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.

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