The Illusive Perfect Being
I am an atheist and I take the philosophical position of physicalism. This means that when I speak about philosophical topics such as the one I’m about to talk about, I won’t ascribe to any supernatural, paranormal, occult, or pseudoscientific explanations. I will only speak in terms that deal with physical reality (to the best of my knowledge), including conceptual, sociological, and psychological phenomenon (because these issues emerge from social animals, which exist in the physical universe).
The Fundamental Misunderstanding of the term “Man”
A large portion of the world’s population (I dare even say, the majority) possesses a belief that states that man (human beings) are imperfect, and that’s putting it nicely. Usually, more descriptive terms have been used, such as “fallen”, “sinner”, “lesser”, or even “retarded”. For the sake of this topic, let’s call these folk “perfection idealists.” When I hear perfection idealists speak of human beings using such sweeping generalizations, my instinctual response is to cringe, and I cringe because such assertions demonstrate not only an abysmal view of the species one belongs to, but of a basic lack of understanding as to the nature of the human animal.
I specifically emphasized the words “human animal” to make a point: when it comes down to it, we are social animals, specifically apes. To put human beings at the impossibly high standards that the perfection idealists do is absurd. As gene machines, we are built to survive and reproduce as human beings; everything else we have done for the vast majority of our existence as a species has been to serve those functions. Gorillas are built in a specific way so that they can survive and reproduce as gorillas. Rabbits are built in a specific way so that they can survive and reproduce as rabbits, and so on and so forth. And when I say we are “built”, I mean that our genes made us in a particular way to facilitate survival and reproduction in a specific manner. (For a more in-depth look at the topic of genes and how we are machines for the genes, read “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins).
The Idea of the Perfect Being
When perfection idealists say that we are imperfect beings, I feel compelled to ask myself, “What are the beliefs behind such assertions and what are the origins of these beliefs?” While to some this may seem like an exercise in futility, I have to respectfully disagree. Finding out the belief systems that influence way people think, speak, and act is of paramount importance to understanding the thoughts and actions of my fellow human beings. I personally believe that this can be accomplished without worldviews that incorporate extraneous elements outside of physical reality and the constituents thereof (conceptual, sociological, and psychological), and adding extraneous elements will not only unnecessarily complicate such explanations, but will actually cause us to reach erroneous conclusions.
What is meant when a perfection idealist refers to “perfection” and our inability to achieve this state? When a perfection idealist talks about “perfection”, I think they’re referring to a sort of moral and cognitive perfection, as opposed to a physical perfection. In the context of this topic, the dictionary describes the term “perfect” (the state that is perfection) as “excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.” So, when a perfection idealist speaks of the imperfection of human beings, I think they are referring to the lack of achieving moral and/or cognitive excellence or completion beyond practical or theoretical improvement.
As an evolving species, the idea that we are “imperfect” according to such a standard is obvious. Of course we’re not perfect! Evolution doesn’t stop. As the environmental conditions of a particular species change, the animal must change and adapt accordingly or risk extinction. To imply that we need to be perfect would imply unchanging environmental conditions, which is not and has never been the case in the universe. To impose perfection on a particular animal is an absurdity derived from an attachment to artificial, abstract ideas that have no basis on physical reality.
Not only do physical environmental conditions differ and change throughout the world, social conditions differ and change throughout the world as well. Human beings are social animals and, as animals, our prime directives are survival and reproduction. In order for us to continue as a species, everything we do must serve those two functions, including how we conduct ourselves in a community of human beings. Social constructs that serve to help a particular group of human beings to get by in the most beneficial manner possible - i.e., culture - are a product of human minds that come about through evolution much in the same way that a bird’s beak will adapt and change into a particular fashion to feed from a particular tree. If the culture doesn’t adapt to social and environmental changes of a particular human group (such as a tribe), the chances of extinction increase and continue to increase in proportion to the group’s inability to socially adapt.
Tribe X – An Example of Social Adaptation
As a theoretical example, say we have a tribe called Tribe X. As part of Tribe X’s culture, each couple is to have a minimum of one son and one daughter and must continue to procreate until both one son and one daughter are produced. The tribe’s reasoning behind this is that both males and females are needed to make more human beings. As a method of population control, however, the tribe limits who can reproduce and when and provides natural contraceptives to the other members of the tribe, through various herbs and whatnot. Let’s say that, through this method, Tribe X has been able to retain a consistent population of about 200 members, give or take 10% at any given time, and has been successfully able to feed that population due to their environmental conditions for thousands of years.
Let’s say that Tribe X encounters a drastic environmental condition that threatens the tribe tremendously: a really harsh winter that has driven out all game for much longer than expected and in a much wider geographical area than ever encountered by the tribe in its history. Tribe X has to make some tough choices now. In order for animals to continue living, they must consume living cells, with no exception. Pickings are so slim that the tribe will not be able to maintain their population of 200 members, but may be able to maintain a population of roughly 150 members. Rather than watch his people starve to death, the chief makes a decree and reduces the frequency of impregnation to slowly and safely bring down the population to a more manageable level, as well as cutting back on roughly 20% of the tribe’s caloric intake. Some members of the tribe (usually the younger, less worldly members) may object to this reduction of food intake (because they had it much better before the harsh winter), but the wiser members know that in order to survive as a tribe, such measures must be taken. It’s tough times for Tribe X, but if they don’t make these changes, they could risk extinction as a people. The better they are at assimilating these changes, the easier time they’ll have of adjusting to the new conditions imposed upon them by the environment.
A major factor in the idea of our moral and cognitive imperfection comes from religious mandate, specifically through religions brought about by revelation. The subject of revelation is a different one from the current topic at hand, so I won’t say anything more on it for now other than I think that it is pure nonsense and that I regard it either as a case of apophenia, pareidolia, a scam, or as a result of some sort of brain damage.
These religions teach, in some form or another, that human beings are born flawed and that we must seek some manner to make up for this fundamental error due to the mistakes of our ancient predecessors. Engaging in such flaws is referred to as “sinning.” The way I interpret the term “sin” is: “to engage in some activity that is considered illegal to one’s own religious law.” To support this interpretation of sin, I point to you 1 John 3:4, which says "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness." For example, in many religions, it is considered a sin to murder another human being because there is a mandate against murder; for Judaism and Christianity, it is the sixth of the Ten Commandments. In Judaism and Islam, it is also a sin to eat pork, and each has their own reasons for the mandate (something about swine being “unclean”). Even folk that are not particularly religious or who are irreligious may still carry this belief due to the miasmic effect of a previously held religious belief now rationalized in a non-religious manner or because they’ve been infected by this particular meme from their social environment.
These mandates are supposed to come from some divine source, such as God, and because God dictates these mandates, going against them is sinful, regardless of how harmful or immoral (or lack thereof) the actual act is. To this, I present Euthyphro’s dilemma: “Is it good because God commands it, or does God command it because it’s good?” If it’s the first, then it’s simply a blatant command, and calling the command “good” irrespective of the actual benefit or harm of following the command simply because it comes from God is a moot point. If it’s the second, then making the beneficial activity a command from God is redundant. This following of religious mandates essentially dictates religious morality, which I feel that, while simpler to do (just do as you’re told), leaves one woefully lacking in psychological development and in understanding humans in a more grounded manner without serious reinterpretation of religious dogma and/or by not assimilating it literally.
The Highest Form of “Perfection”
For perfection idealists who seek to implement moral and/or cognitive perfection religiously, it would go something like this: the less you err from sinning, the closer you are to achieving perfection. The caveat is as follows: since you are born a flawed sinner, you will never actually achieve perfection, no matter how hard you try. This, to me, is a tremendous source of needless guilt and frustration, as well as an insidious excuse to be a self-righteous prick to others. This concept of perfection seems more like an adherence to robotic behavior, the perfect little soldier. It espouses obedience as the highest virtue one can hope to achieve, and we all know how obedient the Nazis were when Hitler ordered them to commit their heinous atrocities. We also know how disobedient and “sinful” the founding fathers of the United States were when they risked their lives to defy the British Empire and claim independence. I’m not saying “disobey for the sake of disobeying.” What I’m saying is to think about why you obey what you do and why you disobey what you do. That, unfortunately, requires something more complex than doing what you’re told; it requires thinking for yourself.
This idea of being morally and/or cognitively perfect is one that should be discarded. Striving to be a more helpful member of society is a noble goal indeed, but moral or cognitive perfection is not required, just good intentions coupled with the proper skill set. Heck, even selfish intentions with the proper skill set work, because you’ll not only help yourself, you’ll help others who benefit from your work as well. We didn’t get our morals from religion, religion got their most universal morals from us, with additional baggage imposed by special interest groups (such as the clergy or the priesthood). Just because you “sin” doesn’t make you inherently flawed, fallen, lesser, or even retarded; it simply makes you human. In the end, we are all accountable to each other.
Just the concept of “perfection” is a nebulous concept used by self-righteous folk to serve their own ends. Rather, I postulate the following: Do turtles work as turtles? Yes. Do turtles work as eagles? Why should they?! Do eagles work as eagles? Yes. Do dogs work as dogs? Yes. Do humans work as humans? A resounding “yes”! Do humans work as robots or angels or gods? No. Why should they, if they are not those things?
If you have found yourself to be a perfection idealist, it does no good for anyone, least of all yourself. Embrace the fact that you’re a human being with this grand intellectual capacity and embrace the fact that you won the lottery of being alive whereas the rest of the sperm you competed against while your father ejaculated inside of your mother was not.