Apple of Gavitation

Ghost of Gravity

It has been a while since my last post. I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again just now, and came to the part where Pirsig compares scientific beliefs and superstitions. I thought I would paraphrase it and share it with my readers. But it is perhaps best to borrow his own words: “The laws of physics and of logic — the number system — the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real. For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity. So when did this law start? Has it always existed? What I’m driving at is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed. Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere…this law of gravity still existed? If that law of gravity existed, I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.

“Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense. And what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

[This quote is from an online version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.]

Comments

2 thoughts on “Ghost of Gravity”

  1. There is just something about this that doesn’t satisfy. It an overwording of the “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound” (have I got that right?) – I can’t think of a counter assertion beacause I am not as erudite as I have told all my friends I am, but there must be a better path toward structuring this.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael.

      The koan about the falling tree is, I believe, a question about the definition of sound. What is sound? Is it air pressure waves? Then the falling tree makes a sound. Or is it neuronal firing? If so, you need a brain around. Or is it an experience? Then you need consciousness and self-awareness. I must have posted something about it — it is one of my favorite topics. You know, something that I use to sound smart and erudite in front of my friends. :-)

      Pirsig’s take on scientific beliefs and ghosts, I think, is his way of exposing the context of beliefs. Why do we believe in one and not the other? It is because of the context of the worldview that we hold. Change the context, you change the belief. Five hundred years ago, people probably really believed that faith could move mountains, just as deeply as we now believe that a nuclear bomb can move mountains. (Another one of my favorites, from Russell). Note that we have no real direct reason to believe either, apart from our worldview, which is just another belief. Meaning it is only a belief that justifies another belief, so don’t laugh at people who believe in ghosts.

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