On The Making of Maps of Reality:
A review of Robert Pirsig’s essay ‘Subjects, Objects, Data and Values’
And my metaphysical first principle:
“People shape, and are shaped by, ideas.”
By Gary M. Jaron
Before I get any further into Pirsig’s book Lila, I feel there is a need to establish a framework, a foundation of tools. To lay out these tools and to thus build a common understanding of how I am applying them to build an understanding of Reality and of the metaphysics of Robert Pirsig. Please bear with me and all that I have said, and will say, will become clearer by this essay.
To begin I will start with biography. I was born in 1954 and raised as a Reform Jew in Levittown New York. During my childhood what interested and fascinated me was two realms of ideas and beliefs. The beliefs of theology and of the sciences. I was especially taken with atomic theory. I was electrified to discover that underlying everything that I could see was a view of the world made up of only three things, electrons, protons and neutrons. [This was Niels Bohr’s early ‘solar system’ model of atoms, no hint of quantum theory had I encountered in my early reading.]
As for my other fascination, theology, it grew out of my encounters with my neighbors. My neighbors were Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox Catholics and Protestant Christians. I was a Reform Jew and thus knew that Judaism was divided into three branches, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Orthodox was the traditional view based on the Hebrew Bible and the Rabbis collected writings contained in the Talmud. Reform Judaism, which grew out of ideas formulated in 1800’s, was the idea that there was ‘objective’ understanding of the world and it was the province of the sciences to build up that understanding. Having established what was ‘true’ Judaism must conform to that scientific truth. (This was what I was taught as the foundation of Reform Judaism.) Conservative Judaism grew out of the ideas formulated in the 1850’s as a response to Reform Judaism. Conservative Judaism believed that the teachings of the Rabbis was primary but could be complemented by the learning of the sciences.
I looked upon Roman Catholic’s as Orthodox Judaism in Christian garb, i.e. that the Popes and the Bishops were like the Rabbis laying down the teachings of how to understand the Biblical text and how to apply the Biblical teachings to the questions of living in the world. Greek Orthodoxy was some sort of geo-political split that occurred in the medieval times and thus the two groups from that time forward went their own ways. Protestantism was the invention of Martin Luther who said that an individual on his own just reading the Bible could decide how to live in accordance with the Biblical truths as that individual believed them. Thus the individual could pass judgment on which of the Christian ‘Rabbis’ ( the Pope and the Bishops) teachings to accept or reject. [This is how I as a child viewed Christianity.]
My fascination for theology led me to read about the ancient religions of Greece and Rome. I read all the myths and legends of those ancient cultures I could get my hands on.
So, I had the scientists, who were Rabbis studying the ‘Bible’ of the physical world, six groups of living religious traditions: 3 Jewish groups and 3 Christian groups, and lastly there were the old religions, of Greece and Rome, that Christianity replaced. All were trying to understand the world. All were living in the same world. Yet they were not sharing common ideas and beliefs about that world. Now I knew that scientists were persecuted by Roman Catholics, I knew of the story of Galileo, and I also knew that Christians killed Jews, there was the Inquisition, the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the slaughtering of the Crusaders on their way to the Holy land, and of course the Nazi horrors. Ideas and beliefs were important and people could even die as a result of their beliefs! Yet, all these people lived in the same world. Saw it with the same human eyes. How could they live in the same world and yet reach such differing views of that same world?
And underlying all of this is 3 unseen particles which make up the world. Which means that no one is seeing the world as it truly is. No one sees a world of interconnected systems of atoms. Those atoms were creating the light that enabled us to see. We saw photons bouncing off collections of atoms! Somehow our brains took this sense data on the atomic level and pieced together pictures of objects. We believed we saw trees, houses, cats, people, but what we saw was collections of atoms. Wow! What a confusing world we all live in.
Out of all of this I had a revelation. A idea formed in my head and one day I spoke it. That idea felt true. It felt like pure truth. It sounded so real that I couldn’t doubt its truth. I felt that this idea was the key to understanding how all these differing groups of people came to live in the same world yet believed such differing and contradictory things about the world. My revelation was this phrase: “People shape, and are shaped by, ideas.”
It works like this. We are taught ideas. Our parents, our teachers, our Rabbis, our Popes, Bishops, Priests, etc, all teach us what they believe to be true, what they were taught to be true. This is the ongoing tradition. We take in that past ideas and beliefs and accept them. We build our view of the world on the basis of those early on taught ideas and beliefs. As children we don’t challenge our elders and so we accept those ideas as being true. It is as if we are all given sunglasses, each made especially for our traditional beliefs. There is the sunglasses of the Scientists, the Reform Rabbis, the Orthodox Rabbis, Catholic Priests, etc. The glasses shade the sense data coming in, they give that sense data a tint, a Jewish tint, a Catholic tint, etc.
Thus we are all looking at the same world but we see it tinted by the ideas of our childhood traditional beliefs. This is the ‘shaped by’ part of my equation. As we get older we start to think for ourselves, we question. We can even formulate our own ideas. We are then tinkering with those glasses. Making the lenses uniquely our own. This is the process of ‘shaping’. Perhaps we have such good ideas that we convince others and thus those ideas became part of the formula of how to make the next generation’s sunglasses. And this process of shaping and shaped by, has been going on since the beginning of human history.
We live in the world but only see it through the lenses of our beliefs. We can never take off those glasses, we can only adjust them. Through those glasses some see Jesus as the savior, some don’t. Some see only Aryans as being humans, some don’t. Some believed the world was flat or that the Earth was the center of the universe. Later on in history glasses were made to see the Earth as orbiting the sun. What we were looking at never changed only our glasses did.
Therefore to understand reality we have to understand this process of making sunglasses, this process of shaping and being shaped by ideas. If we don’t realize this we will have the paradox of conflicting traditions all claiming to be true. The paradox is gone once we accept that it is the ideas we believe that filter the sense data that is coming into us from the real world.
In 1974 I read two books by the science fiction author A. E. Van Vogt. They were The Players of Null-A and The World of Null-A. Here was the story of how the philosophy of something called Null-A, which is the abbreviation for Non-Aristotelian logic, was the belief system of the hero battling against the belief system of Aristotelian logic. The amazing part was that the book’s introduction said that there really was a Null-A theory. Null-A was contained in and explained in the book Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski! That book was a challenge, it was not only physically thick and heavy but so were the words. It was if the author by the force of his words was trying to reshape the readers mind, to remake the readers sunglasses. Null-A said that the map of the world is, and can never be, equivalent to the real world. That our ideas are the map we are handed and the map we make in encountering and exploring the real territory. His metaphor was maps but it was the same as my sunglasses. Both were another way to talk about ideas and their importance. The real world according to Null-A is non-verbal, pre-verbal reality. It is what exist before humans and human maps. Humans make maps, words, to point toward the world, but all we have is words and maps. We can evaluate the usefulness of those word maps, we can replace those word maps at any time, but all we are doing is tinkering with our sunglass lenses. The world, the non-verbal, pre-verbal, non-human reality will not and did not change, only we changed. We changed our ideas.
‘A Word is not the things spoken about, and that there is no such thing as an object in absolute isolation.’ [From pg 50 of Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity.] And: ‘The map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.’ [Korzybski, pg. 58.] Our ideas are only the sunglasses we use to see through.
Therefore, Subject - Object Metaphysics is one pair of sunglasses, Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality is a different pair or sunglasses. Two sets of maps. The world is not different, it is only the map we use to try to navigate in the real territory that is different.
An analogy: Newtonian physics is still a useful map. It explains the observable behavior of pool balls, baseballs, and all sorts of projectiles. It doesn’t explain the observed data collected about Stars, Solar Systems, Galaxies, atomic and sub-atomic particles. Non-Newtonian physics does this. These maps were made by Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and others. They were the maps of General Relativity and Quantum theory. The data never changed only the usefulness of the maps changed. Isaac Newton made the first map of Gravity. But, gravity always existed. It was a force inherent in the Universe from the beginning of time. The map was a human invention but gravity the non-verbal force, the observable behavior of non-verbal physical objects, existed long before the Newtonian map of Gravity.
What Pirsig and we are all engaged in is the making of maps. That is it. We are talking about our sunglasses. We are arguing about which pair of sunglasses is the least distorting of our observing of the real world. That is it. We can never take off our sunglasses. We can only adjust the lens by shaping ideas, making new maps.
The prescription that determines the nature of the sunglasses lenses are not only derived from whatever culture we live in, those lenses are also the outcome of evolution of life on this planet. When we are born we are metaphorically speaking given our first set of glasses. At birth those lenses are without any tint, the tint is the result of being immersed in a human culture. Taking the principles of the culture in. It is the process of acculturation, to put it simply -- we are taught our culture by our elders. But it is the outcome of evolution that gives us those first glasses! Those first glasses are essentially similar for all humans at birth. For one thing, the attributes of the human nervous system determine this first prescriptive lens. To understand the nature of that first prescription you need to study the workings of the human nervous system and the nature of language as outlined by modern Linguistic theory which has been greatly shaped by Noam Chomsky’s theory of an underlying universal human grammar. Recall that the way to avoid tool traps is to understand the nature of and the limitations inherent in the properties of the tools one is using. All humans use a similarly structured nervous system and similarly structured underlying grammar.
Now lets go to Pirsig’s essay. The essay recounts the crisis in physics in the 1920’s. The best minds meet in Brussels in October of 1927 to resolve this paradox. ‘[Niels] Bohr was invited to give the conference a report on the epistemological problems confronting quantum physics. By asking him to speak on the science of knowledge and the grounds for it, the conference gave him full opportunity to present Complementarity. There was no avoidance; the issue had to be directly faced.’ [pg 1 of Pirsig’s essay.]
The situation which caused the controversy was that scientists were conducting experiments that resulted in seemingly contradictory results when examining the same phenomenon -- the nature of atomic particles. For example, the observed behavior of photons in the experiments that the scientist were conducting were resulting in contradictory results. Pirsig explains thusly in his figure 3: ‘notice that on the right hand side of this larger oval there are two experiments: Experiment A and Experiment B. From Experiment A the observer observes waves. From Experiment B the observer observes particles. The experiments never put these two together. It is wrong to say that the experiments are on the same object or on any object at all. It is wrong to say that waves or particles are there before the experiment takes place. We can never say what goes into the experiment. We can only comment on what comes out.’ [pg. 8]
Experiment A would show that a photon behaved like a particle. A particle similar to a pool ball or a base ball. But in experiment B the photon was behaving like a wave. It was as if the photon were a miniature ocean spreading outwards in waves of water. The two experiments and their results were undisputed facts.
Let me try and make this clearer. ‘This is rather confusing since, in classical physics, the concepts of waves and particles are mutually exclusive. A classical particle behaves like a BB shot. It can be localized and scattered, it exchanges energy suddenly in a lump, and it obeys the laws of conservation of energy and momentum in collisions; but it does not exhibit interference and diffraction. A classical wave behaves like a water wave. It exhibits diffraction and interference patterns and has its energy spread out continuously in space and time. Nothing can be both a classical particle and a classical wave.
Until the twentieth century, it was thought that light was a classical wave and an electron was a classical particle. We now  see that the concepts of classical waves and classical particles do not adequately describe either phenomenon. Each behaves like a classical wave when propagation is considered and like a classical particle when its energy exchange is considered.’ [From pg. 190 of Modern Physics by Paul A. Tipler, Worth Publishers, 1978, this text book is based on Tipler’s larger work the 1969 Foundations of Modern Physics.]
‘When we place the detectors near the slits to measure the particle properties of light, the wave properties of interference cannot be observed. With no detectors near the slit, the experiment is designed to measure the wave properties of light. We cannot, then, say that a photon passed through one slit or the other.’[pg. 192, Tipler.] ‘From this example we see that it is impossible to measure both the particle and wave aspects of light at the same time.’ [Pg. 192, Tipler.]
‘The results is known as Bohr’s principle of Complementarity -- the particle aspects and wave aspect complement each other. Both are needed, but both cannot be observed at the same time. Whether the wave aspect or the particle aspect is observed depends on the experimental arrangement.’ [pg. 192, Tipler]
Pirsig goes on to note why Bohr’s principle of Complementarity although descriptively paradoxical was still believed by Bohr to be scientifically sound. ‘Notice that observer A then communicates this visualized object in an unambiguous way to observer B. By “unambiguous” is meant that A communicates it through a mathematical formalism combined with a word picture. All measuring equipment must be included in an unambiguous description. Later observer B can run his own experiment using the same measuring instruments and testing conditions to confirm the unambiguous communication from observer A. The proved unambiguity of this communication verifies the true objectivity of A’s visualized object.’ [pg. 9, Pirsig.] This repeatability of an experiment is the heart of the objectivity of scientific theory. Bohr believes that the repeatability of the two different experiments which are studying a single phenomenon proves that the wave and particle descriptive results is both demonstrated and necessary to completely describe the properties of atomic ‘particles’ such as electrons and photons, hence Complementarity.
Bohr’s principle of Complementarity was not immediately accepted at the time by the scientific community. The scientific community leveled the charge that Bohr’s theory was ‘subjective’. Bohr was getting caught in a tool trap. The tool being the Subject--Object metaphysics, which was underlying all of these theories. Bohr was saying that the properties of atoms are not in the objects, the atoms themselves, but are derived out of the interaction of the observer conducting the experiments and what is being observed. He is saying that there are no properties outside of the experiment. ‘It is clear from what Bohr does say that the unmeasured phenomenal object is unpatterned. The patterns only emerge after an experiment.’ [pg. 16, Pirsig]
This was an unheard of concept at the time. To us, readers of Pirsig, this is a very familiar phenomenon. Pirsig resolves Bohr’s problem by equating the unmeasured phenomenal object with Quality. It is the nature of the Quality Event. Understanding of reality comes out of the event when the observer interacts with the world, that is the leading edge of Pirsig’s Train. Without the Metaphysics of Quality as a foundation to replace Subject -- Object metaphysics Complementarity seems mysterious and subjective. Complementarity is accepted by the scientific community not because they have embraced MoQ but because they are trapped by their tools. That tool being the repeatability of experiments as the proving mechanism of a scientific theory. They are allowing their feelings of confusion, which is an outcome of their lack of an underlying metaphysical theory, to be ignored because they have an acceptance of and have ongoing faith in, their tools -- their sunglasses. This faith in their tools, the sunglasses they are wearing, is how they are overriding their feelings of confusions and come to reluctantly accept Bohr’s concept of Complementarity.
Before I leave this article I would like to cite Pirsig one last time. ‘In the Metaphysics of Quality the world is composed of three things: mind, matter and Quality. Because something is not located in the object does not mean that it has to be located in your mind. Quality cannot be independently derived from either mind or matter. But it can be derived from the relationship of mind and matter with each other. Quality occurs at the point at which subject [mind] and object [matter] meet.’ [pg. 12, Pirsig]
Note Pirsig unambiguously says that mind exists. This is very important to my own description and understanding of Reality. I postulate that the activity of the mind is the engine of Pirsig’s train. The mind is the whole train.
Now I would like to propose that the properties that are observed do in fact reside in the objects under observation. The properties of objects are woven into the very structure of the objects. It is that structure that is the Static Patterns that Pirsig is discussing in Lila and in thus in the Metaphysics of Quality. It is the characteristics of that structured stable pattern that we call an object. That is why experiments can be conducted with repeatable results. Objects have stable patterns of structure. The structure is Quality. All things have Quality. Without Quality there would be no structure, no stable patterns and thus no differentiated objects, or for that matter subjects who observe objects.
Gary Jaron: "People shape, and are shaped by, Ideas."
 I learned about universal human grammar by reading Justin Leiber’s book Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview, 1975, Noam Chomsky’s book Reflections on Language, 1975, and lastly Steven Pinker’s two books: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, 1994 and How the Mind Works, 1997.