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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