Sunday, April 05, 2009

The quantification dodge

In his April Fool’s Day post, Will Wilkinson takes on what he calls “the meaning dodge.” What he means by this phrase, although he is not sure what meaning is, is that the appeal to its “meaning” is resorted to when an experience can be defended in no better terms. His example is having children. In Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks studied the numbers closely, and concluded that “Marriage makes people very happy, but children have the opposite effect: The happiness of couples, and the quality of their marriage, falls after the birth of the first child.” I dispute this conclusion. I have four children, and have never been happier. But this datum will be dismissed as “anecdotal,” of course, and thus my experience rendered meaningless.

Or perhaps that is the meaning of meaning—the statistically insignificant experience that nevertheless is experienced as significant; significant, that is, in some other terms than statistics. Wilkinson is dubious. Unless a finding is quantifiable, it does not exist for him:

How does one validate that x is in fact meaningful, or more meaningful than y? If meaning is going to carry a justificatory load in weighty personal and political deliberation, we can’t just wave our hands about it. Intellectual virtue requires care. We need to get started on measuring meaning.Here is a classic example of the ignoratio elenchi or category mistake. For Wilkinson, the only form that “intellectual virtue” can take is quantification, measurement, the reduction of experience to numerical value. But is this claim quantifiable? Or is it an appeal to meaning—the assertion that measurement is more valuable than any other method of evaluating an experience? On what basis, though?

What such thinking represents is the imperialism of science. I couldn’t resist the phrase, but in truth, real scientists are far more modest in their claims than their unscientific cheerleaders. Since science is, as Michael Oakeshott said, “the attempt to conceive of the world under the category of quantity,” real scientists confine themselves to quantification and what claims quantification can support.[1] But quantification cannot support all claims: “ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people”; “ ’Twere profanation of our joys/ To tell the laity our love”; “In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.”

Indeed, the opposition of quantification to meaning belongs to meaning, because it cannot be quantified. Wilkinson may boggle at meaning for as long as he wishes, but he cannot do without the concept. In his insistence that “we should try to quantify” all things, he is otherwise engaged in what Viktor Frankl famously called “man’s search for meaning.”

Frankl sought to found psychotherapy on a human “will to meaning.” This was an explicit repudiation of Freudian and Adlerian psychoanalysis, which held on the contrary that either the “pleasure principle” (or will to pleasure) or the “will to power” (or the striving for superiority) are at bottom of human conduct. In Frankl’s view, the “striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” But what is meaning? Frankl explained:By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.[2]Meaning lies outside the immediate experience (or verbal utterance), pries open the system, and connects it with something larger. It is public; it can be reproduced; it can be shared. It yields the conviction that discrete events are not random and accidental, but parts of a whole. It produces the will to science, without which the results of scientific experimentation would be what Wilkinson dismisses as “lumps in the rug.” It is the proof of human consciousness.

Wilkinson calls for a “new field of ‘meaning research,’ ” but the field has flourished for some time. For lack of a better name, it might be known as the humanities. Its empire has been scaled back, but it cannot be destroyed altogether without destroying the very basis of the almost religious belief in science’s sole and ultimate good.

[1] Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933), p. 176.

[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon, 1959), p. 115.