Athenaeum Meeting Minutes – April 12, 2003 – Dog & Duck Pub

Attending:  John Mays, Alan Hunt, Bob Hardister, Cousin Craig from Dallas, Pete Hansen, Skip Mencio, Eli Pickering, Chris Mack

Welcome to new Athenaeum Member Paul Johnson

Book for Discussion:  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig

Secretary’s Corner: Welcome Cousin Craig from Dallas. Please join us again the next time you wander into town. And how about the Quality announcement from brother Mack! Congratulations to you and your new fiancée, Susan.


John: Does "Quality" as a precognitive construct for the subject-object dichotomy have any consistency to Christianity?

Bob: Pirsig's formulation is anti-rational

John: Or is cross rational more correct? He certainly does not deny the importance of rationality. His motorcycle maintenance is a good example of how he recognizes, even embraces, rationality.

Bob: There are two main threads of thought in the book, those of the narrator, and that of Phaedrus. Phaedrus’ ideas about Quality seem a defense of Sophistry.

Eli: In the fourth section he dives into the Platonic dialogues, and recasts them as a "war" between Platonists and Sophists, between dialecticians and rhetoricians. He describes it as a battle to command the field of human thought for centuries to come! And then Pirsig laments the outcome.

Alan: Did anyone read the introductory remarks that clarify the author's point of view? The book is told from the perspective of the narrator who is clearly in conflict with Phaedrus. Phaedrus wins out at the end. Phaedrus' is Pirsig's point of view.

John: Back to the original question! Is Pirsig's Quality consistent with Christianity?

Alan: Sure. The subject-object-Quality relationship is a picture of the Trinity. God = good = Pirsig's Quality.

Skip: Quality is the Godhead itself. And that is not strictly a rational thing, which ultimately is Pirsig's point. Christ changed the world, not by revealing himself in glorious fashion to everyone alike. Christ did not shout from the mountaintops. He started with 12 guys, and told them to change 12 more guys. It's about changing the individual heart.

Bob: Pirsig is grinding an axe against rationality, and misrepresenting Plato.

Skip: What does the mundane have to do with the rest of your life, with your Christian faith? It has to fit somewhere! Metaphysically it has to. That is part of what Pirsig is getting at, only he does not arrive their having traveled an overtly Christian path.

Eli: The narrator comments, “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there”. It reminds me of another quote spoken by an unknown person to students completing high school, “Don’t ask yourself ‘what does the world need’. Instead ask yourself what makes you feel alive, because what the world needs are people who are alive”.

Bob: There is an existential element to that passage.

Craig: We are only human, and can only interpret the world through our involvement in it, and with it. Our experience and surroundings shape us.

Alan: Yes, but Pirsig avoids saying that. He is saying we are shaped through this pre-intellectual essence called "Quality".

Eli: At first this book was reminiscent of Atlas Shrugged. The story was secondary to the philosophy. The story line was even contrived in places. It is clear that Zen is first and foremost the Pirsig Manifesto, more than it is a novel. But it read fast and part four was saved for earlier this week. But part four was so good I finished all 90 pages in a single evening. The last section ties much of the story together with the philosophy. It is a far better book that Ayn Rand's.

Skip: The book doesn't read well out loud. It seems well written when read silently, but spoken out loud the sentences are choppy, and lack flow.

Chris: The style flows well.

Bob: The Subtitle, "An Inquiry into Values" sounds a little like Nietzsche.

John: Maybe, but Nietzsche would deny there is any substance to Pirsig's arguments.

Pete: Pirsig is unclear what he means by Quality. He refuses to define it. It represents for him some monistic "I know not what".

Skip: Perhaps, but everyone knows what Quality is…instinctively.

Alan: And if you do not you are incompetent! (So says Pirsig)

Pete: His philosophy suffers in the same way all Monistic philosophies do. By constructing a Monism, an all encompassing oneness that everything in the cosmos shares, or is a part of, he in reality creates Pantheism. If nothing is preeminent, than all things are equal. Ultimately, under these auspices one can not distinguish between a human and a slug, between a Saint and a Nazi, because all of these things play a part in the Monism.

John: He clearly affirms that Quality is transcendent.

Pete: His system of thought fails to reckon with the creator / created distinction. By blurring the boundaries between pre-intellectual Quality, and the subject-object (romantic-classical) reality, he denies the primacy of a creator. As such it is inconsistent with Christianity.

Alan: Pirsig accepts a dualism of mind and thought (creator - created).

John: Phaedrus' Quality is not a collision of subject and object. “ Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This pre-intellectual reality is what Phaedrus had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects”.

Alan: But later the Phaedrus concludes, "Quality was the source and substance of all things."

John: Regarding my original question, a point must be clarified: The question is not whether Pirsig has written an evangelical work as a God fearing Christian. The question is can his philosophy be reconciled through a Christian lens?

Eli: Of course. There are more than oblique connections between Pirsig's Quality, and the Christian God. There are clearly examples throughout redemptive history, many told in scripture, that both classical and romantic modes of thought lead to truth.

Pete: Our notions of reason must be expanded. Pointcare's section was fascinating. In a scientific endeavor, how do we select the facts that we study? Pre-intellectually.

Skip: At work we tell engineers to dig into the problem. Stare at the data, stare at the tools! Be one with the problem.

Chris: This is how I work, too. I saturate myself with the problem, and look endlessly at the data, then go lay around in the grass and let the solutions come to me.

Alan: The lawn type, right?

Pete: The author has stinging things to say about the malaise in which we all live. He wrote this upon reaching the West Coast in the midst of his travel with Chris, “I know what it is! We’ve arrived at the West Coast! We’re all strangers again! Folks, I just forgot the biggest gumption trap of all. The funeral procession! The one everybody’s in, this hyped-up, fuck-you, supermodern, ego style of life that thinks it owns this country. We’ve been out of it for so long I’d forgotten all about it”.

Chris: You can not completely break down reality. No formula, no matter how complex can describe everything.

Pete: Another criticism. Pirsig makes a HUGE leap from observing his students' understanding of Quality, to Quality as a pre-intellectual Monism.

Bob: The author’s treatment of Hume and Kant is thought provoking, but their empiricist view of the world is one of many. “Hume has been saying, in effect, that everything I know about this motorcycle comes to me through my sense. It has to be. There’s no other way. If I say it’s made of metal and other substances, he asks, What’s metal? If I answer that metal’s hard and shiny and cold to the touch and deforms under blows from a harder material, Hume says those are all sights and sounds and touch. There’s no substance. Tell me what metal is apart from these sensations. Then, of course, I’m stuck”. There are other answers to those issues. For example what would Rand say? That metal was just someone’s idea.

Skip: He does say the best answer to a problem is the solution with the best Quality. He uses the example of building a wall. Using tools to assure a straight wall is a higher Quality solution, because straight walls are stronger.

Pete: That exposes another weakness of his philosophy. The solution is relative to the goal. A crooked wall may be best, depending on the problem at hand.

Eli: Semantics, brother Hansen


John: My science class is building a rail gun for a class project. I needed a set of machined metal U-shaped plates. The brackets required holes bored through the plates at the same location and I bought a drill press to complete the job. Working with the metal was a great task, having just read this book, and I took my time, being careful not to over stress the bit, and machined them myself. I was one with the bit and the press!

Pete: This book gives one a new respect for Quality and craftsmanship. I'm notorious for not finishing jobs. I installed hard wood floors in my house, but I'm too lazy to put in the toe boards. I am horrible with tools. But it is care and detail that counts. Like John says, it is being one with the job at hand. Whatever we say about Pirsig's philosophy, it certainly has an aesthetic value.

Skip: The Christian life is much the same way. What do Pete's toe boards have to do with his spiritual life? It should. Christianity should pervade every aspect of our lives.

Chris: This book has special importance for me. Two years ago my marriage ended, and I started reevaluating my assumptions about the world. I decided to broaden my perspectives, and began reading. Zen was one of the first books I picked up. It was not an earth-shattering event for me. It didn't change the way I saw things, but it did give me an appreciation for philosophy.

Pete: Who wants to buy a motorcycle after reading Zen?

Skip: Notice that he commented Thoreau just didn't "work" for Chris when he read it to him. Many times books don't "work" for us because of the setting, or our mood.

Eli: The author does a great job interweaving the action in the story with the "action" of Phaedrus' mind. He and Chris are climbing the mountain at the same time Phaedrus is weaving his way to the mountaintop of philosophical thought.

John: Wasn't it contrived? Eli/Skip/

Chris: Not contrived…but not subtle.

Chris: The book is layered.

John: The relationship with his son has a humanizing affect on the story. It builds to a dramatic resolution at the end of the book.

Eli: Pirsig is no friend of academia. His label "The Church of Reason" is a pejorative description for the university system.

Bob: Here’s where Pirsig lays into the Platonists, “Now Plato’s hatred of the Sophists makes sense. He and Socrates are defending the Immortal Principal of the Cosmologists against what they consider to be the decadence of the Sophists. Truth. Knowledge. That which is independent of what anyone thinks about it. The ideal that Socrates dies for. The ideal that Greece alone possess for the first time in history of the world. It is a very fragile thing. It can disappear completely. Plato abhors and damns the Sophists without restraint, not because they are low and immoral people-there are obviously much lower and more immoral in Greece he completely ignores. He damns them because they threaten mankind’s first beginning grasp of the idea of truth. That’s what it is all about”.

Chris: It is predictable. Pirsig is clearly not a Platonist, so why would he go down that road? Pirsig chooses to ally himself with the Sophists, because they provide a convenient foil to the Platonists.

John: But he does this because the Sophists employ rhetoric, which Pirsig feels is a stronger arguing position that the dialectical.

Pete: There is something to his insistence that beauty can not be easily modeled. We can build mathematical models, scientific models, but they lack the ability to define beauty.

Alan: What about the super model?

Pete: Pirsig’s philosophy strives for simplicity, and there is something aesthetic about a simple, or unifying understanding of the romantic / classical dichotomy.

Eli: But is that wishful thinking? Why must the world be boiled down to some grand unified theory?

Pete: It is necessary for our understanding of the cosmos.

John: But that we may discover it assumes that a grand unified theory of existence is even accessible to us.

Skip: Here is a question for you! Was mathematics invented or discovered?

Pete: Pointcare and Phaedrus say it was invented. It is just a successful convention.

Alan: Fine but it is awe inspiring that mathematics is successfully applied to science. F = ma actually works. It actually describes mathematically the action of the physical world.

Skip: It only works most of the time. And that is the key. It is convenient for describing most things…a successful convention.

John: The Christian answer is better than the ordered mathematical answer. Belief in a God, a Prime Mover, who set the Universe in motion merely by speaking the Word, a God who created all things for his Own glory, and assures each of us through his Son and his Scripture that we are here as a part of that grand purpose is a more comforting and ordered proposition than the “successful conventions” of science.

Chris: Here is a secular alternative. Assume an oscillating universe. At each point of total collapse , of singularity, there are no physical laws. At least none that can be measured, and are ultimately impossible to define. Upon each expansion, the laws governing the universe must re-coalesce, such that each expansion is different, and if this happens an infinite number of times then most will be completely chaotic, but some (like this one) will have order. With an infinite number of tries, that is bound to happen. This is just as plausible an explanation for existence as that of a Creator God.

John: Fair enough, there are two plausible explanations, that of a Creator, and that of Chaos. How do you choose one over the other?

Skip: One has more Quality!

Chris: That it is an aesthetic choice.

John: Aesthetics is a legitimate criterion.

Pete: No matter how many monkeys one had banging away at a typewriter they are never going to come up with the Lord’s Prayer. It will not happen.

Skip: There is a calculable probability that it could happen, but the monkeys would need an infinite amount of time

Pete: Some philosophers take issue with the reality of infinite time. If there truly is an infinite amount of time, then there can be no true beginning or end, and thus we could never reach a specific moment in time.

Chris: A ridiculous argument! If there are an infinite number of whole numbers, and no specific number can be reached, how do we know any specific number? Say number 42?

Pete: Theoretically one can, but that does not mean infinity can be applied to the physical world.

Alan: The universe is accelerating apart? That blows my mind.

Eli: Come on, Alan! Your mind was blown long ago!

Voting for June:

Blood Meridian
O Henry Short Stories 
O' Henry
The Tao of Physics
On the Road
The Plague
This Side of Paradise

Next Meeting:

May 10th at the Dog and Duck Pub

May Phaedrus & Philebus, dialogues by Plato

June The Plague, Albert Camus

Athenaeum Meeting Minutes