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Commentary on the right to be imperfect

Published on 25 January 2024
Updated on 19 March 2024

This is Aldo Matteucci’s commentary on Jovan Kurbalija’s proposal for the human right to be imperfect in the era of AI optimisation.

Dear Jovan,

Plato argued for leaving the dark cave of contingent imperfection for the light’s perfection. You plead to go in the opposite direction, adding a twist. Imperfection is essential: it makes us “human.” By implication, “imperfection” would be an anthropologic concept. Imperfection rests in us, not the cave.

I’d like to verify and question your e contrario assertion.

Epicurus taught that the motion of atoms is constant, eternal, and without beginning or end. He held that there are two kinds of motion: the motion of atoms and the motion of visible objects. Both kinds of motion are real and not illusory. Democritus had described atoms as not only eternally moving, but also eternally flying through space, colliding, coalescing, and separating from each other as necessary.

“In a rare departure from Democritus’s physics, Epicurus posited the idea of the atomic “swerve” (παρέγκλισις parénklisisLatinclinamen), one of his best-known original ideas. According to this idea, atoms, as they are travelling through space, may deviate slightly from the course they would ordinarily be expected to follow. Epicurus’s reason for introducing this doctrine was because he wanted to preserve the concepts of free will and ethical responsibility while still maintaining the deterministic physical model of atomism.”

Your “imperfection” would appear to presuppose Epicurus’ “swerve”. It would seem useful to verify if the “swerve” exists and what it entails.

Does imperfection exist in the material world?

The presence of H2O, chirality, and the happenstance of formation of the universe, the solar system, and our planet combine to form “natural imperfections” – an evolving balance of inanimate realities. The imperfections’ evolution is slow or fast, gradual or transformative. We also have emergent phenomena – scalarities (we observe them and can sometimes qualitatively predict their existence but not the event itself).

Water (it is life’s most critical component. https://youtu.be/jjI_mqcM_4w)

Oxygen and methane are part of the earth’s atmosphere and co-determine the worldwide climate that drives life’s evolution. Phosphor is scattered in the earth’s crust and crucial to life’s differentiation. This interplay has been called “Life’s Formula.”

Life is the direct result of such natural imperfections. Life rests on the temporary suspension of the second law of thermodynamics: the observed entropy. In the end, entropy always wins – even our entropy should be just a subset of a multiverse.

Reproductive success drives life’s evolution. It is undirected and based on the principle: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” I’d venture that reproductive success is akin to your idea of “imperfection.”

In many cases we have direct inference. In some cases, we may face the opposite: the so-called inverse inference. We observe some evidence and want to infer back to a hypothesis about what kind of process in the world might have generated that evidence. This is the basis for Bayesian statistics, which is based on probabilities. Your proposal would emasculate this most important analytical tool.

Biases of imperfections

Are there biases in the imperfections we should be aware of? I’d like to list, as examples:

  • With Amos Tversky and others, Daniel Kahneman established a cognitive basis for common human errors that arise from heuristics and biases, and developed prospect theory
  • The Chinese concept of “stratageme” rests on the insight that biases exist but that there are also clever ways of countering them.
  • There are logical difficulties. I’d side here with Wittgenstein (silence) or Gödel (incompleteness).
  • Neither you nor I can undo the fact of our experienced common past. We can drift apart in time and/or space and achieve oblivion. It cannot be undone.
    • “Anti-semitismus” is a historical experience.
    • One cannot undo “colonialism.”
  • Words have limitations:
    • Words are not binding on the intention, now or in a changing context.
    • Scaling up may lead to compliance issues.
    • Words’ meanings evolve.
    • Enforcing collective agreements is a dicey matter.
  • In 1986 I got my first luggable PC and an X25 connection. Within my lifetime the speed of communicating has far outstripped my ability to cope with change:
    • Ageing slows me down.
    • Younger cohorts start out with the new, unencumbered by the past.
    • The perverse design of websites makes their use difficult (rusticate them all).

I would conclude here: the term “imperfection” would appear to require in depth analysis.

Becoming a prisoner of directionality

The “right to oblivion” arbitrarily sets a cut-off date for the past and imprisons the future into a whiggish story – or its opposite. The struggle over history is replaced by a struggle over the cut-off date.

It allows anything after the cut-off date to be new and reprehensible, while the past can no longer be quoted. The current struggle in the Middle East over terrorism is a good example. 

  • The converse of the right to oblivion is to become prisoner of a narrative with its origin somewhere in the subjectively convenient past.
  • Strategies of denial emerge, clouding the issues.

Rights are social conventions. Norms are voluntary; or they are enforced by tools like shame or distance. Alternatively, they are backed by force. In all instances we transform a causality into a responsibility.

A binary myth is created. Beware of what you are wishing for, dear Jovan.

PS I do acknowledge the problem for an individual. It should be dealt with pragmatically, in that context. Remove the firewood from under the pot (釜底抽薪, Fǔ dǐ chōu xīn). I’d rely on a Stratagem: Take out the leading argument or asset of someone; “steal someone’s thunder”. This is the essence of the indirect approach: instead of attacking an enemy’s fighting forces, direct attacks against their ability to wage war. Literally, take the fuel out of the fire.

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