Reflections on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

post by LoganStrohl (BrienneYudkowsky) · 2023-02-26T20:46:29.553Z · LW · GW · 3 comments


  Chapter 1
  Chapter 2
  Chapter 3
  Chapter 4
  Chapter 5
  Chapter 6
  Chapter 7
  Chapter 9
  Chapter 10
  Chapter 13
  Chapter 14
  Chapter 15
  Chapter 16
  Chapter 19
  Chapter 20
  End Note

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig twice in 2019. I wrote reflections on many of the chapters as I went through the second time. I posted them to a Goodreads book group at the time, but I've decided to collect them here as well (unedited) because I keep referring to them and I'm tired of saying "but you may need a Goodreads account". They're chapter-by-chapter (though I did not have any notes for some chapters), so I don't know that they'll make any sense if you've never read the book.

There's nothing like a thesis here, and it's not a distillation. These are literally my journal entries. I don't know what you're likely to get out of this if you read it, but I think Zen and Motorcycles is important, and there are a lot of people who seem to like it when I think things and then say which things I thought. That's what this is.

Chapter 1

I like how vividly Pirsig evokes the anti-technology feels in me. I'm very sympathetic with John and Sylvia at the end of this chapter.

I'm strongly reminded of my recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I did not have type-1 fun while I was there. In fact I became quite upset, and when I left I had the thought "burn that place to the ground".

I think it's because of what so many artists were doing in the second half of the 20th century. If the SF MOMA collection is representative, I think modern artists have been grappling with how to reconcile technology with human brains, mainly by demonstrating that doing so isn't automatic. I tried to pick out the least unpleasant pieces there to spend time with, but even given that selection criterion, two out of three of the pieces I really sat with made me feel isolated, disoriented, jarred, betrayed, and in contact with something horribly alien.

I've wondered about why I responded that way to so much of the art there. The heart of it seems to be that it's all "unnatural" and "inhuman". Popular elements include sharp angles, straight lines, sudden color transitions (lack of gradients), literal randomness, and deliberately thwarted expectations. All of these elements are rare in nature, and indeed in the structure of our own minds. At one point I went out to a court yard where there's a wall completely covered in plants, and I've seldom felt such tremendous relief.

Chapter 2

I'm most interested in two questions at the end of this chapter. 1) What does a spectator attitude feel like from the inside? and 2) Do I need to know "what I am" for "what I am" and "what I do" to be integrated?

I'll let 2 sit and hang around as I read more of the book.

Let's look at 1: What does a spectator attitude feel like from the inside? Surely it feels good in some way, because it's trying to do *something* and maybe it's succeeding. What is it trying to do? What does the spectator attitude want?

I think it wants to be invulnerable. If you're a spectator at a sporting event, you're not in the game, and only people in the game -- the players -- can loose, or twist their ankles, or damage their team's strategic position.

Players are also processing more information, and have fewer resources free to devote to other things. They might not notice a lion entering from the other side of the arena, while a spectator would, because the player is zoomed in. It's also just easier to process less information, and easier can be nicer, especially when one feels scarcity.

But mostly, I think spectator mindset is about wanting to be somehow engaged without getting hurt in any way that matters to you. Spectators do not want to be unsafe. They are risk averse. They are afraid, at least when they imagine actually trying, actually caring, being in the game.

It might be something like my attitude toward math class in late high school. In middle school, I was "good at math", and I thought I might want to be an astrophysicist. Then something went really wrong in my math education. I'm not sure what. I only remember that by junior year, I wasn't trying at all. The teacher assigned problem sets whose answers were in the back of the book, and I would simply copy down the answers. I had come to feel that I was "bad at math", and I felt that if I didn't try, it didn't mean anything when I failed.

Sometimes a problem would get through to me, and I'd feel curious, and begin actually trying to solve it. But at the first sign of trouble, I'd start semi-randomly moving terms around, using formulas I'd copied down in class but that had nothing to do with the problem -- twiddling wrenches, as Pirsig says.

I've been taking running classes through the Peloton app. Beginner classes, because I'm coming back from an injury that took a really long time to heal. Something almost all instructors say at least once their beginner classes is "You are a runner." It doesn't matter how slow you're going, they say, or whether you walk all the recoveries, or whether you've never run even once before today. You're running right now, and that makes you a runner.

But why do they need to tell us this? Why are beginning runners disinclined to think of themselves as "real runners"?

It's because beginning runners are *bad* at running. They're slow, they can't run very far, and their form sucks. It can be scary and painful to be bad at something you care about, especially if you're making bucket errors all over the place and taking every struggle as strong evidence that you'll never improve. And if you "are a runner", then running must be something you care about. It's more comfortable, when you're just starting out, to keep what you are separate from what you do. Yes, you've been running a bit, but it doesn't really matter how it goes because you're "not a runner" anyway.

The thing is, running is hard. Especially in the beginning. The first month or two is miserable for almost everyone who hasn't run before. I think it took me almost three months before I really started to enjoy it.

If something is hard, and really unpleasant, and requires regular sustained efforts to make progress, *and* you are actively suppressing and distancing yourself from the parts of you that actually care about it, then what do you think are the odds you'll make it through those first couple months and still be running on the other side of them?

My guess is, pretty darn low. Thus, every running instructor tells their students, "It's ok to care. Right now. Please care. You are a runner, so be in the game and give this everything you've got."

That all feels a little different from what's going on with the mechanics, though. With the mechanics, it seems more like resignation. It's like they've been forced, by the necessity to put food on the table, to get some kind of job, and they've found that people will pay them to twiddle wrenches. They don't want to do it but they have to, so they make sure it isn't quite *them* that's doing it. They put their cares elsewhere, and do just enough to get paid.

Which reminds me of my question from Chapter 1 about "technology" and "the system". I don't think the mechanics are having problems interfacing with "technology", exactly, but maybe something's going wrong in their relationship with "the system". The one that pushes for specialization and hierarchy. The one that makes technological advancement rapid. They got swept up in it, and now they're riding along.

My guess is you're at risk of that particular kind of spectator attitude whenever you feel that you "have" to do something. It seems possible to have huge constraints on your decisions while still being the one who carries them through. But maybe it's easier to check out, to separate what you are from what you do.

Chapter 3

This chapter is a great deal less irritating after having read the rest of the book, and especially the Afterword. The first time I got to Chapter 3, back in high school, I gave up on the whole book. I guess I didn't think much of the words of someone who believes in ghosts.

The second time I read this chapter (in October 2019) I thought he was using words incorrectly. Now I think his thoughts just don't fit easily into accustomed usages, and he's making do. (It still annoys me, though.)

Chapter 4

I'm thinking about love, perception, and maintenance. I've said before that any goal/task/project requiring small consistent effort takes love, and I wonder what I mean by "love".

I always think of gardening when I'm on this topic. Nothing I've ever done to care for my garden -- reading about horticulture, applying compost, installing drip irrigation -- has had nearly the effect of taking a walk around my house each morning while deliberately enjoying the plants.

And I don't know, maybe that's because I'm not a professional landscaper who solves the same gardening problems day in and day out. Farming has obviously been industrialized, and I expect with the right equipment most of it can be done from an office.

But I don't already know all the answers, and the land I'm working with is not a homogeneous empty monoculture field anyway. The sun and rain fall differently to the North, South, East, and West sides of my house. The acidity of the soil varies by patch. I tend dozens of species, most planted but some cultivated natives with weedy habits. There are certain spots where the neighbor cats like to nap. It's an extremely complicated system that exists nowhere else, and it's always changing. (I change with it, to try to keep up.)

So to succeed, I have to love my garden. I'm talking about the thing that drives me to pay a great deal of attention to the details of it, frequently and regularly, making it a part of my mind and life. When I'm not in love with my garden (which has happened before), I don't really look at it. I go, "There are some nice plants," but I don't sniff the individual petals, and I don't see the aphids on the rose buds, or the wilting leaves downstream of a clog in the irrigation tubing.

It doesn't take that much love, really, to get most of the benefit. Just a regular morning walk to enjoy the flowers. And later that day, when I'm deciding what to do next, it occurs to me that I might spray the lilies for the rust I noticed earlier. And after that I end up weeding around them, to make the area less hospitable to rust and other fungi.

I think the love that supports maintenance is a matter of enjoying the contact enough to bother making it at all.

Chapter 5

"He isn't so interested in what things *mean* as in what they *are*." I think I don't understand what "grooving" is. I thought it was improvisation on a theme, but it seems to mean more than that to Rob.[1]

I'm irritated by this section about the beer can shim. From my perspective, it seems like Rob has "mean" and "are" backwards. John sees a beer can. Rob sees thin aluminum in a cylindrical shape. I think there's way more meaning in John's perception, and it's the meaning "beer can" that stops him using the material as a shim.

Whatever Rob means by "mean", it must point to this thing about parts and relationships. Maybe "grooving" doesn't see things as made of parts? Maybe it thinks things are our concepts for them, and that those concepts are atomic and final? Clearly I'm having trouble finding John's vantage point, or even Rob's vantage point on John's.

Maybe some of what's going on is that Rob's describing a caricatured "scientific way of looking at things" from John's perspective, and I know it's an inaccurate description of how Rob sees motorcycles. Or maybe I'm just so far into one of these perspectives that I can't move around to find one where this stuff makes sense.

I guess there *is* a particularly ungrounded way of doing "parts and relationships and analyses and syntheses and figuring things out". It maybe looks something like Freudian analysis or p-hacking. That way of doing things uses what's in front of you as an excuse to stay trapped in your head building complex structures that never intersect the rest of the world. But I certainly wouldn't call that a scientific way of doing things, as science is at heart about observation and experimentation. Maybe if you don't know that, though, there's no apparent difference between science and arbitrary symbol manipulation?

I don't feel satisfied with that. It doesn't make the beer can shim section click, largely because Rob obviously does fully grounded science with his motorcycle all the time.

Chapter 6

Wow, there's so much in this chapter! It's going to take me ages to process satisfactorily.

I'm a little overwhelmed by how much there is to think about here (in part because I'm low on sleep). I think I'll try asking some questions to focus myself.
- What is the bucket error I sensed myself making (if it is one)?
- I felt threatened an awful lot in this chapter. What am I afraid of? What do I want to protect? Which specific words caused the most fear?
- Does the classical/romantic distinction seem real to me? What's off about it? What's a realer version? How would I name the domain of the distinction?
- In this analytical style, how would I describe the underlying form of a garden?
- What the heck is underlying form? What the heck is surface appearance? Why am I angry when I ask those questions?

I sort of suspect that a bunch of what's going on is "Pirsig's trolling me". That's maybe not the most charitable characterization, but it's probably close to true. He wants me to be uncomfortable here. He wants me to feel the problemness of the problem. He thinks it's no good to just live one way or the other, and his whole book's about that. He's reminding me of what it's like to live just one way, or just the other way, and each time he does so I feel really uncomfortable, because I know it's no good. And apparently I also think it might be easy to end up living just one way or just the other way, else I wouldn't feel scared.

That's not all, though. It's not just being reminded of how it is to live one way or the other that makes me uncomfortable. It's the distinction itself. Perhaps I think that the danger is only present once the distinction is made. Maybe I think that it's not a natural distinction, but that it is a seductive one, and once you've been seduced by it you're inclined to choose a side and become loyal to that side.

According to another theory, I'm uncomfortable because I feel I've solved the romantic/classical integration problem, when in fact I've only learned to ignore it. Do I feel that I've solved the problem?

No. The real thing is that the distinction itself is attempting to solve a problem, and I feel aesthetically/morally driven to cope continuously with the deeper problem instead, even though many things would be much easier if I chose the classical/romantic distinction. What is the problem the classical/romantic distinction is trying to solve?

It may be a kind of resource scarcity problem in information processing. If so, then the question you're answering when you choose classical or romantic is, "How will I use all of this sense data to choose among all of these possible actions?" The classical answer is "I will deliberately build abstract models that efficiently predict the outcomes of possible actions." The romantic answer is "I will trust the decision weightings that automatically occur when I encounter sense data."

From this perspective, it seems like what upset me as I read was this: When I hear the question "How will I use all of this sense data to choose among all of these possible actions?", it's not immediately obvious that the two answers discussed cover the space of possible responses. For example, maybe I could outsource all of my decisions, or at least some of them; when Canadian natives used divination (actually randomness) to determine where to hunt deer, was that a classical or romantic solution? I think it was neither.

Or maybe that's not the problem that classical/romantic is trying to solve. And when I'm not clear on what question is being asked, it's really dangerous to buy into a particular answer. The further I buy in, the more inclined I'll be to ask the question in such a way that only one kind of answer is possible.

I'm not sure if any of that is right. I certainly don't have a sense of clarity about any of it. Unfortunately I think I'm too sleepy to work it out right now.

But I want to talk about "underlying form" and "surface appearances".

This reminds me of my problem with the beer can shim from Chapter 5. There are facts of the matter about what Rob held in his hand when he picked up the beer can. There's a noumenal beer can, so to speak. A thing that's out there in the world. Only it's definitely not a "beer can". It's not a "shim" either. It's a lot closer to being a hollow aluminum cylinder covered in a thin layer of aluminum oxide, but even that is way, way more human than the ultra-alien non-phenomenal thing that's actually out there impinging upon human senses and activating concepts like "beer can" and "soft sticky metal" and "shim".

What I dislike about both "underlying form" and "surface appearances" -- and especially the (maybe unintended?) implicit suggestion that these cover the kinds of perceptions people can have of things -- is that neither seems to recognize the alienness of reality. The romantic seems to think the reality of a beer can *just is* whichever concepts are most automatically activated upon immediate acquaintance with the object. The classicist seems to think the reality of a beer can *just is* the properties of the parts and their relationships and functional tones. But clearly reality doesn't contain distinct objects at all (see the partial transfiguration stuff from HPMOR), and nearly everything we're talking about here has, at best, a useful correspondence to the world. If what you manage, in trying to solve the classical/romantic integration problem, is to weave together surface appearances and underlying form, you're still failing to reach toward reality. Or you're at least failing to do so deliberately, in a self-aware way, which apparently is important to me for some reason.

Chapter 7

It's remarkable how much of this it's possible to reconstruct, given enough time and effort, from just the excerpt on original seeing in the Sequences.

I started working with CFAR in 2018, intending to "study Original Seeing". Which is what I did for a whole year. Shortly before reading this book I tried to make a post (or series) discussing what I'd so far learned of original seeing. I found it to be an extremely difficult project, because I'd learned so much, and the implications felt enormous. I wrote at least four separate versions. By the time I had something that sort of worked as an essay, I'd basically scaled it back to a tips-and-tricks type post.

I'm reminded, at the end of Part 1, that my most salient thought while first reading this was, "Ah, yes, here are the things I would have needed to write as a preface."

Chapter 9

"It is much better to enter a statement 'Solve Problem: Why doesn't cycle work?' which sounds dumb but is correct, than it is to enter a statement 'Solve Problem: What is wrong with the electrical system?' when you don't absolutely *know* the trouble is *in* the electrical system. What you should state is 'Solve Problem: What is wrong with cycle?' and *then* state as the first entry of Part Two: 'Hypothesis Number One: The trouble is in the electrical system.'"

What is up with this cognitive thing I call "slowing down"? I seem to believe that an undergraduate philosophy education often gives it to people. I wonder if I'm right about that, and if so what about the philosophy education does it, and whether I can distill it.

"An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking."

Yeah, "careful observation and precise thinking", that's a name for the slowing down thing. Only "precise thinking" might give the wrong impression. What *is* precise thinking, exactly?

Chapter 10

I feel I'll need to grapple with this chapter a bit.

"The formation of hypotheses is the most mysterious of all the categories of scientific method. Where they come from, no one knows." I don't like your attitude, guy. Could we at least talk about it a little? I'm sure we could come up with some hypotheses about where hypotheses come from. (I recognize that you're probably speaking more for the scientific community here than for yourself.)

What is a hypothesis? I'd like to know what we're talking about. When I'm being precise, I think I say "hypothesis" when I mean "predicted observation".

That doesn't seem to fit with what I'm reading here, though. I think you're talking about simulated systems of interrelated parts from which particular observations can be deduced to be more or less likely. In other words: models, maps, microcosms, theories. Rich lists of properties corresponding to the way the world might be.

Are there indeed infinite ways the world might be? Sure. But fortunately, predicted observation, let alone controlled experimentation, is not the only way to rule out the vast majority of them. And of what is left, it is possible to approximately rank them before they are tested. You don't just generate and test hypotheses at random.

I'm sorry, I can tell that I'm sweeping some things under the rug. I really ought to see through the eyes of your panic instead. Unfortunately I'm sort of tired and grumpy and don't think I do it properly right now. Let me try summarizing you in a way that sounds more literally accurate to me:

When you engage with the world by testing a hypothesis, more hypotheses occur to you. Working hypotheses are often displaced by new working hypotheses. The more people test hypotheses, then the more hypotheses are around, and the more quickly hypotheses replace each other. When many people are testing, generating, and swapping out hypotheses, the result is a world where there is too much information for us to process as a society, and our scientific endeavors cannot maintain a direction. Many people are put off by the overwhelming chaos, and prefer to distance themselves from the most obvious products of recent scientific developments. Even people who work directly with technology seem to maintain emotional distance from it.

But emotional intimacy with scientific methodology and its products is our only hope of sending societal development in any particular direction (perhaps because the source of the problem is undirected hypothesis proliferation, and hypotheses arise from the interaction of minds with the world?).

So anyway, I basically think that "hypotheses" are grounded dreams. Or grounded imaginings. They come from the same place as dreams, but the inputs to the association-network firing-patterns are more immediately external. *Good* hypotheses, the kind I suspect you're after, probably result from association networks that are themselves unusually grounded, especially in the features of reality that contain or reflect human values. That's what my own working model suggests.

Chapter 13

I haven't had much to say these past few chapters. I don't know how much that's because the book is sort of in an intellectual lull at this point, vs how much *I'm* in an intellectual lull. I suspect a bit of both.

I guess the main thing I'm thinking about is The Church Of Reason. I have some questions.

What do I think of The Church Of Reason?

I guess I at least have some fond feelings toward it. I was certainly raised in it (the naturalist branch in particular), much more so than I was raised in the Catholic Church.

I think a deep personal thread over the past seven-ish years, ever since I turned down the UMass Amherst philosophy department, has been discomfort and uncertainty about my relationship to the Church Of Reason. It's unclear to me whether I've left the Church entirely, whether I'm a non-practicing member, or whether something stranger is going on. I'd like to think the latter.

I'm reminded of a family friend I knew in high school. He was a gay Catholic priest who came out to his parish during a homily. The archbishop took away his congregation without reassignment, but in semi-secret he kept saying Mass in his own house for the people who wanted to come anyway. (Nobody but God Himself can take away your ordination once you have it. All humans can do is change your place in the social hierarchy.) I bet he felt pretty confused, out of his depth, and unsupported by the institution he'd expected to rely on. But I bet the sacraments he performed were at least as real as sacraments ever are.

How are universities different now (or when I attended) from what they were in the 1950s?

What does the larger history of the Church Of Reason look like?

What exactly do its members serve/worship?

Pirsig says they serve "truth", but he also keeps saying things that make me think we use that word differently; for example, in this chapter he calls truth "ever-changing", which rhymes with stuff he said in the proliferating hypotheses chapter that suggested "truth" is a synonym for "scientific consensus".

Has the Church really always served truth?

I think it's traditional to say that it started with Plato's Academy, which, if I recall correctly, literally worshiped Athena (the goddess of "wisdom"). I don't know what actually happened in the Academy, but in the Republic, Plato outlines a curriculum for the education of philosopher-kings. It includes study of "the good", which apparently means something rather different to Plato than it usually does to me. It seems like he really is aiming for a map that reflects the territory here: "When it comes to good things, no one is satisfied with what is opined to be so but each seeks the things that are." This is certainly making me want to read the Republic (again? Have I ever read it? Not sure.).

And what is it to "serve truth through reason"? What is reason exactly?

Chapter 14

"So I guess what I'm trying to say is that the solution to the problem isn't that you abandon rationality but that you expand the nature of rationality so that it's capable of coming up with a solution."


Chapter 15

"Write a 350-word essay answering the question, What is *quality* in thought and statement?"

Well, here's an awful rambling mess that gradually approaches what I actually think. I expect I could mine a decent 350-word essay out of it if I tried, mostly by flipping it upside-down, removing all the false stuff, and then replacing almost every abstract claim with a concrete illustration.

Quality is excellence. Thought is high quality when it has properties that result in utility. Quality is beauty. It is the features that people prefer, especially those features preferred even in the absence of context or meaning. The mirror of quality inheres in the structure of minds, and inclines bodies to shape the world in human-compatible ways. Quality statements impact a listener as intended, and/or as the listener likes to be impacted.

Perception of quality indicates degree of human compatibility. A thing is compatible with humanity when a human who interacts with it gains resources while doing so, and is low quality when said human loses resources. I have a teapot that drips tea onto the counter whenever I pour it. Because I don't want tea on my table, I have to get a cloth and dry the table every time. The teapot is low quality in this respect.

It is the structure of human minds and lives that determines what properties constitute quality, but it is the external objects themselves that admit of those properties. Some things are (really! themselves!) better than others because they exhibit features that humans prefer. An object only has quality in relation to its subject, but it is the object, and not the subject, that has quality.

It's common to confuse the quality of statements with their adherence to rhetorical guidelines. One might presume that a statement is of quality as long as it is true, concise, in active voice, and so on. But even a statement that somehow exhibits every rhetorically laudable feature at once may nonetheless waste a reader's resources. If readers spend time, attention, and emotional energy trying to comprehend a statement that leaves them totally unenlightened, and neither writer nor reader wants them to occupy that state at that time, then the statement is of low quality.

Do the "rules" of rhetoric then have nothing to do with quality? Absolutely not. The rules of rhetoric are tools for bridging between intuitive perception of quality and deliberate crafting of language (or at least, that's how they ought to be used). Each one points to some feature of linguistic processing in human brains. Parallel structure, for instance, preserves cognitive resources because humans are general intelligences who constantly learn; it is easier to learn from patterns than from chaos, so ideas presented through strong linguistic patterns tend to penetrate the reader's brain more readily.

The automatic perceptual processes that take in external sentences can quickly assess the quality of those sentences. Much of composition, though, comprises such deliberate processes as planning and reasoning, and it seems that deliberate processes have less direct access to quality judgements (by default). The right way to use the rules of rhetoric, when learning composition (as opposed to when editing and troubleshooting as a more advanced writer), is to feel for their phenomenological correlates.

Once you can easily recognize the particular pleasant flavor of how a logically valid syllogism impacts *you* -- once you've developed your taste for it -- your compositional thoughts may become more discerning of validity. Rather than failing to recognize the qualitative properties of your thoughts as you write, you will begin to choose the better thoughts over the worse thoughts.

I think that most attempts to teach rhetoric fail because they don't recognize the nature of such rules as bridges. They lead students to focus on the rule, rather than helping them use the rule to recognize corresponding properties of experience. (More importantly, students are seldom taught how to use educational instructions as cross-system bridges in general.)

If you learn with System 2 and write with System 2, your writing will appear to have been written with "calculating premeditation", as Pirsig says. But that's not the way to use System 2. System 2 should mostly be used to make System 1 smarter.

Untrained, System 1 flounders in undifferentiated possibility when it tries something as complex and deliberate as composition. If rules of rhetoric are to be learned, they should be learned in a way that offers System 1 traction through recognition of some experiences as distinct from others. Joint-carving distinctions between qualitative properties invite dialogue between automatic and deliberate processes, which is exactly what's needed to write well.

Chapter 16

"He felt that by exposing classes to his own sentences as he made them, with all the misgivings and hang-ups and erasures, he would give a more honest picture of what writing was like than by spending class time picking nits in completed student work or holding up the completed work of masters for emulation."

Yes, exactly. I think this is a bunch of why I'm unhappy with CFAR's workshop format. It's very hard to do authentic demonstration like this when you're churning out one pre-made unit after another over the course of four days, and then doing it again and again and again. This kind of thing takes time and space. It's a long-term discussion with a lot of time for both teacher and student to live their lives in between.

I'd like to spell out what the grades stuff has to do with quality. I'm not very clear on it. Same for original seeing.

Grades stuff:

I think it's similar to the auto mechanics who fiddle with wrenches during working hours then go home in the evening and forget all about it. They were engaging with technology, but they weren't really being full people while they were doing it. Contact takes three things: The contactor (a person), the contacted (a bit of reality), and a mechanism of interface (a body with sense organs, for example). The mechanics' bodies were touching wrenches and motorcycle parts, but the contactor was largely absent; the people of the mechanics were only as present as the system of hierarchical specialized 9-5 industrial productivity required them to be, which wasn't really very present at all.

I think a similar thing was up with grades. When grades were present, the people of the students remained as absent as possible; they'd much rather be home playing games or whatever and were only at school because the system required that they "get an education". Doing away with grades largely removed the students from the system, so more of their personhood started showing up, if only to figure out what was going on.

Chapter 19

"Quality *decreases* subjectivity. Quality takes you out of yourself, makes you aware of the world around you. Quality is *opposed* to subjectivity."

Aha! This is why I ended up following taste and beauty when studying groundedness! What exactly is going on with this?

Chapter 20

Harumph. I feel that there's been some conceptual slippage in the past two chapters. It gives a very good impression of Phaedrus falling off the edge of the world. He was doing so well, figuring out this quality stuff, and then he misstepped, stopped tracking some crucial pieces of the puzzle and slid into the great mystical abyss from which so few ever return.

We'd been talking about "what you like". There are two key distinctions Phaedrus seems to have failed to solidify in consciousness.

The first dropped distinction is between the *metaphysical type* of the object of liking on the one hand (though he and I have a slight dispute over what exactly that type is), and the features of instances of that type that we judge excellent or not on the other hand. Earlier chapters make more sense to me if we call "quality" those judgeable features. But now he's talking as though "quality" is immediate undifferentiated phenomenology itself. It seems to me that quality ought to *inhere* in immediate undifferentiated phenomenology, not to *be* immediate undifferentiated phenomenology. He's gone from a study of beauty to a study of value-orthogonal conceptualization.

I'll pause here to notice my confusion, though. Or my internal dissonance, or something. Because obviously value-orthogonal conceptualization doesn't exist. Not in humans, certainly, and perhaps not in agents generally. Maybe that's his point in this chapter.

Conceptualization (the scalpel, in Pirsig's parlance) is obviously value-driven. Everything has its functaional tone, and functional tone differs by mind type. A dog's perceptual landscape includes things for rubbing against and things for peeing on, and things I can't even begin to analogously conceptualize because I am not a dog, but presumably does not include things for helping one's church group raise money for its upcoming mission trip to Costa Rica. I may not primarily think of "a banana" as "a thing for eating" (instead I primarily think of it as a yellow peelable fruit with a certain flavor and texture), but I wouldn't recognize a banana as a distinct object at all if I didn't either eat or have some other reason to care about bananas. Parts of the world that are truly irrelevant to my values are parts that I fail to objectify, in the sense of picking them out as unitary things distinct from all the other things.

But maybe there's something special about beauty, and I worry we'll lose most of the value of this Quality business if we drop the focus on beauty. Unfortunately, I don't feel ready to dig into that today.

Also, I really care about our underlying metaphysical disagreement, even though I'm not sure it's relevant. I just don't think that The World: Level Zero is immediate undifferentiated phenomenology (though obviously phenomenology is part of the world). Immediate undifferentiated phenomenology is what happens when our sense organs send signals to our brains. I really think our sense organs are in contact with something fully mind-independent; I haven't yet found a satisfying account of why the stars display invarience that doesn't include noumena. It's noumenal reality that is shaped in ways we can prefer or dis-prefer, even though direct acquaintance is always phenomenal, and gosh darn it I just can't shake the intuition that yes you really will fall off the edge of the world if you forget that. I mean, remembering the noumenal nature of human minds kind of seems like the whole point of thinking about Quality! It's like he said in chapter 19, "Quality *decreases* subjectivity. Quality takes you out of yourself, makes you aware of the world around you." What is that all about if there is no world around you!?

Anyway. On to the second bit of conceptual slippage. (Actually, I'm not sure this is the one I had in mind when I said that there are two, but let's roll with it.) The second bit of conceptual slippage feels to me like it results from a failure read A Human's Guide To Words [? · GW]. It's this thing about Quality being the cause of subjects and objects. If I paint a cup red, I've caused the cup to be red. I have not caused the red cup to exist. Not in the sense that the potter or the clay or the kiln have caused the cup.

Similarly, if preferences drive conceptualization, then my preferences paint bits of the territory "banana". They pick out "bananas" as objects in relation to me, the subject, and in that sense they cause bits of the territory to be subjects and objects. But they do not cause those objectified and subjectified bits of the territory to exist. Unless we take that first ambiguation about metaphysical type and really smear it around while denying all mind-independent territory, I don't think we get Quality as the fount existence.

End Note

It appears that I stopped posting to the Goodreads group after this. Which is really a shame, because IIRC, Chapter 26 (the one about gumption) is among my very favorite chapters.

I feel almost certain I've written about Chapter 26, but I so far cannot find anything at all in direct response to it. 

However, I think Chapter 26 caused me to study gumption, which caused me to study gratitude, and as a result I wrote this monograph on gratitude. You can see the gumption stuff reflected throughout, but especially in the Appreciation section (about the distinction between appreciation and gratitude), and in this part:

Gratitude is properly a Winter emotion.

It can happen in the Summer, when things look warm and bright, when I tend to feel that I am powerful all on my own. But I need it more in the Winter. I need it when I might not survive if I fail to recognize a single one of the resources around me.

This is why gratitude should be trained as a skill. Anyone can be grateful with their mouth full of food. It is important to be grateful in times of abundance; it sends that abundance into the future. But to engage gratitude’s power, you have to be grateful when you’re hungry. That’s when every point of contact with the world matters most.

It isn’t hope, or optimism. It’s not about the possibility that food will show up soon, or about pretending you’re full when in fact you’re starving to death.

It’s about going hunting even then. Especially then. It sets you deep in the world, with other people who share your problems, where things can be learned and solutions can be found. When you’re inclined to shiver silently in a ball by yourself, gratitude keeps you moving.

  1. ^

    I actually ended up studying "groove" in 2021 (by which I mean it was the subject of a naturalist study [? · GW]), and I think I understand it much better now. Here's some of what I wrote during my studies:


    There's this thing in The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten where it talks about "groove". The idea is is that as long as you keep the groove, there are no wrong notes; it doesn't matter if you play a note that's out of key, because as along as you have the groove before you start playing and then keep the groove the whole time, you'll always use your "wrong note" to navigate toward a "right note", and the overall pattern will form "good music". In the audiobook version, it even demonstrates this by playing a chromatic scale over a chord progression; the chromatic scale is played in such a way that it's well articulated, uses appropriate rhythm, etc., and it really does sound good (to me). It sounds like it's full of deliberate and skillfully chosen accidentals, not like anything is "wrong".

    I've spent some time over the past few days thinking about what "groove" is. I'm not quite settled, but right now I think it's something like "polaris" or "telos" or maybe even "the void", in the Musashi sense [LW · GW].

    I listened to some free jazz today, and I wondered what groove I'd need to find to join these musicians in playing this particular piece. I think that in free jazz, they coordinate with each other not by agreeing on a tempo or a key, but by agreeing on some kind of felt sense, embodying that felt sense, and then Circling from it with their instruments. All jazz musicians do this, I think, but in free jazz there are no fall backs, so it's on especially clear display; it's either groove, or noise. (And indeed, until you can find the groove as a listener, free jazz is nothing but noise.) The main feeling that comes up for me as I listen to the song (though of course it evolves over the course of the piece) is something like "unrelenting meth assault". [Iirc, I was listening to Machine Gun by Peter Brötzmann's octet.] I think that if i embodied that felt sense, then any action I took in direct response to it, whether I was stomping my feet or singing or painting, would be jamming in that particular groove, provided I let the felt sense evolve in contact with the expressions of the other musicians.

    While preparing for my private dance lesson today, I asked myself, "What is my main obstacle to becoming a better lead?"

    And the answer I came up was: I need to learn to recover from my mistakes. To learn faster, I need to be more adventurous; but the more adventurous I am, the more mistakes I make. And right now, my experience of mistakes is pretty awful! When I "lead something wrong" and end up "on the wrong foot", out of time, out of balance, my default response involves panicking. And specifically, I panic in a way that causes me to drop my connection to my partner and the music.

    In partner dance, my connection to my partner and the music is the groove.

    I think that if you lead from your felt sense of the music and let that sense evolve in response to your partner's actions (or perhaps vise versa, if you're less into musicality than me), then you have the groove. And as long as you have the groove, it doesn't matter if you make a "wrong move"; as long as you respond to your "mistakes" with faithfulness to the groove, you'll use your perception of discord to navigate toward concordant rhythm and so forth, and the repeated resolutions will form "a good dance".

    I was not really able to put this to work in my lesson today. I was pretty socially overloaded at the time, and I failed to communicate to my instructor that I wanted to focus on this. But I did recognize many missed opportunities to maintain the groove through my mistakes, and noticing is usually the most crucial step. Instead of just "oh no I messed up, oh no, oh no", I thought something closer to, "oh no I messed up, and also I seem to have lost the groove". Which means I've created a valuable bit of space in a kind of moment that is usually oppressively cramped.

    I think my intuition is probably right here, and that my dancing really will start to improve pretty soon because of it.

    But more importantly, I just... do not see any reason at all why this principle shouldn't generalize fully. Groove isn't about music or dance, it's just about guiding intentions.

    I don't see any reason why I shouldn't take this exact approach to recovering from every wrong action in every domain, such that most of what I do is made of mistakes and yet mostly good things come of it, because I never abandoned the groove.

    I feel like various sources have tried to tell me this over and over again. I'm certain The Music Lesson is not the first time I've encountered exactly this point. But for some reason, this is the first time I've at least sort of believed it.


    Y'all it worked.

    Based on my lesson yesterday, I thought it would take weeks or months before I began to get the hang of keeping the groove when I make mistakes in dance. In fact what it took was sleeping.

    Today I had another private lesson (with Ashe, a different instructor than yesterday) plus some practice dances with both Ashe and Duncan. (Duncan and I have back to back private lessons with her each week.) I messed up a lot of times during those dances, and there were several times when I responded with something totally different from the "oh no oh no what now" that I'm used to.

    For example, at one point I attempted to lead laterals in half time, which I'd seen but never tried before, and what Ashe actually did was... a thing whose name I do not know, but it was roughly what blues and tango call a "figure eight". It's a lateral with fewer weight changes. (And, haha, she actually did them in regular time rather than half time, because I had changed some unknown thing in my leading of laterals that was *not* the tempo, while trying to change the tempo.) When I later tried to lead half time laterals with Duncan, he ended up doing a *different* thing that was not laterals; he simply did slow side lunges back and forth, no pivots at all. Pretty safe to say I do not yet know how to clearly lead super slow laterals.

    Up until today, if I'd realised that my plan to lead slow laterals had not turned out as expected, the dance would have fallen apart, at least briefly. Rather than support Ashe in her surprise-to-me figure eights, I would have frozen, fearfully retreated into myself, and let my arms go limp. I might even have *let go of her hands entirely* and said, "Oh no! Sorry!"

    Today it was completely different. The main thing on my mind was, "Oh, that's a cool thing she's doing!" followed by "Ok, here we are in these figure eight things (somehow); what feels right from here?" Same deal with Duncan's side-to-side lunges.

    And the most fascinating thing about all of this, the part that I did not anticipate even though it seems inevitable in retrospect, is this: The moments today when I felt most like I was Dancing were the moments in the aftermath of "mistakes".

    How can I characterize the difference?

    In the aftermath of mistakes, it felt... I'm going to stop trying to make so much sense here for a minute, and just say what occurs to me while I focus on my memory of the feeling: Drawn forward into the red/golden flow; catching the snow melt that glints in the sun as it falls from the highest branches; recognizing who this is, what this is, dancing in front of me. It felt vibrant, alive, exciting. It felt fearful, vulnerable, raw. It felt like walking barefoot on the edge of a cliff, and also like falling over the side and being taken by the rush of wind around me.

    Those words seem pretty big. They're accurate, but these experiences were in fact quite subtle and fleeting, and many of them were thoroughly blended with my more familiar response of retreating and giving up.

    And what was it like rest of the time, when things were basically going according to plan?

    That's a lot harder to answer, because that's *most* of the time, so there are a million ways it feels. But if I try to stand in today's memories of "recovering from mistakes" and look at all the other moments from *that* perspective, three things stand out:

    1) I'm very aware of my partner physically, but I'm usually not aware of them as a person. Sometimes I do become aware of them as a person, often when we speak to each other, but I usually "stop dancing" and simply repeat a very basic pattern while that is going on.

    2) I'm almost constantly planning. I'm so concerned with preparing for what comes next and how to accomplish it that I'm barely aware of what is happening now.

    3) I listen to the music, but I relate to it in a very plannish way. I have an idea about what I'd like to do next, so I check whether this is the right moment in the music. If it's not, I wait; I enter some kind of holding pattern, filling in the gaps until an appropriate time. I barely hear what __is__ happening in the music during the gap-filling period; I only here what __isn't__ yet happening.

    It seems to me that while I've really begun to find the groove in response to mistakes, it turns out that I have an extremely tenuous grasp on it the rest of the time. I usually have enough of a grasp that completely letting go of it was a noticeable and unpleasant change; but nothing close to what I would like to establish before I begin to move, and then to keep throughout the dance no matter what happens.


    While dancing during my lesson today, the moments of connection and presence and "Real Dancing" were not fleeting. They seemed to encompass most of the dance.

    Last week there was a lot of disconnected planning and following the plan, punctuated by gleaming moments of Dance when mistakes briefly woke me up. Today everything was much more fluid and connected. There were times when things did not go according to plan, and not only did I dance through it rather than freezing up nearly all of the time, but some of the time I didn't even think of myself as having made a mistake. It tended to feel more like discovery.

    I think it helped that I chose to focus on expressing dynamics (responding to the energy level in the music), and that I held a deliberate intention to experiment. We spent time on micro movements, which involve really intimate partner connection. We also spent time on rhythmic variations. At one point my instructor played a song that is not traditionally well suited to zouk, and said, "Ok, interpret this!" Which I did, and it was so exciting. As a lead I feel like, "Yes finally! This is what I came here for!"


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Rubix · 2023-02-27T12:21:04.445Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Chapter 1:

I don't remember where, but I recently saw a compelling argument that modern art has a revival after each war where a big chunk of the population served - the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam, in the last hundred years of American history - and that it's a form of processing war trauma. In this model, the alienation, meaninglessness, and inimical-to-nature aspect are useful for communicating about or post-processing the trauma of war.

comment by NickArgall · 2023-02-28T02:31:03.919Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I remember being profoundly disappointed by the judgements made during the story of the beer can shim. His anticipatory condescension doesn’t seem to be working in the direction of any kind of enlightenment. Indeed, the narrator seems to be stuck in a painful cycle of suffering. His motorcycle might be working, but something else isn’t.

Some people set out to study problems that must be solved, that simultaneously can’t be solved. The idea is to trigger a breakdown, and a breakdown is what we see in the book. I (and others) believe that deliberately triggering a breakdown is irresponsible if you don’t do it in a safe place. The importance of safe and supportive environments is easy to overlook when you think you’re reading a book of Japanese jokes.

Replies from: quanticle
comment by quanticle · 2023-02-28T09:18:07.222Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had a similar reaction when I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The main character is a terrible friend. There's a passage in the book where his friend is clearly frustrated with his motorcycle, trying mightily to start it, and instead of clearly and patiently explaining, "No, the engine is flooded, let it rest for a few minutes and then try again," he says, "It smells like a refinery," or something equally cryptic. And then he sits back, smug in the knowledge that he has imparted great wisdom, but his friend is too stupid to understand.

Similarly, when he was at his friend's house and noticed that their faucet was leaking, his reaction was to reflect on the superiority of people who know how to work with their hands and have a talent for dealing with mechanical systems, rather than asking to help. Even defusing the tension with an offhand remark about the unreliability of modern appliances would have been more helpful, and earned more of my respect as a reader, than his actual course of action.

Put bluntly, Pirsig comes off very much like the sort of edgelord presented in this meme. Whenever I have to help my non-technical relatives with computer issues or mechanical issues, I ask myself, "What would Pirsig do in this situation," and then do the exact opposite of that.