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.