Sunday, September 16, 2007


When psychologists with 6 volt batteries and a stable of monkeys they didn't mind torturing figured out that there was classic "stimulus/ response" and that some rewards were better than others, we were all screwed. The psychologists might have claimed noble motives more than Nobel motives, but what they had discovered was why we gamble. Needless to say, the gambling palaces have since been the hungry beasts sucking from all the addiction scholars. Every time someone studies "what makes suckers into victims," the golden palaces read it and try to use the research to make more suckers into dependents. Let's face it: if you, Mr. Common Good Psychologist, find out that payouts at exactly 8.6% are associated with the most addicted gamblers, the casinos are going to change their slot machines and tables to offer a payout of 8.6%. If you think anything else will happen, then you are the sucker.

Today is Sunday, and Sunday is the Christian sabbath and the first day of the week. That seems fitting, to me. (Christians, by the way, are not let off the hook about the sabbath, but most of my co-religionists think they are -- if they even realize that Saturday is the 7th day.) The service today coincided with something I've been thinking about. From Collect to readings to sermon, the subject was forgiveness and sin. That's not the usual thing in my denomination. We're a more light hearted lot than the ranters. However, I've been thinking for a long time about a particular basic human desire and how it leads to the other addictions and mistakes.

The myth of perfectibility is one of the most important functional truths of our lives as individuals and our agglutinations as societies. Don't get me started about perfectibility and Original Sin. (Really: don't. I'm semi-pelagian. That will come up later, probably.) No, not that, but the binary concept of ultimate depravity vs. perfectibility goes through all recorded history, both western and otherwise. How bad are you? How much of that is inevitable? Is it possible to be better? What is better?

Should I break this into pieces?

Start with the obvious: the hope of amelioration is necessary for motion itself. If you don't think things are better over there than here, then you're not moving. If you don't think that you'll be better off with the pay than without it, you're not working. If you don't think that your bodily desires are better with a partner than without, you're not sacrificing for one. In other words, movement in all our senses is motivated by dissatisfaction and the hope of improvement. Additionally, parenting is all about better. It is largely what learning is about, as well. We waste time talking about unconscious things, though. The sort of better that is pathological is the sort that has as its end point the perfect.

You gamble because it's fun, but you keep gambling because there is enough regularity that you believe you can master the game and enough chance that you never can. You keep beating at Wikipedia because it seems like you have a real chance at a fair game and can make a perfect entity. The success of Wikipedia, in particular, is related to this hope of perfecti
on. Why would the author of the article on the Death Cap mushroom write it on Wikipedia? Is it that this kind of above-journalism and below-specialist prose has no journalistic home in a contemporary Life Magazine? Is it because print encyclopedias would never allow such a contributor who was not a professional myconologist? Perhaps both of those things are true. Perhaps, also, it is true that we have more competent writers alive today than ever in the past, that we lack journals and paper enough for all the good writing. However, there is something else involved. The print encyclopedias are a rigged game, in most people's minds. They demand superbly qualified writers and then demand that they write at a superficial level. The person who is a true expert on fungi is not going to be strained, except negatively, by trying to write a general, "I Am Joe's Bad Shroom" article. At the same time, the people who have a skill for gathering up a hundred details and writing a compact narrative will have no access to the print editions. Furthermore, the author may think that the print piece is requiring an artificiality: the permanent record.

You see, what Wikipedia actually offers its authors is a double hook: instantaneous gratification and the mirage of perfectibility. First, it lets the person get "in print" instantly. Like the slot machine, there is the sound of spinning wheels, the flash of lights, the aroma of a chair cushion that is well worn and deeply imbued, and then a "ping" as the article appears. However, it also provides the intellectually defensible position that there is no permanent truth and that, therefore, it is more reliable and useful to the world to offer up an article that is cont
inually in revision and perpetually sliding toward perfection than it is to write a draft, mail it off to the encyclopedia, and then see it in print three years later.

Wikipedia is thus a very Catholic form of perfection. It is the gamer's encyclopedia. Like a video game, it promises infinitely growing mastery and infinitely nearing perfection. Plato suggests the basis of his belief in the singular god in Timaeus, where he gets it from, of all things, the number line and the great Lambda. The thing is, his perfection -- his god -- is an infinite zero. It is the wholly self-contained perfection that never moves, never does anything. It is all being and no existence, because existence is inherently imperfect. When you get nearer to perfection by following along an eternal scale, you repeat Plato's regression to zero, and your only consolation is that you know that you'll never get there without winking out of existence.

You can aim for perfection of the "prevenient grace" sort, where the perfect finds you and overwashes your imperfections, or you can go for the work-for-it grace, where grace just tells you you really should start cleaning up your act. This distinction, tied as it is to the concept of total depravity of mankind, is reflected in the sorts of habitual vs. conscious attempts at perfectibility that hook people. On the one hand, you can desire the whole person makeover of a new screen identity -- this time one with friends and good looks and body image -- or by becoming king of the discussion board or top posted feeb at Slashdot. You can take up the challenge of really, really, really, really knowing your omphalos, or you can feel the perfection coming on you as you eat another lettuce leaf instead of french fry. Diets are a form of perfectibility, and so are meditation courses. There is the perfection of enlightenment and the perfection of education, the perfection of rebirth and the perfection of mastery. However, what is critical, what is vital, what is most hidden and yet most central to all forms of human perfectibility in existence is that they must not work.

Remember: gamblers give the casino their all because they get random rewards, because there must be the appearance of an even game and yet the impossibility of ever getting a even break. Wikipedia has generated "wikiholics," just as Slashdot did before it (slashdotters, of course). These things follow on late from the unlamented CB radio, which rests in an empty tomb of its own. CB was the first to give us all "handles" and fun rendezvous with hookers and outsized personalities that bore no connection to our own. It offered up that new you with a simple investment long before the www came along. None of this can work, though.

Think for a moment. Really, do. What would happen if the implied promise were made good upon? If you could win at blackjack with a simple guide, there would be no more games. If you can have a perfect Wikipedia article, then all of those people eager to be just like you will have to be shooed away. If you can have a new life with your screen name, then everyone else must, too. If you can be the life of the party and the honored and beloved hero, then there won't be any admiring crowds, because they'll be the heroes, too.

If you hit the perfect, you wink out of existence and join Plato's infinitely regressive zero.

This kind of perfectibility is both unworthy of the effort and an addiction that will drain, rather than fulfill you. On the other hand, there is sufficiency, activity, and power in grace because, as I said above, it is the perfect reaching out to you, not your trying to become the perfect. Essence is possible. Essential salvation is real. It is not, however, to be found by your mastery of a technique, nor, alone, your actions.

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