Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Human Perfection

Posted by Jerry on October 21, 2006

Over at Jason Hughes’ blog, a raging discussion ensued between religious “fundies” (Jason’s term) and non-believers. While Jason’s blog is not Objectivist–nor, I suspect, are his commentators–Jason exhibits a commendable commitment to the rationality- and reality-based approach to matters. Not surprisingly, therefore, Jason is happily non-religious.

Interestingly, one of his atheist/agnostic commentators, Darkmind, pointed out an interesting facet about religious people–that they rarely “entertain the thought [that they] might be wrong” about the existence of a God. And come to think of it, this is very true. It got me thinking:

Why are believers so reluctant, even for a few moments, to entertain the thought that they might be wrong about god’s existence? It is clear that they question many things rather easily, except those that lie within the domain of their faith. For example, they question evolution and fossil records and scientific claims and the age of the universe. But do they wonder if they’re ever wrong about heaven or hell or souls or God?

Fear is the easy answer. They fear the consequences of doubting the existence of God. However, I don’t think that fear is the cause as much as I think it is the effect.
The cause–the root of their fear, and their faith–is the acceptance of the false premise that humans are inherently flawed creatures. Their standard of assessing that humans are flawed is an impossible standard of perfection: omniscence, omnipotent, beyond the realm of spatio-temporal existence, an eternal existence stretching into infinity.
Believers are riddled with fear, doubt, and guilt precisely because, at their epistemological root, lies the premise that the standard of knowledge is omniscience. Since it is evident that omniscience is not possible to humans, it is proof enough that we are flawed. Thus, instead of observing that the standard itself must be corrected to correspond to reality and human nature, believers merely accept their epistemic natures as being inherently flawed, i.e., imperfect. However, this in corollary also implies that their metaphysical view of their existence in reality is also inherently imperfect.

Metaphysical perfection, according to this premise, requires one to simply not exist in this world as we know it. It requires that one be untouched and unfazed by reality. To exist in this world is to experience life and events and react to it accordingly. This is the flaw. To exist in this world means to die at some point. This is a flaw. Perfection is defined as achieving nonexistence–Nirvana. A numbing state of contradictory existence and non-existence where everything is subdued to a montone, without differentiation, without distinctions. Or else, perfection is a state of eternal existence living on for eternity.

Basically, all the various definitions ascribed to perfection are carefully constructed to ensure that human beings are defined as the exact opposite, i.e., as imperfect and flawed creatures.

Given that imperfection is at the root their paradigm, it becomes easy to accept things on faith and discredit the validity of their rational faculty because that is precisely what is consistent with their fundamental premise–that of a flawed and imperfect nature. The illogic is that because humans are inherently flawed, the products of the human mind and the exercise of the human mind has to also be flawed–or at least be held suspect regardless of evidence. They do not grasp that against a standard of perfection that is logically impossible, all else will be inadequate and imperfect by definition, though not by fact.

Thus, things based on reason is doubted, whereas those based on faith is accepted. Faith does not require our “flawed” faculties of reason and logic. Once the basic premise of a flawed nature is accepted, faith facilitates belief in practically anything. Which, consequently, generates a sense of fear because–having discredited one’s faculty of reason and ability to know facts–one is helplessly at the mercy of arbitrary dictats and dogmas, dependent on his own emotions, whims, and other persons to guide his actions.

A man of faith is afraid to entertain the thought that he is wrong because faith is his means to knowledge, without which he will be like a chicken with no head. It is no wonder that many believers are baffled at how many atheists can remain without going on a murdering rampage or a looting spree. They do not understand how the atheists know how to act in the absence of a faith-based dogma. To the believer, the faculty of reason is flawed–consistent with the premise that human nature is flawed. Thus, to them, only a Perfect Being (which they accept on faith that He exists) can offer moral rules and principles of life. They believe that morality is impossible to an atheist because their morality is as imperfect as they are.

However, the fact of the matter is–as Ayn Rand pointed out–reason permits a person to identify errors by means of logic and correspondence with reality, faith eliminates all possibility of identifying errors in one’s beliefs because it neither relies on logic nor respects reality. Therefore, a believer simply cannot “entertain the thought that he might be wrong” about matters of faith because by what process of validation will be know that he is right or wrong in the absence of rational standards?

In sum, the premise that human nature is inherently flawed–given the insidiously wrong definition of perfection–is at the root of faith and fear. It replaces reason as the competent faculty of knowledge with faith as the passive absorber of facts and fantasies. It replaces confidence in one’s ability to know and live competently with the fear of being helpless, weak, flawed, and incompetent. It replaces the ability to rectify one’s error when faced with facts with the inability to even differentiate an error from truth or a fact from fantasy.

In We The Living, Kira states that she does not believe in a god because she cannot fathom a Being greater that herself that she would have to bow before. Kira considered herself worthy of the highest ideal and competent enough to achieve it. Perfection was achievable, and was achieved, by Kira. All of Ayn Rand’s fictional heroes–like Ayn Rand herself in real life–fundamentally held the premise that perfection is attainable, that they deserved the highest ideal, and they achieved it for themselves.

Perfection is possible, in any meaningful sense, only to Human Beings; any definition of perfection that makes it impossible for humans to achieve it is not only flatly incorrect but also meaningless.

[Related post: God Cannot be Perfect, But Man Can!]

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21 Responses to “Human Perfection”

  1. bdkeller said

    “Perfection is possible, in any meaningful sense, only to Human Beings; any definition of perfection that makes it impossible for humans to achieve it is not only flatly incorrect but also meaningless.”
    Agreed. Christians often define man as flawed as a result of the Fall- the first sin in the Garden of Eden, meaning they believe that before that man was not flawed. This basis for theology is needless to say difficult to reconcile with evolution.
    I’m not sure the term ‘perfection’ is really that useful though. Maybe ‘improvement’ or ‘transcendence’ would be more accurate.

  2. Ergo said

    Bdkeller,

    The premise of human nature as inherently flawed is not unique only to Christian theology. In fact, a great number of atheists and secular humanists also buy into this premise. Ofcourse, as I have identified it, the assumption behind the premise is that there exists a standard of perfection that is simply beyond human means and spheres.

    The Christian theology of the “fall” does not state that humans were “perfect” before the Original sin was committed. It merely states that men were without sin, without knowledge of right and wrong, ignorant or naive. Basically, humans were just like the other animals, only slightly more special. Read my post “God’s Original Plan for Humanity” for more on this topic (by doing a search on my blog for that title).

    The reason, I suspect, you find that the term ‘perfection’ is useless is precisely because you’ve bought into the idea that perfection is impossible or unacheivable or even undesirable as an ideal. And I DO NOT fault you for this because the idea is so pervasive in the minds of people. Only a heroic vision of man–as projected by the philosophy of Objectivism–can reveal how perfection is not only possible but is also the ideal proper to a HUMAN BEING and fully consistent with the nature of man’s rational faculty.

    Perfection defined otherwise is incorrect because it posits ‘perfection’ as contradictory: as a state that is presumably achievable, but that can be achieved only by a Supernatural Being who already possess all the faculties that are necessary to attain and defined under the concept of perfection.

    And because this definition of perfection is incorrect, the concept of perfection DEFINED AS SUCH is meaningless.

  3. Jason said

    You have managed to put into words what has been taking me three months to post on my blog…

    Thanks for the linkback (again), Ergo. :) And thanks for being a brilliant mind in the sea of blogs.

    I’m going back to reread this again! catch ya later!

  4. [...] at the mercy of nature and unknown forces that he can never comprehend fully or accurately. [See this related post for an elaboration of how terms of perfection with regard to humans are [...]

  5. Josh said

    i am a christian, and i ma very glad to see you confront them the way you do. i am impressed by how you avoid ridiculous or irrelevant insults, and instead present opinions and changes in ideology from both your point of view and theirs. however, even though i am a christian, it may suprise you to know that i agree with you. i dislike the typical christian view of the obvious existence of god, and honestly don’t think some one who calls themself a christian can believe in something they take at face value. i enjoyed reading your article, and i just wanted to share my thoughts.

  6. Eric said

    It seems to me that there are a number of problems with this post.

    First, the premise that theists do not question god’s existence is certainly false. Sure, many unthinking theists blindly accept the propositions of their faith, but you shouldn’t focus on the poorest examplars of a particular belief system. Sophisticated theists admit that they are agnostics when it comes to god’s existence: they don’t *know* that god exists (with knowledge understood as jtb), but they do *believe* that god exists.

    Second, if there is any religious proposition that is clearly true, it is the proposition that human beings always fail to live up to their ideals (i.e. that human beings are flawed). As Chesterton said, original sin is as real as potatoes. A cursory view of history confirms this fact, as does a moment of introspection. Even the shallowest person knows that he fails to do what’s good as often — if not more often — than he does what’s right. Paul put it best: “For the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Before someone calls me a “fundie,” let me make it clear that I’m an agnostic who does not believe in god. If this sounds like a strange way to put it, keep in mind what ‘knowledge’ is.) It is this sense in which theists, and many secularists, believe that human beings are flawed creatures, and not because we are not omniscient, or because we will someday die.

    I have studied Objectivism, but I’m not aware of any Objectivist notion of moral or human perfection that Objectivists believe it is possible to attain. Surely, any such conception must so deviate from the acceptance of the term ‘perfection’ so as to render it a completely different concept!

  7. Apple said

    Eric,

    In the same way that Objectivism rejects the standard of knowledge as omniscience, it rejects the notion that knowledge is jtb+g. So, it seems the group of theists and agnosts you refer suffer from another bad theory of knowledge. To believe and yet never to know is a standard as bad as the standard of omniscience.

  8. Apple said

    Also, Rand defines moral perfection in the context of the virtue of pride, in “Galt’s Speech,” as an “unbreached rationality.” In whatever circumstance you find yourself, act on the basis of reason and evidence, and never on faith, whim, emotion. It is a tough standard, but it is achievable by anyone.

  9. Eric said

    Apple,

    If knowledge isn’t to be characterized by justification, truth, and belief, I’d like to know what your alternative is. Surely, if we claim to know x, x must be true; you cannot, without contradiction, claim to know what is false. Also, as Moore’s paradox shows, you cannot claim to know x and yet not to believe x. The proposition, “I know it’s raining, but I don’t believe it’s raining” is also a contradiction. Finally, knowledge requires justification (a tricky topic, for sure): If you cannot justify x, you cannot assert that
    you ‘know’ x. So, even loosely understood, jtb seems to be a reasonable way to consider claims to knowledge (I’m of course ignoring Gettier paradoxes here for the sake of brevity and simplicity).

    With respect to the notion that moral perfection is to be identified with “unbreached rationality,” I fail to see how this is an achievable standard, unless it’s trivially conceived as “trying your best to make the most rational decision given the constraints of the situation.” This hardly accords meaningfully with any sense of the term ‘perfection.’ Our rational processes are always subject to error (unknowingly committing a logical fallacy doesn’t constitute a moral breach), our information is almost always incomplete (likewise, missing a pertinent premise or two isn’t a moral violation), and given sundry other factors such as time constraints, physical danger (to ourselves or others), etc. it is inevitable that in many cases emotion or something akin to ‘intuition’ (loosely understood as going with the decision that ‘seems’ best at the moment, even though one cannot rationally justify it at the time — something we’ve all experienced) will play a dominant role in our decision making processes. Life as it is actually lived and experienced is as good a refutation of many of the fundamental conclusions of Objectivism as any philosophic argument.

  10. Apple said

    I would give a caution: If you believe that Objectivism has already been refuted, then it’s not use for me or anyone else to try to tell you otherwise. On the assumption that you ask your questions in good faith in your learning quest, I would offer the following:

    There is a difference between failing to achieve a standard and rejecting it as an objective standard. Setting aside the former for a moment, it can be shown that moral perfection is an objective standard for regular human beings. But to get there, there are a few preliminaries: First you have to be convinced that reason is your only means of acquiring knowledge and guide to action. Next you have to be convinced that logic is the only proper method for reason to give you knowledge. Third, you have to see that you have free will regarding the choice to use reason or not. These are the preconditions for showing that moral perfection is the standard for virtuous living. If you don’t see that or if you reject it as a standard, then check your beliefs about these three things.

    As for failing to achieve moral perfection, I agree with you. Yes, people do make cognitive mistakes; a person has only so much information, based on the limited nature of his mind; people sometimes do need to act quickly on what little knowledge they already possess; people often are tempted to evade thinking or to think emotionally in times of great distress. These are all observed facts. Is morality to be based on facts or not? If moral guidance is to be of any practical use, mustn’t it account for facts about man’s means of cognition, his free will, his circumstances? So, this is the standard for success in living, and it is fact-based. Sure, it is difficult, but it is achievable. A virtuous man, a morally perfect man, is a man of achievement. It may be a moral ambition for everyone. And if anyone can achieve it, he has the right to be proud of himself.

    Finally, what is knowledge? I won’t answer it, not because it is difficult but because you have no context at the moment to believe it or to appreciate it. But I would like to tease you into thinking the following: Plato first asked this question in Theatetus and in Meno. One of his answers was this “true belief with an account.” Down the Platonic line of thinking through the ages, the answer refines to “justified true belief.” Now I ask you this: If someone then finds an instance of “knowledge” that falsifies this definition, what is he to do? If you have been taught that “all swans are white,” and then you find a black swan, what are you to do? Would you want to tweak the conditions for “all swans are white”? Would you want to launch your career on saving it with “all swans are white + exceptions”? What Rand recommends is to check your premise. Why philosophize in midstream? Examine the source of the error. And in fact, if it hadn’t been for the wholesale rejection of Aristotle’s philosophy (along with his various sciences) since the 17th century, philosophers would have discovered the correction long ago. If you don’t like Rand’s methodological recommendation, perhaps read Aristotle’s answer to Plato’s. (The footnotes in the dialogues should send you to the appropriate Aristotelian treatises.)

  11. Eric said

    If I remember correctly, the Randian approach to knowledge supposes that knowledge is contextual. In other words, if up to now all the available evidence points to the conclusion that “all swans are white,” then we are justified in claiming this as knowledge at this time. If we find a black swan in Australia, then we would be wrong to claim that all swans are white after the discovery, but — and this is a big but — we could still claim to have had ‘knowledge’ that “all swans are white” prior to the discovery. This means that it is possible, on the Objectivist understanding of knowledge, to know that p when p is false. (If i remember correctly — it has been some time! — Peikoff says, in his taped lecture series on Objectivism, that at one time people were justified in claiming to ‘know’ that the solar system, if not the universe, is geocentric.) It seems to me that Objectivists confuse ‘knowledge’ with ‘certainty.’ Certainty is a feeling; I can, without contradiction, feel certain about p even if p is false, but I cannot without contradiction claim to know that p if p is false.

    As for my repudiation of Objectivism, I can say that it follows from my academic study of philosophy. I was introduced to philosophy through Ayn Rand’s novels and essays, and through Peikoff’s taped lectures. But as I began to study philosophy seriously (a process I’m still undertaking as an undergraduate philosophy major), I came to see that Objectivism as a whole is seriously problematic (of course I cannot get into it all now). But, as a student of philosophy, I’m of course open to persuasion, as long as the arguments are sound. This is where that certainty/knowledge distinction (yet again) comes into play!

  12. Apple said

    The issue here is not about context or certainty; it’s about knowledge per se. Now that you saw a black swan. What are you going to do? What is the status of “all swans are white”? More to the point, is knowledge jtb, jtb+g, or any variation thereof?

    Regarding your study of philosophy, in the end you have to decide whether you are Aristotelian or Platonist.

  13. Eric said

    I already said what happens: we realize that our previous claim was not in fact knowledge, since it was false. This in no way affects a conception of knowledge as ‘justified true belief.’ Instead, we realize that our previous notion of what constituted justification in this case — viz. that every swan we’d seen so far had been white — was erroneous. This new fact doesn’t change the status of knowledge as jtb, but it does, if we are thoughtful, help us to learn more about the nature of justification itself. Only a contextualist could claim that the previous claim was — at the time it was made — knowledge.

    As for your other point, it seems to me that many philosophic ‘fits’ into the camps of either ‘Aristotelianism’ or ‘Platonism,’ when these are taken as exhaustive categories, are procrustean at best. Take the simple example of Hume, whose philosophy has had an enormous impact on the development of modern philosophy through the logical positivists and the analysts. Neither he nor his philosophic progeny can be neatly classified as Platonists or Aristotelians: They are empiricists, nominalists, skeptics about metaphysics, advocates of modern science, and they believe that philosophic problems are primarily problems of language. I know that you’d say that they are Aristotelians, but that classification is so watered down that it tells us next to nothing about their fundamental principles.

  14. Ergo said

    Eric,

    From discussions (and readings) with many people who claimed to have studied Objectivism early on and then rejected it, I have realized that what they understood of the philosophy was simply not correct or was badly integrated. There may be several reasons for this, one of which is that Objectivism is a fairly young philosophy and early students of Objectivism may not have had access to the many new insights, implications, and integrations that have come over the recent years of its study by later Objectivist scholars. Anyway, this is for another post perhaps.

    It may be why I see that there are many things wrong and confused in your comments. You said: “Surely, if we claim to know x, x must be true; you cannot, without contradiction, claim to know what is false.”

    That’s false. You’re confusing “knowledge” with “truth.” Without contradiction, you can indeed claim to know what is false.

    Next, you are confusing certainty with knowledge. All knowledge is contextual, and certainty is arrived at within that specific context at the end of a conclusive examination of evidence. No future discoveries can contradict prior knowledge, insofar as the concepts you have used to hold the knowledge were defined carefully, strictly with respect to context, logic, and reality.

    To make the statement that all swans are white is to make an empiric statement. Therefore, one must not drop the context in empiric statements: given the body of our knowledge (which is not omniscient), all swans are white. It would take some feat of imagination for a person to make a statement against his given body of knowledge, i.e., to postulate a proposition purely from imagination–of some swans being black–despite his entire contextual knowledge and conclusive evidences. In this sense, he is merely using imagination as an epistemological standard. [Imagination is an integral part of concept formation, however, if controlled by logical thought.]

    In this sense, the discovery of a black swan will not contradict or invalidate one’s previous knowledge about swans; if his earlier empiric statement came about through ignorance, the discovery will only expand his knowledge further and refine the statements.

  15. Tim R said

    Religious doctrine states that men are inherently evil and imperfect.

    But most atheists also believe this. eg/ Socialists and environmentalists. Most atheists are highly altruistic.

    So does it follow that someone who doesn’t think men are born evil and doesn’t accept that humans are always flawed must be an atheist?

  16. Ergo said

    Tim, no, that does not follow.

  17. Eric said

    Ergo,

    I admit that I haven’t kept up with any current developments in Objectivism, but I feel confident that my understanding of the fundamentals of Rand’s philosophy was sound (it’s been some years since I studied Objectivism, though, so I’m sure I’ve forgotten much). I read not only Rand’s novels, but her philosophic essays too, and I listened — quite frequently — to Peikoff’s lectures on Objectivism and on the history of philosophy (I still listen to the history of philosophy tapes from time to time). I’ve also read Peikoff’s book on Objectivism, and a number of Branden’s essays. Of course, there may have been subtle points I misunderstood — actually, I’m sure there were — but I did devote a bit of time to getting a grasp of the fundamentals. That said, when I speak about philosophy now, I no longer speak as an Objectivist. When I was referring to ‘knowledge’ earlier, I wasn’t analyzing the concept from an Objectivist point of view. I hope that clears things up a little.

    With respect to your comments about ‘knowledge,’ I have a question for you, just to make sure we’re not talking past each other. Consider these three sets of propositions:

    A) “p”
    “not p”

    B) “S is certain that p”
    “not p”

    C) “S knows that p”
    “not p”

    I think we’d both agree that A is inconsistent, and that B is consistent. What about C?

    I would argue that C is also inconsistent. When S says, “I know that p,” S is saying that he can support p with reasons (justification), that p is true, and that he believes that p. An example will make this clear.

    Suppose I say, “I know that it’s raining outside,” and that it is not in fact raining. You then show me that it is not raining. Can I still meaningfully say, “I still knew it was raining outside”? This clearly strikes one as absurd. You can’t claim to know what isn’t true (though you can, of course, claim to know *that* something isn’t true, but this is a very different proposition).

    With respect to the certainty/knowledge distinction, I made it clear in my earlier post that I was indeed making use of the distinction. Certainty may be contextual, but that is irrelevant: certainty is a feeling or a disposition, and one can feel certain with full possession of the available evidence or with no evidence whatsoever. This is why B is consistent.

    Finally, when we make empirical assertions, we are making claims about the state of the world, not about our current state of knowledge (though of course our current state of knowledge will constrain our propositions about the world). So, if I say, “all swans are white,” and this claim is supported by all the available evidence, and we in the future discover a black swan, then it follows that the notion that “all swans are white” is not true, and it *was* not true. I think you’re conflating the world as it is with our state of knowledge about the world. We may have been justified in feeling certain that all swans are white, but it decidedly wasn’t knowledge (though the conclusion itself was based on premises that could be characterized as knowledge).

  18. Ergo said

    Eric, you said: “Suppose I say, “I know that it’s raining outside,” and that it is not in fact raining. You then show me that it is not raining. Can I still meaningfully say, “I still knew it was raining outside”? This clearly strikes one as absurd. You can’t claim to know what isn’t true.”

    Here’s how I see it, to be precise: I cannot use the concept “know” in the statement “I know that it’s raining outside” unless I have indeed reached that conclusion after an examination of the evidence and the application of logic to the facts (outside my window). If I haven’t met the criteria of establishing truth, then I cannot make such statements; to do so would be to lie, evade, or utter arbitrary claims.

    Remember that truth-status is not an attribute of propositions qua propositions but of the relationship between a proposition in a consciousness and a fact of reality. In this sense, consistency is not the criterion of truth but the strength of the correspondence of a proposition to reality.

    With regard to white/black swans, I’m not clear about whether we are talking about what makes a statement true or what degree of certainty we can have in making inductive statements. If the former, then the same criterion I outlined above applies to the swan statement: “true” refers to the relationship between a statement in an actively grasping consciousness and a fact of reality being grasped, within the context of knowledge known to the person and the application of logical integration.

    If we are talking about the degree of certainty one can have in making inductive statements, then we will have to examine the premise underlying this doubt about the certainty of inductive statements. The premise here is the acceptance of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy: that absolute certainty can only be achieved with analytic propositions and not the latter kind. The crucial fact to remember here is that all knowledge–both analytic and synthetic/deductive and inductive–are fundamentally derived from empiric sense data. Given this fact, the dichotomy then becomes apparent as a false and unnecessary one.

    For more on this, you will have to refer to the Objectivist sources–ITOE and Peikoff’s essay. I’ll admit that I cannot provide a proper treatment of the topic.

  19. Ahmad said

    What a waste of time and energy. Perfection is attainable. Look into the mirror, are you perfect to yourself? If yes, have a survey and see remarkable results to open you wide shut eyes.

    Is there any perfection in any work of any person rendered? Any scientist or philosopher closing down the scope of research and remodeling of theories and ideas because he himself has reached there? And if there is some, can it be said for certainty that 1000 years from now the current will be existent?

    A totally misconceived and maladaptive slogan.

    To live in a fools paradise where a single individuals defines perfection can hold an opinion of this sort.

  20. evanescent said

    Clicked “go to a random post” Ergo and came across this gem from so many years ago. What a wonderful article and well put together – so well explained and so true. It reminded me how fortunate I consider myself to have discovered your blog years ago, and through it, Objectivism.

  21. Ergo said

    Evanescent,

    Thank you!

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