Are there things that are knowable but not measurable?

It’s a mantra for many scientists, not to mention many business managers, that if you can’t measure it, it’s not real.  On the other hand, I’ve been told by a lot of people, mostly non-scientists, and occasionally humanistic scholars including philosophers, that not everything knowable is measurable.

But what exactly is a measurement?  My intuitive understanding of the term fits, more or less, with this Wikipedia definition:

Measurement is the assignment of a number to a characteristic of an object or event, which can be compared with other objects or events.[1][2]

There’s a sense that measurement is a precise thing, usually done with standard units, such as kilograms, meters, or currency denominations.  But Doug Hubbard argues in an interview with Julia Galef, as well in his book How to Measure Anything, that measurement should be thought of as a reduction in uncertainty.  More precisely, he defines measurement as:

A quantitatively expressed reduction of uncertainty based on one or more observations.

Hubbard, Douglas W.. How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business (p. 31). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

The observation part is crucial.  Hubbard argues that, for anything we care about, there is a difference between what we’ll observe if that thing happens and what we’ll observe if it doesn’t.  Figure out this difference, define it carefully, and you have the basis to measure anything, at least anything knowable in this world.  The more the differences can be defined with observable intermediate stages, the more precise the measurement can be.

One caveat: just because it’s possible to measure anything knowable doesn’t mean it’s always practical, that it is cost effective to do so.  Hubbard spends a lot of time in the early parts of his book discussing how to figure out the value of information to decide if the costs of measuring something is worth it.

In many cases, precise measurement may not be practical, but not all measurements must be precise in order to be useful.  Precision is always a matter of degree since we never get 100% accurate measurements, not even in the most sophisticated scientific experiments.  There’s always a margin of error.

Measuring some things may only be practical in a very coarse grained manner, but if it reduces uncertainty, then it’s still a measurement.  If we have no idea what’s currently happening with something, then any observations which reduce that uncertainty count as measurements.  For example, if we have no idea what the life expectancy is in a certain locale, and we make observations which reduces the range to, say, 65-75 years, we may not have a very precise measurement, but we still have more than what we started with.

Even in scenarios where only one observation is possible, the notorious sample of one, Hubbard points out that the probability of that one sample being representative of the population as a whole is 75%.  (This actually matches my intuitive sense of things, and will make me a little more confident next time I talk about extrapolating possible things about extraterrestrial life using only Earth life as a guide.)

So, is Hubbard right?  Is everything measurable?  Or are there knowable things that can’t be measured?

One example I’ve often heard over the years is love.  You can’t measure, supposedly, whether person A loves person B.  But using Hubbard’s guidelines, is this true?  If A does love B, wouldn’t we expect their behavior toward B to be significantly different than if they didn’t?  Wouldn’t we expect A to want to spend a lot of time with B, to do them favors, to take care of them, etc?  Wouldn’t that behavior enable us to reduce the uncertainty from 50/50 (completely unknown) to knowing the answer with, say, an 80% probability?

(When probabilities are mentioned in these types of discussions, there’s almost always somebody who says that the probabilities here can’t be scientifically ascertained.  This implies that probabilities are objective things.  But, while admitting that philosophies on this vary, Hubbard argues that probabilities are from the perspective of an observer.  Something that I might only be able to know with a 75% chance of being right, you may be able to know with 90% if you have access to more information than I do.)

Granted, it’s conceivable for A to love B without showing any external signs of it.  We can never know for sure what’s in A’s mind.  But remember that we’re talking about knowable things.  If A loves B and never gives any behavioral indication of it (including discussing it), is their love for B knowable by anybody but A?

Another example that’s often put forward is the value of experience for a typical job.  But if experience does add value, people with it should perform better than those without it in some observable manner.  If there are quantifiable measurements of how well someone is doing in a job (productivity, sales numbers, etc), the value of their experience should show up somewhere.

But what other examples might there be?  Are there ones that actually are impossible to find a conceivable measurement for?  Or are we only talking about measurements that are hopelessly impractical?  If so, does allowing for very imprecise measurement make it more approachable?

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55 Responses to Are there things that are knowable but not measurable?

  1. J.S. Pailly says:

    I remember reading something about Newton, that a lot of his success was due to the fact that he lived in a time when mechanical clocks were becoming a whole lot more accurate. That allowed him to make very accurate measurements of things like how long it takes an object to fall to the ground, and then use those measurements to to refine his mathematics. So I guess in a sense, Newton’s laws weren’t knowable until they became measurable.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Very interesting question. The first thing that came to my head was that for something to be non-measurable it would have to be non-physical. I briefly landed on something like the 20,000th digit of pi, or the nth digit, such that you could not create a structure that could be measured to that accuracy using all the material in the known universe, But then I realized that non-measurabilty as a practical matter doesn’t count.

    So any other candidates?

    Maybe contradictions? How do you measure whether a man can be both married and a bachelor? How do you measure if someone is a philosophical zombie?

    What about infinities? What about algorithms (like the one by which we know the 20000th digit of pi)?

    (May have to cogitate on this a bit)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for taking it on. On contradictions, I think the knowability aspect catches that one. (Of course, if we dispense with the knowabiity requirement, then all kinds of things become unmeasurable.)

      On algorithms, what in particular are you thinking about? Whether it works? Or whether two implementations are effectively the same algorithm?


  3. Hariod Brawn says:

    Thinking of time, then we can measure the past (events), though how do we measure the future (events)? Correct me if I’m wrong Mike, but doesn’t physics tell us that in some sense the future already exists? Maybe that same physics is itself a measurement of the future? Ask me one on sport.

    Liked by 2 people

    • On physics and the future already existing, as I understand it, it depends on which physicist you’re talking to, along with which interpretation of quantum mechanics you favor.

      But the goal of any scientific theory is to predict, given initial conditions, what will happen. So I suppose you could characterize physical laws as a measurement of the future. Of course, that assumes the theory in question isn’t about to encounter a black swan and be falsified.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Mark Titus says:

    At least one Self-Aware Pattern believes itself knowable, but doesn’t know if it is measurable. I think it gives itself an unnecessary headache.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Which self aware pattern did you have in mind? 🙂

      Personally, I suspect anything knowable is also measurable, but I did this post to see if anyone could point out a case there that isn’t true.


      • Mark Titus says:

        Not sure you got my point. You and I are both “self aware patterns” (your definition of a person as I understand it), who think we know ourselves, But there is nothing we can measure that we know (or think we know) about ourselves. So that would be a case of knowing something that is not measurable.

        Am I wrong about what you mean by a “self aware pattern”?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hmmm. Well, remember that we’re talking about knowable things. If I think I know something private (internal to my mind) about myself but don’t, is there any way for me to ever know that I don’t really know that private thing? (If you think this through, it shows that the reliability of introspection is an illusion.)

          On the other hand, if I think of myself as a person who is always right, but my track record doesn’t back that up, isn’t that ultimately something that can be measured?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Mark Titus says:

            I had in mind things like pain–a headache, for example. I know I have a headache–it is a “knowable thing,” even though it may be psychosomatic or a genuine migraine. The pain itself is not an illusion. (Of course it is not observable, which is why physicians resort to asking, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rank your pain?”)

            What drew me to your website (from a comment you made on Aeon) was your apparent identification of a conscious person as a “self-aware pattern.” I liked that–an organism that is not just aware, but is aware of its awareness. It is that awareness of awareness that seems to imply the existence of non-observable, non-measureable things.

            (My first two comments were a bit clumsy. Sorry about that. This one, I hope, better expresses my illusion.)

            Liked by 1 person

    • I think you might have answered your own question when you mentioned the doctor asking a patient to rate the pain on a 1-10 scale. It’s not an objective measurement, but then we’re talking about a subjective thing, so a subjective measurement might be the best we can do. Someday a doctor may be able to look at a brain scan and objectively measure how much pain a patient is in.

      Glad you found your way here! I haven’t commented much lately on Aeon and miss those discussions. No worries at all on the wording. Language is often a limitation in these discussions. It requires that we all give each other at least some degree of interpretational charity.

      On awareness of our own awareness, I’m not confident that applies to all organisms. This type of awareness, this type of self awareness, requires metacognition, and the scientific evidence for metacognition in animals outside of humans and a few other primate species, hasn’t been found, at least not yet.

      But on being observable, I think it depends on how we define “observation”. Do we only include external sensory perceptions? What about our “inner” sense of ourselves? Or do any conscious perceptions count? If the latter, then you could describe our awareness of our own awareness as an observation, and careful observation as subjective measurement.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mark Titus says:

        Re: “On awareness of our own awareness, I’m not confident that applies to all organisms.” I thought it was pretty clear I was referring only to conscious beings.

        Your first and last paragraph with its questions suggests to me that we are on page 100 of two different books. It would be fun to try to translate them for each other, but I think a blog is not the place for it.


  5. SelfAwarePatterns, “Personally, I suspect anything knowable is also measurable,”

    I am just curious, do you think that there are things which are unknowable? If yes then any examples? Also unknowale to whom? Do you think that what is unknowable to some subjects can be knowable to other kind of subjects?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Are there things that are unknowable? Well, I think incoherent things are unknowable. There are coherent things that are currently unknowable, such as how far away the nearest extraterrestrial civilization is. There may be things that are forever unknowable, but I don’t see it as productive to ever assume any one item is in that category, primarily because many things that were once thought to be in that category, such as what the stars are composed of or what atoms are made of, later turned out to be things we could learn.

      We can never know what it’s like to be a bat, or a dog, or a cat. Assuming these creatures can know what it’s like to be themselves (something I’m less sure of than I used to be), they know something that is unknowable to us. And they can’t know what it’s like to be a human.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. @EdGibney says:

    I got into a long debate about this with my wife a few years ago about measuring the value of nature. I come from the engineer / MBA background which does teach that you can measure everything, but what I came to understand while trying to resolve this was that the value of some things run to infinity. In the case of the value of nature, the Supply vs. Demand curves that would determine its price makes no sense when you get close to the left axis where the supply is a unique and irreplaceable entity. So no, I no longer think that we can actually measure some things like the value of nature. There are no other yardsticks of comparison to use.

    Liked by 3 people

    • My reaction would be to wonder what is meant by “the value of nature”. It seems like a hopelessly amorphous question. It might be easier to measure the value of, say, an acre of forest, and what the loss of cutting it down might be, or a stretch of clean river, and what the cost might be of polluting it. Granted, in both case, the number of side effects might be extremely difficult to track, although if we’re satisfied with very coarse grained measurements, it seems like that could be overcome.

      Hubbard in his book discussed measuring environmental factors, but I haven’t made it to that section of the book.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ed,
      Isn’t it great to have a spouse who’s able to be supportive (and I know she is from reading your blog) and yet still be an independent thinker to recon with? I wonder the gist of her criticism?

      My own criticism would be to say that you might have begged the question there, or started with the presumption that nature has infinite value. (By “nature” I believe you’re talking about ecosystems in general.) From there of course your supply vs demand curves will get crazy near the left axis. Infinity is a very useful mathematical term (which for example describes the division of zero by one), though it’s hard to say that it actually exists anywhere in the real world.

      From my own models life isn’t valuable in itself, but rather creates both positive and negative value for conscious subjects to experience. I’m actually worried that our ecosystem might harbor tremendously negative value, given the amazing severity of punishing sensations like pain. I don’t let this keep me up at night though — for me life is quite good!

      I’ve been thinking about you recently however as not only a naturalist in your sense of the word, but as a “causal naturalist” as well. I believe that it needs to become understood, not that causal naturalism is true (since we can’t know this with perfect certainty), but rather that this metaphysical position offers us our only potential to learn about reality anyway. Under a void of causality we can guess about what will happen next, or perhaps use our faith, though they aren’t the same as actually figuring things out. I brand this as a sort of antithesis to Pascal’s wager. I’d have scientists get more serious about causal naturalism, and thus shut down esteemed speculation regarding, for example, dualism and panspychism.

      Liked by 1 person

      • @EdGibney says:

        Hi guys! I think I may have begged a question, but not the one Eric suggested. For nature (or anything really) to have quantifiable “value” you have to be able to define a unit of measure. I don’t think we have such a thing for the intrinsic worth of life in this universe. As Eric said, it could be negative. Anti-natalists (see David Benatar’s recent magazine articles) would certainly agree with that. I view life as positive for we the living, but yeah, maybe that’s just because I have a supportive yet intellectually challenging spouse. : )

        Speaking of that, she’s another example of an object who’s value cannot be replaced. Traditional supply and demand curves start with the assumption that you are graphing manufactured widgets that can just be produced, or not, and in whatever quantity you want. But most things in life are not like that. As Mike said, you might be able to determine a price for an acre of land or a cord of wood that humans are willing to pay for such things, but even that doesn’t capture all the “value” that these things might otherwise have to the ongoing project of life. (That’s something we epistemically can’t know by the way—the future.) Additionally, the only reason you might be able to price these things is because they are small units that are essentially the same as many other small things. You could give a relative price for “the Amazon rainforest” if there were 10 of them. Each one would be 1/10th of the whole lot. But as you destroyed them, each one would be worth more and more — 1/9th, 1/8th, 1/7th, etc. until you get to the undefined unity price of 1/1. And if you destroy that unique object, you get Eric’s definition of infinity – 1 over 0. No economists think this way though as far as I know. Otherwise we would price our commons this way and treat them much differently. We’re seeing now, of course, as the commons are being destroyed and their price is becoming infinite.

        (Eric, I’ve been thinking of you too and feeling bad about not writing you back so I’m about to do so to continue the other discussion you raised.)

        Liked by 2 people

    • Ed,
      Yes in the end it gets down to a given definition for “value”, and we seem to take somewhat different approaches there. I base this entirely upon the punishing to rewarding sensations that sentient life feels. I think you’re okay with that, but are also part of a society that places ecological matters as the nexus, since without life there would be no sentience anyway. So it’s simply a different focus. But well done on the mathematical reduction to show that units of life head towards infinite value as quantities of it head towards zero! I don’t know if that tool was previously your rhetorical toolbox, but it’s surely a keeper!

      I’m quite pleased with Douglas Hubbard’s position that even “ineffable” aspects of our existence, such as how good or bad someone feels, can be measured in one way or another. I don’t think Mike quite trusted me about that in past discussions. Actually Mike’s last post gave me an Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording position arguing that much of neuroscience’s atheoretical work isn’t providing sufficiently useful answers, and this permitted me to propose my own theory from which to potentially help. I can’t complain much around here.

      I did check out David Benatar and his anti-natalist position. I like that he’s basing value upon the same thing that I do, and certainly his observations that things seem skewed on the negative side — there are no pleasures that come anywhere close to the potential horrors of pain. But I think his position itself is quite precarious given how small it happens to be. How could an ideology stating “We shouldn’t have kids because life sucks” ever be comprehensive enough? I’m sure this professor is made out as a nutter, but to each his own. I knew that my wife and I would need a child for our own well being, and was confident that we’d be able to raise a far happier person than most. Now that our boy is 14, I’m pretty sure it was the right way to go. But given great diminishing marginal utility and my economist background, I couldn’t agree when she wanted more. I believe that I’m similarly dependent upon my wife as you are yours, but if I were to tell her that she’s irreplaceable, I suspect that she’d think “Wait a minute, what’s he been doing to feed me a line like that?”

      I have your new email and suspect that there are indeed some other productive things for us to discuss. I’ll also mention what I’ve told you in the past, since you brought it up. No worries about when (or if) you get back to me. I’m always here regardless.

      Liked by 1 person

      • @EdGibney says:

        I have not used that progression to infinite value before. Your comment that infinity is 1 over 0 is what spurred me to think of it, so thank you for that!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. SelfAwarePatterns,

    Perhaps there can not be a perfectly exact measurement of any physical object. For example, what is the exact height of of a given chair. Whatever the currently best technological means employed for measuring this chair’s height, the result can be improved, and so on. Another point is that perhaps there is no exact height of that chair. I mean that the height of the chair is indeterminate. So it is not only a problem of measurement alone. It is a property of physical objects that not only that these can not be measured perfectly but that these do not have any perfectly exact measurements.

    Perhaps I have not expressed it clearly but tell me what do you think? Can you wrap around your head the idea that physical objects do not have any perfectly exact measurements? It is a question of the nature of physical reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Certainly, epistemically we can never do an absolutely accurate measurement. The best we can do is exert extra effort to narrow the range down ever tighter and increase our confidence in the range to higher and higher levels without ever being able to reach 100% confidence.

      Because of that, we can never establish with 100% confidence that there is one exact height, although I find it a productive model (theory), at least at macroscopic scales, that there is one. More precisely, that theory is that there’s one exact height at a certain period in time. The chair is always gaining and losing atoms, so it’s exact objective height (if there is one) is always varying over time.

      Of course, at the quantum scale, it comes down to what your preferred interpretation is.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. “although I find it a productive model (theory) —–”

    If a theory is productive then does it necessarily mean that it is true?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Michael says:

    Hi Mike,

    Before I begin, just want to say it is nice to see you back in the blogging saddle…

    I’ve thought about this piece a little and I’m not sure you’ve actually asked a question, meaning that in the post it appears the definition of knowledge is what is objective and measurable. It’s a perfectly reasonable definition, but I think it precludes the question asked in the post. As a quick example, if I were to say I knew something, and you didn’t think it was knowable, you might ask me to prove it. I think I would then have to produce something measurable to give you a satisfactory answer, right? Something you could verify yourself. This is why I’m not sure you’ve actually asked a question that isn’t already answered by the definitions of the terms involved.

    The post and some of the commentary got me thinking about other questions/concepts that may be interesting. One is that measurement doesn’t always lead to knowledge. We believe, for instance, that Newton was incorrect about the ultimate nature of gravity. He made a great many observations and improved considerably our predictive powers, but ultimately he was incorrect. We may not have a complete knowledge of gravity ourselves. So, when does a pretty good understanding become knowledge? Does knowledge mean the ability to predict infallibly what will happen next? Can we still say we have knowledge if we’re right most of the time? Does the sort of increase in predictive capability that is typically generated by repeated measurements actually constitute knowledge?

    This sort of begs a question on what is knowable. It strikes me that we can know a great deal about what happens, or happened, but when it comes to understanding motivations it is a lot more difficult. Using your example of A loving B, if I were from an alien civilization I may interpret A’s physical actions as meaning all sorts of things and have no clue that A loved B. So if the relation of physical actions to motivations and meanings requires the context of culture, and perhaps even of personal history, and is thus fairly relative, is it knowledge?

    Similarly, people who are in love may have a hell of a time answering the question: why do you love me? And why do I love you? There’s a point at which even trying to answer the question belies the possibility of doing so. None of the reasons we can muster feel quite complete. There’s an intrinsic vulnerability to a love that is predicated on transient parameters of love-ability, and we sense it, and resist at some level describing love in exclusively transactional terms for that very reason. And yet those are the only terms that may be measured. I think in some sense the most authentic answer we can offer is that I love you because I know you. But what does it mean to “know” a person…? Is it the ability to predict their behavior? The ability to “understand” their behavior? It seems a difficult question to answer.


    Liked by 3 people

  10. Hi Michael,
    Thanks! I hope I can keep up a somewhat regular posting frequency.

    Good point about the definition of knowledge and measurement. The classic definition of knowledge is justified true belief. But what do we accept as justification? If we require measurement, then I agree that by definition the answer to the question is set. Of course, some people will insist that there are other ways of knowing, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard a satisfactory answer to what those other ways of knowing might be. My question could be seen as another facet of the question of whether there are in fact other ways.

    Your question about whether infallible prediction is needed before we can consider ourselves to know something goes to a point I made on the previous post, that it’s not really productive to consider knowledge a binary trait, but a spectrum of how reliable a particular belief might be. So we can say that Newton knew how gravity worked at a certain level of reliability, but one that failed in special cases, cases that had to be resolved, some by Laplace, but most by Einstein. But Einstein’s understanding doesn’t help us much with gravity on the quantum scale, yet it seems perverse to say that Einstein didn’t know how gravity worked.

    If we hold out for a strictly infallible definition of knowledge, then knowledge is effectively impossible, except perhaps in tautological cases, since we never have absolute access to perfect information. There is always some degree of uncertainty, some margin of error, some imprecision in our model of anything.

    Your question about love actually gets to something I was uneasy about when using it as an example. The concept of love is an ambiguous one. It can refer to erotic love, friendly love, sibling love, love of child or parent, etc. While there are commonalities, each has its own set of expected behaviors. Love is a composite concept, composed of a shifting set of dispositions, which might indeed confuse an alien if they don’t understand our biology and culture.

    On nailing down why we love someone, I think it’s difficult for a couple of reasons. One is that many of our reasons for why we feel certain ways toward people happen at an unconscious level, a level we can’t always consciously introspect to. The other, as I once learned the hard way, is that people often don’t like to even think there are reasons, preferring that they remain mysterious (and therefore possibly magical and eternal).

    Liked by 2 people

  11. SelfAwarePatterns, “Well, that depends on your theory of truth”

    A theory is true if the reality is as the theory says it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the correspondence theory. Metaphysically it’s true, but it’s really just a restatement of the definition. But how do we know if “the reality is as the theory says it is”? Observation and measurement? We discussed the limitations of that above. What justifies calling a proposition “true”?

      Liked by 1 person

  12. ” But how do we know if “the reality is as the theory says it is”?”

    I was answering your question that what is my definition of truth.
    What is the definition of truth and how one can know in any particular case what is true are two different things. So trying to know whether a given theory is true or untrue may be different depending on that particular case.
    But one method which perhaps can be applied in all cases is that if a theory is self-contradictory then definitely it is not true.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Just to be clear, are you saying that measuring is knowing? Or that the things we can know also happened to be measurable?

    I might agree that everything CAN be measured, but I’m not sure that this is always meaningful in the sense of reducing uncertainty. It’s possible to mathematize things without clarifying them, or to do so in a way that mucks things up. Just because it’s possible to assign a numeric value to something doesn’t mean that that numeric value actually captures anything important or meaningful about what it’s supposed to clarify. I worry we could end up tricking ourselves into a false sense of knowing.

    The pain-o-meter was mentioned earlier and this might give you a sense of what I’m getting at. Time and again I hear people scoff at or make fun of that request. Everyone understands it to be a a form of communication, and I don’t think anyone objects to that, but what’s so goofy about the whole thing is the blatant attempt to turn something fundamentally un-mathematical into something clinical that only sounds objective. Though we understand that it helps for the doctor to know how bad we feel, can’t he simply interact with us as normal human beings? Or does he need an algorithm to figure out what ought to come naturally? We know this pain-o-meter is not really as precise as it tries to be, and its attempt to seem scientific is pitiful and laugh-worthy. Or just plain confusing. I’ve seen it put doctors in the position of explaining that the chart isn’t that meaningful, but please assign a number anyway.

    Science-y stuff sometimes stands in for real science just by virtue of being mathematized. It’s fairly easy to tell them apart when we’re looking at a ridiculous smileyface-frownyface chart, but sometimes the absurdity isn’t so transparent. Statistics, for example, are notoriously misleading in this regard. They give the impression of factual knowledge even when they’re being improperly used. More often I hear about studies that don’t differentiate between causation and correlation, or they’re related in such a way that they make for stupendous headlines: “Women who wear clothing or footwear increase their risk of getting raped by 4% percent.”

    In other words, knowledge is not the same as the mere assignment of numerical value. There has to be something guiding that mathematization, some knowing that stands outside of it, such as an understanding of relevance.

    On non-scientific knowledge, I think you gave an answer here:

    “Granted, it’s conceivable for A to love B without showing any external signs of it. We can never know for sure what’s in A’s mind. But remember that we’re talking about knowable things. If A loves B and never gives any behavioral indication of it (including discussing it), is their love for B knowable by anybody but A?”

    So, A knows he loves B. That’s knowing! It may just be one person, but it counts.
    And when B asks how much he loves her, he can stick out his arms as wide as they go and say “This much!”

    Inherent in the joke is the idea that love is not really something that makes sense to quantify, even if it can be quantified. There’s even a sense that quantifying it will detract from a true knowledge of it or mislead us by presenting it as something it is not, in this case, a mere commodity.

    Typical philosopher’s answer for you, huh? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Just to be clear, are you saying that measuring is knowing? Or that the things we can know also happened to be measurable?”

      You could say I’m asking if there’s a distinction. Or looking for examples that might show they’re not.

      The pain-o-meter is interesting. We all know that the number I give my doctor is utterly subjective. My 5 might be your 3, etc. Still, if we recorded everyone’s answers and correlated the averages with specific ailments, we’d almost certainly see reliable trends, trends that could be replicated in multiple studies.

      (The recent news stories about man-flu seem like an interesting case in point. Are most men just babies? Or do we really suffer more than women when we have viral infections?
      My own suspicion is that women in general suffer a lot more than men, and so are more psychologically prepared to soldier through the flu or whatever.)

      Is this scientific? Strictly speaking, it’s not objective, but could be considered inter-subjective maybe? A lot of social science is actually conducted using similar techniques. A lot of people say it isn’t scientific, and see it as proof that the social sciences aren’t really science. For me, the key is whether it produces reliable information in the sense of being rigorously replicable, and whether we keep in mind that the results aren’t going to necessarily pertain to any one individual case. (Although they will in most cases.)

      “More often I hear about studies that don’t differentiate between causation and correlation”

      The problem here is that the only way we ever know about causation is to observe consistent correlation isolated to a single variable. We never actually observe causation, ever. We can only infer it, and any inferred causation might actually only be correlation. That said, I agree that the media often does a terrible job of calling attention to studies that haven’t really even attempted to infer causation.

      “There’s even a sense that quantifying it will detract from a true knowledge of it or mislead us by presenting it as something it is not, in this case, a mere commodity.”

      I think my response here is similar to the one I gave Michael above. Our own sense of love is often assembled unconsciously, and the details of that assembly can’t be introspected, no matter how hard we try. On top of that, our culture has memes about love that discourage analysis of it. Since I typically analyze everything :-), and deeply believe there’s value in that stance, I’m deeply suspicious of those memes.

      No worries on doing a philosopher’s response? I pretty much asked a philosophical question, and those are usually the most interesting interactions!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry if I went over the same ground you’ve already covered in your responses. I have to confess, I didn’t read them all, but I did just go back to read your exchange with Michael.

        I’ll try to frame this another way. Maybe it’s possible to measure all things, but measuring them doesn’t always give us complete knowledge of them. In other words, maybe some things don’t warrant measurement, or the measuring of them gives an incomplete picture that masquerades as the whole story.

        William James does a good analysis of this subject in respect to religious experience. Even if it’s true that religious experience grows out of or has as its origin some sort of physical malady or imbalanced constitution (and he thinks it often does), that doesn’t negate the meaning of the experience or reduce its value or make it less real. We can’t say that evangelicalism is “nothing but” a neurosis or low IQ. Genius often originates in mental illness, he says, but identifying genius as “nothing but” illness doesn’t make sense. We see the genius and the illness as two separate things in the same person. For him, this distinction makes perfect sense from a pragmatic view, but I won’t get into pragmatism. 🙂
        He chooses the example of genius because we inherently see the value in it. But it’s not so clear with other kinds of examples, such as love,or religion, which he says are analogous.

        So what I’m trying to say is, if we try to mathematize such experiences then what we’re really studying in most cases is the origins or physical causes of them. This is not complete knowledge of them, and that’s fine so long as we don’t try to claim it is.

        Are there other kinds of knowing? Is quantitative knowledge the only one that…um…counts? 😉

        I think it’s too narrow to say that there exists no other kind of knowledge besides the quantitative kind, but there wouldn’t be any example I could point to to change your mind, assuming your epistemological position is set. I think this is what Michael was getting at in calling this inquiry ‘begging the question’, maybe? After all, I could give you example after example of non-quantitative knowledge, and you could always say, “But that’s not knowledge.” Of course, you made it clear in your reply to him that your position isn’t set, which is why you wrote the post. But in any case the only thing I can do is appeal to your intuition to make a strictly qualitative view of knowledge seem too restrictive. (‘Intuition’ in the philosophical sense, not mere gut feeling…I know you know what I mean, but just in case someone else is reading this…)

        So here are some of the usual appeals. Do any of these count as knowledge?:
        Basic logic? Other kinds of analysis? Literary, for instance? Artistic knowledge? The connoisseur’s? Aesthetics? Morality? Law? Philosophical knowledge—Philosophy of math? Philosophy of science? Of logic? What about savor-faire? Emotional understanding?

        And do boiling these down to mathematical versions of them really account for the things they account for satisfactorily?

        You made a good point about causality. What are the implications of causality being itself unobservable? Can math tell us whether Hume or Kant was right? In other words, can quantification solve the problem of whether causality is really nothing at all or whether it’s a category of the mind that glues together two events in such a way that makes experience, such as it is, possible?

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        • No worries at all on not reading the rest of the thread. Sorry if I implied I thought you should. I rarely read entire threads myself. Who has the time?

          Definitely we have to be careful about what we’re measuring. One thing Hubbard warns against is measuring something because it happens to be easy to measure, rather than because there is a high value to the information. (Although that assumes that we know what information has value and what doesn’t. Often measuring lots of stuff because it’s easy reveals unforeseen relationships.)

          On religious experiences, love, etc, I understand where you’re coming from. But I suspect people make more of these experiences than what is actually there. Our reaction to those things is often very culturally specific. And the notions associated with those reactions often seem to lack coherence. So, maybe there’s something there that can’t be measured, or maybe there’s less there than we think. (Or maybe I’m just a hopeless nihilist 🙂 )

          I think logic does count as knowledge. But I’ve made a career out of converting logic into computation. For the other examples (thank you for listing them), I think it would depend on what specifically about them we were discussing. I don’t think aesthetics in and of itself is knowledge, although I could see understanding what others will find aesthetically pleasing to be knowledge. I think savor-faire is knowledge, and the amount of it in a particular person does seem measurable, at least coarsely.

          I do think the knowable aspects of these things could, in principle, be reduced to mathematics, to quantities. That said, I’m not arguing that measuring many of these things in any precise manner is practical. And I do think any practical measurements would likely have the limitations you describe.

          On causality, Hume, and Kant, good question. I’m not sure. I have to admit that I haven’t read either at length. To the extent their views are consistent with or contradict observations, I think they can be measured. But remember that something must be knowable to be measurable. Ultimately the metaphysics of causality may be unknowable. (Kant’s notion that we have innate assumptions about causes is actually backed up by research on babies, who do have expectations about causal effects, although that appears to be modifiable through learning.)


          • “On religious experiences, love, etc, …I suspect people make more of these experiences than what is actually there.”

            I agree. I think what people make of their experience is often much more than what was really there, which is why I think phenomenology is useful. That said, what people make of their own experience has to be taken into account too.

            “Our reaction to those things is often very culturally specific. And the notions associated with those reactions often seem to lack coherence. So, maybe there’s something there that can’t be measured, or maybe there’s less there than we think. (Or maybe I’m just a hopeless nihilist🙂)”

            On cultural relativism, I think you’re right. Some of these notions about such experiences might even be relative to the individual. But that only makes me want to get beyond our reactions (theology, memes, etc.) to get at what underlies them. There’s something fascinating about the power of religious experience in that it strikes the person experiencing it as Truth, regardless of how logical or rational their notions about the experience are. Maybe irrationality plays a fundamental role. What compounds this is that what people say about their own experience can be incoherent too, as you say. But I still think that these are possible to know, at least to some degree, and a distinction should be made that allows for different ways of knowing. After all, you can’t measure something like that without first knowing what it is that you’re measuring. Unless you mean such things are not worth looking into at all?

            On logic, there you have a kind of knowledge that’s so fundamental it can’t be done away with if you want to have knowledge as measurement, but it isn’t itself measurement.

            And in quantitative knowledge there might need to be more than logic at play since we need to know what’s relevant in order to interpret the numbers, as well as knowledge of what deserves to be measured.

            “But remember that something must be knowable to be measurable. Ultimately the metaphysics of causality may be unknowable.”

            I’m confused here. Is measurement and knowledge the same? Measuring is knowing, knowing is measuring?

            On Hume and Kant, I think from a pragmatic POV we’d have to go with Kant (assuming we have to choose between the two). Hume really just threw a giant monkey wrench into things by making causality a mere human habit of thought. If we buy into Hume’s take on it, causality isn’t inherent in things it’s supposed to link, and therefore science is basically useless. More than that…we don’t really know if the sun will rise tomorrow. Kant’s the one who tried to fix the problem by showing that causality isn’t just a habit. Though it is for him something “in the mind”, it’s nevertheless fundamental to experience—necessary. Science is possible once again. On the other hand, what science discovers is never knowledge of the world in itself, since that is forever inaccessible to us, according to him. So we can’t know the world in itself, but we shouldn’t say we can’t know anything beyond our own individual experience of it (in terms of perceptions, sensations) or that reason is useless. Extreme skepticism is unwarranted since causality is common to all human experience.

            In other words, Kant believed that causality IS knowable. That’s the main thesis of his Critique of Pure Reason. And knowing that causality is the condition that makes experience possible gives credibility to the necessity that we find in causality. Without this knowledge, causality is an ineffective glue and science is nothing more than an elaborate habit of thought.


    • ” Unless you mean such things are not worth looking into at all?”

      I definitely think the psychology of those things (religious experiences, etc) are worth looking into. And I think, to the degree they have effects we care about, that psychology is measurable. Although again, from a practical perspective, it might only be at a very coarse grained level. What’s not measurable, and what I question classifying as knowledge, is any metaphysical assertions that arise from those experiences.

      “On logic, there you have a kind of knowledge that’s so fundamental it can’t be done away with if you want to have knowledge as measurement, but it isn’t itself measurement.”

      I can see this point. I guess I think of logic as more of a capability than knowledge per se. Innate logic seems like the way we think. (George Boole actually referred to his development of boolean logic as “the laws of thought”.) I know we can learn logic, but the very act of learning it is experiential, something grounded in observation.

      “I’m confused here. Is measurement and knowledge the same? Measuring is knowing, knowing is measuring?”

      Maybe? Hubbard’s definition of measurement is the change in observable effects. Can we know something without ever observing things about it? We can certainly have innate impulses about certain things, but given that many of those mislead us, it feels like a stretch to call those instinctive intuitions knowledge. Tautologies might be something we can know without observation, but even there, for us to know about the tautology, don’t we still had to have experiential knowledge of its constituents?

      I guess I’m looking for that incontrovertible example of knowledge that can’t be measured.

      Thanks for the Hume and Kant info. I didn’t realize that Hume had gone that reductionist. (I have heard about the not knowing the sun will rise thing, but I think that was him making a point about the limitations of induction, the black swans thing.) I think Kant was right that causality is an inherent aspect of nature, not just something in our minds. Although interestingly, I recall tests showing that crows, one of the more intelligent animals, have no notion of causality. If causality is something that’s only in our minds, it seems a very useful thing to have, and the very fact of its usefulness seems to imply that there’s something “out there” it’s related to.

      In any case, if we define knowledge as reliable belief, then I agree that Kant was right, causes are knowable, since believing in them leads to reliable predictions.

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      • Agreed on religious metaphysical assertions. I guess that’s what I meant by “theology”—I think it gets in the way of our understanding of what’s really going on in religious experience. We (you and I) might want to dismiss religion on that basis, but I’ve heard that the experience is not necessarily related to those metaphysical claims. Those claims come sometimes the aftermath of it as a way of making sense of it.

        “I guess I think of logic as more of a capability than knowledge per se.”

        That makes sense. In a way, it is a capability, but as you point out, it’s also learnable in some sense of the word. But because of the way it’s learned, I’d say that logic is an intuited form of knowledge. It’s true that we rely on visual aids and charts like the square of opposition to organize our thoughts (if this is the sort of thing you were talking about in the learning of logic being “grounded in observation”), but I’m not sure that visual aids are all there is to it. All I can say is that in my experience of learning basic logic in a class, there was a sense of truth that came as I grasped these formal relationships. I didn’t feel the need to look anything up, and that wouldn’t have done any good anyway. It was all right there in my head, waiting to be elucidated.

        I guess some people feel this way about math? I wouldn’t know about that. 🙂

        “Hubbard’s definition of measurement is the change in observable effects. Can we know something without ever observing things about it?”

        This sounds pretty broad. I can’t imagine not observing something and calling that knowledge. But I’m assuming a broad sense of “observe”, not limited to physical objects.

        “Tautologies might be something we can know without observation, but even there, for us to know about the tautology, don’t we still had to have experiential knowledge of its constituents?”

        I’m not sure what you mean. Does knowing A=A require experience? Maybe it requires knowledge of symbols, but the idea isn’t tied to those.

        “I guess I’m looking for that incontrovertible example of knowledge that can’t be measured.”

        “Knowledge is measurement” can’t be measured. 🙂 (You had to see this one coming.) But really, it’s philosophy. It’s a judgement about measurement that’s not itself measurement.

        On Hume and Kant, don’t take me too seriously on my little pontification there. That was off the top of my head, and it’s been a very long time since I read either. Even longer since I read Hume. I remember him as a serious skeptic, but maybe I misunderstood him.

        That’s a very strange thing to say about crows! How did they do the experiment? I’m a bit incredulous. 🙂

        I’m working on what I call “bored games” with Geordie. There are little hidden compartments accessed by levers that he has to push and pull to get at the treats inside. Sliding drawers that only slide after he pulls out a cone. It’s pretty amazing to watch him learn. The funny thing is that I usually have to get down on all fours and use my teeth to demonstrate how to do things. He gets the idea better when I mimic his anatomy. This latest game is level 3, a doozy for him, but I imagine the crows would figure out the order of operation in no time. How can they have no notion of causality?

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        • “Does knowing A=A require experience? Maybe it requires knowledge of symbols, but the idea isn’t tied to those.”

          Does the idea that something is equal to itself require experience? Interesting. I don’t know. It isn’t anything I remember thinking about as a child (to the extent I can remember my childhood at this point). But it does seem like the idea that bachelors are single requires exposure to the concept of “bachelor” and “single”.

          “”Knowledge is measurement” can’t be measured. 🙂 (You had to see this one coming.) But really, it’s philosophy. It’s a judgement about measurement that’s not itself measurement.”

          Have to say I didn’t see it coming 🙂 But is “knowledge is measurement”…knowledge? I agree it’s philosophy. But philosophy to me is often more about working assumptions than knowledge. A naturalist may feel that they know naturalism is true, but in my mind it’s a working assumption.

          Of course, you could argue that all knowledge are working assumptions, but I guess it’s a matter of where these things sit on the reliability spectrum. Philosophical positions seem far less certain than E=mc^2. But if the working assumption is more or less reliable, doesn’t that degree of reliability establish a measurement toehold? If no reliability of the working assumption can be establish (i.e. a position on the afterlife), then no measurement seems possible, but again calling that knowledge seem dubious.

          “That’s a very strange thing to say about crows! How did they do the experiment? I’m a bit incredulous. :)”

          Here’s a link to an article on the study:
          Interestingly, while trying to find that link, I came across numerous other studies showing that crows do understand cause and effect, so not sure what’s going on here. It might just be particular types of causation that they don’t understand.

          Interesting that Geordie picks things up quicker when you demonstrate like a dog. That reminds me of the studies that show that humans learn some things, such as faces, much easier than others. Maybe each species’ brain is optimized to learn from other members of that species.

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  14. If reality functions by means of causality, then yes all aspects of existence must be measurable in some conceivable manner. Note that if it doesn’t, then trying to figure out how reality functions is futile anyway — a wasted enterprise. (This is my single principle of metaphysics, which argues that naturalism is our only option if we want to figure things out.) But causality doesn’t mean that our human measurements must always be effective. We could take aberrant meaurements that throw us well off course, such as meassuring rain on the only rainy day of the year. Furthermore note that correlation does not always provide us with causation. Even though the time displayed on my mobile phone may suggest how much light there is outside my house, we know quite well that my phone doesn’t cause the earth to move as it does around the sun. So our measurements can indeed trick us. Still under a causal setting the way to improve our understandings of reality should be to search for solutions which do continually make sense of our various measurements. Here we presume an extremely complex jigsaw puzzle that does fit together in the end.

    I’m thrilled that Hubbard has presented us with such a naturalistic position — good stuff!

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    • I don’t think we have any reason to doubt causality in and of itself, at least at not at this point. (Although if someone ever figures out faster-than-light or time travel, the picture might become complicated.) I’m open to the possibility that some of those causes might not be deterministic (which I think you see as violating causality), that determinism may be an emergent phenomenon arising from vast numbers of quantum events. If so, I wouldn’t see it as outside of naturalism, at least as I conceive it, but then I consider myself an evidentialist more than a naturalist.

      Correlation certainly does not always provide causation. In fact, we never ever observe causation, only correlation. We commonly agree that we’ve established causation when we’ve narrowed the correlations down to consistent isolated time sequenced variables, but in the end, causation is always a theory. Like any theory, it’s always subject to being falsified by new observations.

      All that said, I do think anything knowable is measurable, in principle, but totally agree that it might not be practical.

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  15. Mike,
    I wonder if you could explain to me, conceptually rather than practically anyway, how fundamentally random events at the most basic level (and so they will not be influenced by other events), could create the apparently causal dynamics that we perceive at macro levels? It just doesn’t make conceptual sense to me right now that non causal dynamics could nevertheless spawn causal dynamics. Apparently this is what most physicists today believe, though I don’t yet understand the conceptual justification for it. I have asked several physicists online over the past four years however. Some have seemed perturbed by my inquiries, though most have exercised their rights to not respond at all.

    While it may be difficult to conceptualize how non causal dynamics could give rise to causal dynamics, notice that the contrary position remains quite simple and plausible. If everything ultimately functions causally at the quantum level, and thus remains perfectly determined ontologically, then of course we’d expect the same at higher levels. Here the only concession to make would be that modern physicists do not comprehend quantum causal dynamics (which shouldn’t actually be all that surprising).

    Perhaps it’s too much to ask physicists to not only do their jobs, but also to straighten out metaphysics (not to mention epistemology). Observe that physicists provide philosophers with consensus physical understandings, though philosophers do not yet return the favor.

    I offer “causality” as my single principle of metaphysics, though not from the perspective that it’s true. Instead I offer it because to the extent that it fails, there aren’t things for us to figure out anyway. No analogy is perfect, though to me this seems somewhat like an antithesis to Pascal’s wager.

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    • Eric,
      As I understand it, quantum events aren’t completely random in the sense of all possible outcomes being equally probable. While we can’t determine the outcome of an individual quantum event, we can calculate probabilities of each possible outcome (resulting in the wave function). But when we think in terms of large quantities of quantum events, the aggregate shape of the outcomes, as we pull back to larger and larger numbers, become increasingly set, increasingly deterministic. By the time we get to something like the operation of complex molecules, the outcome is thought to be essentially deterministic.

      It’s possible for quantum randomness to “bleed” into the macroscopic world. In the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, a macroscopic event, whether the cat is poisoned, is dependent on a random quantum event, whether an atom radioactively decays. In general, this could also happen anytime someone makes a decision based on a single photon placement in a double slit experiment. This opens the possibility that there may be natural scenarios where quantum randomness might bleed into the macroscopic world, potentially making it non-deterministic, although I don’t know of any that have been conclusively observed yet outside of a lab.

      The thing about interpreting quantum mechanics is, as I understand it, you can’t keep all of the fundamental properties of the macroscopic world. You must give something up, whether it be determinism, locality, a single timeline, or objective reality. As bizarre as that sounds, it’s how our universe appears to work. Richard Feynmann said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics. I think by this he meant that if QM isn’t making you question the nature of reality, then you don’t yet understand how bizarre it is.

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  16. Mike,
    I suppose that I was ignoring the probability distribution associated with our QM observations. Thus complete randomness is not observed in this regard. Furthermore given these extremely micro distributions our world could still seem fully causal to us in a practical sense, even if nature isn’t in the end. Still that doesn’t quite answer my question (not that you’ve implied it does). If the photon, for example, doesn’t have a fully determined causal fate, then how might causal dynamics still emerge from this sort of function? While that remains unclear to me, human ignorance is anything but.

    Regarding what I demand of reality in a conceptual sense, maybe that’s where this can get straightened out. As for objective reality, I could sacrifice that only under supernatural circumstances. (In fact that one seems extra god-like.) As for determinism, I could sacrifice that if there is a fundamental void in causality (though I wouldn’t expect anything causal to emerge from such a realm). Regarding locality and a single timeline, I could easily sacrifice them (if I get your meaning). Doesn’t quantum entanglement subvert locality? Of course time seems quite strange as well — no worries there. I also consider it possible for more dimensions to exist than the four that we perceive. The only thing that I truly struggle with conceptually, is causal dynamics that emerge from non causal dynamics. Just how might that work?

    I suppose that I don’t run afoul of Richard Feynmann’s proclamation, since I do not claim to understand quantum mechanics, and certainly consider the stuff bazar. I presume that this was the perspective of Einstein as well. But then what about Einstein’s critics? So assured have they been that causality ultimately fails, that they’ve felt the need to adopt a separate metaphysics in just this one regard.

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  17. Fizan says:

    Hi Mike,

    Interesting post, got me thinking (again). I think it ultimately does depend on how one defines things. From my perspective, I see knowledge as something which reduces uncertainty or at least gives the illusion of doing so. In that sense, it is akin to belief. Measurement, from your definition, seems to do the same thing so they are essentially the same thing.

    But I’m going to take on the challenge anyway :), perhaps using some absurd scenarios.

    Firstly, I know uncertainty exists can I measure it?
    Let’s take gravity as an example. We’ve quantified it and refined our definitions/ understanding of it to get more and more useful estimations. But as with all things, there is some uncertainty. I know this exists but can I measure how much. You may be tempted to say yes we can because we have effectively been reducing that uncertainty all this time. However (here’s the absurd scenario), suppose over the next 1000,000 years our measurements of gravity start to increase slowly so that by then rather than the 9.8 m/s2 we are getting 20 m/s2. This trend would make us realize in due course that there was something missing in our understanding (the uncertainty) which we hadn’t accounted for. By that time (million years from now) we have a coherent understanding and predictability for this trend by revising and modifying our scientific laws and theories (as good science would do) to account for it.
    My target here is the real uncertainty which we know exists. How do we know this exists? because we know we don’t have 100% certain knowledge. In fact, we don’t know how certain our knowledge is because that would imply knowing what the certain knowledge is to measure it against. Our current measurements of uncertainty are based on other measurements which are themselves uncertain.
    So my question is can we measure how uncertain we are in our knowledge? though we do know that we are uncertain to some extent or another.

    Secondly, I know I exist can I measure this?
    So in this one from my perspective, I am 100% certain that I exist and there is no uncertainty in it for me. Since measurement was going to reduce uncertainty how can it be applied to this scenario? And I’m not talking about other people’s existence or other people being able to know of my existence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Fizan,

      On how we measure uncertainty, I think it depends on uncertainty for which goal? For example, we can’t measure everything we don’t know about gravity. But we can measure what we don’t know, say, about how it will affect the trajectory of a particular body (very small uncertainty if we know all the bodies involved), or how it might behave in a black hole (lots of uncertainty). In the case of business, we can’t measure everything we don’t know about how the market will behave, but we can measure it in relation to a business decision, such as whether there will be enough demand to an expansion in manufacturing capacity.

      Good question on your existence. Normally the fallback position is what difference in observations the proposition being true or false might make. In this case, if you exist, you observe your existence, but if you didn’t exist, it’s not like you would be able to observe your non-existence. Unless we want to count the observation of your existence as a measurement (Hubbard might), I can’t see any way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fizan says:

        I’m taking your original question as a challenge. So whether we can KNOW something exists yet not be able to MEASURE it. I totally agree with your example and measuring uncertainty in terms of predefined goals. That would still be limited because any tools we employ to calculate the uncertainty are themselves uncertain, their certainty being defined by other tools which are again uncertain etc. However, as you suspect I’m going for the general uncertainty rather than a specific one.

        So I propose that we do ‘know’ that there are things we don’t know. So we know of the existence of uncertainty which is beyond our current understanding. Then the question in terms of your challenge becomes can we measure how much we don’t know. From another angle, it becomes can we measure how much we do know. I presume not because that would imply the contradiction that we already know what the ultimate 100 % truth is to compare our current level of understanding against.

        To give a different perspective to it; say in a group of shamanic exorcists. When in their view a person becomes possessed by a demon they may be able to have some degree of inclination (measurement) whether it is Demon A as opposed to Demon B, C, and D that has possessed the body. They may not be 100% sure and hence there is some uncertainty and yes they could give a crude estimate of that uncertainty. That’s all good. But then what if they come to learn that actually, demons didn’t even exist and it was something else entirely which was causing those behaviors.

        With regards to the existence measurement issue. Are we going to substitute measurement for all instances of knowledge? I would expect measurement to include something like degrees or inclination or gradations etc. i.e. something to quantify. Can I say I can measure that I exist? the question naturally would be against what? Non-existence? But I can never know of non-existence so how can I measure anything against it? Can I say that I can measure that I exist to a certain level/degree etc. ?
        If I say that I know non-existence exists it sounds like a contradiction.

        Does my measuring my own existence reduce some uncertainty? I would say no because none existed, to begin with.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think Hubbard would argue that any reduction in uncertainty is a measurement. (And yes, he gets that from the Shannon definition of information.) The problem with the demon example is that the shamans never knew what they were dealing with in the first place.

          Maybe a better one is if I mention a historical person who you’ve never heard of and ask you to guess how long that person lived. Your initial reaction is you have no idea, but if they were famous, the probability that they died in infancy or even early childhood seems slight, and the probability that they lived more than 108 years also seems remote. So by eliminating the absurdities, we can reduce our uncertainty, which by Hubbard’s definition is measurement. That said, I’m not sure myself how convinced I am by that argument.

          On the existence question, I think I’m going to concede on that one and agree it’s something we know that can’t be measured. Hubbard probably wouldn’t, but he isn’t here, and I agree that it does seem like if you can’t compare your existence with something else, observe a ratio between it and some other observable phenomena, then it seems perverse to call it “measurement.”

          Liked by 1 person

          • Fizan says:

            I’m still going to press on the first one a little more. This may be a philosophical difference actually.
            “..The problem with the demon example is that the shamans never knew what they were dealing with in the first place.”
            I think if you asked the shaman at the time they wouldn’t have agreed. They might have imagined that there were finer explanations to the phenomenon but I suspect they would have imagined something like more categories of demons etc. I’m making all this up I know, but my point is what would humans of a million years from now think about our explanations (given they continued to progress intellectually). They may also say that we didn’t know what we were talking about when describing mental and behavioural problems. Or even other things which are seemingly well established like gravity.
            If I was a shaman and was reflective enough I might have realised that there are things that I don’t know yet (i.e. the role of the brain, how the brain is structured and communicates which may have a saying on how we behave or on those demons).
            At the time identifying certain behaviours as demonic possession and giving it some context reduced the uncertainty and helped healing measures to be taken vs for example criminal prosecution etc. In that sense I feel they were measuring what they though they knew and reducing uncertainty by categorising. They may also have known that there are things they don’t know.
            In modern times it’s similar in my opinion. For example the unusual orbit of mercury or the photo electric effect or the double slit may have seemed liked minor uncertainties but they opened up a whole new era. Before discovering relativity and quantum mechanics most of physics was still almost complete yet there were things they did not know (and may have suspected). At the time they couldn’t say I can measure how much we are uncertain in our world view/ physics etc.
            Right now it may be the dark matter and dark energy issue which is what we know we don’t know much about.
            So although we may be able to humbly acknowledge that we know there are things we don’t know, can we say we can measure how much that is? I feel not.
            In this case it is open ended, there is 100 % uncertainty as we don’t know what the end goal is (or even if there is any) the possibilities could be infinite. Any measurement will not reduce this uncertainty unless perhaps if we eventually did reach that 100 % certainty (where we know everything there is to know). But right now we can’t even be sure such a thing as ultimate 100% certain knowledge even exists and/or if we are headed towards it or not. So our uncertainty remains 100%.
            So in that sense I think there is a slight difference between knowledge and measurement again. I can say “I know that there are things I don’t know. How much and to what extent I don’t know”
            But can I say “I can measure that there are things I don’t know/ can’t measure. How much and to what extent I can’t measure”.
            In a sense measurement appears more presumptuous and contextual than knowledge.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fizan says:

            Just to add “..if I mention a historical person who you’ve never heard of and ask you to guess how long that person lived.”

            In this case although I don’t have knowledge of the person but I do have knowledge of human life in general which can guide my measurement. I agree with Hubbard that should count as measurement and the measurement was of the thing I had knowledge of.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Fizan,
      Thinking about your points, I think this gets to the problem with knowledge as a concept. Yes, the shamans probably thought they knew things. Today we have more information about the phenomena that led them to conclude there were demons and we say we know they don’t exist. (Although I suppose you could redefine “demon” to mental diseases or what have you, but doing so doesn’t lead to productive solutions.) Our additional information prevents us from considering the shaman’s beliefs to be knowledge.

      Will people centuries from now look back at many of the things we think we know and say we didn’t actually know it? Undoubtedly. Scientists are very careful about not adding assumptions to what we can establish with observations, but often we add assumptions we’re not even conscious of, and those will probably bite us. This is the relativity of knowledge.

      But this interaction reminds of that Isaac Asimov quote:
      “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

      This also makes me think of Rumsfeld’s famous (infamous?) distinctions between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. The first is measurable, the second isn’t. But unknown unknowns are…unknown.

      Now, you might argue that the fact that we know there are unknown unknowns is itself unmeasurable. Maybe. But it seems like we could measure how aware someone is of that fact by observing how they behave. For example, a military leader with that awareness probably follows different strategies than if they don’t have it. Having the awareness is desirable precisely so that it will affect our humility and decisions. I’m not saying this would be an easy measurement to make, or one that could be made with any precision, but I can see ways to reduce uncertainty about it.

      Revisiting the existence knowledge, one thing that occurred to me is that we didn’t really specify what we mean by existence. For example, what if we’re characters in a simulation? Do we “exist”? From our perspective we might, but from the perspective of someone outside of the simulation, we’re just code that thinks it exists, that is code that has a model of a self that isn’t really there. Maybe you’re a Boltzmann brain, a configuration of atoms that just randomly assembled, complete with memories of an entire life up to now, that will dissipate in the new few seconds….

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Fizan says:

    Liked the quote by Asimov. But taking your last thought of the simulated universe, if it were true then does that quote still hold the same ground?
    The eart would be neither spherical or oval etc. perhaps in code form it is more 2 dimensional ( holographic principle) and in that sense more like being flat?

    In the unkown unkowns there may be a difference between what you and I are saying. To put it simply I’m saying “can we measure how much we do know ?” I think it’s unlikely.

    Would scientists in the 1800s or anyone else (i.e. shamans) have been able to answer that? Unlikely.

    You are right it does get to what knowledge is. What ever we answer would be in relation to other knowledge which is in relation to other knowledge. Not very disimilar to the Shamans. And yes I know scientists are extremely mindful of adding assumptions yet they are fallable as any human is. The problem might be unconcious, yes. Or perhaps even with the assumptions we started off with. Can we ever avoid assumptions? probably not. (And what do you make of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in this regard?)

    In order to measure ‘how much’ we know we have to know how much we don’t know. Yet we can still claim we have knowledge of what we do know. We just can’t contrast it against any background/ standard etc. to be able to quantify it.

    With another example: Do I have knowledge of science? Yes.
    Can I measure how much knowledge I have of science? No.

    You could only measure it by a close ended definition of science and then using that as the standard. But science as I understand is an open ended endeavour.

    You can always measure how much knowledge I have of science in ‘comparison’ to all the verified knowledge that has been published/ documented etc. But 10 years from know that background would have expanded, infact it is expanding every nano-second, making it a poor standard to compare against. And even if you did take a crossectional view you still can’t claim to have measured my knowledge of science. You could claim to have measured my knowledge of ‘known science so far’.

    With regards to existence knowledge that’s why I was clear to say it’s about me knowing of my own existence which I know with 100 % certainity. I’m not concerned about other people’s existence or others knowing of my own existence. What occured to you with regards to the simulation hypothesis and boltzmann brains occured to you because you exist. Those things in comparison are just hypothesis and conjectures within your existence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • On Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, I did a post on it a while back.
      It’s mostly concerned with the purported consequences for AI, computational theory of mind, etc, but it does touch lightly on the epistemic aspects. That said, I can’t claim to have given Gödel’s theorem a lot of thought.

      I’m not quite sure I’m catching your meaning when you say we can’t measure knowledge, such as someone’s knowledge of science. It seems like that’s precisely what we do when we make students take tests. If you’re saying we can’t measure their knowledge in relation to what might someday be discovered, well, yes, but then again I think we’re back to the unknowable.

      On knowledge of your own existence, you seem to be equating thought with existence. (You wouldn’t be alone of course. That’s what Descartes did.) My point was that if you’re within a simulation, that existence isn’t what you take it to be. You could argue that you still know you exist in some manner. But then what exactly do we mean by “existence”? It seems like we’re uttering the same word for multiple possible ontological states (physical instantiation, a defined simulation character, a piece of software with a model of a mind that doesn’t exist, etc). (Just so you know, I’m just pointing out conceivable issues. In general, I don’t find idealism or the simulation hypothesis productive concepts.)


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