Perfect Worlds and Their Limits

Perfect worlds occupy a sizable chunk of intellectual thought. They can be points of departure as with the Garden of Eden or Rousseau’s natural man. Or goals of progress as with Marx’s final stage of history, Plato’s Republic, or Buddhist nirvana. Or simplified models of reality as with much of economics. Or mindsets open to objective truth as with Rawls’ veil of ignorance.

The appeal of perfection is easy to understand. We want truth. We want to act ethically and effectively. We want to make correct plans to achieve worthy goals. Such efforts lead us to ever-higher levels of abstraction which culminate in perfect worlds.

Perfect worlds rest on correct principles. Principles that are true and mutually consistent. Principles that can be understood, communicated, and adopted by everyone. Principles we can link back to to resolve disagreements, motivate performance, and justify demands. Such actionable agreement makes the world efficient, fair, and stable, makes individual lives meaningful, ethical, and comprehensible.

Perfect worlds offer powerful answers that conform to our highest ideals, that inspire us with the possibilities of unity and clarity. So we search for truth to define and justify principles with which to build coherent goals, models, and systems. We communicate them to others and rally against those that are based on wrong principles, are poorly implemented, or are hypocritical.

When you find correct principles it can feel like you’ve unlocked the entire puzzle. The world becomes comprehensible, solutions to difficult problems become obvious, challenges become simple. You’ve done the hard part: you’ve found the key. You turn your principles into systems. You make sure they are logical and coherent. You trace objections to flaws in the real world that would not exist if your systems were implemented.

Let’s Build It

Unfortunately, the cohesive interdependence that gives your perfect world its power and stability is a liability when you try to move the current world towards perfection. There seems to be no way to create the reinforcement mechanisms without starting from scratch. At first, this seems like a minor detail given the magnitude of what you’ve already accomplished. Even though you know better, you still somehow believe that people will follow you when you reveal your discovery. They do not and it hurts.

Let’s say that your perfect world is based on honesty. Once honesty is universally valued and practiced, it forms a positive feedback loop that makes honesty easier to encourage and dishonesty easier to deal with. But the real world already has feedback loops based on dishonesty – how do you break out of them? You try to lead by example, to just be honest, but people don’t understand, or hear you and shrug, or disagree, or take advantage of your honesty. You try to create a nuanced, real-world strategy to slowly build up the institutions that will encourage honesty. Unfortunately, you need to engage in dishonesty to do so. As your plan progresses and you begin to extol the virtues of honesty more openly, your opponents expose your hypocrisy and undermine not just your legitimacy, but that of your perfect world.

You may have acted with the best of intentions, but how often do you take your opponents’ expressions of their intentions at face value? Do you look carefully into their deep motives and justifications? Don’t you tend to judge them based on their visible actions? Why would you expect others to inquire into your deepest motives, to trust your words over your actions?

The real world forces you to make adjustments to move towards a better world. Adjustments that look a lot like what makes the world imperfect to begin with. Consider for a moment that your situation isn’t exceptional. That other people act in ways that conflict with their preferences and goals because they have to act in the real world. You have no way to reliably deduce the ethics of their visions from the dirtiness of their actions. Some of them, perhaps many of them, act to improve the world. And you are indistinguishable from them.

Let’s Learn From It

OK, so maybe a model of perfection cannot be universally implemented. But surely it can still be a useful guide to real world choices! Just because we can’t be perfect, doesn’t mean we can’t be better. Perhaps it can help establish high level goals, strategies, or values, or to model the world. Perhaps it can be a blueprint for when we are closer to a blank slate.

The problem is that constraints of the real world are such an essential basis of reality that perfect world models are scarcely more true than models built around wish-granting genies. They tell us how well the world could work without constraints and imperfections, while we need to know how to make the world work despite all the constraints and imperfections.

Our institutions are an evolutionary result of the struggle of differences, constraints, flaws… They embody a compromise between competing ideals. History is partially a search for fairness, justice, and ethics. It is partially a search for power, wealth, and improvement. It is partially a search for truth and meaning. The present is the result of these, and many other efforts, after millenia of competition. It incorporates countless trade-offs and compromises; it embodies truth about real world limits and possibilities. And therefore, it is an incoherent mess that satisfies no one completely.

It can be argued that any specific turn of history is driven by happenstance. That progress changes what is necessary, difficult, and possible. That history could have turned out differently and we aren’t locked into its past choices. But nevertheless, our institutions embody a delicate balance of long forgotten trade-offs and compromises, of consciously imposed costs, of complex interdependencies. While history may have led to a number of destinations, it is my contention that none of them are perfect worlds of universal agreement. Our present isn’t flawed because of easily correctable mistakes at high levels of abstraction. Flaws are a natural consequence of fundamental disagreements and constraints, many of which remain substantially unchanged since prehistoric times.

Perfect worlds offer such powerful solutions precisely because they ignore the crux of the problem. They assert a world with more equal capabilities, more agreement, more self-control. Assumptions that eliminate internal dissent and external pressure. But it is those things that overwhelmingly influence real world action. They are the problem. A world without them isn’t an idealistic abstraction that we can get closer to, it is a world with an imaginary model of humanity.

To put it another way, once you divorce the model from reality, the definition of truth shrinks to just internal coherence. But coherence is merely going from axioms to conclusions with no logical mistakes. It tells you nothing about the validity of your axioms: the map is not the territory. Truth requires agreement with experience which is exactly what the perfect world takes away. Even if you base axioms on your own experience, it only makes your world potentially true for a small number of people who share your experiences and capabilities.

This reduced version of truth limits usefulness of perfect worlds in another way: since validity of the initial axioms cannot be proven, there are numerous perfect worlds that can be created. Worlds that are all internally coherent, but mutually incompatible – much like there is an infinite number of coherent maps that don’t match reality. So perfect worlds don’t even drive discourse towards universal consensus, at least not directly. They do clarify positions, motivate and unite groups, and direct competition which then leads to a form of competitive consensus that is embodied in our traditions and institutions.

It is only when theory battles with experience in the real world that models gain a sense of how true they are – a process that is slow, ugly, difficult, uncertain, and imperfect. But it is productive and it is all we have.

Outside The Limits

It turns out that the key you found, the one that seemed to be of supreme importance, isn’t much of an accomplishment after all. For all the power that consistency and clarity bring, perfect worlds built outside the real world are works of fiction. They are not only wrong, but are frequently wrong in ways that greatly limit what they can teach us. You might think that you have a coherent world based on correct principles, while you actually just have a logically consistent dream world that is based on principles you like with no claim to universal correctness or application.

To be clear, mine is not an argument against values, models, plans, visions, or abstractions. It is important to have coherent principles and to understand them. We view the world and communicate through simplifications. We act productively, even with imperfect information and incorrect models. Abstractions bring us clarity and motivation. Better plans and models bring better results. But perfect worlds have limits. Limits which are carelessly crossed even as they are readily acknowledged.

While this may be a lesser error than fatalistic incompetence, it leads many motivated, well-meaning people to spend their lives competing in a windmill fighting tournament with others of similar persuasion and to confuse that with a fight for progress. In the process, they vilify real-world actors, confuse patrons and spectators, cause unnecessary violence and disruption, and rob themselves of an opportunity to actually move the world in their preferred direction. This doesn’t make them bad people, it doesn’t make their lives meaningless, but to the extent that they claim to work for more than their own curiosity, pride, and fulfillment, it does make them confused.

If you think you’ve found the key, if you are motivated to use it to improve the world, then by all means go ahead. That’s how progress is made.

Just stay within the limits.

Within The Limits

First, start with the world as it actually exists, a world where you can’t assume or impose universals. Statements like “If only everyone…” don’t make your world possible and statements like “Yes, but isn’t that immoral?”, “Wouldn’t it be better if…” don’t make objections disappear. It would be great if everyone was moral enough to be honest, but you still have to start in a world with dishonesty. This doesn’t have to make visions naive, morality irrelevant, or assumptions inappropriate – those are all at the core of successful groups – but it does make them group specific.

Second, remember that no one can stop you from living your vision – you can always live it with those who agree. If life is better when everyone is honest then you can enjoy the benefits of honesty, even if much of the world doesn’t agree. However hard it is to protect such values from outside influence, it would be much harder to get all the outsiders to accept them in good faith. While most fights and inefficiencies would disappear if everyone agreed, agreement is plenty difficult to maintain in the smallest of groups. If you can succeed on the small scale, you can live in your perfect world and then decide if you want to take on the tougher challenge of expansion.

Third, prioritize building over convincing. Instead of waiting for universal agreement, take a page from the release early, release often handbook and begin to build. The search for universal agreement may be just a defense mechanism or a form of procrastination. Once it isn’t a prerequisite, excuses for inaction disappear. You build with those who agree, or even by yourself, instead of arguing with others. It may be unsatisfying to start small, battle minutia, see others impede your progress – but it forces you to understand real world constraints, to adjust as you discover problems, to become stronger. To accept that your view will ultimately earn respect and influence through competition. If you can’t start small and expand then your idea is fiction, flawed, unrealizable, or all of the above.

Finally – and this encapsulates the others – your system must deal with (1) internal dissent and (2) external competition. To simulate internal dissent imagine a member of your group who says ‘No, I don’t want to’ to every demand. To simulate external competition imagine a conflict with an outsider who shares few of your values. Perfect worlds that overreach punt on these questions. They claim that no one would want to dissent in a well-built world and that there won’t be external competition since we’ll all be one group.

You must not punt.

Human variability assures that there will always be internal dissent. Incentives, training, facts, and norms can change the probabilities, but can’t eliminate variability. It is a consequence of our large numbers that some individuals will act differently whether due to genetics, disillusionment, sickness, grudges, or any number of other factors.

The fact that you have to start in the world as it actually exists assures that there will always be external competition. But even if you could somehow start from scratch, internal dissent will seed groups which will look increasingly like external ones as they grow.

If you have no viable answer, be cautious with your investment in your system. If you can’t even imagine an answer that doesn’t punt, discard your system and move on. You’ve found the flaw shared by every utopia. It may look beautiful, but beautiful alone isn’t special – there are countless ways to achieve beauty if you disregard reality. How you deal with internal dissent and external competition is essential. How malleable, fair, effective your answers are influences your perfect world at least as much as everything else. Trade-offs and imperfections in your answers will determine the course of your society. How just it is perceived to be on the inside, how naive and open to abuse it appears from the outside, how productive, creative, free, and powerful it is.

It is depressing to stay within the limits. Instead of a hero with a clear mission who bravely battles evil to universal applause, you schlep along – imperfect, incomplete, uncertain. Your efforts are actively interfered with, if they aren’t condescendingly ignored. Your successes are small and are met with more criticism than encouragement. Your sacrifices are large and are taken for granted. You are surrounded by hostility and indifference with little clear sign that you are making progress or are even on the right side. You are no longer fighting windmills.

2 thoughts on “Perfect Worlds and Their Limits

  1. I enjoy reading your “existential” conceptualizations on how one ought view the world, society and one’s place in it. I believe you are coming from a place of having wanted to construct a “Perfect World” (or at least theorize one) in your youth, and it’s nice to see that rather than just grow jaded and disillusioned with the impossibility of that conceit, you’ve taken the more productive route of explaining the limitations and impassable roadblocks of attaining of such, laying down a framework that could help to explain a large deal of the driving forces we see today in politics, religion and their impacts on individual thought, ego, and purpose. I look forward to reading more of your well thought and written essays along these lines.

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