The Danger and Saving Power of Our Quantified World


The following essay was written while contemplating the role and promises of Big Data in our education system.

The time has come to realize that an interpretation of the universe—even a positivist one—remains unsatisfying unless it covers the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter. The true physics is that which will, one day, achieve the inclusion of man in his wholeness in a coherent picture of the world.

–  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

The most powerful idea in Western thought is the theory that reality can be represented with numbers.  That the universe and everything in it can be quantified, modeled, predicted, and manipulated.  That mathematics is the very language of God.

This theory, even if we do not understand it, has trickled down through the sciences to alter our very image of humanity.  For centuries it was assumed we were children of God with an eternal essence and a free will.  Unexplained mysteries were a matter of faith.

Systematic accumulation of knowledge and breathtaking accomplishments shattered this worldview and replaced it with one that holds we are but one of many evolved species that populate earth and are unconsciously driven by causal factors beyond our control.  Mind, consciousness, and free will are illusions.  Unexplained mysteries are a matter of more data and better tools.

This worldview is so bleak that most of us do not bother thinking about it despite the fact it enframes us.  This is a mistake because we reveal only what we measure.  That which we do not measure does not appear.  It is covered over but it still is.  Even after we’ve forgotten.  Only by paying attention to what we measure will we come to see that the very things we cannot measure are the things that make us human.  And because we cannot measure these things they disappear from view.

We live in a myopic age of quantification.  An age characterized more by frenetic activity than contemplative thought.  We cry progress for the sake of progress without any thought to where we go.  Everything is reduced to smaller and smaller pieces.  Everything is quantified.  Everything is ordered.  Data is produced, harvested, measured, and deployed in a constantly widening gyre.  But can the falcon hear the falconer?

The tools that power quantification are as powerful as they are weak.  They can navigate a spacecraft to Jupiter with extreme precision but have trouble predicting human behavior.  Why?  Because humans literally embody that which is unquantifiable.  The deeper we probe into the eyes of humanity the more eerie the stare we will measure.  This intriguing paradox lies at the heart of both the danger and the saving power of our quantified world.

The more quantification fails to measure humanity the clearer our humanity becomes.  The saving power of quantification will be its failure to quantify the quantifier.  What cannot be measured will be treated as nothing.  But that nothing is the something that makes us human.  This process will reveal our uniqueness by ruthlessly covering it up until our humanity shines forth in the darkness and leads us to reveal a new coherent world that includes us in our wholeness.


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