I remembered a book (on tape) I forgot to mention last time. The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness, by Carl Sagan. It appears to be a rewritten collection of various articles, and as such has a common theme, but not a focused point. At various times Sagan praises the general virtues of science and reason, debunks new-age myths, calls for better science education, and claims that science is not incompatible with spirituality. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the exact nature of the argument, and will have to get the book at some point so I can follow it with proper attention.
While listening to this, I had the sense that it came at just the right time to reinforce my confidence in logic and common sense. Sometimes it’s so easy to wonder just why masses of people share a common belief – doesn’t there have to be something there? Well, no, Sagan reassures us – it’s mostly misinterpretation, hallucination (surprisingly common), and meme propagation.
At once supporting and challenging science is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. I ignored this book for a long time because I took the title literally – something about performing motorcycle maintenance with a peaceful mind. Actually, the book has little to do with motorcycle maintenance. A motorcycle does often serve as a convenient example of an object (much as Schrodinger used his cat) Maintenance also serves as the stage for a discussion of quality work and maintaining spirits (‘gumption’) in the face of difficulty – but even this if followed up an explicit statement about ‘the motorcycle of life.’ It also has very little to do, explicitly, with zen, although the philosophy espoused may very well be similar to zen (it’s beyond my experience to say)
The bulk of the book is devoted a long and involved philosophical argument about truth, quality, and the classical(scientific)/romantic(artistic) split. Here he supports science by saying that the negative qualities people find in technology aren’t inherit in it. Rather, it is the lack of quality and caring that often shows in the modern age that people reject. For this, however, he does blame reason. The ancient greek philosophers, by placing truth and reason above quality, began a paradigm shift that culminated in the modern world: goods, all alike, produced in massive quantity by uncaring machines and uncaring people.
This discussion, or chautauqua, as the author calls it, is interwoven with the story of a cross country cycle trip with his son, and also with the revelation of the author’s history. The entire thing is claimed as actual fact ‘rewritten for rhetorical effect.’ Indeed it has, for the parallels between events in the two stories are frequently not subtle. Christopher Alexander would call it Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.
An interesting relation, since Pirsig’s quality strikes me with more than a passing similarity to Alexander’s life. Another interesting relation is that Pirsig would probably call Alexander a classical person trying to integrate a romantic understanding of quality.
Since I’m nearly done with The Nature of Order Book Two: The Process of Creating Life this seems like a convenient place to talk about it. Only appendices remain, so I’m pretty sure the major ideas have already been put forward.
Book One defined the concept of ‘life,’ ways to identify it, and the 15 properties that seem to reoccur in living structure. Book Two make the further claim that living structure only arises as the result of structure preserving transformations. A mostly incidental idea is that each of the 15 properties also has a related transformation, and that these are the only types of transformations which exist.
More time is spent, however, on the method of applying the transformations: examine the wholeness, find the one smallest thing you can do to improve it, do that, check to make sure it really improved things, and repeat. This defines a process, and the process is really where it’s at. If we want a better a world, we need a better process, and it is just this kind of step-by-step process that has created the most memorable things.
There is a lot more, and what I’ve said I’ve said badly. As Pirsig would say, my gumption is running low.