An Inquiry Into Junk Philosophy

[My book] should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either. — Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The above quote out of the introduction to Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance should be taken as cautionary, because while his book is not factual on Zen and motorcycles, the book is also not factually correct (or correct in any other sense) regarding science, math, or even philosophy itself.

One of the first things that struck me while reading the book is how flat the characters (such as John and Sylvia Sutherland) were outside of the narrator. One sensed that the narrator had trouble distinguishing between who the characters are and who he thinks the characters are. They never appeared to have an existence outside of the mind of the narrator, and it gave an overall feeling that this whole book was setting us up for a strawman style of argumentation. Or, as Chris Edwards put it so well, that he created a shadow and was holding it “in a headlock” in an effort to debunk the shadow of an argument that he created. Along the way, Pirsig commits numerous errors in interpreting Newton, Plato, and Aristotle. In fact, just about anything he touches becomes tainted and untrustworthy. And since he insists that “Quality” has no definition, I was left to wonder: why am I wasting my time reading this? It’s an edifice of weasel-words.

I have to acknowledge that with over 4 million copies sold, the book has its adherents, and there are many people that sing its praises. I couldn’t read past his first or second debunking of science and math. Well, actually, in the style of Pirsig, it is the debunking of what Pirsig understands math and science to be. Once again, having put a stranglehold on a shadow.

I once wrote a letter to a friend listing a good deal of the problems I saw with Pirsig’s interpretation of Newton, Einstein and the early philosophers, and itemizing each one against the facts from someone (like me) who has read all of these scientists, and of philosophers like Aristotle and Plato (whom Pirsig refers to a great deal). In the years since I had sold my copy of Zen, and I can’t be bothered to itemize all of the problems here. To be sure, each utterance he made about them had problems, and one could only have been an adherent if the reader had never dabbled in philosophy, nor in the writings of Mathematicians or scientists.

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I am Paul King, a math and science teacher. I help maintain the MIT FAQ Archive along with Nick Bolach. I am also the maintainer of the FAQ for