Thursday, January 22, 2009

Must Perfection Equal Stagnation?

At various times I have encountered or myself espoused the view that anything which is perfect must be, in some sense, static. Religious critics might apply it to the idea of heaven, to show that any possible heaven must be a boring/stagnant place; similarly, we might argue that we're better off not being able to reach a state of complete perfection, because perfection would require no change, and therefore what would we do?

The reasoning goes something like this: for change to occur, an entity or circumstance must become other than it is currently. That is to say, at one time we may say of x that Px, while at another time we may say ~Px. So, if x is currently in a state of perfection but that state changes, surely that change now negates the previous, perfect state of x, thus rendering x imperfect.

An analogy with which we should all be familiar is grades: suppose a student has the perfect grade of 100% in the first week of a course. Suppose further that the teacher never allows extra credit, so at this moment the student possesses the highest grade attainable. From here on out, the only possible change to her grade would be to a lower value; so if at any point during the remainder of the semester, her grade experiences any form of change, it must be to a state of imperfection (< s100%).

So far, so good. If perfection be defined as having a grade equal to 100%, this is all true. Any change to that number necessarily yields an imperfect grade. The problem comes when we assume that, because the state of being perfect must not change, therefore nothing else pertaining to the object or circumstance in question can change. And that assumption is simply unwarranted.

To continue with the grade analogy, we should recognize that even while the total grade percentage does not change, a number of other factors do: as the school term progresses, the student continues to do assignments and turn them in. The teacher then grades these new assignments, sums the student's earned points so far, and divides that number into the highest possible point total. So while the grade percentage does not change, the student's earned sum continually rises. And of course, throughout the term, the course progresses, the student strives and sweats over homework, studies for tests, etc.

To me, this makes an obvious case that perfection can occur even while the qualities being judged for perfection change. In my example, the percentage remains at 100% even while the sums increase. This suggests the more general point that "perfection" can describe processes, not merely singular, unchanging states. Which really ought to be obvious, since, after all, we can easily set up (artificial) criteria for a perfect performance or the perfect execution of a technique in music, dance, etc. Yet clearly change does occur in these cases, for they are activities, not frozen states, after all.

Now, the point about lack of change is still true insofar as a perfect performance or process must never deviate from its perfect criteria on pain of falling from perfection. That is to say, the perfect student must continue to score 100% for as long as we judge her, and in this way her score will be predictable and therefore stagnant. However, we can hardly say that the student's homework and grade as a whole are stagnant, since she continues to accumulate new points and produce new work.

Similarly, I say that heaven would be static only insofar as its residents and contents would not deviate from a particular type of perfection; but their behavior could easily be a process or performance, or at least analogous to such. In simplistic terms, if perfection in heaven could be gauged as a percentage of points achieved out of points possible, the points could rise (or hey, they could fall too) without becoming imperfect so long as the total points possible matches them. It could be like a series of games in which one continually succeeds.

It is also important to note that, every time we talk about "perfection," we must qualify ourselves by answering the question, "Perfect according to what criteria?" Would it not be possible to have a constantly changing criteria set for perfection? And could there not easily be criteria which require change of some sort, as perhaps to run a perfect marathon requires that one change one's location and move one's limbs?

No comments:

Post a Comment