Turning 50: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Turning 50: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is a BBC Radio 4 “Archive on 4” edition broadcast last weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of publication of Robert Pirsig’s “culture-bearing” book in 1974. #ZMM50th

The host and interviewer is Dr Chris Harding, the voice of BBC Radio 3’s “Free Thinking” so I really shouldn’t have been surprised at what an excellent documentary he has created. (At the Robert Pirsig Association (RPA) we had helped the production team with existing audio-visual resources and contacts, but I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t twigged who “Chris” was until listening to the result.)

“Blimey!” was my initial reaction shared with the RPA team “I was waiting with ‘bated breath to hear the result. A truly excellent piece of work, from beginning to end – a whole hour documentary on Pirsig and Quality. Chris Harding clearly knew his subject, empathetic and creative in the selection and construction of content.”

And others responded, some already on their 2nd and 3rd listenings …

“Yes, great job!”

“Excellent selection and mixing of interviews and readings, the overall creative design.”

“It is wonderful! Touching on Quality as the ultimate origin, which is my own #1, life-changing takeaway from the book.”

“The BBC production is indeed excellent !!! ”

“Loved the interview with Jonathan Rowson as well as the creative selection of existing recordings and readings. The exhaustion with the profound, the choice of putting values at the centre, very insightful from Rufus Hound. Great to finish on the story – from both sides – of Bob and Jim first meeting each other after publication. The whole hour is a great piece of work. The profound in the cliché. Not really mad. Brilliant”

As well as Chris’ own interviews with Bob’s widow and archivist Wendy Pirsig, Bob’s original editor Jim Landis, comedian & writer Rufus Hound, philosopher and chess grand-master Jonathan Rowson and poet & law professor Ann Tweedy – there was a selection of archive recordings from python Michel Palin with reference to playwright Alan Bennett, DJ Johnnie Walker, artist Grayson Perry and more. Fascinating, life-changing snippets of biography woven into a compelling story of why ZMM remains vital to human attention to our relations with technology, fathers with sons, and with fellow humans in the world at large. Vital to our mental health, individually and culturally.

A gem of a documentary that will be a landmark of lasting value – true Quality.


See previously:

Salman Rushdie and Robert Pirsig – As well as referencing Pirsig’s use of Chautauqua, Gumption and Quality in his latest book “Knife in which Rushdie also describes writing and talking about his previous book Victory City, he also mentioned the significance of Pirsig’s ZMM when interviewed about his book before that Quichotte.

Rushdie’s 2019 book Quichotte is a sci-fi, magical realist retelling of Cervante’s Don Quixote by way of the American roadtrip novel, influenced in part by Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Rushdie explains in an Audible Blog interview with Tricia Ford…

“…actually, one of the books that helped me, strangely, was again an old book that happened to have some kind of anniversary, and I picked it up again, which is Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And in which I thought, never mind about the Zen and never mind about the motorcycle maintenance, but in the middle of it, there’s this very beautifully told relationship between him and his son going on this motorbike ride across America to try and get closer. And I thought, mine is also a novel about fathers and sons. And there are two father-son relationships in the book that are both very central to it

… And that was a book that helped me think about that.”

Jonathan Rowson on “Attention as a Moral Act” and the connection from Pirsig to Iain McGilhrist’s worldview.

Testimonials from more Pirsig readers at the Robert Pirsig Association (RPA) in this #ZMM50th year.


May 2024 Half-Way Update

More than half-way through May and I’ve not posted since the last weekend in April . Distracted by several things since the Robert Pirsig Association’s inaugural #ZMM50th anniversary Chautauqua on Sunday 28th.

      • Partly just reflection time on where next (?) for the RPA and taking the weather-window opportunity (at last) for garden chores and walking on the coast and moors through which to cogitate and meditate.
      • Partly diversion at short-notice last week to do a session for Teesside “Skeptics in the Pub” – brief presentation and longer discussion on “There is More Than Science – It’s Complicated.
      • Partly planning for the old-school 50th (and last?) anniversary reunion plus winding-up and archiving of the original “old-boys” alumni association.

And largely detail arrangements and bookings for two upcoming US trips.

      • Early June – the day after the above reunion (!) – the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISSS) 2024 conference in Washington DC, where I’m hoping to meet in person a number of important thinkers, and hoping I will have a session on language to communicate between scientific and humanistic (systems) thinkers (of which that there is “more than” science – above – is first-base – the need for such dialogue. (The #ItsComplicated tag is the systems response to “complexity sciences”.)
      • Early July – after a couple of weeks back home in UK – the ZMM50thRide, starting (for me) with events in Minneapolis, Mn and  ending with events in Bozeman, Mt.

Anyway, although I’ve not written on Psybertron in that time a couple of things have come up in recent weeks and days:

      • The whole decade-long Gender Self-ID debacle having come to a head –  in the UK – in the final version of the Cass Report, despite the findings being released 2 years earlier. Meltdown amidst Greens and ScotsNats factions with sanity restored in (Tory) Westminster government via Gillian Keegan. Would that the more social / liberal / democrat parties catch up rather than beating-up Tories with fake propaganda! We have until the November (?) election to sort this out. (Related – in local club and government democracy, two separate debacles in votes of no confidence against good-faith volunteers instead of progressive policy or constructive action.) #BinaryDestructionRules #MisunderstoodDemocracy
      • A fascinating discussion between Philip Ball & Iain McGilchrist about Philip’s latest book on the new paradigm / new biology of “Life” – Templeton-sponsored which will antagonise the scientistic 🙂
        (Some notes below, but if you can’t face watching the whole, just appreciate Philip’s first reaction to Iain’s input at 14:26 – “strategic” handling of meaning and purpose taboos in science.)
      • To be compared with a less than fascinating X/Twitter thread with James Croft (a Humanists UK Chaplain) in reaction to a one minute clip of Liz Oldfield correcting a misguided (scientistic) take on where the “spiritual” aspect of McGilchrist’s work fits real life. Real life which in Liz’s case involves Christian theistic belief. Mine doesn’t but she is so right about the morality of attention. The thread went back to Iain’s 2009 book Master and Emissary and early critical responses from Owen Flanagan (an appalling review in Nature?) and Kenan Malik (a talking past each other, off on the wrong foot, misunderstanding? Really about this RSA Report – pdf download here.) Content-free and meta to Iain’s actual content – in fact an illustration of the embedded received wisdom in science’s reaction to non-scientific taboos. Open to clarifying discussion if criticisms can be made of specific content?


More (raw) notes on watching the Philip Ball dialogue with Iain McGilchrist:

Philip’s nagging doubts in the productive operations of science as editor at Nature. (Same starting point for me, nagging doubts about something missing in physical science modelling of real-world organic, human organisations.)

“Systems Biology at Harvard” – Same systems response to complexity

Iain – “The barren-ness of the reductive exercise on causality.”

14:26 Philip’s “strategic” reaction to Iain’s first input
Meaning and purpose taboos.

The machine metaphor is the problem. (If we’re going to use computing machine / systems language – as I do – we have to be very clear it’s a very special non-mechanistic kind of machine we’re talking about – above some complexity threshold – an organism.)

What’s missing is something in “informational terms” – a computational metaphor in some sense.

Embryonic development beyond genetics.

Information as “to give form” – a verb.

It’s all there.


Post Note – I am a fan of Malik in several contexts, and in particular found his “Quest for a Moral Compass” excellent, and yet even then I remarked as “telling” on his “scientistic” tendencies that kept these cultural / moral / values issues distinct from factual truths – something I’d already detected in his engagement in the post-9/11 God vs Science wars (and probably his earlier reaction to McGilchrist). They are distinct – #GoodFences – but that’s no excuse not to understand the true relationship between them, an understanding that it’s nothing so crass as to suggest that one can be explained causally in terms of the other. In fact that’s the point here – that barren-ness!


Salman Rushdie’s “Knife” and Pirsig’s “Quality”

Rushdie’s been touring the media shows trailing his latest book “Knife” recounting the story of and recovery from the disfiguring stabbing attempt on his life in New York back in August 2022.

I would at some point get round to reading it, when my writing priorities are behind me, I’ve read and reviewed most of his works, including the previous Fatwa biography “Joseph Anton”. He’s always been a wonderful source of inspiration to me. Latest reading of Victory City here in early 2023 and hundreds of previous references here. I noted when the attack happened it was reported to have been at the Chautauqua Institution where he was lecturing. Chautauqua is a word I know – for public educational touring lectures – originally from reading Robert Pirsig, the original inspirational writer on my own philosophical research and writing quest.

Well, I happened upon the BBC “Book of the Week” abridged reading, the 3rd of 5 parts late last night and immediately re-listened and listened to all 5 parts. Victory City was the book he’d just finished but not yet published when the awful event happened. However, I was stirred into life realising he was using references to Pirsig and his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to talk about Chautauqua, Gumption and – yes – Quality, the root of Pirsig’s metaphysics.

We at the Robert Pirsig Association (RPA) have our first on-line Chautauqua this Sunday.


1991 and all that

I keep noticing and thought I’d share that several things (meaninglessly) coincided in 1991.

Robert Pirsig published his second book “Lila” in 1991

Dan Dennett published his “Consciousness Explained” in 1991

I completed and was awarded my Masters Degree in 1991

None of us knew each other’s work then, and there’s been huge convergence of thinking since – as Dan had noted in 2017.

Bob died in 2017, Dan died last week in 2024. There’s work to be done.

Onward and upwards.


What Keeps Me Awake At Night?

Ben Taylor responded to a challenge from Katrin Shaw on LinkedIn, and I’m taking it up, and taking a lead, from his response.

Suffering? No, I certainly don’t lie awake worrying about widespread suffering, unfairness and inequality in the world – a question as old as philosophy and theology, and I’m certainly fortunate not to suffer as a victim. Except maybe where it’s more like self-inflicted Stress, the stress of current ongoing commitments made to fellow humans, which are themselves part of an evolving set of wider operational, tactical and strategic priorities. The only time the bigger picture might keep me awake would be a positive complement to stress – those times when you may have stumbled Aha! onto some valuable thought or contribution to solving that bigger picture of “world suffering” – which you need to work out and articulate. In such cases, get up, write it down and forget about it until the next available day.

I spend my waking hours worrying about / working on that bigger picture of suffering – what can I/we do to make the world a better place? Which is of course then part of that conflict between tactical action and strategic intent – specific commitments now and better plans for the future. [If you were to poll my past employers, you’d probably notice a failure to deliver. I already know myself pretty well, so I often warn planners “that’s not really the kind of task you want to give to me? (or plan at all)”]

What is wrong in the world – suffering and injustice, and ineffective / inefficient / counter-productive responses to these – what needs fixing, what our creative-change priorities are, is an evolving and growing list already as long as your arm. Specific global crises, poly-crises, meta-crises, and all their local consequences in context. There is no shortage.

Politics? Ben says it only came to him in 2016 that politics, use and abuse of social power, despite his long-term active political engagement, was where the problem lay. For me that dawning was my first proper understanding the word “Cybernetics” back in about 2002. It is precisely about how we govern ourselves, our applied systems of governance – imperfect democracy, making, enabling and enacting, policy and decisions. Throughout the 1990’s I was already “being kept awake at night” by the thought that “we could do better” – better than my business (tech) systems day job – nagging worries that had no other outlet then than sleepless nights. The trigger moment – we really can and must do better – was 9/11 – consequential but incidental to the actual problem.

The learning since then has been that the problem – “the inability to make and enact good decisions” – applies everywhere from individual to social levels, from the simplest seemingly rational / scientific questions to the knottiest Multi-national Machiavellian scenarios. Left or right, liberal or authoritarian, all parties suffer the problem, a problem that prevents us even hearing each other. I’ve been selective as to which specific “crises” I’ve engaged with, driven mainly by the extent to which these are tractable examples of the deeper “Psybernetic / Dysmemic” problem.

Anger? – “Anger is an Energy” sings Johnny Lydon. [Another poll of past employers and colleagues would tell of my impatience.] I’ve learned a lot since the 9/11 milestone. I’ve learned a lot about where emotion properly fits our decision-making processes. And it really does. Attempts at excluding it are in fact part of the problem. My learned strategy is one of dynamic cycles over time, where, when and how. Visceral live-music events – natural outdoor mindful moments – and cool, spacious, cathedral-like human spaces –  are all part of my “Grace” toolbox.

Your experience may vary.


A Great Loss to the World – #RIPDanDennett

I almost said great loss to the intellectual world – but his intellect is indeed a loss to the whole world.

I last communicated with Dan only three weeks ago, about the fact he was planning to be attending this year’s “How The Light Gets In” only by telepresence. For various multiple conference priority reasons, I’m probably not going to be at HTLGI this year, and could maybe have done a flying one-day visit if it included the possibility of in-person contact. Sadly an opportunity gone forever.

And it’s not just his academic intellect, but the whole emotionally intelligent person we’ve lost. Quite moving that so many of the responses to his death on social-media mention his continuity of caring about the people that encountered him whether as colleague, interlocutor or mentor.

[Example of thoughts expressed, this one from Michael Levin colleague at Tufts, “intellectual integrity” personal & inspiring. And one of his later interview with Nigel Warburton. and another wonderful exchange with Tom Chatfield for the BBC.]

I was looking back at my correspondence with him over the years. Remember I’m only an autodidact fan-boy, but he never failed to respond to a thoughtful question about his work. Sometimes the response would inevitably be an apology for simply not having the bandwidth to do so, but usually it was a brief response to the specific question, with his thanks for showing interest. A lost art in these days of ubiquitous social media.

Given “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” runs through his entire career and body of work since his time in Oxford in 1965 – 6 decades ago – also fitting to note he shares the date of his death with Charles Darwin, the 19th April.

Anyway he’s been central to my thinking for the last 20+ years, so hundreds of mentions and references in my blog and writing and external papers delivered.

My wish is that people read his 2017 “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” – or “B2BnB” as I have always referred to it. I had a review published in New Humanist which explains why.

Too many people, interested in the internal arguments and history of philosophical ideas, still refer only to his 1991 “Consciousness Explained” – affectionately referred to by many as consciousness-not-explained because it is pretty much meta to the topic, about what the different arguments are and what an explanation would need to be and do. Influential in that respect, but not the place to find the answers he found in the decades since.

Apart from that highly recommended read – his book and my review of it – most of my encounters are around defending his ideas against those who mis-represent him. Whether un-reconstructed scientistic reductionists, who just don’t get it or the more enlightened who simply miss his meaning in using the word “illusory” to describe aspects of consciousness to suggest he denies its reality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

No-one cared more about the reality of consciousness than Dan Dennett.


Previously on Psybertron:

in addition to the review above

The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness

The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness

Dennett and the Little People (The determinist reductionists)

Dennett and the “Little People” #3

Convergence – Dennett at the Royal Institution

Daniel Dennett at The Royal Institution of Great Britain @Ri_Science

Hold Your Definition!

“Definition as a Coffin” – Cybernetics to Systems Thinking


My first reference to Dennett in 2002.

The first of 40 pages of references!


Seth is OK

Anil Seth’s Faraday Lecture has generated a fair bit of chat. I was initially a bit too unimpressed, not enough originality – probably turned off previously by his use of “hallucination”. In fact he is synthesising many of the same sources I am. Nothing new under the sun again (from my perspective).

The notes below are raw from watching the lecture in real time.

Since then, I’ve also skim read his “Being You” (a 2021 book) and it confirms that same synthesis and more – IIT and Tononi; Panksepp and Solms as well as Friston; Dennett right up to date. Different aspects, dimensions, levels and scales of consciousness. Uses as his epigraph, the same Edelman quote from Emily Dickinson as I did many years ago. He was a student of Edelman? … a fellow traveller I’ve overlooked.

A few minor points of disagreement – like treating Nagel’s “like to be” as an necessary component, before he’s said anything about levels – Metzinger but no McGilchrist – but I think we end up with the same model.


Mystery – zzz.

Lost under anaesthesia (main aspect anyway, self-aware aspect – the bits keeping us alive are still there – as as he concludes later – it has much more to do with life than intelligence).

We know it better than anything – a la Descartes

Nagel’s – like to be

Mystery – Chalmers – Hard Problem – zzz

The “real” problem – many different aspects – check

So-called hard problem will “dissolve” – check

Level (how) / Content (of what) / Self (sense of)

Content example “colour” – Visible EM Spectrum

Pink (Lilac chaser) dot illusion.

Prediction machine – check (+ Plato’s Cave)

More expectation / illusions

Bayesian predictions / expectations – check

von Helmholtz process / result (not explicit calculation, certainly not bottom-up from sum of all inputs – nope – high level prediction compared with any available inputs at any level. The game is minimising the unexpected. “Predictive Processing” – generative

Wm James on the case

Pareidolia – hallucinations – hmmmm.
Hallucination as uncontrolled perception
Perception as controlled hallucination.
Kinda – check (OK see intro)

Perceptual echo-chambers (That dress)
The Perception Census

Self <> World

Self is our perception of “us perceiving”
Bodily, Perspectival, Volitional, Narrative and Social – Self

Bodily ( more Sacks / Damasio stuff) – the “Rubber Hand”

Emotion (after James again)

Control (Cybernetics)
ROSS ASHBY – system regulation
FRISTON FREE ENERGY of living systems
Interoceptive Predictions
Good or Bad affective experience

Descartes Error!
Part of Nature not Apart from Nature

AI & Consciousness zzzz
More smart (intellectually) is not more consciousness.
Anthropocentrism / Anthropomorphism.

Did it again!

What a mind is, is not separate from what it does
Less clear line between hardware and software – all wetware
Info independent of embodiment.
Another reason to be wary of computing machine language.

Property of life.
AI will only become Real I when it has Real Life – check.
AI that seems to be consciousness may be a really bad thing for us.
Dennett quote – AI Tools not Colleagues.

Mystery that matters. (Good round-up)
OOOH Friston in the front row.
And Adam Rutherford – Genetic evolution not mentioned (a given, surely, yes says Seth.)

Maturana and Varela. More “systems thinking” autopoesis.


For me:

Frankly, it’s not a mystery, it’s clearly common knowledge.

Person who developed it most from Friston is Solms.


A Mouse is Edgier than a Musk Ox

I have so many notes, I’m not quite sure how much I’m going to write up Charles Foster ‘s Annual Mike Jackson lecture at Hull University on Tuesday 19th March “What is a Human?”. Suffice to say its scope was unsettlingly beyond expectations for our systems studies context. Excellent none-the-less. So I will, as usual, cherry-pick relationships to my own work and on-line dialogue following Dave Snowden’s delivery of last year’s lecture – linked most recently here in preparation for this year’s lecture.

[If you want a more generally summary of the event, beyond the ongoing dialogue here, try this excellent LinkedIn post from Andy Wilkins.]

Coincidence to be listening this morning to BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” on “Julian the Apostate”. I didn’t get as much dialogue with Dave as I’d hoped on Tuesday, but muttering his disagreement from the back during the lecture and in brief exchanges afterwards, his criticism was that he was hearing another attempt to resurrect neo-Platonism. Very much like Julian the Apostate, adopting Plotinus take on Plato in valuing traditional myth or mystical theology distinct from requiring any theist religion.

Dave is technically right, not only in the sense that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato, but in that Foster’s thesis is indeed a plea to see humans in the cosmos in terms of traditional myth and mystical theology, the stories of who we are and how we came to be. Surprisingly, but quite explicitly and directly, answering his lecture’s title “What is a human?” with very little use of 20th/21st C “Systems Thinking” language. Indeed very explicitly calling it simply “Thinking”, is there any other authentic kind? And indeed plenty of references from the texts of the Abrahamic monotheisms, using the languages of god and the sacred, without invoking God as a supernatural causal agent. Not your usual business school, systems science, consulting and methodology fare. Quite literally, anthropology. (In my own words, back in 1991, our human self-organisation subject is “Anthropology by any other name”.)

But, criticising it pejoratively because it is neo-Platonic, is exactly the issue that short-lived Julian the Apostate himself suffered between his supporters and his enemies. A polarisation for or against “the very idea” without leaving space to address any subtlety and nuance in understanding the actual arguments. The latter requires “proper dialogue” beyond “critical thinking”. An epistemology beyond science.

A Mouse is Edgier than a Musk Ox” is a reference to Foster’s conception that smaller organisms are much more connected to their environment, much greater surface to volume ratio, much “edgier” – live life closer to their environmental edges (McGilchrist uses a small bird). Much closer to the one individual  within the unified cosmos. Here Foster’s argument comes at least partly from his own chosen experience of spending time living as a beast in direct contact with nature (most famously as a Badger in the woods.) More like the upper-Palaeolithic “hunter-gatherer” than our post-neolithic enlightened, objectified, “homo-economicus”. A world of relationships with and within the world rather than linguistic, symbolic models of the world.

Reference sources too many to mention, but Petrarch on Augustine. Jonathan Sacks story on Wittgenstein / Anscombe / Hart and the dangers of philosophy. Sam Harris and Steven Pinker critiqued in caricature for their naïve follow-the-science / show-me-the-numbers line.

Many references to Iain McGilchrist’s work, not just his hemispheric hypothesis, but the whole attention to the world and others as a moral act, and the priority of relations over relata (objects, the things related).

Foster only mentioned Rabbi Sacks the once (above) but his whole thrust reminded me of my only encounter with Sacks – that whatever processes, methods, models we end up using to capture, communicate, maintain and evolve human values, and the human culture that values them, it will be a religion by any other name, a completely natural one, without any supernatural god(s). Sacred Naturalism perhaps.

I think I get now why Dave Snowden sticks to his “Complexity Sciences” view rather that systems sciences or systems thinking. If everything is a system (which it is in systems thinking) then the word “system” is practically redundant. It’s just thinking as Foster suggested at the start. Hope of progressive dialogue with Dave Snowden, as per my previous post, is in his Anthro-Complexity prefix. The anthropological complexity of those human cultural values and behaviours are more than (orthodox) science. As Amanda Gregory – head of the Centre for Systems Studies – suggested in her introduction, the subject of those studies is ecosystems of thinking and understanding, not just “systems sciences”.

Neither S in CSS stands simply for science. As Mike Jackson reminded us in last year’s lecture, it’s more than that.


Post Notes:

Slightly baffled by a remark on the steps leaving the event, from someone who I know has seen my own research proposal, that surely all the left-right brain stuff was debunked last century? McGilchrist’s thinking is mentioned in that proposal – as well as in last year’s write-up and much dialogue since. Penny dropped? That the brain is deeply divided – by evolutionary design – is a fact to be understood, not an excuse for a polarising dichotomy, left vs right, science vs bullshit. #GoodFences 

And, just to capture a comment from Mark Hammonds the previous day, summarising “scientism” in one of our dialogues about how to explain that “something more than science” to typical scientific sceptic types. A dialogue prompted by a quote from Bronowski “Science is a very human form of knowledge” incidentally:

It is always a difficult position to get across, that is it simultaneously true that

1. Science is a human creation and an expression of human creativity.

2. It does increase our objective knowledge of the external world.

3. But it is bounded by those phenomena it includes and those it excludes.

4. The things it excludes are perfectly legitimate areas of enquiry, as philosophers are well aware. These include consciousness, ethics, logic and metaphysics.

‘Scientism’ is the ideology that 3 & 4 are false. Paul Feyerabend characterised this view as ‘Extra Scientiam nulla salus’, which is a pretty good line.

And interesting to see versions of the Latin in a play on the Christian religious doctrine, translating “scientiam” as the Church of Reason, exactly as Pirsig did. The relevance to this post? Incidentally and coincidentally, Bronowski taught at Hull, see last year’s review.)