This is a paper I wrote for my philosophy class. The topic was “Where certainty is concerned, X is beyond human comprehension.” I chose perfection… please don’t try to start any philosophical debates with me because I know I’ll lose. :(
The word perfection is thrown around quite often, but what exactly does perfection mean and is it humanly possible to fathom such an idea? The New Oxford American Dictionary defines perfection as “the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.” This interpretation in my opinion dances around the meaning of the word, as it defines it in terms of what is lacks, rather than what it encompasses. Other dictionaries define perfection similarly, declaring that it is a state of flawlessness. This in itself hints that perhaps perfection is unknowable if a tangible definition is unable to be construed. How is one to know whether or not something is free from all faults? Who is the authority on such matters?
In subjective terms, the individual can make claims to experiencing or knowing perfection, but these assertions can in no case be made with complete assurance. There are no objective examples of perfection, thus the individual has no basis for making claims of perfection; there are simply no known ideal objects or concepts for comparison. Without any concrete notion of perfection, it is impossible to know such an idea. It may be possible to understand representations or derivations of perfection, but where certainty is concerned, it is beyond human comprehension.
I feel the philosopher John Locke would contend that certainty of perfection is well within the reaches of human comprehension. He argues that we come to know things through perception, reason and inference, memory, and testimony. While he does concede that each of these attributes are flawed, he states that when used in tandem they can yield certainty. Locke ranks perception as the most important of these factors leading to knowledge, followed by reason and memory which carry equal importance, and finally testimony. He conveniently chooses perception to be the foremost factor in this process as his theories are predominantly based upon empiricism.
Locke believes that the mind is a tabula rasa which organizes raw sense data by a “simple operation of the mind.” The aforementioned raw sense data is information derived from the senses. This organization of perceptions leads to ideas, which are in a sense written onto the tabula rasa and are available for access by one’s memory. Locke strengthens his claim to empiricism by denouncing Socrates’ idea of innatism, the idea that all knowledge has been with us since birth, through the examples of universal assent, children and idiots, and noble savages. In short, he asserts that what we know must be environmental; knowledge is a spatial experience.
With those principles in mind, I believe Locke would approach the idea of perfection in the following manner: certainty of perfection can be achieved through the application of the four ways in which we come to know things. To demonstrate Locke’s method, let’s take for example the perfect pizza. First and foremost, Locke would pose the questions “How do you perceive this pizza?” and “What are your senses telling you?” The subject would first look at the pizza and declare that in their mind, the pizza looks perfect; it is without any flaws. The subject would then take a bite of the pizza and feel as if the pizza could not possibly taste any better than it does. The crust is just the right texture, the cheese is cooked to a golden finish, and the sauce is spiced exquisitely; this is truly the food of the Gods.
With perception of perfection fulfilled, the subject would then be asked to use reason and inference to test their thoughts. The individual may then be exposed to another pizza that is not as appetizing. Maybe this pizza is too cold and the crust is burnt. With this lesser pizza available for comparison, the subject would then be able to infer that if the second pizza is not perfect, then the first pizza has the potential to be perfect. The individual could then strengthen their claim to knowledge by thinking back to past experiences. They may try to think if there has been a time when they were exposed to a better pizza. If they cannot, then their claim to perfection is warranted. The final way to solidify their claim would be to ask for outside testimony. They may offer a slice of their perfect pizza to a passer-by. If that person also agrees that the pizza is perfect, then the individual has a solid claim for certainty of perfection.
Immanuel Kant on the other hand I believe would be not as apt to allow for claims of certainty in regards to perfection. Kant is an advocate of the ding-an-sich, or the thing in itself. It is the idea that any object or idea is unknowable; only representations of it can be known. This philosophy is borrowed in part from Plato who coined the notions of the realms of being and of becoming, which Kant refers to as the noumenal and phenomenal realms. The phenomenal realm refers to that which is knowable and contains all that is perceivable by human senses, namely subjective representations of truth. The noumenal realm on the other hand is far more objective and is inclusive of ideals and certainty beyond human comprehension. Kant’s ding-an-sich resides in the noumenal realm, which is beyond human experience.
Kant philosophizes that these noumenal ideas vary in degrees of perfection and that the categories of understanding are what allow us to obtain knowledge about the world around us; to apprehend some semblance of the thing in itself. Knowledge of the world begins with the senses, but reason is what allows us to gain a fuller understanding of things than other people. The categories of understanding which allow for reasoning include quantity, quality, relation, and modality. These a priori aspects of knowledge can then be used to make a posteriori judgments, and thus form some order of representations.
Kant also acknowledges another way in which one can further their understanding of reality and that is through aesthetic experience. He says that by way of mediums such as art, good food, and music, that the individual is able to transcend empirical experience and gain an even further understanding of reality. It is a state of knowledge acquisition which is difficult to explain, as the individual uses an instrument above senses and reason to secure understanding. However, even with the combination of aesthetic experience and the categories of understanding, Kant claims that one can never know the ding-an-sich.
Once again using the example of the perfect pizza, I feel as though Kant may argue that the idea of pizza itself is an entity of perfection which resides in the noumenal realm. He seems to think that all ideas and objects that one perceives are merely representations of the idealness which an item posses. We may perceive a pizza to possess the quality of perfection, but because we can never know the ding-an-sich of a perfect pizza, this means we will never be certain in making such an assumption. What we consider to be a perfect pizza may actually be bad pizza in comparison to the idea of pizza that resides in the noumenal realm. Unfortunately, the thing in itself can never be known, therefore we will never know how close we are to experiencing perfection.
Aesthetic experience can give rise to an even greater understanding of perfection in the case of pizza, however. Food, along with art and music, is one of the few means which allow for a higher comprehension of reality. Beyond the use of categories of understanding for making judgments on what one may think to be the perfect pizza, the aesthetic event of consuming the pie yields knowledge surpassing that which could have been construed through senses and reason. This combination of apparatuses of the mind still falls short according to Kant, in reaching any certainty about idea of perfection; the most perfect form of an idea, the ding-an-sich, is unknowable.
I believe that perfection is an idea beyond human comprehension. My view is that without any objective notion of perfection, no claims of the concept can be undeniably withheld. As far as I know, there is no idea, concept, or object that is universally agreed upon as being perfect. Without any basis with which to make claims of perfection, any assertions of perfection are made with uncertainty. I acknowledge subjective claims of perfection to simply be derivations from the idea.
For example, in baseball when a pitcher throws a complete game without giving up a hit or walk, it is considered a perfect game. I feel that there are different levels of perfection that can be construed from this scenario. Let’s say three different pitchers all throw a perfect game; pitcher one throws the most strikeouts, pitcher two throws the least total pitches, and pitcher three receives a generous call from the umpire that preserves his perfect game. Even though by definition all three pitchers achieved the same perfection, the question could then be asked “did one player pitch a more perfect game than another?” The argument could be made that because pitcher three received a gratuitous call that his perfect game was not as perfect as pitcher one’s or two’s. There could also be debate or whether is it a more difficult task to throw more strikeouts or less total pitches in a game, which would question whether pitcher one or pitcher two pitched a more perfect game. There is no clear model to base perfection off of; there is only evidence that these pitchers reached some degree of perfection, as in relation to the normal pitching outing, they performed exceptionally well.
In this sense I am in agreement with the philosophy of Kant. I believe that we can only know representations of ideals. The ding-an-sich is something that can never quite be apparent to us, though we can get close to knowing it. We may be able to state that we eaten an incredibly good pizza, but we can never claim with certainty that we have eaten the perfect pizza; objects and ideas can only approach perfection. I also agree with him in that we use our senses for the basis of knowledge, but that reason plays a major part in giving credulity to what we constitute as fact, maybe even more-so than the senses. Without reason, we succumb to the fallacies associated with the senses. Because of how easily we can be deceived by the senses, I disagree with Locke on most of him assertions.
Locke bases his philosophy predominantly on something that is subjective and varies within each of us from time to time. If our senses could adequately be used to justify certainty, then there would be no need for math, science, or any type of research. I know Locke states that reason, memory, and testimony need to be used in conjunction with perception in order to obtain certainty, but he places much of his emphasis on the empirical portion of his postulate. Just because you may perceive of something as being perfect, that does not constitute validity.
I am also bothered by the fact that he considers perception to be a completely spatial experience and fails to acknowledge the aspect of time. Ideas of perfection undoubtedly change over time. If you were to declare a pizza perfect using Locke’s four criteria, but then try a different pizza a week later that surpasses the previous pizza in every way possible, what label do you now give each pizza? According the Locke, the original pizza would still be considered perfect; if it was once perfect, it is always perfect. If the second pizza is even better however, would it not also be considered perfect? You are now left with two perfect pizzas, one of which is superior to the other. This is an illogical dilemma that Locke’s philosophy fails to prevent. In conclusion, the objective and undefinable nature of the idea of perfection is what prevents it from being known with certainty.