Are Numbers Meant to be Quantitative?

Do you remember being a kid, and competing over the stupid stuff? “Which cereal has more Sodium?” was good for a breakfast joust, for example.

Even as a very young boy, I engaged in the classic, “My big brother can beat up your big brother.” This was always a tricky one for me. I actually remember a heartfelt round through a backyard fence when I must have been no more than five or six years old, and knowing in my heart that my big brother surely could beat up that other jerk’s big brother… if only my brother was still alive instead of dead. The sure knowledge that my bravado was empty made my taunt all the more defensive and nasty, because, as I recall, I was desperately hoping that the other kid wouldn’t call my bluff. Given that I still remember it, he probably did.

In a child’s mind, everything is linear. This is not true just for children, of course. Even grown men who run for President have been known to “rate” women on scales of 1 to 10. There seems to be an innate desire in mankind to assign values to things, even when those things are not well defined by a simple number.

Scientists make this mistake all the time. “Survival of the Fittest” sounds so very good, so very logical. Until one realizes that the only way to define “the fittest” is to see who survives, and acclaim them accordingly. Sometimes a mouse needs to be quick, or quiet or just lucky – but we have no “fittest” line on which we can accurately predict which mice will survive, and which will not. (The entire idea of one animal simply being “better” than another is what is behind the notion that invasive species cause the extinction of native species. The notion sounds good – but the reality is that for continental species, so-called “invasive species” almost always end up competing and not destroying, which adds to the overall diversity. ) And when even mice cannot be accurately measured on a linear “fitness” scale, we need to be very skeptical of ever attempting the same thing with people.

The same idea holds in business. There are, for example, different airline operational models. Some seem to work better for leisure travelers, others for business travelers. Some optimize for load factor, others for passenger experience, others for the peculiarities of certain markets. There is no ideal airline, no perfect optimizations, no scale of “perfection” on which airlines or sweaters or children can be measured. Even simpler questions like the nutritional value of a breakfast cereal to a child or the pugnacious qualities of one’s older sibling are allergic to simple classification and ranking.

In other words, a great many things that people like to think of as quantitative metrics are in fact qualitative, as amenable to coldly clinical classification as is the love of a good woman.

Consider, for example, G-d’s promise to Avraham to make his descendants “numerous, like the sands of the sea.” To a child, this could be seen as a version of competitive counting, a favorite with my children once they learn to get to three or four: count to a number that is so very big that nobody else could possibly count that high. But is G-d really promising descendants of that quantity? Or, perhaps, is the promise qualitative in nature?

The Torah uses a single word to mean “many”: rav. But just as Avraham’s descendants are said to be as rav as the sand of the sea, the word has a clearly qualitative meaning as well: Rav is used as an adjective: before the flood, “And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth”(Gen. 6:5); and in the song following the Exodus from Egypt. “In the greatness of Thine excellency” (15:7).

The hint that “sand of the sea” is actually meant to be a quality is found in the blessings of Issachar and Zebulun: “They shall call peoples unto the mountain; there shall they offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they shall suck the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand.” (Deut. 33:19) Sands and seas are not about numbers. They are about abundant treasures.

So if we come full circle, we see a promise to Avraham that has clearly been fulfilled by the Jewish people, albeit only in an unquantifiable way. The Jewish people have never been numerous, and only fleetingly have had what would be conventionally understood as power. Instead, the influence and impact of Avraham’s descendants comes through the realm of ideas – in everything from literature to science and engineering to medicine and psychology. The impact of the ideas of a Moses or a Plato or even Marx or Freud are far more powerful, over time, than the conquests of a Julius Ceasar or Napolean. 

Influence is not something for which credit can be measured. A good person’s life does not influence the world in a way that can be memorialized on the side of a cereal box or accurately expressed through a taunt through a backyard fence. At the personal level, our soft words and kindnesses leave positive impressions on human souls that no amount of power in the hands of marching armies or calculating bureaucrats could ever hope to match.

Comments are welcome!