The Problem of Measurement in Science

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Introduction and Overview

It is commonly assumed that science describes objective facts about the world, which are discovered through measurements of physical properties. The problems in this measurement are generally not understood, and this post describes them, highlighting two key issues of circularity and recursion in the definition of measurement. How these problems are addressed in Indian philosophy is also discussed.

The Scientific Definition of Measurement

Physical theories assume that material objects comprise physical properties, which can be measured using measuring instruments. The result of this measurement is expressed as a numerical value: for instance, mass can be expressed as 5 kilograms.

There are, however, some important issues in the definition of the measuring instrument. For instance: How do we measure the measuring instrument to know what its physical properties are? The definition of a measuring instrument is fraught with difficulties because to arrive at this definition we must find a second measuring instrument that measures the first instrument, which then measures the object under measurement. Thus, to define a measuring instrument, we must first measure the measuring instrument, and this quickly leads to an infinite regress in the act of measurement.

Scientists avoid this infinite regress by arbitrarily choosing some material objects as the standards of measurement. For instance, we might choose a pound or a kilogram as the standard of measurement, against which all other measurements of mass would be performed. This frees us from the problem of trying to define the numerical value of a property, but it does not free us from the definition of the property itself.

The Problem in Defining Properties

How do we define physical properties, such as mass? For mass to be an empirical property, it must be defined in relation to a measuring instrument, which in turn requires mass to have an effect on the measuring instrument. For example, the property of mass has a gravitational effect by which the mass attracts other masses. Without gravity, mass will not be a measurable property.

But if you have measured an effect, to infer the property back from the effect you need a law of nature. For example, to measure mass, we need a law that governs the attraction of masses under the gravitational effect in order to produce motion. In this case, the motion is the effect and mass is the cause; we measure motion and infer cause. In order to make that inference, Newton formulated the Law of Gravitation. Using this law, we can observe the motion, and then use it to infer the masses. The property called “mass” is therefore never directly measured. It is only an inferred conclusion of motion mediated via a postulated law. For example, the mass of objects on Earth is measured due to the gravitational effect of Earth.

Thus, mass depends on gravity (during a measurement), and gravity depends on mass (in all other scenarios). The property of mass is meaningless unless defined through the effect called gravity, but gravity is undefined unless mass has been defined. Mass and gravity are therefore defined circularly.

Recursion and Circularity

All physical measurements in modern science suffer from the two problems of recursion and circularity. The problem of recursion arises because the measuring instrument is also a material object whose properties in turn require more measuring instruments, creating infinite recursion. The problem of circularity arises because a physical property is undefined unless there are some effects, the effects cannot be defined unless the natural law governing the properties is defined, that law cannot work until properties are defined, thereby creating a circular dependence between a property, a law, and an effect.

The circular dependence means that we can postulate innumerable physical properties, identify arbitrary measuring instruments to supposedly represent these properties, then postulate laws that incorporate these properties, and try to predict. In this prediction, the property, the law, and the measuring instruments are arbitrary; only the prediction is real. However, if the law works, then we begin to attribute reality to the properties, laws, and standard measuring instruments, although they were arbitrary choices, to begin with.

The goal of science, Einstein once said, is to explain the maximum number of facts with the minimum number of assumptions. Since the maximum and minimum are not accurately defined, science is an ongoing process of broadening the facts and narrowing the assumptions. However, the limits of this expansion and convergence are not the key problem we are concerned with here. We are concerned with the problem of using recursive and circular reasoning―assuming what we aim to prove.

Dimensions and Locations

While performing a measurement, the measured property (e.g., mass) is necessarily more abstract than the values detected during measurement. The properties being measured are the dimensions of a space while the measured values are the locations on those dimensions. A dimension (such as mass) therefore must be defined before that property is measured in a particular object, and this dimension is of a different type than the values measured on that dimension. Specifically, we cannot define the dimension of mass in terms of the objects which possess mass because the objects are locations on that dimension. To suppose that mass is a real property of matter, there must be a space that contains all the objects, and which has a dimension called mass.

As we add new properties into matter―e.g., charge―additional dimensions must be added into this space. As new properties are formulated, the dimensions of the space also grow. The space of physical properties and its dimensions, however, is conceptual rather than physical. That is, we cannot measure the ideas of mass or charge, although we can measure the values of mass and charge. No scientist can point to a space in the real world whose dimensions are mass and charge because we are just familiar with three-dimensional space, the dimensions of which are not mass and charge.

In that sense, mass and charge are not real properties of objects, because if they were real then science must be able to point to real dimensions called mass and charge. The fact is that we can only point to dimensions of motion, and all other properties are inferred from these dimensions by postulating natural laws. Most people who don’t understand the history of science also don’t recognize that mass and charge were at one time not considered properties of nature because we could not observe them. The fact is that we still cannot observe them because our observations haven’t changed. We still observe motion and use it to compute mass and charge. Mass and charge, therefore, become real only in the context of physical law—e.g. gravity or electromagnetism.

Since mass and charge are inferred properties, we cannot insist that they are “real” except in the context of the laws of gravitation and electromagnetism. If these laws turn out to be false someday or are replaced by a different set of laws, they would not just throw out the laws, but also the properties—i.e. mass and charge—associated with them. This clearly indicates that mass and charge are not “physical” any more than the law of nature. Both laws and supposed properties of objects are conceptual—i.e. they are our creations in order to explain the observations of motion and change. And this fact holds true both for true and false laws and properties. It is not that some properties are “physical” but others are “concepts”. Or, that some laws (the real ones) are “physical” but other laws (the false ones) are “conceptual”. Rather, all laws and properties are conceptual.

Perception in Indian Philosophy

This understanding of science is the starting point for grasping the Vedic theory of matter in which all material properties, values, and laws are concepts. There is nothing “physical” about the world because if the world is physical then how you represent the physical world through concepts in the mind, or text on paper, itself becomes a daunting problem. in Western philosophy, this is called the mind-body problem, which is not just a problem of how conscious minds interact with material bodies, but also about how the world of objects can be represented through symbols, formulas, and books.

The converse approach where properties, values, and laws are treated as concepts suffers from no such problem. Indeed, such a view is a truer understanding of even modern science where properties are concepts used to explain the observations. Indeed, viewing properties as concepts is the starting point for a far richer understanding of the material world in Vedic philosophy because it becomes amenable to several levels of properties, in which the higher-level properties are simply more abstract concepts.

Vedic philosophy describes the existence of several “spaces” of properties deeper than the space of properties perceived through the senses. If an apple has the value of redness, then there must be a deeper property of color that cannot be seen, but which must exist before we can speak about redness. Similarly, color is itself not a fundamental property; rather this property is embedded in a deeper space called seeing or sight together with other properties such as form, size, direction, etc. The property of sight too is not fundamental, and it must be embedded in a deeper space of object concepts, which are expressed through various sensations. Such objects are constructed in a space of axioms, which are embedded in a space of intentions, which are embedded in a space of morals. Ultimately, all this is embedded in a space of consciousness, which sees itself.

We cannot see, taste, touch, smell, or hear all these deeper levels of properties, but they must exist if the process of measurement has to be free of the problems of circularity and recursion. Only when an object can measure itself does the value and dimension become identical. The conscious observer is such an object. Its ability to perceive is the dimension, and the result detected during the observation is the value. The logical distinction between dimension and value collapses when something is able to measure itself.

Since material objects cannot measure themselves, the distinction between dimension and value must be maintained in the study of such objects. That distinction in turn leads to deeper and deeper spaces of properties in which the previous property becomes a value. Only when something measures itself, is the property-value distinction collapsed.

The Necessity of Consciousness

Consciousness is an empirical necessity for science because without observation scientific laws and theories cannot be verified. However, consciousness is also a theoretical necessity for science because the space of physical properties has to be embedded in a deeper space all the way to a space that is its own object.

By neglecting the space of physical properties―and reducing them to objects―science not only creates conceptual difficulties but also hides several layers of material properties from our vision. Such a science not only has no foundation, but it is also a very limited perspective on the world around us because while we seem to understand the things that exist, we don’t seem to understand the manner in which we understand.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Problem of Measurement in Science," in Shabda Journal, November 21, 2015,