Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Cult Followers and Free Thinkers

One of the things that comes up more than a little in relation to people attracted Pirsig, particularly when they find themselves at, is that Pirsig's philosophy is a little cultish, or that the people surrounding it are little more than a cult. Actually, that's kinda' what happens around any genius from any discipline, but I imagine Pirsig gets it in part because ZMM is sometimes filed under the "New Age" section of the bookstore. But Pirsig's philosophy, however, is built around the Individual's search for Quality. "And what is good, Phaedrus--should we ask anyone these things?" Pirsig links his notion of Dynamic Quality with the notion of freedom. One of the uses to which Pirsig's vocabulary is sometimes put to use is by saying, "You're thinking Dynamically" or "statically". In what follows, I'd like to redescribe what it means to be a Dynamic or static thinker in terms of the notions of a "free thinker" and cult follower, but in such a way as it avoids the SOMic assumptions built into them.

A "freethinker" was an appellation atheists used for a time a while ago (and still do, sort of). A polemical title, the idea was spawned by Enlightenment secularists who thought that belief in God was a prejudice, or worse a superstition, that precluded rational thought, much like the Marxist idea of ideology as being a blanket that blocks light. If one threw off this blanket, then one would be able to use the cool light of reason to properly judge this or that. This conception of reason is what Pirsig was trying to reform or displace in ZMM. Pirsig's reversal of the Platonic hierarchy in ZMM, so that dialectic comes out of rhetoric, is followed up by his vision of a person being a set of static patterns. Any Enlightenment-style dichotomy between unconstrained thinking and constrained thinking is spurious because thinking and reasoning can only occur against a backdrop of, roughly, thoughts and reasons (though more appropriately for Pirsig, judgements). There is no empty monad, like the transcendental Subject (which the existentialists picked up and ran with), that looks around at the available options and picks the best one (Iris Murdoch does a wonderful job of attacking this picture in her The Sovereignty of Good). Rather, a held-in-place set of intellectual patterns judges other possible patterns for inclusion.

This means, then, that we need a new conception of what it means to be a "free thinker". Surely there's something that's different between people, between, say, fundamentalists and intellectuals? One thing I think Pirsig is misleading about is that I think he says that some static patterns are freer than others. I think this is a mistake. When it comes to patterns within a level, I think they are all as static as any other. (I think Pirsig gives this impression because he oscillates between saying that some static patterns are freer than others and that some static patterns lead to more freedom, but this second sense of freedom is the more commonsensical notion of political freedom, while the former is the more ontological kind.)

If we look at intellectual patterns, we can take two views of them. From a first-person point of view, you can say that we hold static patterns, but it is also just as true that the patterns hold us. For a pattern to be "freer" than another is to say that you could let it go easier than another. But could you say you really held it then, or that it held you, that you really believed it? After all, how free, in this sense, are we to let go of the static pattern we call "Pirsig's philosophy"? We are drawn to it, it holds us just as much as we hold it. With all his talk about "care", I don't think Pirsig is talking about patterns that you can't hold on to. I think he's just talking about patterns that enable you to consider more better patterns than others (I think this is where his example of communism and capitalism comes in, which I still think is misleading and muddy at best). Static patterns enable lines of thought, they enable what you can consider to be good or bad, better or worse. What we want, though, is to get the best patterns. How do you know if you have the best patterns or whether there is something better out there? How do you know whether its their theism or your atheism that's constraining, that's worse?

Those are epistemological quesitons and I don't think they have answers. But those are the answers you have to come up with if you hold Enlightenment-style dichotomies between reason and superstition, rational thought and prejudiced thought. You won't ever know with any epistemic certainty whether you have the best beliefs or ideas or arguments or patterns. Reflecting on epistemology won't help you decide which of your beliefs are bad. But if you are bugged about whether you have the best ones or not, then there is something practical you can do: sift through a lot of alternatives, what Rorty called being an "ironist". I think being a free thinker means having a lot of intellectual curiosity, not being content with what you currently believe, being restless in trying to expand your range of knowledge and acquaintance. Being a free thinker means trying to get inside the heads of other people and trying to figure out how they think, in the hopes of finding something that maybe'll fit in your head.

This leads to the opposite, the cult follower. I remember when I was in Sunday School as a high schooler, my teacher described to us what it means to be in a cult. He said that we are all in cults. Being in band, being a cheerleader, on the baseball team, going to church, the Math Group, Forensics Squad, your group of friends--those are all cults in the sense that some people do it, others don't, some are included, others excluded. This loosened up the way we think about cults--cult behavior could happen in any group you're in. What keeps you from actually being in a cult, from displaying cult behavior, is being in lots of cults, lots of groups. I think this fits in somewhat with the above free thinker conception. A free thinker is someone who has a broad range of interests and groups and a cult follower is someone who doesn't. This is what the worst of theists and atheists are. They don't have any curiosity. Intellectually, this can be death (though not necessarily).

This leads me to my redescription of Dynamic Quality and static patterns. To follow Dynamic Quality intellectually means to always be expanding your range of intellectual acquaintance. To be static is to not be curious. But there is a balance between the two. We aren't always going to be curious about everything. There's only so much one can do. And what enables you to follow Dynamic Quality in one area, what allows you to judge different ideas, is keeping another area in the background stable, static. Wilfrid Sellars said that science was just that sort of thing that could put any claim in jeopardy--just not all at once. When repairing Neurath's Ship, we can't pull up all the planks at once. I think this is exactly the sentiment Pirsig was after when he said science had a built-in eraser--though, one should add, you don't erase everything all at once. You work with the page you are given. We can't be Dynamic about everything without falling into chaos and not being able to judge--that's what the moral paralysis Pirsig talked about is. And neither can we simply rest with the patterns we were born with--well, we can, but there is something wrong with someone who calls themself an intellectual who does. I would think an intellectual is necessarily someone who is curious, who is interested in expanding the set of alternatives he has currently available to acheive the best possible set of intellectual static patterns--which is, incidently, another way of saying being the best possible person you can be. A good person.


  1. "A free thinker is someone who has a broad range of interests and groups and a cult follower is someone who doesn't." That makes a lot of sense to me. I think Bill Gates once described the same thing in terms of 'bandwidth', ie someone with low bandwidth doesn't have much curiosity or breadth of interest (or, precisely, capacity for curiosity or breadth of interest). I think this is a good characterisation of some of the differences we've experienced. Thanks.

  2. I like that opening passage ... as cultishness is a feature of genius, so being branded new-agey is an occupational hazard of taking any interest in things remotely mystical, from a serious "scientific" perspective.


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