The Impossibility of Measurement

Published on September 27, 2015, by in Uncategorized.

Even our most sophisticated tools of scientific measurement can only ever approximate the qualities and characteristics of things. To be sure, some tools are more accurate than others. A scale that is broken will be far less capable of capturing my “true” weight than one that is well calibrated. However, let’s say I stand on a very accurate, high tech digital scale and it indicates that I weigh 181.5 pounds, exactly midway between 181 and 182. Now, let’s say we locate an even more precise scale and when I stand on it, my actual weight turns out to be 181.49. Not quite 181.5, but very close. From the standpoint of wanting to determine with greater precision, what I actually weigh, that’s great. But how do we know I don’t in fact weigh a hair more or less than this? What if we developed an even more sophisticated scale and lo and behold, discover my weight is actually 181.489. Not quite 181.49. But again, very, very close.

The point of this example is to highlight that no matter how precise our measurement tools may be, we will never be able to determine with absolute certainty, the true quantity or size of anything for there are an infinite number of possible points between any two numeric values. While it’s possible to get close, the measure of things is quite literally, always just beyond our reach. The qualities and characteristics of things are indefinite. tape-measure

In the same way that we cannot precisely measure the quantitative dimensions and characteristics of material objects, it is also not possible to determine the exact nature of qualitative phenomena. Let’s look at the familiar state of mind we call “anxiety.” Now imagine a horizontal number line, like the x-axis of a graph, that has a midpoint of “0”. Moving right the numbers go up, 1, 2, 3… while to the left, they go down (-1, -2, -3…).

Now, pretend that a feeling described as “non-anxious” or calm falls at “0” on our imaginary line. As we move forward on the line, we begin to head in the direction of less calm and more anxiety, experientially. For purposes of illustration, let us now suppose that +1 represents having arrived at a state we would characterize as no longer calm, but “anxious.” At zero, we’re calm. But as we move toward the +1 value on the scale, we become less and less calm and increasingly anxious until we finally arrive at a point we would recognize and describe as definitely anxious.

But here’s a question: at what precise point do we clearly exit one state (calm) and enter the other (anxious)? Where along our hypothetical number line do clearly move from one way of characterizing reality to a different one? If we say that once we get to +1, we’ve now fully arrived at the state called anxiety and can no longer be considered calm, are we saying that at .99 on the line we haven’t quite moved fully into the anxious state? Well, one might counter by saying, “okay, at .99 we’re starting to feel the faint rumblings of anxiety even if it hasn’t taken complete hold of us.” Starting to feel? What exactly does that mean? Can we not get more precise about this? Imagining the line as representing the passage of time, are we saying that it is exactly at .99 that the first murmurings of what we might call anxiety have begun to emerge? What about .98999999? Were there any faint hints of anxiety at that point?

If we imagine moving experientially from a relative state of calm to one we would characterize as lacking in calmness (i.e., anxious), the question I’m posing here is what exact point on the line do we consider that we have definitely left the land of calm and are now entering a new territory characterized by a lack of calm (aka anxiety)? Can we clearly identify or determine the precise point where calmness has ended and anxiety begun? No. The reality is that whether we’re talking introspectively or mathematically, we are not actually able to determine precisely when a given state of mind ends and another presumably begins since there are, as in the above example of measuring one’s weight, an infinite number of possible points between any ending and subsequent starting point. Infinity_Symbol

The point of all of this is to illustrate that just as it is not really possible to definitively determine the measure of something arguably more concrete such as weight, so too is it impossible to say definitively that we are now abiding in one state (anxiety) and not another (calmness). For if we see subjective states of mind as dynamic (which they are) and therefore as existing on some sort of continuum (illustrated by our imaginary number line), then we’re faced with the same impossibility of precisely determining when a given state has ended and another has begun. We can never pin down the precise beginning, middle or end of ANY experiential state. And this is just as true subjectively as it is neurologically, hormonally or mathematically.

So what does this mean, practically speaking? Well, just look at the immediacy of your present moment experience—no matter how you might attempt to define or characterize it, the actual beginning of that experience cannot be found or determined. In reality, separate or discrete states of mind are an abstraction for everything exists as an ultimately immeasurable, indefinable, dynamic continuum.

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