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.