Quantification and Qualification

Late­ly I’ve been run­ning across var­i­ous things deal­ing with quan­tifi­ca­tion [via Jack/Zen]and qual­i­fi­ca­tion and val­ue. I’m engaged with these thoughts and have been reshuf­fling and retelling them in order to get clos­er to… some­thing. The heart of the mat­ter? At least, some­thing that feels right.

Ques­tions I’ve been ask­ing myself include:

• Does every­thing need to be quan­tifi­able?
• Must every­thing fit qual­i­fi­ca­tions?
• What things nat­u­ral­ly resist quan­tifi­ca­tion or qual­i­fi­ca­tion?

The quan­tifi­ca­tion ques­tions are eas­i­er to answer, eas­i­er to quan­ti­fy, because they obey their own rules. Ask­ing the ques­tion in terms of need is sub­jec­tive, and there­fore a bit disin­gen­u­ous, but the answer to that ques­tion adds con­text to the ques­tion: Can every­thing be quan­ti­fied? For me, the answer to both is no. I’m even of the opin­ion that things that can be quan­ti­fied don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly need to be quan­ti­fied exact­ly. We can’t avoid mea­sur­ing and judg­ing; dis­tance, how much salt is in a pinch, whether we have time to eat break­fast in the morn­ing, but when the mea­sur­ing and judg­ing takes prece­dence over the expe­ri­ence of toss­ing a foot­ball or bak­ing brown­ies then quan­tifi­ca­tion is get­ting out of hand.

Ques­tions like: “How much do you love me?” are bad ques­tions because I think this is the area where quan­ti­ty and qual­i­ty start to get mixed up. If the answer to “How much do you love me?” is “Big­ger than the uni­verse.” then the quan­ti­ty ques­tion has been answered in terms of quan­ti­ty. If the answer is “More than warm blan­kets and hot cocoa on a winter’s day.” then the ques­tion has been answered qual­i­ta­tive­ly. Qual­i­ty argu­ments [like the main thread of Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance] are sub­jec­tive and there­fore slight­ly dif­fer­ent from each oth­er qual­i­ty argu­ment. Even in groups that sup­pos­ed­ly espouse the same set of qual­i­fi­ca­tions there is a lot of elbow room.

Jeff Hess frames a qual­i­ty argu­ment:

Since the Eng­light­en­ment the argu­ment has run some­thing like this: Yes, here are fanat­ics and fun­da­men­tal­ists who com­mitt evil in the name of their god, but that real­i­ty should not be allowed to deny the solace of faith to those who do not seek to deny oth­ers their free­doms and faiths.

Do you think that argu­ment still holds true, or, as Sam Har­ris argues in The End Of Faith, is it time to rec­og­nize that all faith sys­tems are based on super­sti­tion and are inher­ent­ly dam­ag­ing to the future of human­i­ty?

This sort of ques­tion is a tough nut to crack for sev­er­al rea­sons, but the main one I can see is that it takes one set of qual­i­ta­tive cri­te­ria [the post-Enlight­en­ment belief in Rea­son] and sets it against the qual­i­ta­tive cri­te­ria of oth­er belief sys­tems. For me at least, this is a ques­tion that can nev­er be answered because to me it is apples and oranges. Prob­a­bly the best expla­na­tion of this comes from a MetaFil­ter com­ment:

Pure sci­en­tif­ic fact is just a mean­ing­less pile of num­bers. Sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry is just a fal­si­fi­able pre­dic­tion. Humans can’t live on that alone. They can fit those pre­dic­tions and data into a view of what the world is, who they are, and how those two relate, but that’s a story–that’s a mythology–no mat­ter how you cut it. A pre­dic­tion about human pop­u­la­tion dynam­ics over the next 100 years is a hypoth­e­sis; believ­ing that humans are defined and enno­bled by the very same fac­ul­ty of rea­son that paves the eter­nal road of progress on which we march is mythol­o­gy. Not in the sense that it isn’t true, but in the sense that it is unfal­si­fi­able, unsci­en­tif­ic, and philo­soph­i­cal. In short, in that it is human.

I’m not try­ing to cre­ate an argu­ment about the verac­i­ty of one set of qual­i­ta­tive cri­te­ria against anoth­er, instead I’m of the opin­ion that any set of qual­i­ta­tive cri­te­ria must be tem­pered by doubt in the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of the qual­i­ta­tive cri­te­ria. This also includes doubt in the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of quan­ti­ta­tive data. If you fol­low me.

Cer­tain­ty is hubris.

7 Replies

  • Since the time when my old­est child was less than two and his behav­ior and demeanor hint­ed that he might be pro­found­ly gift­ed, peo­ple sug­gest­ed that we have him test­ed. We resist­ed because although it seemed like it might be com­fort­ing to know, the idea of test­ing him and then know­ing the results just seemed wrong and abstract. Even­tu­al­ly, it became a neces­si­ty because in order to access gift­ed ser­vices in pub­lic schools, your child needs to be iden­ti­fied accord­ing to cer­tain tests. So we relin­quished. A few years after that, again because of school, he went through very spe­cif­ic test­ing.

    In the end, the test­ing affirmed everyone’s sus­pi­cions.

    How­ev­er, ever since the begin­ning of this cycle, I’ve returned repeat­ed­ly to some­thing that my moth­er-in-law, a pre-school edu­ca­tor and admin­is­tra­tor, said ear­ly on:

    What are you going to do with the results?

    Her point being, why test — why mea­sure at all — unless you have a spe­cif­ic idea of what you’re going to do with the results.

    I’ve heard oth­er peo­ple I respect, in dif­fer­ent sec­tors, say the same thing. And I think it’s a very, very wise ques­tion to ask before you engage in mea­sur­ing any­thing.

  • I actu­al­ly enjoyed that math les­son Adam, thanks!

    Just remem­ber, when it comes to mat­ters of the heart, what John Paul George and Ringo once said:

    The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

    Would that be a qual­i­ty or a quan­ti­ty argu­ment? Or both?

  • Shalom Adam,

    I will stake my life on the the Sun ris­ing tomor­row at a pre­cise­ly known time and place on the hori­zon. Is such cer­tain­ty hubris?



  • Hi Adam,

    Cer­tain­ty is hubris. Pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive action are dif­fi­cult with­out a degree of cer­tain­ty. Cer­tain­ty is empow­er­ing. Pos­i­tive action is the essence of com­mu­ni­ty. Com­mu­ni­ty and con­nec­tion bring hap­pi­ness. Cer­tain­ty is hap­pi­ness.

    Pos­i­tive action lies in the inter­sec­tion of cer­tain­ty and hap­pi­ness. I think hubris is sta­tis­ti­cal­ly unavoid­able in this quad­rant. How can we bal­ance hubris, with an unde­ni­able desire for pos­i­tive action, community…happiness?

    And that’s for cer­tain.


  • I think the key you’re touch­ing on is the degree of cer­tain­ty. What holds true in one sit­u­a­tion may not work in anoth­er. For me, the equa­tion comes in when folks expect the con­sis­ten­cy of one result to the exclu­sion of all oth­ers.

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