I used to believe in human perfectibility. In my Marxist days (I’m still a fan of some forms of Marxist analysis but no longer consider myself remotely in the camp of old Karl) I thought that social conditions could evolve or be helped along that evolutionary path to ensure that every human being could achieve both their potential but also become moral in the process.
That was before I knew too many people, I guess. Or what I now know about how the human brain works. The human brain is a remarkably complex thing — maybe the most complex thing we can imagine. Which in itself is interesting — a complex thing imagining itself. The brain has billions of neurons; it has trillions of neural connections. One estimate puts the number of synapses in a typical brain as greater than the number of stars in the observable universe. I don’t know about that but it is a lot.
Yet, for all that, the brain isn’t a perfect calculating device. It is, at its best, an amazing estimator. It takes limited sensory data and constructs a complete picture by filling in the gaps with its best guesses. Life is a vast array of guesses and estimates with magical wallpaper filling over the cracks in perception — cracks, perhaps, in reality.
We experience vision as a type of movie and yet all that is actually in focus is a tiny circle. The eye constantly leaps from place to place — called saccades — and then the brain fills in the gaps.
It gets worse. The brain makes things up. It tells tales to make sense of things it has no idea about. Our brain chemicals stimulate certain reactions based on limited sensory input. Our executive function then makes up the best story it can as to why we did that thing.
You can read all about it in lots of good books but it was not really what I set out to explore.
Because the brain is only an estimating machine it can never operate perfectly. We can never really be in control and all the efforts of religion and politics will never make us perfect. We will instead do the best we can. That’s why we have to be very wary of politicians and religious leaders who tell us they know the path to human perfectibility. What they really are adept at is, not leading people to perfection, but commanding them to follow their own peculiar vision of what is good.
The good is a dangerous thing — it has led imperfect humans to behave in terrible ways.
Human perfectibility is not achievable but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. But we won’t get there by following chimeras. We’ll get there based on knowing our weaknesses and those of others and using morality, law, compassion, justice and human rights to overcome them, to negotiate a better world. We get there by real actions not by dreaming of a perfect place.
But that’s ten minutes.