Saturday, March 13, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

[Per i lettori italiani: non è per spocchia che l'ho scritto in inglese, e se me lo chiedete cercherò di tradurlo, anche se penso sarà difficile.]
Have you ever had the idea to have lived your whole life waiting for something, and that moment finally arrived? If yes, I would really like to hear your experience, because that moment of enlightenment must be wonderful. Meanwhile, I will tell you mine.
To be frank, claiming I have lived such an experience would be an exaggeration; let me say that my philosophical life has been waiting for this. Even if I was not aware. I realized I was searching for this enlightenment only after finding it.

A big friend of mine recently gave me this book as a birthday gift, with enthusiastic comments. I know his taste, so as soon as I found the conditions to read it well, I started eagerly.
And halfway it was a revelation, an enlightenment.

  1. It was an enlightenment because it embodies and gathers the issues of the time in which it was written, and of this time. Homeopathy, alternative medicine, the debate on genetically modified organisms, the debate on the limits of science, and so even part of the debate on stem cells, are all connected to this, and who has read the book will notice that this claim actually understates the importance of this book. Because it's actually about the battle between the scientific and artistic views of the world, on the whole fight between rational and irrational. This shows that identifying irrational with ignorance is stupid, because not only a purely rational reason is a limited tool to observe the world, but also because the scientific method itself cannot be explained in a fully rational way. In fact, explanation of this method tend to avoid explaining where hypothesis to test come from.
  2. It was an enlightenment because a big part of my view of the world is connected with this book; it actually completed and explained to me some of my ideas, and a course I attended last year taught me something that completes and gives a rational root to the thesis of the author.
  3. It was an enlightenment because this book showed how the oriental philosophy faces this in a much better way.

Now, trying to adequately summarize this book is a huge challenge, so I admit my failure in advance; I will try nonetheless to summarize the points I need to use in my discussion.

Halfway through the book, we discover that the reasons for our perception of what is good, nice, and so on, i.e. of what has Quality, cannot be defined rationally and in general, while these reasons do exist. For example, mathematicians often claim that a proof of a theorem can be nicer than another, but they do not try to give a proof for this better aesthetics; they can just agree (or disagree) on that. While Quality cannot be defined rationally, and even if a rational view of the world negates the existence of what cannot be defined, it does exists, and we can perceive it.

Where does it come from? It is something we perceive in the moment we perceive an object. That moment creates our perception of that object in our mind (this is intentionally wrong for the purpose of simplicity, strictly speaking, sorry for that). And only after that moment, we can perceive that object consciously. And that perception of that object is influenced not only by the object, but also by our previous experiences, and that is why scientists usually give up trying to make sense of what is beautiful, claiming this is "irrational".

Now, what I can add on this, thanks to having attended a course in Neuroinformatics, is that beyond being a philosophical argument, it matches quite well with our current understanding of how the brain works. Our brain is modeled by our experiences. And logical reasoning is not what happens deep in our brain, unlike in computers. The fact that perception and analisys of the world in the brain happen before our logical reasoning and are heavily shaped by previous experiences has been observed in nature, even if we analysed just the early stages of it.
While I cannot strictly say that such an high level model of the human brain has been tested, there is a lot of evidence pointing in this direction (for instance, the early stages of vision processing already do this in part).

Another reason for which I was stricken by this book is that it goes along with my old idea that "Mathematics is too simple". It is too simple because every statement is either false or true, while reality is far more complex than this. So, what I mean is "Mathematics is too simple to describe reality", but the former way is more paradoxical and funny.
This book goes much further, saying that science and even rationality in general, is too simple to describe reality. Classical reason is too simple to describe the reality of Quality, for instance. One wanting to understand this reality has either to embrace the author's thesis, or to switch to the eastern viewpoint and abandon and overtake rationality altogether.

And finally, this book analyzes the importance of loving one's work, even for manual works. This develops an idea that also I learned in my life, like many others. You can learn it more easily when you realize that the bricklayer building your house did it wrong, because he was not caring about what he did, and there is a number of ways a simple bricklayer can make mistakes. L'Aquila is currently an example of this, too: it's surprisingly easy to mix concrete the wrong way if you do not care. It suffices that you add water to keep it from drying in the concrete mixer, as almost everybody does. It's damn wrong! And those are the result (I am ignoring what is done on purpose to save money).
And this applies to any work, including programming (what I do), and maintaining motorcycles (hence the title of the book).