-blown metaphysics, and making matters worse, Pirsig narrows science further by putting all the social sciences outside its domain, so that anthropology is suddenly a “scientific absurdity”. While you are contemplating this unfairness, Pirsig takes the opportunity to “fix” science to be more inclusive but before you know it, Pirsig has morality and mysticism flying under the empirical scientific banner too, not because they are scientific in any arguable sense, but because they will be taken more seriously if they are posited that way. It is this method of persuasion at which Pirsig excels, the kind the Greek Sophists perfected and that later would become known as sophistry, where appeals to “good” triumphed over sense, fairness, and logic. Most readers are so sympathetic to his personal story that they miss, forgive, gloss over or reinterpret what he is actually saying.

    As a case in point, Pirsig doesn’t exactly say he rejects the scientific method, but he does say it has a fatal flaw that most would agree would render it useless: it is impossible to test every hypothesis and therefore you are led farther from the truth, not toward it. If that weren’t bad enough, the sci-method is “The major producer of the social chaos and the indeterminacy of thought…”, and he seems genuinely baffled that no one agrees with him. (ZAMM, ch. 10) One of the only positive things Pirsig can say about science is that it has an “eraser”, yet it is coupled with the questioning criticism: “Should it be something that changes from year to year as new scientific theories are formulated?” Pirsig does place science in the intellectual level, giving it moral supremacy, but maybe this is a move designed to instill a fear that we are all headed for a future of mechanistic, purposeless existence – unless we act now, and adopt the MOQ.

What do you think?