6.27.2010

a note on human perfection

Wendy Milling correctly asserts, "To be perfect means to meet a given standard flawlessly." She's discussing socio-economic systems, but the definition applies to anything that can attain perfection. Standards are based on context, namely the given nature of the thing and the nature of the environment in which it operates. I might speak of a perfect hammer, cup, or wireless mouse--items that perform their functions flawlessly within specified perimeters.

But what of perfect humans? Speaking of men--and often of art--philosophers and laypersons alike disregard perfection as an unattainable state, an ideal that projects like a holographic image--mimetic, substantive, but impossible to capture. Perfection for humans, though, is no more or less attainable than perfection for hammers, political structures, or music. In fact, the concept of "perfection" has no referent in reality unless it means something attainable.

Herein lies a significant part of the problem of our conception of perfection. We regard it as beyond the realm of human capacity, as a Platonic ideal we may only glimpse during moments of divine revelation. Perfection is not for this world, the mystics argue, because men are born flawed--condemned from pre-existence to a life of less-than-the-ideal. The mystics' conception of perfection sees man as he should have been and cares not for man as he is and ought to be.

So we struggle to come as close to perfection as possible, all the while knowing we can never attain the brass ring placed purposely out of our reach--neither could we run a marathon if our legs were severed as infants, though. Nonetheless, this consistent "failure" is psychologically detrimental, leading to a malevolent view of existence, one that paints the universe as generally miserable and specifically unrewarding. Whatever joy we feel is fleeting because we cannot reach our ultimate goal, our final destination: Perfection.

But what if I told you that the "proper" standard for human perfection is winged flight, and because humans don't have wings it meant that humans can never be perfect? Hopefully you'd gaze at me with one eyebrow raised, perplexed by the absurdity of the claim and leery of my sanity. Why? Because humans do not and cannot posses natural wings. It's beyond our nature to sprout feathered appendages and carry on like falcons, yet these are the types of standards we attach to perfection and then bemoan our falling short. Perhaps a more realistic example will further illustrate my point.

What if I told you that the perfect human could never make a mistake, and because humans do make mistakes it meant that humans could never be perfect? Ah! This example is much closer to the types of standards associated with perfection, yet it's no less fantastical than asking a man to sprout wings (or a duck to sing or a cow to line dance). Humans are not and cannot be omniscient. There will always be circumstances in which information is unavailable and action is required.

How, then, can we successfully define human perfection in a way that's concordant with human nature, attainable, and still retain the perceived grandeur of the term? First it would be helpful to define human nature. Here are three quotes from Ayn Rand that do an excellent job, in a concise manner, of explaining man qua man:
Man’s distinctive characteristic is his type of consciousness—a consciousness able to abstract, to form concepts, to apprehend reality by a process of reason . . . [The] valid definition of man, within the context of his knowledge and of all of mankind’s knowledge to-date [is]: “A rational animal.”
(“Rational,” in this context, does not mean “acting invariably in accordance with reason”; it means “possessing the faculty of reason.” A full biological definition of man would include many subcategories of “animal,” but the general category and the ultimate definition remain the same.)
Also:
Man cannot survive on the perceptual level of his consciousness; his senses do not provide him with an automatic guidance, they do not give him the knowledge he needs, only the material of knowledge, which his mind has to integrate. Man is the only living species who has to perceive reality—which means: to be conscious—by choice. But he shares with other species the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction. For an animal, the question of survival is primarily physical; for man, primarily epistemological.
Man’s unique reward, however, is that while animals survive by adjusting themselves to their background, man survives by adjusting his background to himself. If a drought strikes them, animals perish—man builds irrigation canals; if a flood strikes them, animals perish—man builds dams; if a carnivorous pack attacks them animals perish—man writes the Constitution of the United States. But one does not obtain food, safety or freedom—by instinct.
Finally:
Almost unanimously, man is regarded as an unnatural phenomenon: either as a supernatural entity, whose mystic (divine) endowment, the mind (“soul”), is above nature—or as a subnatural entity, whose mystic (demoniacal) endowment, the mind, is an enemy of nature (“ecology”). The purpose of all such theories is to exempt man from the law of identity.
But man exists and his mind exists. Both are part of nature, both possess a specific identity. The attribute of volition does not contradict the fact of identity, just as the existence of living organisms does not contradict the existence of inanimate matter. Living organisms possess the power of self-initiated motion, which inanimate matter does not possess; man’s consciousness possesses the power of self-initiated motion in the realm of cognition (thinking), which the consciousnesses of other living species do not possess. But just as animals are able to move only in accordance with the nature of their bodies, so man is able to initiate and direct his mental action only in accordance with the nature (the identity) of his consciousness. His volition is limited to his cognitive processes; he has the power to identify (and to conceive of rearranging) the elements of reality, but not the power to alter them. He has the power to use his cognitive faculty as its nature requires, but not the power to alter it nor to escape the consequences of its misuse. He has the power to suspend, evade, corrupt or subvert his perception of reality, but not the power to escape the existential and psychological disasters that follow. (The use or misuse of his cognitive faculty determines a man’s choice of values, which determine his emotions and his character. It is in this sense that man is a being of self-made soul.)
OK, so a lot of that wasn't absolutely necessary--better more context than not enough. What did we learn? That humans' defining characteristic is rationality. (This does not mean that the "concept" human does not denote every other aspect--e.g., bipedal, vertebrate, etc. It simply identifies the trait which is unique to humans and humans alone.) But what does that mean for perfection?

Perfect humans must first accept their capacity to reason and properly understand it to be their sole faculty for understanding the world. (Even the concept of "divine revelation" had to be reasoned through in order to understand it--though poorly, in my opinion.)

A large part of this acceptance is understanding that reason is for comprehending reality not for creating it. That is, the faculty of reason works by integrating perceptions about the world into conceptions that allow us to order knowledge and made sense of our surroundings. It does not work by granting our whims about how reality should be. With that in mind, perfect humans must accept the bounds of the metaphysically given and not wage war against "the real." They may alter reality in the ways that are allowed by nature--e.g., application of imagination to raw materials--but they should never demand what cannot be.

Finally, perfect humans must use their rational faculties relentlessly, striving to make reasoned decisions in all aspects of their lives. Two caveats: 1. This does not mean that the outcome of a reasoned decision must be right. That is, even if the faculty of reason is applied perfectly in some scenarios, it does not guarantee that the outcome will be what was expected. Sometimes there simply isn't enough information at hand, or, in worse cases, the information provided is faulty--if someone lies to you, for example. 2. The relentless use of reason does not mean that humans must become emotionless automatons. But it does mean that they cannot be emotional junkies, taking the high of their emotional experiences and using them in place of reason as evaluative methods. Sometimes your emotions will be in conflict with your reason. In these instances, reason must win--especially if you ever want that emotion to mesh with what is reasonable. (Please see my previous post on this topic.)

The perfect human is one who accepts his nature, accepts reality, and acts accordingly. Perfection, then, at least in this context, seems to be a misnomer--perhaps even an anti-concept in some cases. It's not as if perfection is a trait that would be nice to obtain; for humans, it's necessary for living a flourishing life on Earth. Using the term perfection seems an unnecessary linguistic barrier, one that creates a delicate house of cards of morality that's meant to collapse with your first exhaled breath.

It is not the perfect human that should strive for what I've defined here as human perfection. It is, in fact, the purview of the normal human.

6.26.2010

the great iPhone misadventure

[I don't normally write posts like this, but I decided to write something in my OkCupid journal and cross post it here. Let's play: Find all the spelling and grammar errors...]

Like more than 1.5 million people yesterday, I spent not-an-insignificant portion of my day in a line--about 3.5 hours, realistically--queued behind fanboys, fangirls, and the occasional grandmother who thought she was waiting to have her driver's license renewed. No fewer than 300 people were patiently standing, sitting, or curled up in the fetal position when I arrived at the Pentagon City Apple store to pick up my reserved iPhone4.

I walked the length of the horde, which stretched roughly half way around the circular complex, and took my place at the rear.

"This is the reserve line?" I said with an inflection of disbelief. The guy in front of me just stared blankly. We exchanged silence. He asked gingerly, demonstrating that he wasn't a native English speaker, "iPhone?"

Here I found myself in an interesting predicament.
1. I didn't know if this was the correct line.
2. I speak 1.5 languages--the .5 being Pig Latin.
3. The guy in front of the guy in front me had his headphones in.
4. So did the girl in front of him.

I decided to wing it. "This is the line for reserved iPhone, I think." He tilted his head a bit in the universal "quizzical look" gesture. He replied, "No reserve."

Here I found myself in an interesting predicament.
1. Did he mean that he didn't have a phone reserved?
2. Did he mean that this wasn't the reserve line?
3. Was he making a statement about America's energy policy?

Finding no way to remedy this situation, I began reaching for my headphones when a woman approached quickly, speaking a language I didn't understand--read: all of them. She walked up to the guy in front of me, and they exchanged (seemingly) angry words. She pointed at the store. He pointed at the store. She pointed at her watch. He pointed at me. I waved. She pointed at the store again. They walked away hurriedly.

Score. One spot closer to magical goodness. (Or was that the iPad...?)

Then I waited, last in line, by myself, hungry and somewhat parched. I brought nothing but my bag from work--inside which the most edible item was a book on social media. After twenty minutes of fascinating standing--I'd describe it but I don't want this post to become as pointless as most of the scenes in Lord of the Rings--the line finally moved. I picked up my bag, threw it over my shoulder, and walked forward six steps. Then I took my bag off my shoulder, put it back on the ground, and resumed standing. Repeat ad nauseum.

This post-modern line dance continued for what seemed like 2.5 hours but was actually closer to 2.3. The highlight / worst part about the standing was when people started showing up behind me. At first it was exciting--new people wearing headphones to avoid conversation! Yes! Then hunger hit hard, and my active imagination hit overdrive, scheming and planning ways to barter with the folks around me so I could get some food.

Plan 1: Pay the guy-in-front-of-me's girlfriend to get me a Subway sandwich much like she did for her now-not-hungry boyfriend. I would politely ask if she would accept $20 to run down to the lower level to retrieve a six inch ... and that's when I realized that this was going to be impossible. Here's what I wanted: A six inch tuna on wheat with provolone cheese (untoasted), lettuce, onion, banana peppers, jalapenos, cucumber, salt & pepper, and a dash of light mayo; regular baked Lays; and a Minute Maid Light Lemonade. Having nothing to write with, I abandoned plan 1.

Plan 2: I turned to the kid behind me who was, luckily, writing in a journal! My keen powers of perception picked up on his checking his watch and touching his stomach. He was obviously hungry. This was going to be a cinch. I decided that I would announce my hunger to him in a I'm-trying-to-make-conversation sort of way. When he inevitably responded, "Me, too," I would offer to give him money and save his place in line if he ran down to Subway and got me a six inch tuna, etc. Because I tend to get Machiavellian when my blood sugar drops, I assumed that he would say, "Why don't I give you money and you go instead?" To which I would reply, "Because, good sir, I have nothing to gain from your leaving the line since you are directly behind me. It's in my self-interest to save your spot while you get me food. On the contrary, I'm in front of you, and if I were to leave with a mere $5 of your money, it may be worth it for you to move ahead one space and disavow our prior agreement upon my return." Or something like that.

But as I was refining my rhetoric, the kid behind me turned to the guy behind him and asked, "Hey, do you mind if I go get something to eat?" That guy, whose headphones must have been on a rather low volume, simply replied, "Sure, no problem." The kid left.

Plan 3: Do exactly what that kid did.

But by the time I collected by focus, an Apple representative, who may well have been royalty judging by the celebration of her arrival, made her way through the line. But instead of weaving pleasant tapestries, she sung tales of woe at the store and displeasure at the Kingdom's feudal laws. [End silly metaphor.]

Apparently, the mall had a strict policy that would not let Apple stay open after hours. And there was much groaning. They would not be able to get us our phones this evening. But the fair Apple maiden did not leave us empty handed. In place of iPhone, she granted us favors of Holy "Extended Reservation Vouchers." And there was a little bit of rejoicing--more so, less groaning. [OK. I'm really done now.]

Walking back to the Metro, shiny new voucher in hand, I thought this is what pre-historic man must have felt like, devoting time and braving the elements to hunt game only to end up with a coupon for future stores of mammoth rump.

It wasn't all bad, though. At least I made some new friends--foreign-language guy (and his sister/wife/girlfriend), guy in front of me wearing headphone, kid behind me wearing headphones and writing in his journal, and who could forget you, Apple maiden. You were the fairest of them all.

[P.S. -- I did get my shiny new iPhone today. (Thanks, Keith-the-Apple-guy.) It works beautifully. I used it to find a barbecue recipe for mammoth.]

6.19.2010

A Randroid's tears make the bitterest brew and its smiles the softest fleece. What as a human there is no capacity to experience--no inclination or desire to feel--as an automaton manifests with incalculable fervor. Music renders as an aural caress, replacing tonal sequence with melodic sensuality. Image achieves emotional depth untouchable by human depravity--as the sacred becomes the sacred: And the profane the profane. Experiences slide into focus through steel eyes, flaring in the naked exposure of an inward gaze. It's as if darkness receded in requisite fear when this Godless Machine turned its heart toward the west to make a valiant approach. Touched by it all and touching it all, this iron(ic) giant drowns even-the-Ark with a robot's oily tears. And like a trampoline in the rain, the liquid returns to the sky--if only for a second and only to end up puddled, nonetheless--a striking moment of defiance. A moment for the best within us.

6.05.2010

Lines extending past the plane of off-white infinity, spaces waiting patiently for ink and genius--or at least the pencil marks of a sub[lime]conscious. The pressure of instrument against opportunity, matched only by the pressure of focus against feeling. The unreality of having everything to say and no way of saying it. Questions arise with suspicious contempt, but the questions don't stifle so much as engage--micro-opportunities to pry the facets of self from evasion's trembling grip. Knowing that you don't know then remembering that you can--a peregrination of discovery that playfully mocks altruistic pilgrimage. Clenched fingers recoil with every proclamation of precision or expression of certainty. What the pressure cannot stand is a fulfilled relaxation, a mind overflowing with exactness, confidence, clarity. Knowing that you can't know what you don't know and that you are more than capable of attaining it all--the method, the content, the style. Celebrate what is/ought and what will/should.