Monthly Archives: June 2011

No, We don’t attain Perfection, but what is Perfection?

Years ago my high school, home town buddy, Alex, once had an error-free performance on a ninth-grade algebra test — i.e., he solved every problem correctly, no errors whatsoever — but when his test was returned by the algebra teacher, Sister Michele, a nun teaching at the Catholic high school we attended, the paper had a ‘98’ score instead of the expected ‘100.’ When he questioned Sister Michele regarding the two points deducted on his test score, she replied that only Jesus was perfect. Understandably, my friend was upset by this, but what could he do? After all, only Jesus is perfect! [In retrospect, we should have replied that Jesus did not take the exam! But in those days we did not dare question the authority and greater knowledge of the Church.]

I thought about this humorous incident as I thought about the issue of perfection and the tendency by some philosophers to evaluate facts and events in the world on the basis of a putative perfect condition. Many times this tendency comes in the context of an ideal or spiritual metaphysics in which all things that are material and corporeal are seen as second-rate when compared with the perfect realm which is seen as having a greater reality. Plato’s theory of forms comes to mind, along with the spiritual metaphysics of Christian doctrine. The things of this world are nothing but appearances and temporal phenomena; they are nothing compared to the other, greater realm. The world we experience is imperfect; the other world (the realm of forms, for Plato; or God’s spiritual realm, for the Christian) is where perfection is realized.

Before the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the democratic revolutions and the rise of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this metaphysical idea of an imperfect, less-than-desirable world of the senses and of perfection residing in a realm beyond the reach of human reason and intelligence served to preserve the privileges of the ruling classes and their priestly allies. Anything resembling perfection – such as wealth, knowledge, and material privileges – were limited to those who directly served God and represented his authority in this world and to those favored by God (monarchs, royalty, and aristocrats) for some unexplained reason.

For many philosophers, the other worldly perfection was reflected only in the disciplines of geometry and mathematics. A deductive system of logic could be perfect in the sense of being without error. My friend, Alex, would have been surprised to know that our pious high school algebra teacher either did not realize this or chose to ignore it when she deducted two points from his otherwise “perfect” test.

The other consequence for much of traditional Western philosophy was that genuine knowledge was not attainable in the sensible world of ordinary experience. As the arguments in Plato’s dialogues tell us, the most we can achieve in the world of the senses is opinion, which might have a degree of reliability but will never reach the status of genuine knowledge. The only exceptions were geometry and mathematics, both of which served as models for knowledge. For the Christian philosopher, many of whom followed Platonic thought, ultimately only God had knowledge of the world. Human ‘knowledge,’ at best, was only practical and provisional, always incomplete and subject to error. But God’s knowledge was perfect and complete.

With the advent of evolutionary philosophies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this idea that perfection marked every area of knowledge started to weaken. Or at least, the idea that God, being the perfect Being, had created a static, perfect world became questionable. Geologists, naturalists and historians began to develop theories of reality on basis of their observation that the world is subject to change, deterioration, improvement and evolution. In short, the world was revealed to be anything but a static, perfect world. But even with respect to biological evolution, the notion remained that everything changed for the better, moving toward a final and perfect harmony. So the idea of perfection was still retained in the prevalent perspectives of reality. It was only when Malthus gave a more realistic view of the struggle for survival and Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection that many people began to notice that the idea of perfection really did not apply to the biological and social world. Only then did some philosophers and physicists begin to question the equation of knowledge as an absolute, perfect knowledge.

Surprisingly, some people in and out of philosophy still think in these terms. I argued recently with a retired philosophy instructor who insisted that what we take as knowledge of events, contemporary or historical events, is not genuine knowledge because one can imagine alternative scenarios being possible. In other words, unless what we affirm in our claim to knowing something is absolutely and perfectly true (no possibility of error or alternative account), we cannot claim genuine knowledge. His claim is that our ordinary, empirical knowledge (as well as much of our scientific knowledge) is always based on a specific conceptual scheme or framework and is, therefore, not a completely objective form of knowledge. In short, we cannot attain perfection in our claims to knowledge. We only have perspectives and beliefs based on those perspectives which we take as knowledge and which may be practical enough; but we never attain genuine knowledge. I’m willing to grant this may point to genuine problems in epistemology and issues of rational skepticism; but it has all the tell-tale signs of a pursuit of perfection or the rendering of philosophical judgment on the scale of perfection.

Loosely related to this tendency to aim for perfection, on the part of many philosophers, is the equally erroneous idea that genuine knowledge requires proof, as in logical or mathematical proof. Hence, we have the misguided form of skepticism which doubts everything that cannot be mathematically or deductively proven. Of course, this is an untenable form of skepticism, good only for those ‘thought experiments’ so beloved by many enthusiasts of philosophy.

Contrary to this “hunger for perfection,” I agree with the many biologists, historians, and political scientists who deny that the idea of perfection as an absolute by which we evaluate human knowledge has any place in our natural, social world and can at best serve only as a limiting concept. Granted, we often refer to something as being “perfect” and hold that this is an accepted form of expression [*] ; but we should not confuse our way of talking with affirmation of other-worldly metaphysics. We don’t dwell in an ideal world where perfection is to be found; and my friend should damn well have gotten a ‘100’ score on his algebra test.

* Of course the terms “perfect” and “perfection” have legitimate roles in our language. We often speak of the “perfect day” or the “perfect trip” as a way of emphasizing that the day had nothing but good qualities or emphasizing that the trip to Tahiti was great without any problems or complaints. Someone may speak of the perfect match between a man and woman (match “made in heaven”) or refer to a very good applicant for a job as “perfect for the position.” These are just ways of emphasizing that Bill and Mary are not just very compatible, but compliment each other in many ways. The applicant may not simply satisfy every requirement for the position, but be such a good fit that he will perform beyond the expectations of the job function. We may say that musicians performance was perfect as a way of expressing our view that there’s no aspect that needs improvement or could be criticized. But none of these forms of expression imply anything about the type of absolute existence or absolute property so beloved by many theologians and traditional philosophers.

More “knocking about” on the notion of philosophy

For some of us (fortunate ones or otherwise) there is a tension in our thoughts about philosophy: We vacillate between the idea that filosofía is our most important possession and the contrary idea that most of the work of philosophers is irrelevant to the important concerns of life. We suspect that philosophy is mostly a pastime for the privileged, well-to-do, class; and of little use to those who must struggle for economic and political survival.

Consider another point of tension: whole peoples suffer mass extinction (Jews in Nazi Europe, the victims of Stalin’s purges in the USSR (1930′s), Africans at the mercy of the slave traders and slave masters, native people of America’s in face of European invasion, 1970′s genocide in Cambodia, periodic famine and political killings in Africa, oppression and mass killings in former Yugoslavia, and so on. Then ask:

What good are philosophy, ethics and moral philosophy, religion, poetry, music and other sides of the higher culture when entire populations are annihilated, tortured and repressed? What good the religious culture and “high morality” of advanced nations?

How do our moral philosophers, religious and political leaders explain the great suffering and injustice that are part of the day-to-day reality for millions around the world?

We have a tension and paradox here, but hopefully we won’t have to throw away our beloved philosophy. Maybe there’s some saving grace here. (Maybe or maybe not.)

The term “philosophy” is a general, vague term that can mean different things. There is not any one thing that alone counts as ‘philosophy’ to the exclusion of everything else. Any attempt to give the final, over-arching definition of philosophy is bound to fail; the best that one can do is to stipulate a working definition of philosophy.

Let us say that there is a family of activities (related in certain ways) called philosophic work; imagine a loose network of activity such as study, research, analysis, writing, teaching, socio-political work, religious thought. Some of this work will turn out to be important to those who attempt to build and sustain a democratic society, and some important to those among us who desire to develop our intellectual, moral, creative and religious capabilities.

Corresponding to our loose family of activities, there will be a class of individuals practicing philosophy in some way and who are sometimes referred to as “philosophers.” There will be great variety among these people and very different views as to the nature of their work.

9/20/91: Here we have one attitude [an echo of the character, Thrasymachus, in one of Plato's dialogues]:

“Philosophy”? What does it mean? It is a word, that’s all.
There are ways of thinking, certain studies and interests. We call some “philosophy.”

“Justice”? There is little justice in the world, practically none. I challenge the churchman, moralist, or philosopher to demonstrate that justice found in any significant degree in our world. I challenge anyone to show me that the cause of justice drives much of people’s actions or thinking.

There is little or no justice. Some people enjoy lives; most people suffer great deprivation. … That’s all there is to it. That’s how the world is.

The term “philosophy” simply refers to certain ways of talking and thinking, mostly limited to the privileged classes. But the term doesn’t play a significant role in the lives of most people.

Thrasymachus was correct. All that matters are power, the attainment of wealth and material comfort. All that matters is getting your share of the goods and holding on to it. …making your share grow and produce more wealth.


Only a fool, ignorant of the development of philosophy in the West would deny that Rene Descartes played a very significant and positive role in that development. However, it is also true that in several important ways, Descartes influence has been unfortunate; one might even say that Descartes has misled many philosophers in Western culture in three important ways.

1. The idea that knowledge requires absolute certainty, such that any possibility of doubt precludes knowledge.

2. The idea that the starting point for gaining knowledge about our world is the individual thinking mind with nothing but its own ideas.

3. Dualism: the idea that the human person is comprised of two substances, the corporeal and the mental.

(Of course, these did not originate with Descartes, but in Western thought Descartes gave these ideas significant expression.)

Apr. 2000

The critical philosopher’s work is to sort out and interpret the theories and discoveries of natural science, interpret and criticize the doctrines and ideas of his culture, and by so doing come out with some statements regarding the reality and activity of human beings.

Does the scientist (the theorist) discover order in nature, or does he impose order with his theories? I find this to be a philosophically significant and profound question. How much of the work of theoretical physicists, astrophysicists and scientific cosmologists are acts of discovery? How much are they creative work?

The critical reflection on human existence and experience that philosophy encourages is relevant to the outlook of secular humanism. (Here I’m talking about a critical evaluation of our cultural myths, beliefs, presuppositions, values and so on.)

To a large extent, our experiences (our growth, training, learning, suffering, tragedy, successes, failures, wealth, poverty, health, love, indifference, illness, etc.) determine our philosophical outlook and values. But often our stated outlook is conformist, habitual and lacking in any meaningful reflection.


Science and mathematics are creations of the human mind, itself a result of biological evolution, the evolved nervous system (brain, sense faculties), and culture.

Presumably, science and mathematics are the tools for discovering the laws of nature. Or are they merely the way that scientific human culture maps reality?

Experiments, testing, verification, prediction … leading to some control over aspects of nature and to successful technology are supposed to imply something about the objective features of nature. How confident are we that the natural sciences and applied mathematics disclose the objective laws of nature?

Raising such questions may lead some to conclude that science is simply one way, among many ways, of describing reality. But this would be a mistake. For it is misleading to say that science is merely one way of looking at the world, on a par with religious myth. (Let us not lose sight of this simple truth.)

After all, some ways of mapping reality are much better than other ways. Science is our best way of gaining knowledge of our natural and social environments. To survive and be successful in the evolutionary struggle we need to apply a reality factor.

History has shown that myth and fiction can have practical value; but they will, at best, only take us a part of the way. And often they have taken us in the wrong direction.

Yet, the use and exploitation of myth and fiction can be profitable. Consider the enduring strength and success of established religions.

Should philosophers strive to be scientific? Maybe not completely, since they’re philosophers and not scientists. But a philosopher ignores the sciences at his/her own peril.

What does the killing of Osama bin Laden say about American Justice?

In an article entitled “The Revenge Killing of Osama bin Laden” [1] (Tuesday 31 May 2011), Noam Chomsky raises questions regarding both the legality and the justice of the May 1st killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States. He starts by remarking:

The May 1 U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound violated multiple elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion of Pakistani territory.

There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by the 79 commandos facing almost no opposition.

President Obama announced that “justice has been done.” Many did not agree – even close allies. British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who generally supported the operation, nevertheless described Obama’s claim as an “absurdity” that should have been obvious to a former professor of constitutional law.

Chomsky notes the violation of international and Pakistani law:

Pakistani and international law require inquiry “whenever violent death occurs from government or police action,” Robertson points out. Obama undercut that possibility with a “hasty ‘burial at sea’ without a post mortem, as the law requires.”

Chomsky then proceeds to raise questions about the changed policy of President Obama as compared to the way that his predecessor, GW Bush, dealt with the terrorists:

Bush captured suspects and sent them to Guantanamo and other camps, with consequences now well known. Obama’s policy is to kill suspects (along with “collateral damage”).


This raises some interesting moral and philosophical issues. However, one might hesitate raising them in the context of the overwhelmingly popular view that “that the assault had been lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way,” and that even as an act of vengeance, the killing of Osama was a good thing.

One can understand the desire for revenge, especially by those who had close ones (family, relatives, friends) die as a result of the 9/11 attacks. One can understand the desire that those responsible for that horrendous attack be “brought to justice,” even if “justice” is carried out in the form of a quick killing, by US commandos on the ground or by an air attack (such as the increasingly used armed drones). For many of us all that matters is that the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks pay for what they did on September 11, 2001.

When we question the justice and wisdom of the US response to the terrorist attacks, we hope not to be accused of disloyalty or of being soft on terrorism (but those accusations will surely come). And if we question the justice and wisdom of the killing of Osama bin Laden, we should not be seen as dismissing the need that many Americans felt for some form of ‘justice,’ even in the form of revenge. But if we see ourselves as just and rational, we should not simply ignore a challenge like the one issued by Mr. Chomsky. We should not simply repeat that we’re glad “they got the bastard” and go on with our complacent way thinking that we’re a good and just nation, only doing violence to others when it is necessary. This is a nice thing to think about ourselves, but how does it accord with the facts?

As Chomsky points out, the facts are that there are such things as “international law” and international courts of justice. Another relevant set of facts, as he also points out, is that others who committed what are called crimes against humanity were not summarily assassinated but were in fact brought to trial.

When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden – namely the Nazi leadership – the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture.
“President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson (chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial) that summary execution …

would not serve the cause of justice. Even today, those charged with acts of genocide are not executed on the spot, but brought to trial. Consider the current case of Ratko Mladic, the onetime Bosnian Serb commander accused of presiding over Europe’s worst massacre since World War II, who was recently captured and held for trial by the tribunal at The Hague, an international court. [2] Even, Saddam Hussein, when captured was not executed but instead turned over so he could be tried by the Iraqis, who eventually executed him.

Do we think that terrorist attacks and threats against the United States are such that they can be treated in a different way to the way other nations behave? Incidentally, different from ways that we expect other nations to behave? Do we think that we have the unique privilege of using our military might and intelligence resources to identify, locate, and kill the culprits? Or are we saying that this way of acting represents justice and the best hope for a better world? Are we setting a precedent that says that, whenever one’s country is attacked and innocent civilians are killed, it is morally and legally acceptable for the targeted country to avenge the attack by killing those held responsible for the attacks?

Let us consider some of the implications of this ‘philosophy’ of international ‘justice.’ In times of war, especially modern wars, military attacks are not limited to attacks on the opposing military. Military attacks, especially aerial attacks, often target cities and civilian centers; even when the primary target is a military target, so-called “collateral damage” results in the deaths and suffering of many non-combatants and civilians (women and children).[3] Suppose that the nation who suffered such attacks acted in the ways analogous to those of the Obama administration: Find the culprits responsible for the violent killings of innocent civilians and kill them on the spot. Our political and military leaders would be fair targets. Would the United States accept such actions by others as just? No, I don’t believe the United States would accept such retaliation.

Do we conclude, then, that we (the US) through the actions of our government are grossly hypocritical? Or do we think that the only thing that matters is military might — the ability to impose our will and our sense “justice” on others — and ignore the role of international courts and international justice? The way we answer such questions will reveal much about our integrity and moral character, not always our strong qualities; although we like to imagine otherwise.

[1] Article can be accessed at

[2] The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has charged Bosnian Serb Commander Ratko Moadoc with leading a genocidal campaign against Bosnia’s Muslim and Croat populations, including “direct involvement” in the 1995 killings of nearly 8,000 men and boys in the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica — the worst European massacre since the Holocaust. This was alleged to have happened during the Bosnian ethnic war from 1992 to 1995.

[3] The history of US military action is rife with military action and that of other agencies working for the US in which civilians have been targeted and killed in massive numbers. This does not refer to those cases in which civilians die as a consequence of attacks on military targets (in military jargon, “collateral damage”); but are cases in which the policy of the government and military strategists is to directly attack civilian targets (e.g. massive bombing of and missile attacks on cities).

A Case of Mild Insanity? Physics & Philosophy

“We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.”

(Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design)

I read a statement like this one and I ask: who has gone insane, the great physicists or me? But it is not just the theoretical physicists and cosmologists who try my sanity of late. The philosophers also have their role in this mad comedy.

Below I list some statements that most of us accept without hesitation.

Why should anyone have to argue for any of these propositions? Aren’t they obviously true, something any sane person can easily affirm?

But in my studies of philosophy and an overview of some the sciences (primarily physics and cosmology), many experts reject each of these common-place propositions.

Consider that most of us affirm

….that we exist as persons among other persons with whom we communicate and interact.

…..that these other persons are mindful beings much like oneself.

….that our reality includes a natural and social environment.

….that we perceive and have knowledge of animals, plants, hills, and other people in these environments.

….that many of us enjoy significant degrees of freedom and self-determination.

….that our past differs from our present and future in being closed and beyond alteration, whereas our present and future are relatively open.

….that the world we inhabit is one world and not an infinity of worlds.

….that the world exists independently of our experience of it.

….that much in our environment (especially our natural environment) was there long before we came on the scene.

But, much to surprise of many of us, we actually have to affirm and argue for these propositions because brilliant people — e.g., scientists, philosophers — have argued and currently argue the contrary.

Let us take them one by one, and briefly state the challenge.

We exist as persons among other persons with whom we communicate and interact.
Believe it or not, a good part of Western epistemology has consisted of the effort to deal with the skeptical view which declares that all I really know is that I (the conscious individual) exist as a thinking being (see Rene Descartes); I cannot even be sure I am a corporeal being. Any belief concerning all ‘things’ external to the immediate content of the individual mind is in question and must be defended by rational argumentation.

Other people are mindful beings much like myself.
Another problem that philosophers in the West have grappled with is that of showing that there are other minds besides one’s own.
“Yes, those creatures out there look, act, and speak as if they had minds similar to mine; but that is only something I infer from their outward behavior. I really don’t know that they have minds.”
Can you believe that this has been taken as a serious problem in philosophy?

Our reality consists of a natural and social environment.
A close analysis of our experience and the workings of our brain indicates that all we really experience is a model concocted by our brain’s reception of signals from the external world, but we cannot be identify, much less describe, the reality external to the workings of the brain. Hence, we cannot be sure about that the nature of that reality.
In their recent book, The Grand Design, Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow suggest this skepticism regarding our ordinary notions of ‘reality’:

“Model-dependent realism: … our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world.” “Realism: the idea that there’s a world with particular properties that exists independently of the observer. (418, Kindle) – Modern physics makes it difficult to defend realism, e.g. refer to problems of QM (423, Kindle)

We perceive and have knowledge of animals, plants, hills, and other people in our environments.
Traditional Western philosophers tend to adopt theories of perception which deny that we ever directly perceive ordinary things (animals, trees, people, dogs) in our environment. Instead that claim is that all we directly perceive are the immediate sense data or impressions in the mind; hence, our putative knowledge of ordinary things in the external environment is thrown in doubt. Oddly, some modern physicists and psychologists have also taken this skeptical view concerning knowledge.

Many of us enjoy significant degrees of freedom and self-determination.
Historically, the free will / determinism problem with which Western philosophers have grappled throws into question our ordinary belief that we have a degree of autonomy, freedom and self-determination. Allegedly, once we understand the real workings of the world we should recognize that everything we do is pre-determined by conditions over which we have no control. Again, surprisingly a number of modern scientists (mainly psychologists and physicists) have taken this position which denies autonomy to persons.
Hawking and Mlodinow:

“we are no more than biological machines and free will is just an illusion.”

Our past differs from our present and future in being closed and beyond alteration; whereas our present and future are relatively open.
This is one that most sane persons never question; but surprisingly, theoretical physicists draw the contrary conclusion when they apply the paradoxes and puzzles of quantum physics to the macro-world. Again, a recent example is the Hawking-Mlodinow book, The Grand Design, where they state the following:

“Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history. The fact that the past takes no definite form means that observations you make on a system in the present affect its past.” (802 on my Kindle counter)

The world we inhabit is one world and not an infinity of worlds.
The contrary view is taken by a number of scientific cosmologists; for example, Hawking-Mlodinow, in The Grand Design, have stated:

“The universe appeared spontaneously, starting off in every possible way. (1384-90 Kindle counter) Most of those correspond to other universes …. Many universes exist with many different sets of physical laws.” (1394-96 Kindle counter)
“The universe does not have a just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called quantum super-position. (582, Kindle)

The world exists independently of our experience of it.
Again some theoretical physicists have argued the contrary. Again I give quotes from The Grand Design:

“There is no way to remove the observer – us – from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason..” (228 Kindle) “Realism: the idea that there’s a world with particular properties that exists independently of the observer. (-418 Kindle) – Modern physics makes it difficult to defend realism, e.g. refer to problems of QM (-423 Kindle) “

Much in our environment (especially our natural environment) was there long before we came on the scene.
Consider the natural scene: animals, plants, oceans, continents, mountains, canyons (e.g. The Grand Canyon of Arizona). Surely, unless you inhabit an insane asylum and suffer from a specific delusion, you will agree that these things were there long before humans arrived on the scene. Yet, again, some theoretical physicists have suggested a view of physical reality which states the contrary. For example, again from The Grand Design:

“We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” (1416-22, Kindle)


Of course, in my many blog postings I argue for the common-sense view of things with regard to these and other issues. My working hypothesis is I’m not the one suffering a mild degree of insanity. But, of course, I could be wrong.