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Gunnar Tomasson

Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 69

Comments on Pirsig's Paper

This week, a friend asked for my comments on Robert M. Pirsig´s paper "Subjects, Objects, Data and Values."

My following comments on the paper may be of interest to NKS Forumites.



Revised, January 22, 2006

As long-time admirer of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – and less so his Lila follow-up – I read Pirsig’s paper several years ago. I recall taking notes and making comments on it at the time. This morning I searched my computer files, but the material didn’t show up. So I will now pick out and comment on key points in the paper.

p. 4. Heisenberg said, "Bohr was more worried than anybody about the inconsistencies of quantum theory. So he tried really to understand what is behind these difficulties.... Bohr really suffered from it, and Bohr couldn't talk of anything else....He in some ways directly suffered from this impossibility to penetrate into this very unanschaulich, unreasonable behavior of nature.... But that was Bohr's whole philosophical attitude -- he was a man who really always wanted to get the last degree of clarity. He would never stop before the end.... Bohr would follow the thing to the very end, just to the point where he was just at the wall.... He did see that the whole theory was on the one hand extremely successful, and on the other hand was fundamentally wrong. And that was a contradiction which was very difficult to bear, especially for a man who had formulated the theory. So he was in a continuous inner discussion about the problem. He always worried 'what has happened?'" (qtd. in Folse 36-37


Heisenberg’s recollection of Bohr’s mindset does not square with the facts as revealed in the case of the discovery of apparent violation of energy conservation in 1931 of so-called beta decay. Bohr was content to accept the apparent violation as real while Pauli suggested that the ‘missing’ energy was carried off by an unknown particle (neutrino).

p. 4. Heisenberg said, "Well, we have a consistent mathematical scheme and this consistent mathematical scheme tells us everything which can be observed. Nothing is in nature which cannot be described by this scheme.... Since classical physics is not true there, why should we stick so much to these concepts? Why not say just that we cannot use these concepts with a high degree of precision.... and therefore we have to abandon the classical concepts to a certain extent. When we get beyond this range of the classical theory we must realize that our words don't fit. They don't really get a hold in the physical reality and therefore a new mathematical scheme is just as good as anything because the new mathematical scheme then tells what may be there and what may not be there." (qtd in Folse 94)


In view of the lucid point made by American mathematical physicist J. Willard Gibbs – “Mathematics is a Language” – Heisenberg’s statement that a “consistent mathematical scheme [can] tell us everything which can be observed” reduces to the proposition that a consistent language tailored to fit observed phenomena does indeed fit such phenomena.

p. 5. This early view of Heisenberg's is, I understand, the view of most physicists today. If the mathematics works who needs the philosophy? But Bohr did not agree at all with this view.


In an autobiographical work My Philosophical Development, written late in life, Bertrand Russell confessed that he had “very reluctantly” come to recognize that “all mathematics is tautology” as in the statement “a four-legged animal is an animal.” There was nothing new in this – Wittgenstein had so concluded decades earlier.

In other words, a “consistent mathematical scheme [which] tells us everything which can be observed”, will unfailingly tell us the correct number of legs which come into view as and when be observe something which, in another language, is called ‘animal’.

“If the mathematics works who needs the philosophy?” view of “most physicists today” may be restated as follows: “Once our mathematical scheme has told us that something has so-and-so many legs, then our job as mathematical physicists is done.” A statement that is both true and a testament of what E. A. Burtt termed “metaphysical barbarism.”

p. 5. Heisenberg remembers, “…[Bohr] was also perfectly correct in saying, ‘So long as it is possible that you get onto slippery ground, then it means that we have not understood the theory.’” (qtd, in Folse 86-87)


All language – including mathematics – is rooted in convention. And there is nothing to be “understood” in convention as distinct from its being mastered for use with respect to some purpose at hand and for communication between individuals on matters relating thereto. The meaning of language is such by convention, beyond which it is meaningless.

p. 5. When Bohr formulated his philosophy of Complementarity that was what he was trying to do -- find a common ground between the new quantum theory and the language of everyday life. It was this effort that Einstein attacked here in Brussels in October 1927. Bohr was really caught in the middle between anti-realists like Heisenberg who said, forget the philosophy and the realists like Einstein who said, if you stay with statistics without specifying what it means in terms of real external objects, then you are leaving reality behind.


There can be no common ground between any two given sets of language as convention – between the language of “the new quantum theory” and “the language of everyday life.” Nor does it convey the absurdity of their viewpoint to label as “anti-realists” those whose concept of physical science does not relate to that something which is the Universe.

p. 6. The debate was always in terms of thought experiments. Although Bohr had said, "Reality is a term we must learn to use," the debate was never raised to the level of a discussion of what this "physical reality" is whose description is either complete or incomplete. The reason may be that in those days a philosophic discussion of "reality" was greatly discouraged. Discussions of reality were metaphysics and metaphysics was something associated with medieval religious mysticism.


The best reading of the reasons why “a philosophic discussion of “reality” was greatly discouraged” which I have come across is that of Cornell professor E. A. Burtt:

“…there is a certain peremptory logic in this. How could the world of physical matter be reduced to exact mathematical formulæ by anybody as long as his geometrical concentration was distracted by the supposition that physical nature is full of colours and sounds and feelings and final causes as well as mathematical units and relations? It would be easy to let our judgement of these giants in the history of thought be over-harsh. We should remember that men cannot do arduous and profound intellectual labour in the face of constant and seductive distractions. The sources of distraction simply had to be denied or removed. To get ahead confidently with their revolutionary achievements, they had to attribute absolute reality and independence to those entities in terms of which they were attempting to reduce the world. This once done, all the other features of their cosmology followed as naturally as you please. It has, no doubt, been worth the metaphysical barbarism of a few centuries to possess modern science. Why did none of them see the tremendous difficulties involved? Here, too, in the light of our study, can there be any doubt of the central reason? These founders of the philosophy of science were absorbed in the mathematical study of nature. Metaphysics they tended more and more to avoid so far as they could avoid it; so far as not, it became an instrument for their further mathematical conquest of the world. Any solution to the ultimate questions which continued to pop up, however superficial and inconsistent, that served to quiet the situation, to give a plausible response to their questionings in the categories they were now familiar with, and above all to open before them a free field for their fuller mathematical exploration of nature, tended to be readily accepted and tucked away in their minds with uncritical confidence….” (The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, 1924/1932, Anchor Books edition, 1954, pp. 305-306)

p. 6. Yet as I read through the material even I could see that this was not primarily a quarrel about physics, it was about metaphysics. […] There is no way one can possibly construct a scientific experiment to determine whether or not an external reality exists if there is a difference in metaphysical interpretation. Whatever results you come up with can still be explained differently in each metaphysical system.


John Stuart Mill spoke of “external reality” as “the permanent possibility of perception” – a concept which is implicitly embraced by all experimental/theoretical physicists.

pp. 9-10. It has been said that neither Einstein nor Bohr seemed explicitly aware that although they conducted their dispute in terms of thought experiments, the dispute is nevertheless about metaphysics. The metaphysical issue at the root of it all is the old mind-versus matter issue, the subject-versus-object issue that has dogged philosophy since the days of Isaac Newton and David Hume and Immanuel Kant.


This is not how Bohr described “the main point under debate” in a 1949 paper entitled “Discussion With Einstein On Epistemological Problems In Atomic Physics”, which Bohr contributed to a collection of essays by leading theoretical physicists in Einstein’s honor (Albert Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist, Open Court, London, Third Ed., 1988):

“From the very beginning,” Bohr wrote, “the main point under debate has been the attitude to take to the departure from customary principles of natural philosophy characteristic of the novel development of physics which was initiated in the first year of this century by Planck’s discovery of the universal quantum of action. This discovery, which revealed a feature of atomicity in the laws of nature going far beyond the old doctrine of the limited divisibility of matter, has indeed taught us that the classical theories of physics are idealizations which can be unambiguously applied only in the limit where all actions involved are large compared with the quantum. The question at issue has been whether the renunciation of a causal mode of description of atomic processes involved in the endeavours to cope with the situation should be regarded as temporary departure from ideals to be ultimately revived or whether we are faced with an irrevocable step towards obtaining the proper harmony between analysis and synthesis of physical phenomena.” (pp. 201-202)

In turn, with “the question at issue [having] been whether the renunciation of a causal mode of description of atomic processes […] should be regarded as temporary departure from ideals to be ultimately revived”, it is immediately clear that the “metaphysical issue at the root of it all” is not “the old mind-versus matter [or] subject-versus-object issue.”

Instead, “the main point under debate” concerns the (still) long-overdue correction of an elementary epistemological error whereby Newton’s peers and their successors within the theoretical physics community incongruously ascribed causal attributes to constituent parts of the language in which Newtonian Mechanics was presented in Principia.

As for Newton, he made it clear up front in Principia that causal attributes should not be ascribed to any part of the language in terms of which he had summarized mathematical regularities observed with respect to solar system orbital mechanics – indeed, Newton went to great lengths to caution against any such construction of Newtonian Mechanics:

"I likewise call attractions and impulses, in [a certain] sense, accelerative, and motive; and use the words attraction, impulse, or propensity of any sort towards a centre, promiscuously, and indifferently, one for another; considering those forces not
physically, but mathematically: wherefore the reader is not to imagine that by those words I anywhere take upon me to define the kind, or the manner of any action, the CAUSES or the PHYSICAL REASON thereof, or that I attribute forces, in a true and physical sense, to certain centres (which are only mathematical points); when at any time I happen to speak of centres as attracting, or as endued with attractive powers." (Principia, Definition VIII)

David Hume was also crystal clear on the point at issue, noting that "[w]hile [Newton] seemed to draw off the veil from some of the mysteries of nature, he shewed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy; and thereby restored her ultimate secrets to that obscurity in which they ever did and ever will remain."

In the context, Hume’s reference to “the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy” is shorthand for the essential attributes of conventional language – including mathematics – which, while exquisitely precise in describing observed physical phenomena, yet cannot in principle reveal nature’s “ultimate secrets” – the ultimate causes thereof.

In his “Reply to Criticisms” in the 1949 collection of essays (p. 684), Einstein delivered a blunt and scathing indictment of the “epistemological barbarism” of his peers: “Science without epistemology is – insofar as it is thinkable at all – primitive and muddled.” Four decades later, Stephen W. Hawking wrote a virtual paean to “epistemological barbarism”:

“Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories. In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including science, to be their field and discussed questions such as: Did the universe have a beginning? However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists. Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.” What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!” (A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, 1988, pp. 174-175)

On a TV program in the United States in the 1970s, Hawking advised that science aimed to establish Man as Master of the Universe. At the end of his 1988 book, he added that “if we do discover a complete theory [of physics]”, we would be well on our way to “the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” (p. 175)

The present analysis of language suggests that Hawking has lived in a Fool’s Paradise – no Master of the Universe would conclude that “it seems that the uncertainty principle is a fundamental feature of the universe we live in,” such that “A successful unified theory must therefore necessarily incorporate this principle.” (op. cit., pp. 155-156)

For the fuzzy language of physics does not impact that something we call the Universe.

p. 10-11. Folse says that Bohr never overcame the criticism that his philosophy was subjectivistic. "Bohr had envisioned Complementarity spreading out into wider and wider fields, just as the mechanical approach of Galileo had started in astronomy and simple phenomena of motion and gradually spread to all of the physical science." (Folse 168) But that never happened. Quantum physics dominates the scientific scene today but not because of Bohr's philosophy of Complementarity. It dominates because the mathematical formalisms of quantum theory correctly predict atomic phenomena.

Bohr was disappointed all his life by what he regarded as the failure of philosophers to understand Complementarity. Except for William James he "felt that philosophers were very odd people who really were lost." (Folse 44) Late in his life he remarked, "I think it would be reasonable to say that no man who is called a philosopher really understands what is meant by the Complementary descriptions." And as Folse concludes, "that somewhat wistful comment by this great pioneer of modern atomic theory is sadly true today as it was over fifty years ago." (Folse 44) Although Bohr had intended to write a book that contained and developed his philosophical ideas he never wrote it. This leads me to think that he realized his philosophy wasn't working the way he hoped it would but didn't know what to do about it. He talked as though he was sure it was right but was frustrated and disappointed that it never seemed to have caught on with others.

Henry Folse said that, "in what was to be his last interview, the day before his death, Bohr was questioned by Thomas Kuhn about the nature of his interest in fundamental philosophical problems. His answer was direct: 'It was in some ways my life you see.'" (Folse 31) That reply has an understatement and sadness to it that left me quiet for a long time.


Towards the end of his 1949 paper, Bohr commented that “a comparison of purely logical aspects of relativistic and complementary argumentation reveals striking similarities as regards the renunciation of the absolute significance of conventional physical attributes of objects.” (op. cit., p. 238)

This puts Bohr on the Newton-Hume side insofar as “the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy” are concerned (see p. 5). However, once language is shown to be at the root of the ‘problem’, Complementarity becomes redundant except as statement that absence of common ground between any two given sets of language is non-problematic.

p. 12-13. Eventually my unusual teaching methods came to the attention of the other professors in the department and in a friendly way they asked the question that connects all this with the struggles of Niels Bohr: "is quality in the subject or in the object?" The answer that was finally given was, "neither, Quality is a separate category of experience that is neither subject or object." This was the beginning of the system of thought called the Metaphysics of Quality. It has lasted for more than 35 years now. The question today is, if Niels Bohr had given that answer would his system of Complementarity have been improved?

Many years ago, Pirsig was kind enough to respond with a two-page handwritten letter to some points which I had forwarded to him with respect to related topics in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I have not been in contact with him since, but expect that he would be open to reconsidering the presentation of his 1990s paper.

My own view is that Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality may be shorthand for State of Mind.


Last edited by Gunnar Tomasson on 01-22-2006 at 06:15 PM

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