This is not just a problem with Buddhism, nor with the rock band of that name, but an interesting and common fallacy, alternatively known as the Perfect Solution Fallacy or the perfect as the enemy of the good. Those subject to this fallacy reject an imperfect proposal merely because of its imperfection. They implicitly compare the imperfect to a perfect measure, and then reject the imperfect just because it doesn’t match up to the perfect, even if by any other criterion it is the best imperfect solution available. Since as finite beings we are never going to encounter a perfect solution to anything, this type of fallacy effectively blocks all solutions.
This kind of fallacy is often used to reject political proposals, which of course nearly always involve compromises. If the government introduces a new and generally helpful measure on, say, environmental protection, you will nearly always find a pressure group commenting through the media that this doesn’t go nearly far enough. Or if crime rates are reduced, they are still ‘too high’ because crime hasn’t been eliminated altogether.
My guess is that in practical terms, most people have learnt the limitations of the Nirvana Fallacy. Unless you’re a ‘perfectionist’, you’ve probably come to terms with the fact that when you cook a meal, for example, something may turn out just a little under or over-cooked, or slightly too sweet or too bitter. However, I’m still astounded by how much the Nirvana Fallacy affects our root thinking on larger matters that still do have a big practical effect on our lives in the longer term.
Religion is perhaps the most obvious of these. Theistic religions involve constant comparison with God, or with God’s supposed absolute commands. Even Buddhism involves the comparison with perfection that the name of the fallacy suggests, since Nirvana is said to be a perfect state. Hooked on belief in these pure ideals, it’s no wonder that we feel sinful or inadequate. A type of religion that makes constant reference to belief in perfection of any kind just institutionalises the gulf between perfect and actual, discouraging us from making incremental progress. Religion doesn’t have to necessarily take this form, but it often does.
The same applies to ethical thinking, even when this is not religious. Utilitarians tell us that, in theory, we should always act so as to bring the greatest pleasure to the greatest number, probably implying that (again in theory) we should give away most of our possessions and spend our lives in constant compassionate activity. In practice, of course, it is psychologically impossible for most people to do this, but there is still a common tendency to think that we somehow “ought” to act in such a way. Again, the effect of this kind of idealised thinking is to discourage actual moral advances, because nobody really takes ethics seriously in the way it has been conceptualised.
Similarly, the pursuit of unattainable beauty not only tortures artists, but many young women who are never satisfied with their appearance. In this case we could argue that it is advertising and the marketing of beauty (with the help of photoshop) that implicitly puts forward the perfect as an enemy of the good, and prevents the recognition of genuine but imperfect beauty.
In terms of scientific evidence, too, the Nirvana Fallacy can be highly damaging. taking the form of a non-acceptance of imperfect evidence (through selective scepticism) because it is not perfect. Those who refuse to accept the clear but imperfect evidence for Anthropogenic climate change seem to be a particularly strong example.
So, this is an example of a fallacy that has become recognised in Critical Thinking, but involves so many habitual attitudes that I think only a whole revised attitude to life can address it. The Middle Way as a whole approach is needed to avoid the Nirvana Fallacy. We need to recognise the perfect being used as a measure whenever it crops up, and challenge it. The merely better is a much better measure than the perfect, as long as we accept the basic conditions of uncertainty that surround it.
Unlike with most other fallacies, I don’t think there are any justifiable resembling cases that need to be distinguished from the unjustifiable. Where perfection is used as a measure, the resulting judgements will be mistaken. That doesn’t stop us finding perfection meaningful, or even exploring its meaning creatively, but fallacies immediately arise when we use it as a basis on which to judge the imperfect. The only exception is the mere recognition of the absence of the perfect (i.e. scepticism), which does not involve using the perfect as a measure so much as deliberately avoiding doing so.
Are the following examples of the nirvana fallacy? If so, why?
1. It is impossible to travel to the other side of the universe, because the universe is infinite.
2. I’ve had enough of your lies! When you told me the journey would take half an hour, it turned out to take three times as long. And you told me you’d repay that £100 you owe me months ago, but you’ve only paid £50 of it!
3. All our experience is imperfect. So we can never experience perfection. We must have got this idea of perfection from something perfect. The perfect being is God, so God must exist and have provided us with this idea of himself. (Summary of an argument made by Descartes).
4. The brain contains trillions of neural connections. However much we may try, we are hardly likely to ever gain a full understanding of such mind-boggling complexity.
Picture: ‘Elizabeth’, described as a ‘perfect beauty’ by ‘Lies thru a lens’ (Wikimedia Commons)