Understanding requires repeated formulations.

from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig page 237 fiction ~5 min read

Then he saw it. He brought out the knife and excised the one word that created the entire angering effect of that sentence. The word was "just." Why should Quality be just what you like? Why should "what you like" be "just"? What did "just" mean in this case? When separated out like this for independent examination it became apparent that "just" in this case really didn't mean a damn thing. It was a purely pejorative term, whose logical contribution to the sentence was nil. Now, with that word removed, the sentence became "Quality is what you like," and its meaning was entirely changed. It had become an innocuous truism.

He wondered why that statement had angered him so much in the first place. It had seemed so natural. Why had it taken so long to see that what it really said was "What you like is bad, or at least inconsequential." What was behind this smug presumption that what pleased you was bad, or at least unimportant in comparison to other things? It seemed the quintessence of the squareness he was fighting. Little children were trained not to do "just what they liked" but -- but what? -- Of course! What others liked. And which others? Parents, teachers, supervisors, policemen, judges, officials, kings, dictators. All authorities. When you are trained to despise "just what you like" then, of course, you become a much more obedient servant of others...a good slave. When you learn not to do "just what you like" then the System loves you.[1]

But suppose you do just what you like? Does that mean you're going to go out and shoot heroin, rob banks and rape old ladies? The person who is counseling you not to do "just as you like" is making some remarkable presumptions as to what is likable. He seems unaware that people may not rob banks because they have considered the consequences and decided they don't like to. He doesn't see that banks exist in the first place because they're "just what people like," namely, providers of loans. Phædrus began to wonder how all this condemnation of "what you like" ever seemed such a natural objection in the first place.

Soon he saw there was much more to this than he had been aware of. When people said, Don't do just what you like, they didn't just mean, Obey authority. They also meant something else.

This "something else" opened up into a huge area of classic scientific belief which stated that "what you like" is unimportant because it's all composed of irrational emotions within yourself. He studied this argument for a long time, then knifed it into two smaller groups which he called scientific materialism and classic formalism. He said the two are often found associated in the same person but logically are separate.

Scientific materialism, which is commoner among lay followers of science than among scientists themselves, holds that what is composed of matter or energy and is measurable by the instruments of science is real. Anything else is unreal, or at least of no importance. "What you like" is unmeasurable, and therefore unreal. "What you like" can be a fact or it can be a hallucination. Liking does not distinguish between the two. The whole purpose of scientific method is to make valid distinctions between the false and the true in nature, to eliminate the subjective, unreal, imaginary elements from one's work so as to obtain an objective, true, picture of reality. When he said Quality was subjective, to them he was just saying Quality is imaginary and could therefore be disregarded in any serious consideration of reality.

On the other hand is classic formalism, which insists that what isn't understood intellectually isn't understood at all. Quality in this case is unimportant because it's an emotional understanding unaccompanied by the intellectual elements of reason.

Of these two main sources of that epithet "just," Phædrus felt that the first, scientific materialism, was by far the easiest to cut to ribbons. This, he knew from his earlier education, was naïve science. He went after it first, using the reductio ad absurdum. This form of argument rests on the truth that if the inevitable conclusions from a set of premises are absurd then it follows logically that at least one of the premises that produced them is absurd. Let's examine, he said, what follows from the premise that anything not composed of mass...energy is unreal or unimportant.

He used the number zero as a starter. Zero, originally a Hindu number, was introduced to the West by the Arabs during the Middle Ages and was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans. How was that? he wondered. Had nature so subtly hidden zero that all the Greeks and all the Romans...millions of them...couldn't find it? One would normally think that zero is right out there in the open for everyone to see. He showed the absurdity of trying to derive zero from any form of mass-energy, and then asked, rhetorically, if that meant the number zero was "unscientific." If so, did that mean that digital computers, which function exclusively in terms of ones and zeros, should be limited to just ones for scientific work? No trouble finding the absurdity here.

He then went on with other scientific concepts, one by one, showing how they could not possibly exist independently of subjective considerations. He ended up with the law of gravity, in the example I gave John and Sylvia and Chris on the first night of our trip. If subjectivity is eliminated as unimportant, he said, then the entire body of science must be eliminated with it.

This refutation of scientific materialism, however, seemed to put him in the camp of philosophic idealism...Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Bradley, Bosanquet...good company all, logical to the last comma, but so difficult to justify in "common sense" language they seemed a burden to him in his defense of Quality rather than an aid. The argument that the world was all mind might be a sound logical position but it was certainly not a sound rhetorical one. It was way too tedious and difficult for a course in freshman composition. Too "far-fetched."


  1. This quote is similar to William Jame's declaration that a person's "should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted" ↩︎

—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 237