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Self-Quantification and the End of Wisdom

July 1st, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Social graph, pendants removedphoto © 2008 Porter Novelli Global | more info (via: Wylio)
Self-quantification has a strong allure precisely because it combines two deeply rooted promises of American culture:  that we will achieve technological mastery over every part of our existence, and that in doing so we will achieve a sense of self-fulfillment that the therapists have promised us.

Consider what avowed self-quantifier Gary Wolf, who cofounded, wrote in the NY Times:

Ubiquitous self-tracking is a dream of engineers. For all their expertise at figuring out how things work, technical people are often painfully aware how much of human behavior is a mystery. People do things for unfathomable reasons. They are opaque even to themselves.

A hundred years ago, a bold researcher fascinated by the riddle of human personality might have grabbed onto new psychoanalytic concepts like repression and the unconscious. These ideas were invented by people who loved language. Even as therapeutic concepts of the self spread widely in simplified, easily accessible form, they retained something of the prolix, literary humanism of their inventors. From the languor of the analyst’s couch to the chatty inquisitiveness of a self-help questionnaire, the dominant forms of self-exploration assume that the road to knowledge lies through words.

Trackers are exploring an alternate route. Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self.

Wolf is exactly right that people are "opaque even to themselves."  "The purpose in a man's heart," Proverbs tells us, "is like deep water."  But the aphorism goes on:  "a man of understanding will draw it out."

Proverbs has it, I think, right.   It's precisely at the point of deliberating about the purposes and ends of human life that self-quantification shows its limits.   The data can only tell us what and how—it cannot tell us why, and wrestling with this question is an essential part of the pursuit of wisdom.

Wolf's suggestion that fundamentally human problems can be solved by technological solutions is an abdication of our distinct human responsibility to sound the depths of our human existence anew in every generation. For all our newfound abilities to quantify our patterns and activities, the data simply cannot answer those even more fundamental questions about the ends for which we have been created and the purposes which we should pursue.

The answers to those questions may ultimately remain opaque.  But in the trying, in the inquiry and the seeking, wisdom and understanding is found.  For as the Proverbs put it elsewhere, "The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight."

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.