RE: MF Cults, Free-Thinkers and Monkeys

From: Matt Kundert (
Date: Tue Sep 13 2005 - 20:33:52 BST

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    I think Rick and Erin are right in a lot of ways, but I'd like to reframe
    the terms in a way that moves us in the direction that I think Rick and Erin
    want to move anyways. Briefly, first I'd like to describe the traditional
    picture of the free thinker and how that rests on SOMic assumptions. Then
    I'd like to show how Pirsig's picture reframes the ideas of free thinker or
    cult follower. And finally I'll redescribe what it means to be a Dynamic or
    static thinker in terms of my redescribed notions of free thinking and cult

    As David said, "free thinker" 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 precluded
    rational thought, much like the Marxist idea of ideology as being a blanket
    that blocks out 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 to dialectic coming out of rhetoric in ZMM 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. 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. 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_ (which is why Paul and I
    have been parroting the "we _are_ static patterns" line for the last six
    months or so). 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? I don't think
    Pirsig is talking about patterns that you can't hold onto. 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 questions and I don't think they have answers.
    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. (This is what Rorty called
    being an "ironist.") I think being a free thinker means having a lot of
    intellectual curiousity, 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 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 our 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. I think this is the right direction
    Erin was pointing when she said that, "When you close off
    information/vocabulary in the discussions you are closing the door on DQ."
    To be static is to not be curious. But there is a balance, as Rick said.
    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 jeapordy--just not all 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.


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