Lately I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read it last summer and I am thinking that I would like to read it every summer, or at least until I grow tired of it.
I have been pondering one passage in particular, which says, “A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of rationality itself.” Within this single declaration lies an entire nest of truths relating to life, happiness and logic.
The successful operation of a motorcycle is contingent upon cause and effect relationships. If the needs of the motorcycle are ignored, it will fail. Take the tires of the motorcycle, for instance. You can reasonably expect that if you keep them at the correct pressure, only use them while they have adequate tread, ensure they were properly installed, and use them on roads clear of debris such as glass or nails, that they will work the way they are supposed to. The tires do not think. They do not decide to fail or decide to work properly. They have no intent to punish their user or help them. This is a harsh truth, as people don’t like to acknowledge that the reason their car, computer, body, or career is not behaving the way they would like it to is not without potential explanation. It did not just happen.
Things fall apart if not maintained. This is an expression of entropy, which, in simple terms, is the inclination for things to deteriorate into disorder. This may on the surface seem unsettling, but in fact there is solace to be found within this universal law. It is predictable. If you are aware of something happening, you can prepare for its repercussions; expect them.
This is in contrast to exercising superstition. Believing that you are simply unlucky—that someone or something chose you to experience a flat tire as a trial or learning experience can lead to anxiety. Why were you chosen, not another? This leads to extreme apprehension, with the threat of yet another trial, seemingly dealt at random, being thrown your way.
If one understands, however, the cause and effect relationships at play, then a person may rest at ease completely aware of how much of their destiny is (or isn’t) in their own hands. Those who understand and can maintain computers understand that humans—not the computers themselves, are responsible for most computer related problems. Sometimes the problem stems from the user deleting a file vital to the computer’s operation. Other times the problem arises because the programmer left a mistake in the software code, leading to a hiccup in the computer’s processes. Never do computers spontaneously “decide” to quit working, only to spite their user in a fit of rage.
Humans have a great advantage in that we created computers, and thus understand them. Can you imagine if no-one fully understood them? What if they had been around since human history began? I imagine that then people may resort to superstition. In the event of a problem they may leave offerings in front of the computer, or mumble incantations to try and please the device in order for it to work correctly. Little would they know that the operation they are trying to run requires more random access memory or scratch disk allocation. This may sound silly, yet people resort to the same kind of thing despite our having created the computers ourselves, as a species. They believe that the device acts irrational, deciding to work one day and not the next. People do this with everything we don’t fully understand, be it incurable disease, death, or others.
So it goes with other aspects of human life. When large, life changing events occur, people are quick to assign superstitious origin to them. Deaths, unwanted pregnancy, tragic accidents, financial troubles: all of these are often attributed to some greater meaning or plan, divvied out by some greater force, be it a god, karma, or cosmic ethereal ness which governs human interaction. In reality, the source of all of these is quite traceable through cause and effect relationships. If people are honest with themselves they know exactly why these events occurred, be it a reckless lifestyle, poor planning, or failure to maintain some aspect of life. Even a car crash, which seems to happen at random, is a quite reasonably foreseeable result of traveling at high speed near others traveling at high speed in the opposite direction. It is easier to blame another when things like this happen, and perhaps even easier to assume that it is for a greater purpose. But what about the small things? Have you ever heard of someone blaming their god for a stubbed toe? It seems ridiculous, but where is the line drawn? Is there a threshold above which gods and luck begin intervening?
Rather than offer solace, this system of seemingly arbitrary intervention can lead to stress and anxiety. If a person believes that their computer could fail at any moment for no reason, they will not trust the device, and the benefit it could offer them would be severely limited. The inverse is true as well. If someone believes that good things only come when bestowed by a cosmic force, they may fail to act, waiting for the lottery of life to deal them a better card, failing to acknowledge the true source of their boon.
Again, there is solace to be found in understanding cause and effect relationships and acknowledging the role they play in our lives, eschewing illogical superstition. To ignore these relationships is to be deluded (a form of madness), and live in a world where everything is arbitrary. Humans may not have control over all the variables that affect them every day, but they can acknowledge their true source. If they do this then they, like a motorcycle, will operate entirely in accordance with the laws of reason.