Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Striving for Perfection

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the nature of perfection and how it applies to my life, and think I need to start taking it more seriously into account. After all, I am striving to fully realize my potential, which implies as a corollary that I'm trying to *perfect* my self. I want to live my life having brought out every bit of possible within me, and being an atheist with a finite lifespan makes me in no way motivated to take my time in working towards such. I've made some advancement in my thinking on personal perfection, and I think I may have a good plan on how to pursue such an idealization.

First, unfortunately, I think it's important to refute the misconception that perfection of any sort is impossible. Obviously, it's a very popular idea in today's culture that "nothing is perfect." You've probably, if not certainly, heard someone retort to a criticism of their character that "nobody is perfect," thereby meaning his vice should be excused as inevitable. This belief is not an idle idea, for it does do active harm by poisoning men's efforts and motivations. If nothing is perfect and nothing can be perfect, then why strive for it? Why bother at all? Why not just indulge in vice and the sub-par since that's all that possible in the end?

The idea that perfection of any kind is impossible is rooted in the philosophy of Plato, specifically in his metaphysical views. In short, Plato asserted that there are two different realities. The reality in which we preside is only an imperfect reflection of a higher, perfect reality. For instance, the multitude of people observed in this reality may be in fact only a single entity in the perfect realm. (Imagine, if you will, those dressing mirrors that reflect your image an endless amount of times.) For whatever reason, everything reflected in this realm is totally imperfect, and whatever its counterpart is in the higher reality is totally perfect. Consequently, this metaphysics holds that anything that is perfect cannot exist in this realm, and since it exists nowhere and because our minds are imperfect it is impossible to even conceive of what perfection would entail, or else any conception of perfection is impossible given the facts of reality as they are in this realm. Some do hold standards of perfection, but do not base it on the nature of this world.

As a consequence, you have the spectacle of people who either deny that anything whatsoever is perfect or else have a conception that absolutely impossible. On the former, people won't be able to even tell you what their conception of perfection is, but they deny any instance you cite to them regardless of content. For an example on the latter, many people might assert that a perfect intelligence entails being omniscient, which is obviously contrary to the facts of reality as we experience them, thereby causing such a person to bewail all intelligence. In either case, this reality is denoted by such people as severely flawed and inferior.

It's way too easy to refute this view. On one hand, it can be pointed out that there's no evidence for such a metaphysical view, so it is philosophically inappropriate to entertain such a "possibility" since it's devoid of evidence-based content to consider. On the other hand, the view is self-defeating in its own logic: If the other realm is entirely absent in this world except for its imperfect reflections and cannot be conceived of, then how can one seriously assert that one can even conceive that this mysterious higher realm even exists? That's like drawing a square circle. In either case, the only two appropriate actions to this claim is to either ignore it or point out how it's not justifiable to take it seriously.

Perfection can and does exist, but in order to formulate our view we must throw out the notion that there is a higher realm and that the standards for perfection can only exist there. It's not possible for men to be omniscient, so we should toss it out as a standard of perfection since it's contrary to the facts of reality. All we have is the reality before us, so a proper conception of what constitutes perfection must rely on this world. Since we're talking about men and ethics, I think it's most proper to base standards of perfection on the means that make it possible for man to function at his best. For example, it is necessary for man to use reason and logic in order to grasp the nature of the universe, so things such as logical rigor, the ability to reevaluate premises and correct mistakes, intensity and longevity of mental effort, and so on should justifiably be included as epistemological requirements for intellectual perfection, as these are the means that lead to men reaching the greatest level of mental ability and knowledge. I assert that whatever method of acting leads to man's highest level of functioning based on his potential should be considered a legitimate standard of perfection.

I think it's important to have explicit standards here because knowing the ideal is possible, that it can exist, motivates one to strive for the best. The people I've witnessed that believe that perfection is impossible have let themselves go to pot by sitting comfortable in vice and effortless exertion, and in old age I find such people to be of small stature and hardly worth associating with. You've only got one, finite, short life to realize yourself, and if you forgo that chance you're literally wasting everything. It can be pretty intense to witness someone who's actually wasted their life given how carelessly the expression is used, and it's probably crushing to realize you've done it to yourself. Don't waste yourself. To achieve your highest will also allow you to achieve the greatest happiness; desire no less.

To fully realize my own potential, I want to start making explicit my standards of perfection and start pursuing them intentionally; not as individual improvement ventures, but as something that can be worked on all at once. I think I have all the habits and characteristics that can eventually lead to a perfected self, and all I really need to do and maintain an awareness of them and increase their intensity. My thinking on the subject right now is still -- imperfect -- but I think I've made quite some progress and can at least start pursuing my efforts while keeping in mind I might change my standards or clarify some points.

My idea on how to pursue perfection is an extension of my honesty and conversation lovability goals, where I wrote some categories in my notepad and put slash marks to denote whenever I violated my aims. It's done very well to keep me constantly aware of my pursuits, to introspect what I did wrong when I recognize a violation, and to correct my errors. At first I started inputting slash marks pretty regularly, but now I very seldom do it and am able to immediately correct myself even if I do slip but once. The conversational category has really done well to improve my relations and my life, as previously I used to talk about things I "hate" all the time, which means that I was consistently concentrating on bad things in life and pursuing conversation with others about anti-values. For my goals on perfection, I intend to practice the same means: write out categories in my notepad and put slash marks to denote any violations. Benjamin Franklin, I believe, did this very thing, though I don't remember the location of an article a friend linked to me.

Before I state what categories I plan on tracking, however, I need to make a modification to my "rules." I learned now that I should take my own advice and establish more precise standards in order to make possible consistent performance. I realize now that some of my conceptions were imprecise in my lovability goals, so as a result I was able to excuse certain violations on the basis that I have not broken any precisely defined rules. Namely, in my conversational habits I stated my aim was to talk about anti-values as little as possible, but given that vague of a rule I was still able to talk about anti-values and still believe that I was following my own standards. I never did more than one or two violations, but still: Such imprecise standards can cause any vice to snowball in the future. To make my standard rigorous, I'm going to exert myself from now on to avoid any conversations about unnecessary anti-values. For instance, talking about a movie I hate, in one context, would qualify as an violation since it's a subject about something that wasted my time and contributed no pleasure to my life, but on the other hand it can be appropriate if I'm contemplating the movie for intellectual purposes or am trying to persuade someone not to see it. Additionally, talking about such anti-values as evil things such as evasive associates or destructive politics would also be exempt since it would be a subject geared towards trying to convince people of better ideas in hopes of changing lives for the better. Unnecessary anti-values are anti-values that contribute in no way to the betterment of one's life and only serves to dwell on the negative and make one unhappy. By defining my category this way, I think I can avoid slipping any accidental "I hate..." into my conversations. The honesty category, on the other hand, is precisely defined: any violation is dishonesty in any degree, except where exempt, such a privacy lies for people who are inappropriately snooping (and could not be anticipated that they would do such) and protection lies against criminals.

My other categories, keep in mind, are for my idea of personal perfection, so they aren't all explicitly morality-based attributes even though they all are technically subsumed under ethics. They are:

1.) Exertion: In order to achieve the highest possible to me, it's important that I put forth a maximum effort. Too often do I walk away from an activity sensing that I could have tried harder, and this is regardless of whether or not I do a good job. Even if I do a great job on something, I still sense that an ounce more of effort could have made for a fantastic job. This category will track whether I'm doing my best at all times.

2.) Integrity: This is to track and make sure I'm adhering to the principles I've recognize consciously as a rational inclusion into one's life and should be practiced. As mentioned before, I too often make promises to myself rashly and carelessly, like to fast on a certain day, and will allow myself to break the promise with equal rash and carelessness. I want to give more weight to my convictions and make it so that I mean everything I say and am exerting myself to make good on my convictions.

* Habits: This is a sub-category of Integrity. There are lots of things I try to do regularly as part of my self-betterment, such as write down a list of good things that I've done or had happen to me, and I'm not thorough in my adherence. I want to use this to track whether I've done every regular routine I've promised to keep up. Good habits are key to not only being a good person, but also in making virtue second-nature.

3.) Honesty: Same category as mentioned above. Used to track dishonesty in any degree, except for privacy and self-defense lies.

4.) Concentration: In my wild productivity a few weeks ago I noticed just how much of my free time can be eaten up by inappropriate (at the time) thinking or daydreaming, and that if I train my ability to concentrate sufficiently then I'm capable of getting a significant amount done. This category will track any violations in which I carelessly or vicefully allowed my mental processes to dwell on anything other than the intellectual activities I'm engaged in, barring non-interfering daydreaming (such as during a mindless activity like laundry) or an unanticipated incident that suddenly captures my attention (such as an important news story about a disaster that requires me to rethink my activities).

5.) Justice/Affection: This is a part of my lovability goals. Preaching should always take backseat to the act of being what you preach. I may tell my associates I appreciate them, but do I show it? Do I help them? Do I listen to them? Do I share my property with them? This category is to track any time I've acted inappropriately towards a valued associate, such as coldly acknowledging them just because I'm in a bad mood or am not treating them as they deserve to be treated. I aim here to make myself more respectful, just, and explicit in my evaluation of a person in my actions.

* Conversation: Same as the conversation category above. Meant to track whenever I bring unnecessary anti-values up in a conversation.

* Openness: This is, in a way, a sub-category of the honesty category, but I list it here to keep in mind my intention. This is used to track how open I am about myself, whether I've expressed my ideas and ideals when appropriate. This category still needs some thinking, as it'll be difficult to track violations given its boundaries as currently defined.

6.) Voice: This is an aesthetic attribute, but it is nonetheless part of my personal conception of self-realization. It might be fit to subsume this under the honesty category, but I make it its own category since it's such a significant concern in my life right now. When I still had my speech impediment I misunderstood its nature. People thought strangely of and were even hostile to me, and I thought it was because of the sound of my voice. In actuality it was because my hearing-impairment reduces the pitch spectrum I can hear and therefore messed up the phonetic structure of certain parts of my speech (the /s/ and /th/ sounds), but given my misunderstanding I instead undertook to cop a fake accent. Since correcting my error I have learned how to pronounce properly the phonetic sounds I cannot hear, but since I had a fake accent for so long it has left a bad impression on my speaking habits. I'll use this category to track whenever I don't speak with my "true" voice, and whenever I undertake to include new practices in my speaking, such as how to place my voice, this category will subsume those practices as well.

If I make any substantial changes or advances in my thinking I'll be sure to let you know. Maybe I'll even post my "scores" in my weekly summary in order to keep real my accountability and heighten my awareness. We'll see.

Here's to becoming perfect.

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