The Perfect Fallacy,
a Bias in Classical Metaphysics

The considerations here pick up where "A New Kant-Friesian System of Metaphysics" leaves off. The result there is a picture of the universe where the forms of value, from pleasure to the good, the beautiful, and the holy, are all instances of "positive transcendence," i.e. a presence that is more than the factual, empirical, and phenomenal reality that we directly perceive. As in Plato and Kant, matters of value are a window into transcendence. A world without transcendence would be a bleak, empty, and meaningless Existentialist reality.

That result, however, embodies a bias that is common to many theories in the history of metaphysics. We see this starkly in Plato. The World of Forms, which contains all the Exemplars of existence and value for Plato, is a place without change. The Forms are fixed, unmoving, and impersonal. They are perfect. For all his differences in theory and attitude with Plato, Aristotle ends up with something very similar. At the top of Aristotle's metaphysics is God. God is pure form, i.e. pure actuality, unmoving, unchanging, and, indeed, perfect. Aristotle's word for actuality is enérgeia, "in action, operation," which curiously has supplied the modern word "energy" -- a curiosity to be examined below. Aristotle's God is also an impersonal God. He does not have the power, literally, to do anything he is not already doing, and he does not know individuals. Such a God is unable, and has no reason, to perform miracles. While Christian Aristotelians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, wanted to reconcile this deity with the very personal God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, this could not easily be done without revising the basic terms of Aristotle's ontology. St. Thomas really did not do that, and the reconciliation is consequently rather arbitrary, simply grafting power and knowledge of individuals onto something whose existence, in the basic metaphysics, precludes them. A frankly impersonal God is what we then find in Spinoza. While few philosophers or theologians who entertain the notion of the existence of God go so far, a rigidity and impersonality of their conceptions is an obvious tendency. Thus, the God of Leibniz, in many ways the opposite of Spinoza's, nevertheless is perfect and relatively inactive (i.e. no miracles) in his rationality -- in his eternal, best plan for everything, no last minute changes need be made. This is still a God all but unrecognizable as the deity of a living religion.

The key word in all this is probably "perfect." Now, we tend to use this to mean the pinnacle, the culmination, and the highest form of a kind of value, without fault or defect; but the word in Latin (perfectus, past participle from perficio) simply meant "brought to an end," "completed," or "finished." As we know, many things get completed without the result turning out very well. The original meaning is now all but overwhelmed by the notion of faultlessness. Nevertheless, while both meanings are appropriate to most of the metaphysical examples, the original problem derives from the original meaning. It is what I would call the "perfect fallacy," both in the sense of a pinnacle or culmination of fallacies (like the "perfect storm") and in the sense of a fallacy deriving from the characteristics of what is completed or finished.

The "perfect," indeed, is a grammatical term. This has been discussed elsewhere, but can be reviewed here. The perfect is an "aspect," which is a grammatical characteristic of verbs rather different from the more familiar (in modern Western European languages) "tense" system. The "aspect" of an action is whether it is thought of as taking place at a point in time, the aorist, still continuing to happen at a point in time, the imperfect (or imperfective), or having just been completed at a point in time, the perfect (or perfective). "Tense" is whether a point in time is in the past, the present, or the future. Tense, therefore, locates us at a point in time, while aspect then tells us what the action is like at that point. Any tense can therefore be combined with any aspect, as with a future perfect like "I will have done" something:   Languages may inflect verbs for aspect, for tense, for both, or for neither. Both Classical Greek and Modern English have fairly complete systems for both aspect and tense, though Greek did so with inflections, while English uses an auxiliary verb system. In languages that only inflect for aspect, like Arabic, Russian, and Japanese, the perfect does double duty for the past tense and present perfect, while the imperfect does so for the present and future tenses.

In Aristotle, the difference between perfect and imperfect turns up in the the most basic distinction in his ontology:  that between form and matter. For Aristotle, form (eîdos, species) is the actuality (enérgeia, actualitas) of an object. It is the essence and substance (ousía, essentia, substantia), what it is that is definite and that can be known about an object. Matter is the power (dýnamis, potentia) to become actual. Matter is not what is known, but simply represents the potential to become something actual and knowable. There are degrees of actuality, with God at one end, pure actuality, and the four elements at the other, minimal actuality. Pure potential can be conceived, as "prime matter," but since it has no actuality at all, it doesn't, of course, actually exist. [note]

Although Aristotelian metaphysics dominated the Middle Ages, and was even assimilated to Plato through Neoplatonism, it seems rather strange now. Since Descartes, we tend to think of matter as being the "substance," and form as no more than an epiphenomenon, perhaps an essence, perhaps no more than outward appearance. This makes matter more real that whatever characterizes it, which is the opposite of what Aristotle thought. Matter in Aristotle could be the hypokeímenon, the "underlying" thing, which is pretty much what "substantia" means; but then what gets translated as "substance" in Greek was ousía, not hypokeímenon. To Aristotle, what the thing is, its essence (ousía), is what gives it its actuality, not the underlying material. Descartes, although by no means wanting to endorse universal materialism, nevertheless prepared the way by giving matter an ontological status it had not had since Democritus and Lucretius. Today the traditional Aristotelian doctrine of "substantial essences" or "substantial forms" is unfamiliar and bizarre.

Matter as substance, however, would endure an ironic fate. The conservation of mass, as a principle of modern physics, would seem little different from that of Democritus, derived from Parmenides, that Being cannot be destroyed or created. Physics, however, came to discover another conservation law, that of energy. This is not at all intuitively obvious. Energy is strictly defined as the ability to do work, i.e. to apply a force over a distance. Newton's definition of a force was F = ma, force equals mass times acceleration. The units of energy were then units of force times distance. Force is now in "Newtons," equal to kilograms times meters per second square (N = kg*m/s2). Units of energy are thus Newton-meters, or kilograms times meters squared per second squared, or "Joules" (J = N*m = kg*m2/s2).

That energy would be conservated was not at all obvious. Work being done, one might think that the effort, the force, the energy, would all simply be expended and dissipate into nothing. No, it didn't work that way. Energy moves into different forms, but its quantity does not change. In simple mechanics, energy can be "kinetic" energy, the energy that a moving body is able to expend, Ek = 1/2 mv2 (where "m" is mass and "v" velocity), "potential" energy, the energy that a body is able to expend because of its position in a gravitational field, Ep = mgh (where "g" is the acceleration of gravity and "h" is the height of the object -- comparable equations can be written for potential energy in an electric, magnetic, or nuclear field), or heat, as in the First Law of Thermodynamics, U = Q - W, that the energy gained by an object ("U") is equal to the energy of its temperature ("Q") minus the work ("W") expended by the heat.

In work done by kinetic energy or potential energy, some energy, at least, ends up turning into heat, which may dissipate and become inconspicuous, but is not destroyed [note]. The difference between different kinds of energy is in their entropy, which is expressed in terms of energy per degree Kelvin, as in Boltzmann's Constant, k = 1.3806503(24)*10-23 J/K. Entropy is the degree of disorder in a system. Heat has very high entropy, because it is very chaotic. When work is done, the total entropy may not be as chaotic, because work may serve to introduce an organization that did not previously exist in the material. This is what purposeful work is usually supposed to accomplish.

While heat represents absolute quantities of energy, kinetic and potential energy do not. Since kinetic energy is a function of motion, and motion is relative to a frame of reference, whether kinetic energy exists in an object or not is entirely a matter of the frame of reference used for the measurement. Since in Relativity all frames of reference are equal, in those terms there is no absolute quantity of kinetic energy. Similarly, potential energy only exists relative to some gravitational acceleration. If an object never actually falls towards a particular object, the energy is never released. Since the range of a gravitational field is infinite, every body in the universe has potential energy in relation to every other body. That is going to be a lot of energy, but very little of it will emerge. Where it comes from is a good question. The field itself must be the source of the energy. So a great deal of energy is locked up as mere potential in gravity.

The connection of energy to fields emerges in another absolute form of energy. When a body falls to earth, a number of things happen. It can hit something and do some work -- probably pretty chaotic work -- but it will also heat up in the atmosphere and in the impact. The heat radiates electromagnetic energy, meaning that even in a vacuum an object cools down (slowly -- a vacuum is good insulation). What is radiated are particles, photons, which are the quanta of the electromagnetic field. As it happens, there are two kinds of particles in subatomic physics, bosons and fermions. Bosons have integer spins and fermions half-integer. This makes for a very significant difference, because particles with half-integer spin obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which means that two cannot be in the same quantum state in the same system. This makes atoms and molecules, chemistry and organisms possible. Bosons cannot form structures like atoms. The difference between bosons and fermions, then, ends up being the difference between energy and matter. Bosons carry energy; fermions hang around and absorb or radiate energy. There are bosons for the fields of each of the forces of nature:  photons for electromagnetism; Weak bosons for the Weak interaction; gluons for the Strong interaction; and gravitons for gravity. Where real bosons carry energy, "virtual" bosons mediate the interactions of their respective forces.

The duality of matter and energy ends up sounding a bit like Aristotle's duality of matter and form, potential and actuality. But there are major differences. Matter and energy are both actual, but matter takes on more of the structure, microscopic, macroscopic, and cosmological, that Aristotle would have attributed to form. On the other hand, Aristotle's word enérgeia is used for the opposite of it, the formless swirlings of bosons, or the epiphenomena of kinetic, potential, and heat energy. Matter and energy, as it turns out, are also equivalent to each other, and can be converted into one another, as we see in Einstein's equation, E = mc2. But there is not a perfect equivalence. Energy involves more than matter. Matter is mass (m), but then there is the c2, the velocity of light squared, an element of space and time, of motion, of acceleration and distance -- however we break down the units. Matter has been called "frozen energy." There certainly does not seem to be much else to it. If the ultimate fermions, quarks and leptons, are Dirac point particles (or even the popular "strings"), they do not fill any space. Atoms are not just mostly empty space, they are entirely empty space. What fills space are fields. The substantial matter of Democritus or Descartes seems to evaporate into something rather intangible. In physics today, a field can be understood either after Einstein as a curvature of spacetime (recently reconsidered in here) or as an exchange of virtual particles. Everyone knows this is awkward. But the question seems to get asked less often, "So what is energy, really?"

What power and potential make possible is change, the very thing excluded from Plato's Forms or Aristotle's God. In the modern conception of energy, change is much closer to the heart of things, though if the universe expands indefinitely, other kinds of change may cease as all the stars die out and all energy is dissipated through a very large and very cold volume of space. Be that as it may, there is a more fundamental issue that arises about change, and that is the status of past and future. Aristotle's potentials could become actual just because of time. Without time, nothing would happen. Aristotle did not like the idea that the future was determined and so regarded the truth of statements about future events as contingent. What Aristotle overlooked was that "future contingency" was a function, not so much of the future, as of the imperfect aspect. What is contingent is not just truth about the future but also about one aspect of the present. The window is not necessarily closed, because I can open it. The possibilities of future states are often possibilities in the present. Not all. I cannot go out and look at the moon just now if the moon is not in the sky. On the other hand, the necessity that Aristotle discerned in the past, that it cannot now be changed, is also characteristic of an aspect of the present, that something having happened, it cannot now unhappen. The car crash we see at the moment is already something it is too late to undo. It becomes a matter of the past soon enough, but we may continue to live with the consequences.

The fixity of both past and present is the perfect aspect. The possibilities of present and future are the imperfect aspect. This is something not easily handled in modern physics, where most of the fundamental equations can be run indifferent forward in time or backward in time. It is entropy that introduces a difference, but so small a thing in the scientific landscape means that many wonder how seriously to take it. There is a powerful temptation to dismiss the directionality of time and regard past, present, and future as all equally real. In those terms, time as such would not exist and the dimension could be treated in the same terms as space. This was what Kurt Gödel liked to think. Significantly, this would eliminate real possibility, not to mention free will. Since it would also eliminate chance, which most regard as essential to quantum mechanics, it begins to conflict with something more than just entropy. One way to handle that is with an infinite number of actual universes, which represent all possibilities (the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics), but these kinds of theories shatter Ockham's Razor with a vengeance. Physics, consequently, can't quite say what time is, or what the status of future possibilities are.

A common sense view of time raises other paradoxes. Only the present seems to really exist. The past and the future, as such, don't. Yet there is a reality to them. The past may be gone and is often forgotten, but its consequences are just as often all too real. Life would seem a lot better if things in the past could be changed, or retained, or made to have never happened. At the same time, the future is definitely on its way, with hope and anxiety battling over it in our hearts -- especially when we consider the inevitable day when the future will carry our own existence away entirely. The non-existence of the past is our own non-existence, and that of everyone we have ever known, in death.

It is not clear to me which is the more disturbing and the least desirable, a world in which time does not exist, and the past and the future exist equally with the present, which means that all that has existed or will ever exist in fact has always and will always exist, unchanged, or a world in which the Grim Reaper continues a harvest of existence in which all its fruits simply vanish into nothingness, a nothingness when, if also forgotten, becomes as something that has never existed at all. Neither of these is quite what we might like. The former, however, where all time is somehow already actual, suspiciously embodies nothing but the perfect aspect. The world there is like a four dimensional crystal, or a Platonic Form, or Aristotle's God. It is fixed. It is more fixed even than Spinoza's God, who, although his nature unfolds with necessity, nevertheless exists both as natura naturata, nature completed, and natura naturans, nature unfolding. This distinction, nicely reflecting the perfect/imperfect duality, cuts right across what are otherwise the three levels of Spinoza's metaphysics -- substance, attribute, and mode.

A universe without the imperfect aspect is missing something that, indeed, we miss:  the dimension of power and possibility. At the same time a universe with an imperfect aspect, and a future, seems like too much, threatening us, as it does, with non-existence. Where neither alternative seems quite right we may have a clue that, indeed, it isn't. Similarly, explaining free will suffers from similar unsatisfactory alternatives. The "perfect" universe has a future that is fixed, which fatalistically or deterministically eliminates alternatives, choice, and so free will. At the same time, if free will is nothing but entirely arbitrary choices, it is essentially irrational. But Leibniz, who believed that free will must be rational, ended up with a theory that sounded equally fatalistic, because a rational will depends on knowledge, and knowledge is limited. Since Leibniz believed that our knowledge unfolds from a script that was arranged by God in eternity (the "pre-established harmony"), this also eliminates alternatives and choice and ends up barely distinguishable from determinism. The principal challenge of a theory of free will is still how to have a rational free will, which is limited neither by a fixed future nor the limited knowledge of a fixed past.

Where we have logical opposites where neither can be right, then either we have made some mistake, and there is another alternative, or we are looking at a Kantian Antinomy, which because of the nature of things, contains a contradiction that cannot be resolved. With the perfect and imperfect aspects, the matter certainly begins to look like an antinomy. What does this mean? Well, it means that ultimate reality cannot be fixed, like Platonic or Aristotelian Forms, nor an amorphous power and potential, as though nothing is fixed and anything is possible. In our experience of the world, of phenomenal reality, perfect and imperfect are separated, giving us ontologically distinct categories of actual and possible, past and future. In the nature of the thing, however, ultimate reality may not be so divided, or not divided in the same way.

I have already entertained this notion in relation to the modes of necessity, that ultimate necessity, the pietative, and ultimate contingency, the Ur-contingency, fall together as one in the transcendent -- just as internal and external do in Ontological Undecidability. In theological terms, this was considered as a way in which the rationality and goodness of God could be reconciled with the freedom and power of God. As noted above, the God of philosophers ends up as an impersonal and impotent being. A free and omnipotent God, however, would be free and able to violate rationality, logic, and goodness. This is not a paradox of logic, of course, just of theology. The omnipotence of God is a thought experiment on pure possibility and power. Our free will is not omnipotent, but we have also seen how freedom might be lost through limitations of knowledge, and how an absolutely arbitrary will becomes irrational.

What we need for free will is, in the simplest terms, the ability to originate knowledge. This may mean moral autonomy in the Platonic and Kantian sense, that we already believe something but then make it our own through our own internal source of moral knowledge, or it can mean genuine novelty, where something emerges that has never been seen before. Is there genuine novelty, and knowledge that has never been seen before? Well, yes.

History is nothing but genuine novelty. All of history can be seen as both a display of aesthetic variety and as material and intellectual progress. The aesthetic variety continues, and nothing is so dramatic in all of history as the development of human understanding of the universe. From early notions, apparently universal, that the sky was a kind of roof (the "firmament" above), we now look out into inconceivable, but not immeasurable, volumes and depths of space, filled with billions of galaxies. But for all that has been discovered, and all that has been imagined, there is nothing so predictable in human psychology as the feeling that everything has been discovered, that everything has been imagined, and that everything has been invented. Not likely, if the simplest extrapolations from the past are reliable. But nothing is harder than conceiving what has not yet been imagined.

Even more difficult is the idea that our knowledge of the universe is the fruit, not of Baconian induction, but of that same imagination. With Popper's conjectures and refutations, knowledge emerges from within, in very unpredictable ways, but then is checked against the world. Knowledge is not something that is just laid out for us to observe, whether it is in the eternal Platonic Forms, or in the plain data of experience to the Empiricist. In each case, we have the "Perfect Fallacy," for in each case knowledge is fixed and actual, something that exists already. But knowledge is the growth of something that is not an empirical or phenomenal datum and that does not somehow preexist in the transcendent. The only place it can exist is where it does, in consciousness.

This is all very hard to understand if ultimate reality either basically exists in the perfect aspect alone, or the imperfect. To Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes certainty and necessity characterize knowledge. After a fashion they were right. If we've got hold of the necessity, we would have the certainty. But then, although we are searching for the necessity, it turns out that we may or may not have it. We can always be wrong. On the other hand, if there actually is neither necessity or certainty in the nature of things, with a radically indeterminate world, we have chaos without and nihilism within. 20th century philosophy was happier with the latter, even when it cared about science -- without realizing, perhaps, that the nihilism would eat into science also. Thus, Logical Positivism led with a kind of inevitability to the most irrational forms of "post-modernism" -- discrediting metaphysics to discrediting physics.

There never was going to be genuine novelty in Plato's universe. Everything that can possibly exist must have a Form. That means, not only must there be Forms for hair and dirt, as Plato worried in the Parmenides, but Forms for televisions and iPods. This becomes increasingly bizarre -- yet it is required by the theory, where the Forms answer the Problem of Universals. What is required, then, is radical and genuine possibility, but the emergence of something that is at once both novel and ribbed or braced up with necessity. As existence itself appears in perfect and imperfect aspects, from our perspective going off into past and future, phenomena are a structured mix of necessity and contingency, impossibility and possibility. A wrap like a candy-cane can be imagined -- one of the diagrams of the modes of necessity here has an aspect much like that. Or we can simply see something of the sort in the growth of a tree, which follows certain forms, characteristic of the species, but then does so in ways that are unique to the individual tree.

Thus, in the world we have a great division, between perfect and imperfect or past and future, but then a weaving together of perfect and imperfect, necessity and possibility, in everything. How then things would be in themselves is concealed by the Antinomy. If Being is neither internal nor external, then also it may be neither perfect nor imperfect, neither past nor future. What does this really get us? In an important sense it must mean that the matter is inconveivable in any positive way. In a negative way, as the sides of the Antinomy contradict each other, it would mean that the past, and the dead, are neither fixed nor nothing, as though the past will always exist but is also actual and can be changed. This would be the best of possible worlds. If the past could be changed, but would thereby not simply become nothing, and could still be known and remembered, this would preserve the meaning of what has happened, but would remove its sting. In the many worlds metaphysics proposed for quantum mechanics, we have the worst of possible worlds, where everything that can happen, has happened, and is as real as any other possibility. We certainly do not want everything to happen just because it can. The world, and all possible worlds, are better off that Hitler did not win World War II. What would have been better is if there was a way that both Hitler and Stalin could have lost. Better yet, of course, is if Hitler and Stalin had never come to power. What would a world be like in which all these could be fixed up, without simply erasing what did happen and so without rendering meaningless all the suffering and heroism that occurred?

We cannot say how that world would work, but in human imagination various possibilities have been explored. Thus, the fine movie Groundhog Day (1993) involves Bill Murray living the same day (February 2nd) over and over again until, morally, he gets it right. He rather deserves this, and the experience and the outcome are good for him. However, nobody else remembers that they live the same day over again. Everything that they live and experience, and it is often different in each day, because of Murray, simply becomes nothing. This is rather unfair to them. Indeed, they are being cosmicly jerked around. With women who have brief love affairs with Murray and then do not remember anything of the sort, it seems in retrospect rather like a violation, a rape, even if in the end it "never happened." But it did happen, and Murray himself remembers it all. Murray himself is in the privileged position, and the fantasy of the movie is from his point of view, that the past can be changed, but also remembered. We get similar moments in many other movies. In It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Jimmy Stewart gets to see the world as it would be if he had never existed. Is this just a vision, an imagining, or has the angel Clarence really arranged for the world itself to exist as though Stewart didn't? That is unclear, but if he has, it has inflicted a great deal of suffering on the many people who would have been helped by Stewart. In the end, again, Stewart remembers all that, remembers even his brother being dead, but none of the other people do.

If the past is something that we would often like to undo, it is also something that we would often like to recover in its full bloom. It would be something to see the pyramids when they were new, or the Parthenon, or Socrates, Jesus, or countless other things and people. Short of time travel, it is hard to imagine how this would work. Yet we can easily imagine a case. If God does not even exist in time (as St. Augustine or Stephen Hawking might say), he could see all points in time as they were in their own present. To really know the past as it was, I wouldn't mind being able to do that also. We often would very much like to do that with our own lives. Especially in old age, to be again in the happiest days of our youth would be marvelous. We occasionally see something of the sort imagined in movies. Yet in truth, we cannot recover that as it was, and old age often robs people even of their memories. It is time that stands in the way. And a past, mercilessly fixed and inalterable, and so well gone for so many evils, takes with it the good things also. [note]

Something of the dilemma here has already been considered in the Antinomy of Immortality:  if death is real, then morally something like murder is irredeemable, while if death is unreal, then morally something like murder is trivialized. So what we need is where it is neither real nor unreal. We cannot say how that could be, but we can say what it would mean:  that something is real enough to retain its moral significance and be remembered, but not real enough that it cannot be remedied, fixed up, and undone. This means, in general, that everything is possible, which would absolutize the imperfect aspect, but that everything that appears as of necessity, all matters of fact and value -- the past, the good, the just, and beautiful -- also nevertheless are real too, an absolutization of the perfect aspect.

Before the dilemma of the perfect and imperfect was explored in movies, it was in theology. Not so much in philosophical metaphysics, since the philosophers pretty much all come down on the side of the perfect. The Perfect Fallacy is their fallacy. But God messed this up. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm, God is omnipotent and to God all things are possible. All the wrongs of the world will be set right by God in the end. Generalizing the omnipotence of God (which we get in Islâm), led William of Ockham to assert that God could even violate the Principle of Non-Contradiction. Indeed. This was, and is, an outrage to the Aristotelian Thomists, but in their imposition of necessity, even logical necessity, on God, they reveal their philosophical preference. The terms of the problem are already evident in Plato's Euthyphro, where Socrates asks, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" The Greek answer to this was that it is loved because it is pious, that piety has a valuable character that is recognized by the gods. The theistic answer, however, tends to the side that it is pious because it is loved, that the gods, or God, give the valuable character to piety. Again, these answers either trivialize the omnipotence of God, or his goodness. Neither seems quite right, in a way that should be becoming familiar.

But this dilemma is really that of the Problem of Evil. If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, why does evil exist? And if evil exists because God allows free will as a good, why should so many suffer because of the evil choices of people like Hitler and Stalin? The tendency of Greek-influenced theology, all the way down to Whitehead, is to do the more reasonable thing and limit the omnipotence, or the omniscience, of God. This is what, however, is particularly objectionable from the religious point of view, where the greatest source of hope, regardless of the evils of life, is that with God all things are possible. We are left with the same terms of the dilemma even if we eliminate God altogether; for this does not help with the metaphysics of past and future, perfect and imperfect. The dilemma as an Antinomy, however, gives God a little more space. The denial of the Perfect Fallacy means that the pious is neither loved because it is pious nor pious because it is loved. A God that is neither perfect nor imperfect is neither unfree nor unjust. It was absolutizing the perfect that killed the Greeks gods, and continued to render even the monotheistic God impersonal to an extent uncongenial to religion. An absolutization of the imperfect, however, would render even a Supreme Being contingent, which also would be uncongenial to religion.

The result cannot even be something like a Kantian Postulate of Practical Reason, for that is a positive resolution of some of the Antinomies, with Kant choosing the Theses of the Third (Freedom) and Fourth (God) Antinomies. But if the transcendent is neither perfect nor imperfect, this both makes possible a past that can be fixed up as though it never happened, without erasing that it did happen, and a Being able to do that. Given the possibilities, that Being might even be undecidably identical to us -- after all, theology looks rather different in Hinduism, and unrecognizable in Buddhism. Either way, it is a world beyond our conception but not beyond our hopes. Time and death remain the threat that they are, but they lose their absolute existence. The future is genuinely open, but, after a fashion, the past may be also. There can be things genuinely new and novel, but they will also genuinely be right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.

The Perfect Fallacy, although always the tendency of Greek philosophy, properly begins with Plato's Forms. These are perfect, eternal, and unchanging. It is because they have always existed, and are the source of all reality, that we would expect them to continue into the future. The difference between eternity a parte ante, into the past, and a parte post, into the future, doesn't make much difference. In the Perfect Fallacy, it is the existence a parte ante that is fundamental and ensures the Forms existence a parte post. Yet it is the existence of the Forms for eternity a parte ante that is the most absurd thing about them -- an eternity, not just of goodness, justice, and triangles, but of beds, calliopes, dental floss, potatoes, and iPods. What would be better is the Forms eternal a parte post rather than a parte ante. This would contradict the character of both the past and the future, but that is what I am in the business of doing here. If our desire for the world is that the past could be changed, without being changed (i.e. without having not been), then our desire for the future could equally be something that can be changed, as is the case with the imperfect, without being changed. The Forms are thus eternal and unchanging, but, in some fashion, they come into existence. It has already been considered that universals, of which Plato's Forms were the first theory, are neither internal nor external, immanent nor transcendent. Now we may merely need to add that they are neither perfect nor imperfect, past nor future. This removes the absurdity of Socrates suddenly glimpsing a DVD player -- which Plato's theory would allow.

But the moral significance of this may be more substantial. In 1842, the Sultân of Morocco told the British Consul, "Be it known to you, that the Traffic in Slaves is a matter on which all Sects and Nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam, on whom be the Peace of God, up to this day." The Consul, as it happens, was telling the Sultân that the slave trade and, indeed, slavery itself were wrong. The Sultân, as any historically acute person should be aware, was incredulous. He had never heard of such a thing, and, since it would contradict Islâmic Law (and the law of any other religion or "nation" he had ever heard of), it could not possibily be true. Nevertheless, today, not only is slavery something that is regarded as close to the worst evil in human history, but blame is placed on anyone (or at least Europeans and Americans), regardless of time or place (except perhaps for people who were not Europeans or Americans), who accepted or practiced it. This grotesque ahistorical approach, however, raises a serious question:  if slavery is wrong, then wasn't it always wrong? And if it was always wrong, why is it no one seemed to realize that until the 18th century? And if it somehow became wrong because Thomas Jefferson or someone thought that it contradicted the principle that "all men are created equal," was everyone suddenly guilty if they didn't immediately jump up and agree, and move heaven and earth immediately to erase the scourge?

It is one thing to realize that the Greeks could not have imagined iPods, it is rather harsher to realize that they could not have imagined principles of personal freedom. It was not of their time. But if right and wrong simply change through time, then we are left with a historicist relativism in which no form of right and wrong need be taken seriously, because it is just likely to change anyway in a few months or years. But this is our familiar paradox again. We require an eternally unchanging right and wrong, which nevertheless comes into existence, as knowledge, at a point, or over a period, of time, and then exists eternally a parte post. This is something wholly and profoundly inconceivable and impossible to Rationalist metaphysics, yet for the case, it is just what the doctor ordered. It is a case where a characteristic of the past, an artifact of the perfect aspect, must be transposed into the future. That is possible when we realize that the separation of the phenomenal world into past and future need not represent the way things are in themselves. The perfect and imperfect characters of past and future may exist in a different way in the transcendent; and, indeed, as with Kant's Postulates of Practical Reason, we have strong reasons for suspecting, even believing, that they do. With moral knowledge, we have a case with the strongest overtones of Kant's Postulates, which were based on characeristics of morality.

What do we tell the Sultân of Morocco (if not that, being an Arab, slavery was alright when he practiced it)? It isn't that we just decided that slavery is wrong. He would be free to decide differently. We must say that, for the following reasons, we have come to realize that slavery is wrong. The Sultân would certainly object that, if slavery is wrong, it was always wrong, and that God would then have informed people of it in the Qur'ân. In his own terms, that might be unanswerable. For us, it might be easier to think that, as conviction of the wrongness of slavery emerges in consciousness and knowledge, it is also becoming wrong in reality, without, however, being contingent. This paradoxical possibility, where reality is dependent on knowledge, is already familiar, of course, in Kant, and even in quantum mechanics. It has been reexmained in "Ontological Undecidability." Here, the paradox goes deeper, that the objectivity, fixity, and necessity of right and wrong depend on, not on eternal truth a parte ante, but on eternal truth in the future. This is because the future is not just the future, not just the imperfect aspect, but undecidably the perfect aspect also, as perfect and imperfect have a different relation to each other in the transcendent than they do in the phenomenal world. In phenomena, of course, perfect and imperfect do exist together, but only in the present, which is only a moment compared to eternity.

In physics, there is a present that is identical to eternity, and that is at the velocity of light. This is why massless particles do not decay. Massless particles, like photons or gravitons, instantaneously travel at the velocity of light, and time does not pass for them. This is an extraordinary feature of Relativity. If we could exist at the velocity of light, the entire history of the universe, however long, even eternal, would pass in less than the blink of an eye. This sounds like one of Socrates' reflections on death, that "...all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night" -- if death is like a dreamless sleep. It is definitely noteworthy that there is a place in nature where time doesn't exist. This also happens to be the place where we find the field quanta of energy, like photons and gravitions. The universe may have started as a simple flux of such energy, which then had its symmetry "broken" into matter and the various different forces of nature (as a deeper symmetry was "broken" into perfect and imperfect, past and future?). Energy itself, which began as (perfect) substance in Aristotle and then seems to become its (imperfect) opposite in physics, actually seems more like a union of perfect and imperfect. It cannot be created or destroyed, though it can be diverted into matter, where mass itself cannot be created or destroyed -- unless back into energy. This is still very hard to fathom. Energy is essentially the life of the universe. And the low entropy energy reactions on the earth are, indeed, life itself. Us. Photons stream from the sun, hit me, and then cease to exist, but give up their energy to my skin. I warm up. Maybe get sunburned. This is like nothing imagined by Plato or Aristotle, or even Descartes or Newton.

Energy in its elusive and paradoxical nature, making all change and life possible, but often carried in the form of particles for which time does not pass, is rather like a living fossil of a union of perfect and imperfect in the transcendent. It is pregnant with all the laws of nature and the history of the universe. The light in the darkness. The warmth of the hearth, or the heart. A strange business, and very far from the "atoms and the void" of the Greek Atomists. Not much of the atoms left, to be sure, but space, fields, and energy. As a union of perfect and imperfect, energy has structure and form, but also unlimited potential. Only energy makes things happen. What goes along with the question, then, why the universe exists, is the question why energy exists. In it we have neither a Perfect nor an Imperfect Fallacy, but we also have the metaphysical question without an answer, an answer that would resolve the antinomy of possible and actual, past and future, free will and determinism, existence and non-existence. Energy is pregnant with all those things. It does not speak to us, but then again it does. For energy can be high entropy or low entropy. Low entropy is the beginning of the universe -- the Big Bang, as a "white hole," was a very low entropy event -- and the beginning of life. As entropy among life gets lower and lower, we have consciousness and knowledge, religion, philosophy, and science, art and ethics, etc. Out of our own energy, then, come our thoughts about it. Stuff like this.


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The Perfect Fallacy, Note 1

In modern speculative metaphysics, to the extent that it exists at all, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) perhaps comes the closest to a critique of the Perfect Fallacy. His take was that Greek metaphysics was based on the grammatical character of the noun, which thus implied the fixity of Platonic and Aristotelian forms. This was a sound observation. However, Whitehead then erred by supposing that metaphysics should properly be based on the grammatical character of the verb. So Whitehead then provided an ontology with something like Leibniz's monads, which nevertheless only exist momentarily. They are not durable like classical substances. This really doesn't improve things. Whitehead would have done much better to observe that nouns and verbs reflect the same kind of duality as Aristotelian form and matter or, for that matter, perfect and imperfect. However, he would then not have been able to supply an ontology based on one or the other. Whitehead's metaphysics is thus revealed as simply a derivative of uncritical Rationalism, not of Kantian criticism.

The duality of nouns and verbs is indeed revealing. Systems of both are quite universal in human languages, though there is an ebb and flow in use. Thus, Ancient Egyptian had almost eliminated the finite verb, relying on participles, which were then "inflected" by possessive pronouns. As Egyptian evolved into Coptic, however, this structure evolved into a new, independent system of finite verbs. Modern English itself extensively uses participles, with very little left of verbal inflection compared to French or German.

In relation to this, the status of adjectives is of interest. In the languages of the Mediterranean world, adjectives generally function grammatically the most like nouns. In Greek and Arabic, only remotely related to each other, if at all, adjectives can simply be used as nouns. The Caliph Omar is supposed to have said that words are nouns, verbs, and particles. On the other hand, in a Polynesian language like Mâori or Hawaiian, adjectives are verbs, "stative" verbs. Both nouns and verbs can then be used to modify each other, with word order indicating the difference. Thus, in Hawaiian, maika'i ke kâne is the sentence "the man [ke kâne] is good [maika'i]," while ke kâne maika'i is the noun phrase, "the good man." In English, there is a difference in word order also, but an adjective in the predicate still requires the verb "is."

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The Perfect Fallacy, Note 2

If I slide a book across my desk, I might think that the energy expended has simply disappeared. I just move the book to a different position. However, the force I impart to the book gives it a velocity. According to Galileo, it should then keep going. That it doesn't keep going is because of friction. Friction turns the kinetic energy of the moving book into heat. If I drop the book on the desk, we get in impact. The desk is accelerated, although, being rather large, the effects are not obvious. There is also heat and noise, which carry away energy. It is thus clear why historically the conservation of energy was not noticed by the Greeks or in the Middle Ages. Before the Galilean conception of intertia, when objects slowed down and stopped just because their impetus ran out, there is no clue to anything persisting.

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The Perfect Fallacy, Note 3

Paradoxes we get with the future involve foreknowledge. Again, if God is outside of time, he sees all things at all times in an equivalent way. Since this precludes alternatives it eliminates real possibility. All is fixed. Clearly the perfect has taken over. For individuals who believe that they see the future, we have a similar difficulty. If the future is fixed, then foreknowledge both tells us what will happen and tells us that nothing can be done about it. This version of foreknowledge is actually quite common in mythology and in literature. Oedipus is told that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Mistaken about who his father and mother are, he takes action to avoid the prophecy and then discovers that the very actions he took merely served to bring it about. This is Fate. It renders us helpless and eliminates free will -- real choices, as real alternatives, are not available. Softer versions of foreknowledge construe things that the foreknown future is only a tendency, strictly contingent as Aristotle said. Thus, action can be taken to alter the future. However, if this is so, the future that was originally foreknown wasn't in truth the real future. So the future wasn't really known. We just had a kind of probablistic prediction. But the source of the problem should be obvious. The essence of the future, as future, is imperfect, but the future as an object of definite knowledge must be perfect, like the past. With the antinomy, both real foreknowledge and free will coexist in their contradiction. This is what we tend to get in monotheistic theology that allows the existence of free will (most Christianity and Judaism, some historical Islam). There it is called a "mystery," which is a fancy way of saying, indeed, that the matter is inconceivable -- i.e. incoherent.

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