Tallis in Wonderland

In Measure Began Our Might

Raymond Tallis takes the measure of measurement.

In his book The First Three Minutes (1977), physicist Stephen Weinberg famously proclaimed that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” The advance of science, it appears, results in what the sociologist Max Weber, echoing Friedrich Schiller, poignantly characterized as ‘the disenchantment of the world’.

For Weinberg, it is worth noting, ‘the universe’ is the physical world, and the physical world is the world of physics. Given that physics advances by setting aside purpose, meaning, value, not to speak of secondary qualities such as colour or sound and the viewpoints of subjects, his conclusion is entirely unsurprising. But it does provide an opportunity to remind ourselves of the remarkable, and, I would submit, enchanting path that has led to Weinberg’s terminal disenchantment. The crucial step on that path is the invention of measurement, something which we take too much for granted.

Stripping Away The Subject

The centrality of measurement to science was proclaimed by the great nineteenth century physicist Lord Kelvin:

“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.” (Lecture, 1883)

Measurement liberates us from our individual, idiosyncratic judgements. In measuring we endeavour to get ourselves out of the way so that the world out there can speak for itself. We may validly disagree whether a vase is beautiful; but if you and I disagree as to whether it is six or seven inches high, then at least one of us is wrong.

Because measurement is ubiquitous in science – and, in a world where science is the dominant cultural fact, also in our everyday life – it’s hard to see just how strange it is that we are able to dismount from the flow of ordinary unsolicited experience to make a space for disciplined, quality-controlled active observations. What’s more, only a small part of what is experienced during the course of any measurement counts as the measurement. My experiences of the laboratory in which the measurement is made, what I am feeling, my reasons for making the measurement, and so on, are irrelevant. Equally irrelevant are the exact appearance of the measuring tool, and all but one parameter of the object that is being measured. The overwhelming majority of the experienced properties of the ruler, for example, and of the measured object are incidental and excluded from the result. As for the result, it doesn’t matter whether it’s recorded in black or blue ink or pencil, or as a number or dot on a screen. A measurement, in short, extracts from a complex situation with at least three elements (person, measuring tool, measured object) an item of supreme simplicity: a number attached to a unit. Everything else has been stripped off. The idea of a data point, featureless and vanishingly small, takes the stripped-down nature of the measurement to a limit. Consequently, neither the number nor the unit tells us much about the object. If I say of something that it is twenty-four inches, you would not be able to attach any meaning or significance to that statement, not even whether it was long or short, unless you already knew what the object was – a caterpillar or a tree.

The use of units to express results is the most obvious marker of the special nature of measurement and its distance from ordinary experience. Inches and pounds do not exist in nature: they are imported from the further reaches of a form of discourse made possible by the shared experiences of many thousands of individuals, most of whom will be unknown to those making the measurement. This is a reminder of how far ‘results’ are from the unregulated flow of moment-to-moment experience. When we cooperate to measure something, it is not comparable to looking at something together. Indeed, each of us might have quite different experiences of the act of measurement and of what is measured, but those differences are not (or should not be) of any importance. It will be evident that whether it involves several thousands of people in the hunt for the Higg’s Boson, or two people holding a tape to measure the size of a room, measurement requires shared consciousness of a kind quite different from that seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

ruler walking

The Transformation of Experience

To get a clearer idea of the extraordinary nature of the journey from the pell-mell of experience towards measurement and thence to quantitative science, it helps to think about the most primitive units. They depend upon a curious transformation of our relationship to our own bodies, in which we see our bodies as a source of standardized units, or at least of the idea of such units. The use of forearms (for a cubit), hands (a span), thumbs (an inch), and ‘feet’, as measures of length, is an egregious instrumentalization of the flesh of which we are made. When our ancestors deployed a measure based on their forearms to quantify the length of a building in cubits, bit of their bodies were reduced to objects that were further reduced to lengths. As ‘a cubit’, my forearm loses the privileged standing it has in my own life of being an intrinsic part of me, and becomes any(one’s) forearm. And this democratization is taken further. The forearm is downgraded to an object ontologically on a par with the very objects whose lengths it is used to measure: it is a mere object among other objects. (The compliment is returned much later when a measuring tape, an item whose role is simply to be its own length, is applied to the forearm to determine its size.)

Measurement is a vital step in the process of getting ourselves out of the way en route to objective science. The result, the ‘reading’, is stripped of the qualitative aspects of sensation, and moreover, does not rely on particular accidents of experience. For these reasons it is particularly amenable to sharing with, and corroboration by, others. You do not have to have replicate my experiences in order for both of us to arrive at the conclusion that the object we have been measuring is ten feet high.

This applies with even more force when what is in question is not a single time-dependent data point but a timeless impersonal fact, such as that Manchester is 200 miles from London, the Moon is 250,000 miles from Earth, or the Sun is 4,000,000,000 years old. The data which form the staple of science and underpin its laws and principles, not to speak of the wall-to-wall technology that is based on them, are even more obviously independent of individuals and their personal history. They belong to no-one, and float freely of all bodies.

Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the falsity of the claim by the otherwise brilliant nineteenth century physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach that “there is no break in continuity between science… and modes of behaviour characteristic of the entire animal world.” On the contrary, dismounting from the flow of experience to seek out a particular experience remote from appetites is hardly the way of the beast.

Measurement, a voluntary interruption in the spontaneous flow of experience that has vastly extended our power to predict and control the material world, is a manifestation of our individual and collective unwiring from nature and a driver to further unwiring. This unwiring is the reward for the increasingly active nature of our perceptual engagement with the world, as we move from gawping to scrutinizing and thence to making quantitative observations. Measurements which do not merely happen but are made, often building on the efforts of others, are a long way from passive bedazzlement by sensory experiences.

Beyond the Rule of the Physical

The claim by W.B. Yeats in his poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’ (1933) that ‘measurement began our might’ is not entirely true. Our might has deeper roots than measurement. Yeats does, however, capture an important truth. Through measurement, our capacity to confront and act upon the natural world from a distance is vastly enhanced. Our collective facing of the world is supported by a gaze not localized in an individual body – and hence not vulnerable to its vicissitudes. This gaze looks at a world beyond the horizon that encircles biological vision, at a realm of knowledge, of facts, of possibilities, and ultimately of quantitative laws and equations. The out-of-body experiences of Man the Measuring Animal place him beyond the limits imposed by the biology of the human organism, and even outside of nature.

With this we come to the most astonishing truth about measurement. Although it is the lifeblood of physics, measurement does not fit into the world seen through the eyes of physics.

Don’t take my word for it. It was Albert Einstein no less who in his Autobiographical Notes reported that he was

“struck by the fact that the theory [relativity]… introduces two kinds of physical things, i.e. (1) measuring rods and clocks, and (2) all other things, e.g., the electromagnetic field, the material point, etc. This, in a certain sense, is inconsistent… strictly speaking, measuring rods and clocks would have to be represented as solutions of the basic equations (objects consisting of moving atomic configurations) not, as it were, theoretically self-sufficient entities.”

But they are, irreducibly, theoretically self-sufficient entities, because they are inseparable from human beings with their points of view, who provide those frames of reference that are necessary for measurements.

Quantitative measurements cannot be accommodated in the world-picture of natural science which rests on them. If, as physicists would have it, the most faithful portrait of the universe really were that it was a ‘system of magnitudes’, there would be no place for the elucidation of those magnitudes. The expectation of Mach, whose philosophy inspired the young Einstein, “That the foundations of science as a whole, and of physics in particular, await their next greatest elucidations from the side of biology, and especially from the analysis of sensations” seems a forlorn hope.

So there we have it: measurement underpins a world picture that seems to support naturalism; naturalism, however, cannot support measurement. This takes us back to the fundamental fact that natural science cannot make sense of the human consciousness upon which it depends. It cannot, therefore, explain how it is possible that, while all entities are in time and have length, there have emerged creatures who tell the time and measure their length. In doing so, they express a unique human capacity to get themselves out of the way by privileging shared, quality-controlled observations over immediate experience. Most striking among the many things science cannot accommodate, is the existence of a scientific world picture.

Some of the meaning that’s lost as science progresses is recovered when we reflect on the capacity of science to further one version of the comprehensibility of the universe. Reminding ourselves of the scientific path to disenchantment may re-enchant the world.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2019

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World has recently been published by Agenda.

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