Recently I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Ironically the book, to this point, has little to do with either Zen or motorcycle maintenance. Pirsig was a college professor trained in biochemistry and eastern philosophy who was driven to a nervous breakdown by unanswered questions of truth and quality. His search for truth, originally through the discipline of molecular biology contributed to his prolonged angst and nihilism.
As I read the account of his descent into a nihilistic milieu, it caused me to reconsider something that I have been reflecting on for some time. I work on a university campus, both as an administrator and professor, and I have come to believe that the young adults of our age are trapped in a nihilistic world view from which they desperately wish to be freed. This realization has often caused me to ask why.
Interestingly enough, what started Pirsig’s descent was a naturalistic worldview founded upon the scientific method. A biochemistry major at the time, he realized that when using the scientific method, the number of plausible hypotheses available to explain any given phenomenon is virtually infinite. The purpose of the scientific method is to select from the multitude of possible hypotheses which is the best to test via experimentation. Yet, as the possible number of hypotheses duplicates faster than one can keep track of it becomes clear that all of these hypotheses can never be tested. If all possible hypotheses can never be tested, then the results of the method are surely inconclusive. This falls drastically short of “truth.” Further, claims Pirsig, what causes the number of possible hypothetical truths to expand in our day is nothing more than the scientific method itself. Instead of selecting one truth from the cornucopia of possibilities we seem to select the cornucopia itself. This, as Pirsig saw it, leads to nihilism. Yet this is exactly the worldview that is taught cradle to grave. Because science, and the scientific method, brings us technology and a better quality of life those things derived from it are by nature real and true –– yet transient.
Now, I am not suggesting that we ditch the scientific method. This methodology has brought us many wonderful things which I use and appreciate on a daily basis, including the technology that I now use to write this blog. Nor am I necessarily arguing against seeking truth empirically. We all rely on this method daily for virtually everything, but it by it’s nature only provides transient truth. Perhaps the goal is to get outside the circle of relying on the presuppositions of the scientific method for everything. What I am suggesting is that perhaps we should not link the search for truth and meaning to this method or its presuppositions. It’s not that truth under this model is relative; rather, it’s transient and subject to the next hypothesis and the next round of experimentation. As technology expands our ability to hypothesize and experiment over time, truth itself expands and becomes more transient. As Pirsig elucidates, these scientific truths that were once held for centuries, now, because of our ever expanding ability to hypothesize and experiment, are only true for days. Young adults of our age are not relativists. Rather they desperately seek a truth for which they can hold to dearly for their entire lives.
We are all restless, listless, and even hopeless until we find some sense of truth. Many today find themselves immersed in a nihilistic void. Maybe this is where the Christian can make an inroad by speaking the Truth of the Gospel as the unchanging non-transience which they so desperately seek. This truth is salvation on account of Christ alone. If we can condition ourselves to stop being disappointed in them and believe that those who struggle with what we call relativism truly are seeking the truth of a non-transient manner, then we may be more open to simply preach to them the Gospel (the Dynamite of salvation as Rod Rosenbladt would call it) of the Christ that did enter their natural world to become for them the incarnate way, TRUTH, and life. At this point we may be able to have a real impact.