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The Quantification Conundrum

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Can everything be quantified?

The other day a friend of mine and I, were having a discussion about consciousness and how scientists think they can quantify it. My question was, for one to quantify consciousness, first they have to define it. For one to define it, they first need to understand it and from ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ debates no one seems to agree or come to a common understanding let alone a consensus as to what exactly it is. So how can they even quantify what they don’t understand. This is my problem with this kind of approach where everything needs to be quantified. How can we quantitatively explain the inner experience.

How can we quantify how much we love someone? We might be able to manufacture love by observing the neuro-chemical reactions taking place in our brains and controlling/manipulating the relevant neurotransmitters to manufacture a sense of a feeling, that can exhibit signs of love but can we really measure how much we love someone or what it is to be in love? Maybe, with the advancement of technology, we might be able to even measure love by quantifying every action of love by giving it some sort of a rating system. So, for example we might come up with a tech that can read neuro chemical signals of a person while he/she is performing an act of love, like buying the loved one a gift and based on how strong the readings are, we can get an instant feedback on a scale of 1-10 as to how exactly the person feels about giving the gift and accepting the gift.

Are these readings accurate though, considering they stem from a subjective mind. The interpretations of the measurement are subjective as well and are prone to a cognitive bias. Assumptions also limit and frame thinking, like seeing, has built-in blind spots. How do we even know the way we measure is the right way or is the only way? Is physics and math the only yardstick available to measure something. Isn’t the objectivity of science limited by the tools of measurements it has at it’s disposal, not to mention these tools are derived from a subjective mind?

Once atoms were the smallest particles of matter and then quarks and tomorrow something else. As of today there are 61 fundamental particles and 25 constants and this number might change as time progresses. The names and forms might increase and keep getting smaller until a new theory comes along and all of these may not even matter(no pun intended). Newton’s law of gravity was widely accepted and went unchallenged until Einstein came along and proposed his law of general relativity and new research is now showing general relativity does not have to be the only way to explain gravity's role in the universe’s evolution. So, the absolute truth is changing as the tools we use to measure them are changing and so is our knowledge about reality. This holds true for other fields like philosophy as well.

Anything which comes from a subjective mind is fallible.

What is the value of being quantitative?

Does everything need to be even measured? Even if it can, is it the best model to embrace? Is it really the way forward and the ideal way to approach life where everything is relegated to a quantifiable approval. A future, where every action can be deciphered and instantly relayed and supposedly quantified. Is this what makes us ‘a human’? If it is, then what is it to be a human? Are we any different from AI where they follow instructions based on a program. Quantification seems to be ubiquitous and entrenched into everything and the world seems to be driven by it.

Scientific enquiry is all about obtaining knowledge by coming up with testable explanations that can be used to predict future experiments. So, is everything testable? What about reason, logic, rationale, gut feeling, intuition, the first person experience and everything which comes from these. What about imagination, which is rather unique to us human beings. It is so profound that we can even create a reality based on our imagination alone. Aren't these cognitive processes the very things that give rise to and leads to scientific enquiry. Do we need science to teach us morals, ethics, how to overcome our irrationality and self-centeredness. Should we give up on being optimistic about human nature that we need to quantify and standardize everything.

Physics deals with the nature of physical reality. Math on the other hand deals with conceptual truths about abstract structures. Do mathematical relationships in physical reality provide all of the explanations? Even if all of these mathematical models are accurate, valid and provide all of the explanations; what good are they if the application of it is morally putrid. Science might give us methodologies for increasing our knowledge of the physical nature but what about the expansion of our inner nature? It is our internal understanding of our external world that has helped us evolve from mere animals, who's objective is to only survive and hence limited to just the external world. So, how can we dismiss the very thing which makes us human. Is being human just about survival? If so, then we might as well be just another animal in the wild.

On the other end of the spectrum we have new age gurus trying to tout ancient wisdom as scientific and connect it with quantum mechanics etc to make it more relatable and contemporary so as to propagate their own selfish objectives, which is not only doing a huge disservice to this core wisdom, it is also leading to being it dismissed off as ''woo-woo' and misrepresentations of

the facts and the core objective, which is putting the focus on the messenger and in the

process the message gets ignored and lost.

Does this mean we have to do away with science, absolutely not. Science has a great utility. It has led to new discoveries, new technology and advancements in medicine. Without science, we would still be treating cuts with leeches, driving horse drawn carriages. It helps us stay safe and gives us comforts which we take for granted. It can also help us understand the nature of our reality better. Enables what comes intuitively to us. It facilitates and validates the philosophical process. Ironically, science stems from philosophy. Newton even named his work, ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’, which was later classified as a book of physics. Natural Philosophy became Physics, which is nothing but the study of the physical world, Moral Philosophy became Ethics, Metaphysical Philosophy became what comes after physics or ‘Logic’.

So, why this disdain for each other when they stem from the same roots and the objective is the same. Scientists thinking they are better than the Philosophers and vice versa. If anything, both fields complement each other and needs to be used and worked together to better understand our reality and evolve as Human Beings. The mere difference is Philosophy uses reason as their way forward for the kind of knowledge that the sciences test their way towards. So it is an illogical mix up over the relevant roles of reasoning and testing. It might appear that philosophy had its turn and its getting nowhere but the underlying reality is, science builds on (not always) previous philosophical work so it appears like we aren’t seeing the philosophical progress because we’re seeing with it. As Daniel Dennet put it, “Is there really no such thing as a philosophy-free science”?

In this methodology the first four steps are pretty much common to both science and any thought based process like spirituality/philosophy etc. So, there is nothing stopping science to take over from step four, build on it, come up with experiments (this is the tricky part) to prove the hypotheses right or wrong; making it a collaborative and mutually beneficial partnership thereby keeping both fields honest and accountable.

“Closely analyzing what a proposition could mean, distinguishing various possible meanings, each with its own corresponding truth-conditions, and then showing that, under the analysis, the proposition collapses into incoherence. The pursuit of maximum coherence is the best way I know of expressing the overarching goal of philosophy.” - Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Going back to the original question, can everything be quantified, I personally think not. Because it will always be limited by the tools used for the quantification and that is always changing, designed and produced from a subjective brain with their own biases and prejudices. The tools might be objective but the person using them isn’t. Therefore all of the measurements will have flaws in them. So it would be better to acknowledge and accept this fact so its not ‘about only’ quantification but ‘also’ quantification. It is important to keep this in mind and ask our self why should we quantify something, what is that we are trying to quantify, can it be really quantified, is there more than one way to approach it etc.

Confidence says, 'I can do it'. Arrogance says, 'Only I can do it'.

I strongly believe, both science and spirituality/philosophy (reason and logic) are equally important and both can mutually coexist helping each other out and help our human nature to be cultivated and strengthened so our understanding of a certain reality can change and, new understanding might emerge. Just like how we have visual blind spots, our brains have blind spots too in form of cognitive biases. So, wouldn't having multiple vantage points a better approach to arrive at something than only a single path. Why do these fields need to be competitors as opposed to being on the same team. Why should a quantifiable approach be a superior form of thinking to begin with? Does it mean we can discount other thinking tools and techniques. For whatever reason even if something can be quantified, is it really the right way to live our life by.

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