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In Context #6 (Fall, 2001, pp. 3-4); copyright 2001 by The Nature Institute

The Trouble with Qualities
Stephen L. Talbott

If you are pursuing a qualitative science, sooner or later someone is bound to ask, "Can you define 'quality' for me?" It can be a little embarrassing, since no satisfactory answer is close at hand. True, part of the problem lies, as we will see, in the contradictory nature of the request itself. But there's much more to be said. If you are like me, you may suspect that our difficulty in saying what a quality is reflects a striking cognitive deficit in ourselves.

Recognizing the deficit may be the most difficult thing. Personally, I always assumed (without much reflection) that qualities were obvious, even if science, beginning with Galileo, had explicitly decided to leave them out of consideration. But things left out of consideration tend eventually to be lost from view, and this seems to be what has happened with qualities. If we fail to attend to something long enough, we forfeit the ability even to experience it. My own fear is that humanity today risks losing the qualitative world altogether, as it disappears behind a veil of abstractions.

"But," you may ask, "where is the problem? Surely we have no difficu