What is true and real and what makes it so? Why is it that the only kind of science we know depends on math for its truth-claims  and our math is (as far as I know) strictly quantitative?

Please assume that I am not talking about reverting to “might makes right” here.   Science and math are vastly superior standards of truth, but still…

Is that all there is? Is that the only way to interact with the world? Is that the limit of what we can see and comprehend?

How did numbers become the only thing that is real when no one has seen a number?

Why do we value the goods that come from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) so much more highly than the goods that arise from other sources? Can STEM tell you the difference between life and death, or just measure the symptoms?

Take, for instance, your dog or cat. There it is, one of billions of its kind, whose heart beats so many times a minute and asks for treats 142 times a day.  But is that what a dog is (or a cat)?

I would wish for a science that knows what a living being is – the quality of light in its eyes. I would wish for an economics that knew what a way of life is. I would wish for a technology that asks “why?” as much as it asks “how?”

6 Replies to “Qualitative”

  1. Math needn’t be strictly quantitative – though that would seem it’s raison d’être. Qualitative measures are often translated into the sphere of mathematics through binomial or other small ‘ordinate’ groupings. But I don’t think this really goes where you want. There is a fairly nice discussion of science methods to approach qualitative issues at:


    As for “seeing” a number, I have a couple of thoughts on the matter. Certainly one can see a pair of objects and intuit that there are two. Seeing a small sample of objects, one can likewise discern their number without stopping to count them – and without actually “counting” them in order to assign an exact number (and also one can estimate a value without actually counting) then we really haven’t gotten mathematical. What’s the difference? I would argue that there is a communication factor involved. If you say you have a few horses, I would imagine you have three or four (“about a dozen” would imply from 10 to 14 perhaps). The exact number is not significant in this matter. If you are filling in a property tax form for Uncle Sam and he’s asked for number of head of horses….. “a few” ain’t gonna cut it.

    In the history of human existence communication precedes science (and math) by quite a long period. Science would precede math, for repeatability is the hallmark of demonstrating and predicting how or what is going to happen in certain situations. But back to communication – my sense from your writing here is that you are wishing to find some means to measure or if not measure, then some means to understand life, and other less numerically tractable phenomena. Art goes there. Imagination goes there. Science might trespass there, but I imagine too few of us really want science involved. Take love for example. Would we really want love quantified and statistically described? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Science tends toward taking the beholder out of the equation. Three horses… the same to Uncle Sam as to me, and you, and your neighbor.

    Cute puppy by the way. Just how cute? Let’s not go there unless we want to toss qualitative overboard.

    1. thanks for the link, interesting stuff!
      I also find it amusing that Uncle Sam seems to be the ultimate guardian of numerical accuracy. You may be right, wasn’t it the Sumerians with their spreadsheets and taxes that got us all started down this track?
      But I think there was a shift much later in Europe where things went into overdrive, to the point where we can’t even ask whether we live in healthy communities but only what the unemployment statistics/tax revenues are, which seems an extremely impoverished and foreclosed way to consider human, not to mention nonhuman, existence.

  2. Deep questions, and well worth asking!

    I would say that the S, T and E of STEM are built on numbers and the manipulation of numerical abstractions, and the resulting world of wonders draws us into a kind of false consciousness. Examples are the way we artificially measure our passage through the day and through life in digits, which helps confine us in numerical thinking, and the way we act as if we believe that quantifiably more is always better, even though we sense what a hollow pursuit that is. At our worst we may come to know “the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

    It’s probably no coincidence that the average, spirited child strongly resists the imposition of mathematical thinking into the crazy-happy continuum of their life. But we don’t hear what they’re trying to tell us. And typically we look down on those tribal types who don’t enumerate beyond about three, having determined, possibly through tens of thousands of years of trial and error, that they’re better off without slicing reality into sterile units.

    To invoke the porcupine – from Ursula Le Guin in a recent post – this is one of those topics where we should make a habit of reversing to the root while facing forwards. Where did this mental trickery begin, with the numbers and calculations? What did we gain by it and what also did we lose?

    1. Yes, our kids (even more than was the case for us) are pressured into having to endure ever more advanced mathematics “because of the Koreans” and “having to have a competitive workforce” etc.

      And turning them into interchangeable parts in the Great Machine, well, it won’t turn out well in the end. On the other hand, math and science are actually beautiful parts of our repertoire of human accomplishments. So they should learn them – just not as software programs shoved into their brains as part of an intellectual cloning process, which seems to be what our education system tends towards.

      “Hippy mom” rant done!

      Also I would love to see STEM meet post-modernism someday! Maybe it already has and I just haven’t heard about it. 🙂

  3. Michelle,
    “What is true and what makes it so?” Excellent question. How do we know what what we know? It seems to me that what we believe to be true affects our life a great deal more than scientific fact. So for the many, many people who have little or no understanding of science and math, life unfolds just fine even if we don’t use math and science.
    But I do think that literacy and numeracy add to our understanding and appreciation of the world. I also think they help us solve problems. If we can’t really see the scope of a problem how can we figure out the solution that might work?
    But counting things or measuring things is only a small slice of how we perceive the world around us. What describes our response to a puppy? I am hopelessly unable to resist a puppy. I feel the strongest urge to take them home, hold them in my lap, and shower them with love (which explains why I currently have three dogs that I’ve had from puppies.)
    How can we explain why my husband who never liked cats fell for a feral kitten and now after two years is totally enamored with this cat? Is love measurable?
    I agree that measurement is not the final arbitrator of the value of anything. It comes in handy, but it isn’t the final end. Knowing is still something we can’t measure. Yet we all know what we know! We don’t usually care how we know it either.

  4. There is something beguilingly paradoxical about your sentence: “Knowing is still something we can’t measure.” So true, really.

    And I know what you mean about puppies!

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