The Fictions We Create 6 : Flawed diamonds — description or evaluation?

Question: Is the universe — as conceptualized by earlier cosmologists — an entity which could be described as either perfect or imperfect? In the former case, it could be referred to as a “flawless” universe, or at least as a universe becoming flawless. Indeed, this is how it was viewed by many Western theologians for the past two millennia. But in as much as the universe was not without flaws, blame was placed on the iniquity of humans, not on its Creator. Not a convincing argument! One could reason that flaws in humans are due to how humans were “designed” (with what potential flaws?), or to the plans prepared for its creation, or to the original designer for having created a flawed species.

The complementary idea that the universe itself had flaws, that it is not perfect, has not been put forward by theologians. How would anyone find out whether this was true, or even reasonable? Assume, for example, that the “world”, or the “universe” was not flawed, but has detectable blemishes! This argument would be based on the premise that the initial forces of creation were faulty, or were deficient in some sense, that its most significant product, humans, were ill-designed — a view which has not found many, if any advocates! However, the notion that humans — or other creatures — were “designed”, is itself contentious and involves an odd use of the term *designed*. It raises the issue whether the term “designed” is appropriate when used in such a general, almost frivolous, and unrestricted manner. Is it not better to remove the use of the term “designed” from its traditional plinth?

Stated differently, the notion that humans were created according to a design has the logical status of an empirical hypothesis. It implies that a design for this particular species preceded its appearance. But this would apply to everything else, too. Evidence for such a hypothesis (or contention) is missing. One would therefore expect the hypothesis to die a natural death. It should be discarded in favour of a better, superior proposal! We have indeed waited already too long for this to happen. There are many now who would argue that it is time to re-state the original question and to do so preferably in a manner which makes it more readily answerable.

What kind of concept is flawed (or faulted)? It is certainly an evaluative term since it judges by referring to a standard. As commonly used, *flawed* is not a property ascribed to an event, but involves a criticism of it. It involves a comparison of two or more similar, related items with respect to a particular feature each of these displays.

A more familiar example than *flawed* is *tall*. It compares objects by appealing to an independent measure of height. *Taller*, therefore, refers to a comparison of the height between different, possibly even unrelated objects, as for example, “this giraffe is taller than this book-case”. It does describe an object, but does so by referring to a relationship between any two or more objects. To give an example: garments cover some of the surface of its wearer but garments need not have colour. Colour therefore is regarded as an “extrinsic feature” of a garment whereas one of its features — that it of covers a body — is part of its “definition” — or specification — as an object!

The comparison makes particular reference to the objects’ functionality, but avoids reference to its purpose, since objects do not necessarily have a purpose in the normal — metaphysically neutral — sense of that term! For example, a bookcase has no purpose, but it serves a need — specifically my need, or that of an organisation, like a public library which was designed and planned to hold and store manusucripts in book form.

On the other hand, a giraffe has neither purpose nor does it fulfill a human need (sic!) in the broad sense of that term. Only items about which we can say that these promote (serve some “self-interest”) and are agents on a mission, are said to have a purpose (in the strict sense of that term). What occurs for other reasons than human self-interest are viewed (by us) as “activated” by instinct, compulsion, destiny, some obscure entelechy, or by physical causes (e.g. a ball rolling down a hill).

Psychoanalysts have encouraged us for the past century and more to think of humans as partly activated by desires of which the actor is not necessarily aware or cogniscnant. Indeed the actor may advance reasons for actions which seem to any impartial outsider irrelevant. Thus, it often seems that actions cannot be explained in terms which the general public will accept!

Some philosophers (e.g. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953; and Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 1949) have argued that we have become increasingly confused by our own rhetoric, that we may say things without meaning them, or that since there is often more than one meaning attached to a word we may be focussed on a meaning which not intended by others! Wittgenstein even suggested that there is a cure for this malady, that a more careful analysis of how each of us uses language in everyday affairs may help us avoid “mental cramps” and dilemmas.

He may have had in mind earlier philosophers who made such outlandish claims as that time is not real, as is the philosopher who is uncertain of his existence and demands a logical proof that ideed he is alive if not necessarily healthy. The trouble is that the proposed remedy — the analysis of how language is used in specific cases — is not always successful in dealing with such philosophical general problems, and hence does not resolve them. It is also true that the counter-method which was designed to restore self-confidence in what one believes, has not been sufficiently and systematically used to have had a measurable effect!

Thus, we simply don’t know whether philosophical puzzles like “is time real?” — whatever these are or how many of these circulate — can be avoided or perhaps even cured by using the methods proposed by some philosophers — or whether such puzzles can be eliminated altogether. Language, it could be argued, is not a precision instrument at all, like a caliper, and therefore should not be used as such. Presumably one can invent, synthesize, and then prescribe a pill which will cure and medicate some mental cramps, but one cannot always persuade others to take the pills voluntarily. The fear of becoming disoriented as a result of accepting a remedial pill is often overwhelming and may block action by those who may benefit!

To return to our original problem which was to discover the meaning of *flawed*. Used descriptively, this word refers to a dimension which runs the whole gamut from “perfect” to “imperfect”. *Flawed* would then be the name of the dimensions itself. It refers to a a graded set of states, a continuous series, whose opposite (antonym) could be perfected. One would then speak about degrees of perfection, or its opposite, the extent to which something is flawed.

The same logic applies to *faulted*. One could add, that something is “greatly flawed”, but that one is thereby pointing to a new dimension — to a way of emphasizing its position within a recognized already existing dimension! *Greatly* — as in *greatly flawed* — would add an evaluative overtone to such judgement. (See my earlier blog in this series on descriptive and evaluative terms.)

7 thoughts on “The Fictions We Create 6 : Flawed diamonds — description or evaluation?

  1. One sense of “perfect” seems to apply to objects, or perhaps even creatures, made for a specific purpose to which they fit as well as can be imagined. Another sense is of form, often referencing symmetry, such as a “perfect circle”. In the latter sense, if a planet wobbles a bit on its orbit, then its movement pattern is not perfect. This sense is not evaluative, only a description of geometry.

    • This is a good point. It suggests that there are two languages. The first – our ‘natural’ language – is as Harry described it in the article: a rhetorical confusion that nevertheless conveys meaning. After all, most people understand at some level the idea of an imperfect universe. However, the second language – that of ‘science’ – is far more precise. For example, the title of this blog, “Flawed diamonds”, could be descriptive if one was a gemologist, or evaluative if one was a casual buyer.

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