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 thoughts on “Quantification and Qualification

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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?



  4. 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.


  5. 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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