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Ghosts and the art of bullshit maintenance July 30, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Science.
Tags: ,

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig presents a view of science that I fear many people will be sympathetic to:

After a while [Chris] says, “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“No,” I say.

“Why not?”

“Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”

The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”

The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. “Of course,” I add, “the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris says.

“I’m being kind of facetious.”

Chris gets frustrated when I talk like this, but I don’t think it hurts him.

“One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts.”

“He was just spoofing you.”

“No, he wasn’t. He said that when people haven’t been buried right, their ghosts come back to haunt people. He really believes in that.”

“He was just spoofing you,” I repeat.

“What’s his name?” Sylvia says.

“Tom White Bear.”

John and I exchange looks, suddenly recognizing the same thing.

“Ohhh, Indian!” he says.

I laugh. “I guess I’m going to have to take that back a little,” I say. “I was thinking of European ghosts.”

“What’s the difference?”

John roars with laughter. “He’s got you,” he says.

I think a little and say, “Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I’m not saying is completely wrong. Science isn’t part of the Indian tradition.”

“Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.”

He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. “Sure,” I say, reversing myself, “I believe in ghosts too.”

Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I’m not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.

“It’s completely natural,” I say, “to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It’s just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.”

John nods affirmatively and I continue.

“My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.”


“Oh, the laws of physics and of logic — the number system — the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”

“They seem real to me,” John says.

“I don’t get it,” says Chris.

So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”

“Of course.”

“So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”

John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.

“What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”


“Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere…this law of gravity still existed?”

Now John seems not so sure.

“If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.”

John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”

“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.

“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

“Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?”

“Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as ‘education.'” […]

They are just looking at me so I continue: “Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.”

That may sound profound, but in fact it is profoundly stupid. I’m sorry to be the killjoy rationalist who insists on shaking people out of their fuzzy warm postmodern stupor, but it’s important to, you know, stay in touch with reality. Natural laws (like gravity) are not objects that exist out in space like stars and planets; they are generalizations that describe how our world works. The important thing to remember is that the universe works however it works, whether any people understand it or not. Science is merely our best effort to reach such an understanding – and it turns out that you get better results by methodically testing your hypotheses against reality to see which theory best explains the evidence, rather than just making up stuff that sounds cool or makes you feel good.

Of course, it’s possible to think you understand how the world works, and be mistaken. For instance, we know now that Newton’s laws of gravitation are wrong: they are good approximations for how things work in certain special cases, but they do not apply more generally. However, Newton’s laws still predict the movement of planets a whole lot better than the prophecies of shamans, just as antibiotics are a whole lot better at curing infection than voodoo incantations. As Richard Dawkins puts it:

Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. . . If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there – the reason you don’t plummet into a ploughed field – is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right.

Humans can believe any number of things and invent any number of laws; but only some of those beliefs are justified by evidence, and only some of those laws really provide an accurate description of the world we live in.

After a while he says, “Do you believe in ghosts?””No,” I say”Why not?””Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”

The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. “Of course,” I add, “the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.”



1. Reshef - September 10, 2010

I don’t see how your definition of science contradicts scientific explanations that are based on ghosts, for example.

The author’s metaphor of quarks and atoms as a modern type of ghost seems in place.
Throughout history, man had always tried to understand and to explain the world around him, using whatever concepts familiar to him, and inventing new ones where needed. In that sense, ghosts, the Ether, and atoms are not that different. Some explanations that today seem to us as completely ridiculous, survived for decades and centuries exactly because they were able to provide reasonable predictions. They were eventually replaced only when other explanations have been shown superior, just as the Newtonian mechanics succumbed to the Relativity theory.

It is true that *some* (perhaps most) ghost-like explanations are unscientific, i.e. they were not tested empirically or passes reasonable refutation tests. However many theories that are published today in scientific journals suffer from severe methodological problems that earn them the title “unscientific” as well.

It’s not the use of formulas and laboratories that makes science. Atoms are not more “reasonable” than ghosts (have you seen an atom?) – they simply explain reality better.

2. Ohad - October 3, 2010

Here is a dilemma say a scientist makes a controlled experiment which proves praying for a persons health (without the person knowing you pray for him) improves the persons health (shorter stay in the hospital etc.).

Will such an experiment make you believe in god or at least in prying ??

Perhaps you should read this before committing to an answer:


Ezra Resnick - October 3, 2010

As far as I can tell, there is (so far) no good evidence for the effectiveness of “intercessory prayer.” In the study you cited, two out of the three criteria measured showed no effect, and the third showed a weak effect which is well-explained by chance (see here). In the most comprehensive study to date (STEP in 2006), patients who knew they were being prayed for fared worse on average than those who were not prayed for and those who didn’t know they were prayed for (the latter two groups showed nearly identical results).

But to answer your question: if there were good evidence for the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, then I would believe in the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. That would not imply that anything supernatural is going on, just like the placebo effect doesn’t imply anything supernatural: for instance, our minds might be capable of things we cannot yet explain. It certainly would not strengthen the theory that the Bible is the word of God or that Jesus rose from the dead (unless, of course, Christian prayers were found to be significantly more effective than Muslim prayers and Hindu prayers). And let’s not forget the age-old mystery: if God does answer prayers for healing the sick, why doesn’t he ever answer the prayers of amputees?

3. Lee - April 18, 2011

Can I ask if you read the whole of the book? Because this extract misrepresents the what he goes on to say later 🙂

4. Lee - April 18, 2011

More precisely, you take on this extract misrepresents what this extract is gesturing at – and we might want to remember that at this part of the book he was hooking you in. If you think about what he goes on to say about how good science is about being open revision… But that actually our scientific theories are paradigms which are best fit, workable and functioning takes on the world around us. All scientists say this, and I’m not sure dawkins and prisig are at odds on that point… Otherwise there could not be any further developments within scientific theory, becaus everything would already be known. Where dwarkins and phaedrus would differ would be the extent to which rationality can provide everything. Dwarkins would suggest rationality is fine as it is, phaedrus would say rationality is limited by a subject – object distinction and so we need to think about what it is good for ( I think he gives actually uses designingbuilding plans as his example) and what it isn’t (defining and helping us understand qualitywithout losing quality). Your piece makes it seem as though what is being advocated is out and out cultural relativism: this is an unfortunate misreading of the book. What is happening is an account of how we can engage with the world in away which is not purely based on a subject-object split is what is being offered. Rationality and science which uses this split also has a major place, but it’s not everything because existence is not predicated on a subject-object split (although many of our tendencies of though are – which is necessary). The existence, the lives we live is bigger and more than the operating modes of logic. Science is a tool for application. It strikes me that you may have got hung up on a few of remarks of earlier on in the book and so were unable either to continue or
actually follow what was said later. I too was taken back by this claim in
the book, but he goes on to explain later what was really meant by it.

You might also wish to remember that these words are the words of a character in novel.

And a potentially helpful thought might be: we are able to explain scientifically things going on in the universe and for a large part how things came about… but THAT there is existence, that existence itself exists is a mystery. (the big bang for example is a scientific explanation of the orgins of the universe but THAT there is an origin, THAT there is any kind of existence, THAT the conditions for the big bang to occur existed is a mystery.)

Ezra Resnick - April 18, 2011

Thanks for your comment! I did read the entire book, but it was a while ago. It’s possible that Pirsig presents a more nuanced view of science later on, but (a) he definitely thought he had identified some kind of fatal flaw in science and rationality (which caused him to leave his scientific studies), and (b) as I said in my post, I fear that many people would be sympathetic to the view of science expressed in the above passage — and that is what I’m criticizing here. For that matter, your talk of “mystery” sounds awfully similar to the old “God of the gaps.” Just because there are things we can’t currently explain scientifically doesn’t mean they never will be, and neither does it justify non-scientific alternatives.

5. Ed in Cary - August 17, 2012

I read this thing a few decades ago although I admit that I read through the meat of it — the so-called “intellectual detective story” — in a daze. I was attracted back by my recollection of the obsession with “quality,” a recurring theme in my own mind although probably having very little to do with what “quality” means to Pirsig. My concern with “quality” is as an antidote to our increasingly unmoored, throw-away culture. We charge through life unbound by tradition, treating culture as a cafeteria, leaving behind us mounds of physical garbage, and — more importantly — moving through people and relationships with the same I-can-get-another-one-at-Walmart attitude that we apply to our objects. We expect jobs and communities to be places we are passing through.

I am interesting in cultivating a more traditional, more permanent, more leisurely and deeper relationship to everything in my life, most conspicuously objects, food, products of my labor, etc. I want to treat things with care and understanding. (I’d want to be a bit of a motorcycle mechanic if I were still foolish enough to ride one of the death machines.) Ideally, this attitude would extend gradually from the physical and trivial to the more profound things in my life like other people. I don’t remember much, but I am not sure that my ideas have anything to do with what is on Pirsig’s mind.

My Kindle advises me that I am about 10% of the way through this book when I come to the passage about ghosts that Ezra quoted. I am extremely put off by this gibberish, as I see it. Allowing that maybe I just don’t get it, let me say bluntly that it struck me as sophomoric, pretentious, and ridiculous. I got out of bed, woke my computer from hyphenation, and asked Google to help me with “Pirsig ghosts bullshit.” It broadly me directly here! Talk about ghosts that can really perform…that Google gets it done! It nailed the very spot where I was reading and with the top hit.

I have a lot on my mind and “quality” is just one loose thread among a number. And Pirsig is just one thing that pops up when I tug at the “quality” thread. I am getting old and beginning to fret that I am likely to die without the consolation that I, at least, have a few things somewhat in hand. I am pretty sure that I don’t want to spend another hour of my life in the intellectual company (or confusion) of this gentleman.

Ezra Resnick - August 17, 2012

Thanks for your comment, Ed!

6. Mick Berry - May 10, 2014

HI Ezra,

I”m with you all the way. I just re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I gotta say it is chock full of garbage. In fact, the only parts that are not garbage are the reconciliation with his son. That matters. That is profound. And the reason it comes about is because he abandons his obsessive preoccupation with his horseshit philosophy. Not only is his view of science pathetic, his view of philosophy is infinitely worse. To say that truth won out over good is to view the two as incompatible and at odds. In actuality, truth is invariably good. That’s what science lives for. Pirsig has put together one of the most obfuscating stock piles of lies, destruction, renunciation of substance, and arrogant claims of profundity couched in stupidity. Thanks for putting this together. People can complain about science all they want to. They continue to live benefiting from it on a daily basis, if in nothing else than indoor plumbing. That alone is based upon the predictable behavior of water pressure, and gravity.

Ezra Resnick - May 10, 2014

Thanks for your comment, Mick!

7. Zach - June 12, 2016

I’m not sure how much traffic this place still gets, but it’s one of the first links, and I found many of the comments to be unclear in the explanation of what Pirsig attempts to explain. I thought about it a bit, and tried to explain it a few different ways. I’m not trying to convince you of anything, believe what you like.

here’s what Pirsig is saying about gravity not existing before Newton. The universe exists. Gravity is a concept created by a human to try to explain how the universe works. A bit of tracing paper if you will, with footnotes that say, I think we may expect things such as this to occur, if you also use math as a way to explain and understand the universe, these figures(numbers, equations, etc.) will help quantify what I expect to occur, and was found to be a pretty good explanation for the mode of operation of the universe. Where the mistake is made in the average mind (he asserts) is the firm belief that gravity exists, “out there” and existed before the tracing paper was laid out. The universe simply is, gravity exists only in our minds as a pretty good way to explain the operation of the universe.

Some will likely be adamant in believing that yes everything I’ve said above is true, but the concept of gravity, or whatever the actual “rules” for attraction between objects are, shaped the universe as we know it as soon as any matter existed (i.e. The Big Bang). This is true, it’s not as if before Newton things did not fall if you dropped them. But this is not the point of what the character attempts to explain. While it’s poorly explained in this dialogue to anyone who tries to investigate and pick apart what he said, I believe the real point he tries to make here is that, the universe exists, things (objects and subjects) exist, ideas do not, they are imaginary, real only in our minds. If there were no cognizant life forms, the universe would still operate, but the idea would cease to exist

I expect this explanation too, to be unsatisfactory. I’ll try to say it in a different way to clarify.
The things that, in human experience, physically exist are objects. Gravity, as a concept, exists only in our minds, as does the world of a science or fantasy fiction novel. Or even the past, or the future of the world we now inhabit. The only thing that exists, as physically real to human being, is now, the current moment.

If you’re having trouble with the gravity/fiction duality. I mean to say that fiction novels are worlds of their own. Science is the tracing paper we lay upon our own world to understand its operation.

Science will only ever be tracing paper, it will never exist out there in the physical world, we will never touch it. While the law of gravity is an amazing bit of tracing paper, that’s all science can ever be, is a method for quantifying and understanding the physical occurrences of the universe, as we understand and experience their occurrence.

He wants to say, even if an idea is completely accurate in explaining the operation of the universe, the universe does not concede to the concept, it simply is, and the concept lets us understand the operation.

Zach - June 12, 2016

Looking at this again, it seems Ezra and I are largely saying the same thing, but he is dissatisfied with the thought, or maybe explanation of the thought that Pirsig provides, and I am satisfied with it

Ezra Resnick - June 12, 2016

Thanks for commenting, Zach! I think the distinction you make is philosophically interesting, but it seems to me that Pirsig goes farther than that: he is claiming that the laws of physics and logic are human inventions in the same sense as ghosts and spirits; that our belief in them is just as “ignorant and barbaric and superstitious”, due only to brainwashing; and that favoring the “scientific point of view” over “a different way of looking at things” is “arrogant and conceited”. That is what I’m criticizing.

Zach - June 12, 2016

Reading the section again, I’m a bit surprised that at first I hadn’t understood your criticism. I had gotten caught up in trying to see what he meant that the law of gravity didn’t exist before Newton that I glossed over what seems to be direct criticism of science. He certainly does a poor job of clarifying whether he’s criticizing people as ignorant of the constantly evolving nature of systems of understanding the world, which has led us to science. Or if he’s criticizing the belief that because science is inherently a more accurate method it must logically be a better system.

I think the line at the end of this excerpt where he says “Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past” helped me justify my understanding of this section, but an unfortunate bit of writing that leaves itself open to question nonetheless.

Ezra Resnick - June 12, 2016

You might also be interested in a post of mine entitled “Useful fictions“.

8. ceebee - September 25, 2016

oh man, so glad you posted this. I was reading the book, generally enjoying it, then I read the “ghosts” passage, and thought “what the f@ckin hell, you’re kidding me right?”. My background is physics, and to say Pirsig has no idea what he’s talking about re energy/gravity would be an understatement. I would go on, but basically, I thought and think exactly what you wrote above. He creates a scarecrow out of the “law of gravity” then knocks it down in a self-congratulatory way. It’s absolute non-sense. I better, more humble, more accurate view of the world, energy, and mathematics can be found in “The Character of Physical Law”, by Richard Feynman (especially Chapter 2 of that book). Man, Zen is such a pretentious book. Going to keep reading, but am now annoyed.

Ezra Resnick - September 25, 2016

Thanks for the comment, ceebee!

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