Accepting imperfection is at the core of art and religion

Among the many books that Harry Potter recommends in Methods of Rationality, the first one I chose to read was Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. It is by no means light reading. Among the selection of journal articles presented, I was reading about a common heuristic (rule of thumb, set of assumptions used to aid decisions) used by us humans to make decisions called availability. Kahneman describes it so:

Lifelong experience has taught us that instances of large classes are recalled better and faster than instances of less frequent classes, that likely occurences are easier to imagine than unlikely ones, and that associative connections are strengthened when two events frequently co-occur.

Perhaps that’s a bit hard to digest, but the basic idea is, if you can think of more examples of a scenario, the more likely it will be. He gives an example from everyday experience:

Perhaps the most obvious demonstration of availability in real life is the impact of the fortuitous availability of incidents or scenarios. Many readers must have experienced the temporary rise in the subjective probability of an accident after seeing a car overturned by the side of the road. Similarly, many must have noticed an increase in the subjective probability that an accident or malfunction will start a thermonuclear war after seeing a movie in which such an occurence was vividly portrayed. Continued preoccupation with an outcome may increase its availability and hence its perceived likelihood.

Our human brains aren’t perfect. So we’ve come up with short-cuts to aid us in decision-making. For example, if I were to ask you to compare the relative frequency of words that begin with the letter r versus words that have a letter r in the third position, how would you go about estimating? You would probably try to think of some words that begin with r (rhinoceros, rheology, rheumatism, rutabega, rhubarb, etc), and then move on to words that have an r in the third position (car, card, bard, barber, barbershop, bar, barter, harmful, etc). Because you don’t have direct access to actual numbers, you can guesstimate based on the ease with which examples come to mind. The availability is correlated to the probability. However, this introduces unforeseen biases; other factors affect availability. For example, it is much easier to think of words that begin with r than words that have an r in the third position. The system isn’t perfect, but it allows us to get in the ballpark a large proportion of the time.

This idea got me thinking. I hate having to accept that my mind has limitations. It’s a terrible inconvenience for a perfectionist, and it can sometimes cause me to freeze up into inaction, rather than trying to move forward. If I can’t know all the facts, how can I make the right decision? I like everything to be perfectly predictable with a clear set of rules that I can follow. That is why I much preferred math to literature in high school, and why Mr. Wood’s in-class essays were the bane of my existence. A problem should have reproducible results. I can’t guarantee that if I try to write the same essay twice that it will be exactly the same. In fact, it will be highly dependent on my stress level, whatever is on my mind, my mood, and a whole host of other factors. Even having to re-write a paragraph if I accidentally delete it in a Word document is on the level of Armageddon. I can’t do rough drafts. I have to perfectly envision the final product in my head, hold it there as I write, and write it completely perfectly the first time.

Me in high school, probably sleeping off the pain of a miserable essay haha



This perceived predictability of science and math were a large factor in choosing a career path. But the more I get into my research, the more I realize that that is definitely not the case (my transport professor explained how even a seemingly simple physics problem of three bodies can’t be solved with a simple analytic solution[1]). However, even though science has discarded the idea of a clockwork universe, we still tend to think that given enough time, science can solve most of the world’s problems[2].

It has taken me a long time to accept imperfection. I still haven’t completely accepted it. I continued my train of thought regarding this concept of availability; doesn’t the writing process entirely rely on it? We rely on making sometimes arbitrary connections based on what we observe, these flashes of inspiration or revelation. What perhaps seems a weakness, an inability to connect all the dots, is ultimately the source of creativity. If we could connect all the dots, we would write the same story every time. Would we be able to come up with an original composition without having a short-circuited brain?

Even writing this piece is just an assortment of thoughts and connections that came on the bus-ride home. A passage in a book led me to recall a series of experiences in my past. I then made a connection to a blog I read earlier in the day. Next thing you know, I have a coherent theme, and it begins to write itself. I have to accept the fact that it may not be perfect– I may leave something out, and I may not be able to find the perfect quote I had in mind. But it begins to take shape, and it reveals itself as I write.

Religion itself is a method of explaining and dealing with imperfection[3]. We often think of religion as just the opposite, of giving us no excuse for being wrong and labeling it with the awful condemnatory word “sin.” Christ himself said “Be yet therefore perfect.” But what if this was to constantly remind of that we are imperfect, of helping us remain humble and to point us towards our Father in Heaven, who is perfect? The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an explanation of how evil entered the world. The Book of Mormon explains why both evil and good are necessary[4]:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Accepting that we do sin, that we commit wrongdoings, is a sign of spiritual maturity. We are humble enough to admit that we aren’t perfect[5]. Do we continue in sin? God forbid[6]. But we can stop beating ourselves up about it, and continue to find ways to be better. Life is a work in progress, so enjoy it along the way.

I am grateful that I don’t write the same paper twice. Without that essential flaw, would we have a Michelangelo, a Beethoven, or a Shakespeare? And I find it the most beautiful theology that we will have an eternity to work on learning more, becoming better, and building relationships. Imperfection is part of the plan.


[1] The three-body problem is explained here.
[2]This concept of hubris in science is explored in Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in politics and Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.  Here’s a great quote from the latter about how specialists’ perfectionism is foiled:
There is little question that almost every one of the technical ideals of our experts could be realized within a comparatively short time if to achieve them were made the sole aim of humanity.  There is an infinite number of good things, which we all agree are highly desirable as well as possible, but of which we cannot hope to achieve more than a few within our lifetime, or which we can hope to achieve only very imperfectly.  It is the frustration of his ambitions in his own field which makes the specialist revolt against the existing order.  We all find it difficult to bear to see thing left undone which everybody must admit are both desirable and possible.
[3]A fun quote from Brigham Young about the Book of Mormon.  It fit in perfectly with my essay example:
Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings.
[4]I tied in this idea to the necessity of imperfection in religion from Michael Austin’s post on the serpent as a trickster in the Garden of Eden. It includes this beautiful passage:
Tricksters, as I said, introduce chaos and randomness (which are not the same things, by the way, ask my good friend Steven Peck to explain the difference some day) into an otherwise stable order. In terms of narrative, stable orders are no good. They are predictable, stagnant, and boring. The Eden of Genesis is a stable as stories get: nobody worked, nobody got sick, nobody did much of anything. And, noticeably, there were no other characters in the drama: just Adam, Eve, and a perfect God.
And then the serpent shows up, and, all of a sudden, we get a story. Things happen. The plot moves forward. Adam and Eve come into conflict with God, and then they have children, and we get all the bad stuff like murder and sex and incest and death and destruction. But we also get all of the good stuff, like covenants and chosen people and prophets. But more than anything else, we get stuff. Stories. People to whom things happen. Without the serpent, the Bible would have been a very boring book.
And human life would have been very boring too—just a couple of people in a garden eating all of the approved fruits who didn’t even know that they were naked.
[5]Humility as an essential Christian trait is explained beautifully by G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Dieter F. Uchtdorf.  I’ll just quote Uchtdorf here from one of my favorite talks:
This is a paradox of man: compared to God, man is nothing; yet we are everything to God. While against the backdrop of infinite creation we may appear to be nothing, we have a spark of eternal fire burning within our breast. We have the incomprehensible promise of exaltation—worlds without end—within our grasp. And it is God’s great desire to help us reach it.
[6]Like what I did there?  Quoting Paul.  Paul’s Epistle to the Roman’s similar deals with the inevitability of sin and the purpose of the law.  For a beautiful paraphrase of the book, check out Adam Miller’s book here.

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