Who Wields Science ?

One of the most interesting ideas for me when I first read ZAMM was Pirsig’s perspective on science. Of course, it might have been interesting precisely because it coincided with some of my own (and society’s) growing concerns about where science was taking us.

You’d have to be a fool to live in the 20th century and not question the value, and cost, of science. After all, scientists invented the nuclear bomb that haunted my grade school years. My own particular crisis with science came while attending CBR (Chemical, Biological, Radiological) school in the Army. I was stunned to learn of all the CBR weapons science had created. Apparently it wasn’t enough to invent just one weapon that could destroy the world as we knew it. No! We had to develop multiple ways of destroying mankind. After watching a goat die after a single drop of nerve gas was applied to its nose, I wondered what kind of person could devote his life to developing a weapon like that, and I hadn’t even seen Dr. Strangelove yet.

What I lacked, of course, is Pirsig’s insights into the very nature of science since I’d lost interest in pursuing a scientific career long before he did in life. Unlike most of us, he made it a point to study the very nature of science:

Solution of problems too complicated for common sense to solve is achieved by long strings of mixed inductive and deductive inferences that weave back and forth between the observed machine and the mental hierarchy of the machine found in the manuals. The correct program for this interweaving is formalized as scientific method.

and it’s most basic level the

…real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know. There’s not a mechanic or scientist or technician alive who hasn’t suffered from that one so much that he’s not instinctively on guard. That’s the main reason why so much scientific and mechanical information sounds so dull and so cautious. If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you. It does it often enough anyway even when you don’t give it opportunities. One must be extremely careful and rigidly logical when dealing with Nature: one logical slip and an entire scientific edifice comes tumbling down. One false deduction about the machine and you can get hung up indefinitely.

It’s precisely this methodology that has made possible the great advances that makes modern civilization possible. The science method is probably the ultimate tool.

Pirsig forces us to see science from a new perspective when he quotes Einstein, the most brilliant scientist of the 20th Century:

Einstein had said:

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world. He then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it …. He makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life in order to find in this way the peace and serenity which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience . . . . The supreme task … is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them ….

Intuition? Sympathy? Strange words for the origin of scientific knowledge.

That’s certainly not the view of science I got from studying it in high school or reading about it in the media. Except where science conflicts with religious views, scientific knowledge has generally been regarded as the ultimate knowledge, undisputed fact.

But Pirsig’s main disillusionment with science comes at even more basic level, that the scientist’s means of attaining “truth” inevitably proves the “relativity” of all scientific truth:

He studied scientific truths, then became upset even more by the apparent cause of their temporal condition. It looked as though the time spans of scientific truths are an inverse function of the intensity of scientific effort. Thus the scientific truths of the twentieth century seem to have a much shorter life-span than those of the last century because scientific activity is now much greater. If, in the next century, scientific activity increases tenfold, then the life expectancy of any scientific truth can be expected to drop to perhaps one-tenth as long as now. What shortens the life-span of the existing truth is the volume of hypotheses offered to replace it; the more the hypotheses, the shorter the time span of the truth. And what seems to be causing the number of hypotheses to grow in recent decades seems to be nothing other than scientific method itself. The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change


Luckily most of us never read enough to learn that the “scientific truths” we learned in school are as obsolete as the computers we bought in the early 80’s. It is disquieting, though, to read that the scientific “facts” we base our understanding of the world on are merely widely held opinions that will soon be discarded for even shorter-lived “facts.”

Pirsig’s broader charge, though,

The cause of our current social crises, he would have said, is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. And until this genetic defect is cleared, the crises will continue. Our current modes of rationality are not moving society forward into a better world. They are taking it further and further from that better world. Since the Renaissance these modes have worked. As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is — emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty. That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be at for a long time to come.

is perhaps more disturbing. Has science become the handmaiden of Industry, more interested in producing new products than in producing scientific truths that will guide us to a better life?

As much as I’d like to believe that science has the ability to help us recover from the environmental damage inflicted on our planet and give us the means of living a good life without making the situation worse, it’s hard to forget that science’s technological contributions to business have gotten us where we are.

Until recently, many had seen science as the ultimate arbitrator of “truth” and technology as the end result of the discovery of such truths, rather than as a mere tool which, like the gun, can bring order or destruction depending on who is wielding it and what their ultimate goal is.