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CAN YOU BE PERFECT?

(c) Copyright 1988, Robert J. Hustwit
My headline this month is really a bit of a cheat. You see, it is almost im- possible for you (or me or anyone else) to be anything but perfect. Yes, you read it right, it is almost impossible to be anything but perfect. Now, what do I mean by perfect? Well, for the purpose at hand I'll just use good ol' Webster's 9th New Collegiate's definition of perfect: Being entirely without flaw or defect: FLAWLESS. Those of you who know me (and are aware of my many idiosyncrasies) may think I've gone off the deep end. "Flawless, ha!" you say. Well, read on. Before we get into our analysis, I have to say something about the limited amount of space I have in the Informer to do a complete and in-depth job discussing any of the subjects from the Seminar. You are going to have to fill in some blanks yourself, or come to the Seminar, or wait until my book is published to hear everything I have to say about the topics I cover here. As an example, a good friend pointed out that in the last Informer, I had talked about the lion and the spider at the species level and used the conclusions I drew there to make certain points regarding individual members. What holds true in general (the species), is not necessarily true in a specific instance (the individual), and so my friend's comment was certainly appropriate. However, in the context of my full discussion on the Statistical Web in the Seminar, the transition is clearly made, and we show how the general rules of the Statistical Web are applied to the specifics of your everyday life. Due to the lack of space, this part of the discussion was left out, as I must leave out parts of my discussion on perfection this month. Let's start our discussion of perfection by looking at an old friend from last time, the lion. I ask you: Is the lion perfect? Is the species without flaw? Before we can respond intelligently, we must answer a rather more profound question: "Perfect by what (or whose) standards?" Since we have defined perfection as the absence of flaws, it is clear that perfection is not the presence of a particular attribute, but rather the absence of one. It is not the process of adding something, but the process of subtracting flaws. The real question then becomes: Just what is a flaw? Once we have the answer to this question, perfection, or the lack of it, can become a meaningful, useful concept. It turns out that what one person considers a flaw, another person does not even see. It turns out that there is no absolute definition of "flaw", but rather, the concept of flaw depends upon the circumstances and the people involved. For instance, there is little debate over the meaning of the word "fire", it is something with which we are all familiar, and to which we can point. "Flaw", on the other hand, means different things to different people. What constitutes a flaw, then, is relative, not absolute. I had occasion to purchase a diamond last year, and in the process, learned something that illustrates this relativity: Diamonds are graded for price based on what diamond merchants call The Four C's: Carat weight, Clarity, Color, and Cut. The criteria we're concerned with here is Clarity. Clarity refers to flaws in the diamond. In general these flaws can be in the form of holes, cracks, or pieces of black carbon trapped inside the diamond. Now here's the interesting part: A "flawless" 1-carat investment-quality diamond would cost about $30,000; a slightly flawed diamond of otherwise equal quality no more that $15,000. Does this extra $15,000 buy you perfection? Does it actually purchase flawlessness for you? As above, we can't answer the question until we define just what we mean by a flaw. "Wait!" you say, "now I've got you! You already told me that in the case of diamonds, flaws are holes, cracks, or pieces of black carbon, therefore a flawless diamond can have none of these!" Well, I did leave one little thing out. You see, there is no such thing as a diamond without either holes, cracks or black carbon, so the diamond dealers just got together and agreed that if the flaw is small enough so that it can't be seen under a 10-power magnifying glass, (actually a little device called a "jeweler's loupe") then it isn't a flaw. If you can only see it with, say an 11-power loupe (slightly more powerful), the flaw, in effect isn't there. While this may not at first seem quite fair of the diamond dealers and jewelers, upon reflection we find that they really haven't got much choice. If you're looking for flaws in inanimate objects, you have to stop somewhere well before the atomic level if your search is to have much meaning in everyday life. It seems that even at the atomic level of crystalline structures (among the most orderly things we know) there are irregularities, or flaws. You probably noticed that I said you have to stop somewhere if you're looking for perfection in inanimate objects. Well, what about perfection or flawlessness in animate objects like lions, hyenas, zebras, spiders or even (dare I say it?) human beings? Again, in order for perfection to have any meaning, in order to be a useful concept, we must first define just what constitutes a flaw in an animate object. There is little value to be gotten in trying to establish what constitutes either a physical or mental flaw in living things, since there appears to be no common ground for making a useful judgment. When we discuss living things, it seems that the concept of perfection should be applied to how well the living thing in question fulfills its purpose in life. For instance, if we can determine what the lion's purpose in life is, we will then have a criteria by which to determine whether or not the lion is perfect. Now it seems that we are really in a quandary. How can anyone possibly know what the lion's purpose in life is? Who do we ask? Who can answer? We, any of us, can answer with confidence as long as we don't get too ambitious with our reply. Let's look at the lion rationally, and see what we can deduce about its purpose. [A digression here about deduction: Our ability to form valid conclusions in the absence of all relevant data is one of the most powerful intellectual tools we have derived from our rationality, and certainly it is one of the chief reasons we have survived and prospered. More on this in an upcoming issue when I discuss Sherlock Holmes.] As we observe the lion in its natural habitat, we might deduce that its purpose in life is to catch and eat gazelles, (or at least something like that). Then we ask, "What is the lion's purpose in catching and eating Gazelles?" The answer, of course, is, "In order to survive." This leads us to another question: "Why survive?" I said earlier that you have to stop somewhere in your search for perfection. This question of survival is where we stop in our search for perfection (or the lack of it) among animate things. Every living thing tries to survive. If you think about it, this is an almost tautological statement (just in case you don't know, and to save you a trip to the dictionary, "tautologous" and "redundant" mean roughly the same thing). After all, if a living thing didn't try to stay alive, it would die. Life presupposes effort. So every living thing tries to stay alive (the apparent contradiction of suicide is covered in the Seminar). Of course, death being what it is, none has ever succeeded for long. So all living things we know of do the next best thing, they reproduce younger versions of themselves, and therefore, at least the species survives. We are now in a good spot to show why the answer to our headline question must be a resounding, "Yes!" and to show the benefits we can derive from the answer. The lion survives in order to procreate, since it's the best the lion can do to stave off death. Can we say, then, that if we as humans procreate, we are perfect because we are fulfilling our purpose in life? Not quite. Up until fairly recently (at least by geological standards) the above condition would certainly be a standard of perfection for human beings. However, something happened in the geologically recent past, which changed the way we define our purpose in life. The change was (and is) us. That's right, it's me and you that changed the standard of perfection. Well, actually it's not exactly me and you, but rather our evolutionary ancestors, the first ones to use rationality as a tool for survival, who changed everything. Back in the good ol' days, when just to procreate was enough, life--no matter how good it might sound--was tough. Humanoids were competing with reptiles, other primates, and just about everything else that lived, and we were only doing a mediocre job of it. Then, one day, one of our ancestors made the first evolutionary step in what was to be our future. He recognized reality (perhaps in the form of an oncoming beast) and modified his behavior in order to better survive: instead of just running and hiding, he thought ahead and hid in just the right spot; he killed and ate the beast. Well, ever since that day, the day that rationality became the new standard for survival, humans have used rationality in trying to fulfill their quest for life. You see, it is no longer the fastest, the biggest, the strongest who survive, but the most rational. [From the August Informer, rationality is defined as: The potential to recognize reality and modify behavior accordingly so as to better survive.] We can claim to be perfect, and in fact by any objective standard we are perfect, if we possess rationality. In the same way, the lion, tiger, etc. is perfect if it reproduces and carries on the species. Since every human (discounting physiological damage) possesses rationality, every human is perfect. It doesn't have anything to do with how much of this potential you exploit, but rather whether you've got it or not...and we all have it. Now, the Big Question: "So what?" you say, "Even if I agree with you, (I'm not sure that I do) what good is it?" OK, here it comes. If you believe that there is some standard of perfection which you should meet, you will always fail...you will be a failure. As humans, we are perfect if we have this potential called rationality. Here is a major point in understanding our discussion today: There is a difference--a critically important difference--between perfection and success, loosely defining success as the process of getting what we want out of life. Success is a process which we can control...we may achieve it or not. Some other individuals may be, in our estimation, more successful or less successful than we, and we may choose to respect, honor, and pay them accordingly. Others may have a better claim to success (by our own admission) than we do, some may claim to be better at a given task, process, or way of life than we are; but no one, repeat, no one can claim to be a more perfect person...it just isn't possible. If you face life believing that the hard part (attaining perfection) is over, if you understand that you are perfect, then you have to be better able to cope with life's problems and your own mistakes. Dealing with other people has to be easier, and generally you can enjoy life. When I make a mistake, when you make a mistake, when your child, parent, or spouse makes a mistake, when a co-worker makes a mistake, when a subordinate makes a mistake, when a superior makes a mistake; I, you, they...we all...are doing it because we are human beings. For us, making mistakes is one vital way we have of recognizing reality. The better we recognize reality, the better we can modify our behavior so as to better survive, and the more of the potential I call rationality we can use. And the ability we have as perfect human beings can make us more and more successful in structuring the process of success in our lives. Any philosophy which requires you to aspire to some form of perfection which you do not innately possess is doomed (along with you) to ultimate failure. Making errors in judgment, forgetting things, bollixing a job, these are all part of being human. Just as the perfect lion (or spider) doesn't make a kill every time, we can and must make mistakes in order to learn, in order to progress. Mistakes, errors, omissions, these are the stuff of success, happiness, and tranquillity. As long as you are willing to take responsibility for any damage your mistakes, etc., may cause to others, you can revel in them, knowing that because of them, you, I, we all, are perfect.
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