Good liberals make bad physicists

In trying to respond to one of the comments made on  an earlier thread on Hijab, I realized that my reply may end up being too long. I think long comments are generally not good policy – I don’t read them and I don’t think anyone should suffer them either. So I thought it best to make a post out of it instead, with a clickbaity headline to boot 😉

I am answering the questions posed in the comment having trained as a student of physics, rather than philosophy, let alone moral philosophy. The latter is a serious can of worms. So treat the following as falsifiable conjecture at best 🙂

I think the question of moral relativism is no different to the question about physical universalism. Moral truths may appear obvious and even “common-sensical”, but they could be as incorrect as the theories of ancients about the steadiness of Earth, cf Skt dharA (holding firm) or its centrality, cf geocentric universe. How did we come to know which set of physical laws describe the world better?

Note that the above theories of ancients were falsehoods, but they were *not* bad theories. In fact, they were good initial guesses and our species of ape should be rather proud of them. What we shouldn’t be proud of is how emotionally invested our forefathers were in these guesses. In other words, what’s stupid about the old culture, going all the way to the dawn of man, is not in its ability to produce good/bad guesses but to take its guesses to be too sacred. That is what changed with the modern Western Enlightenment – the universalisation of virtue of calling out others’ baloney without the fear of being harmed for doing so. The Royal Society, set up by stuffy Englishmen affecting Roman cognoscenti, simply uses fancy Latin for it in its motto but the idea is really that simple.

Yet this idea is not itself a theory of Science. In fact, it is a theory of epistemology (fallibilism), that can very well be applied to morality too. In short, the (well-nigh) truth about morals is that there is no perfect moral truth, which isn’t to say there’s no moral objectivity. Two people can agree on the amount of error in a moral theory and all error is measurable. So a theory about morality can be objective, but never quite axiomatic or “self-evidently” true.


As far as liberalism vs conservatism goes, the nice feature of conservatives is that they are not slippery. They do not indulge in sophistry or like to keep things woolly. They may be wrong (most of them are almost by definition) but at least they make falsifiable claims. Retaining the ability to be wrong is more virtuous than happening to be right. That is a guiding virtue of Science and in general of fallibilist epistemology.

There are various reasons why modern liberalism is preferable, but their attitude to generating new knowledge (physical or moral) is certainly not one of them. West is currently in a bit of a philosophical bind. Their conservatives have lost the university and opinion-making space to the liberals because the liberals, justifiably, argued for lack of certainty being the defining feature of the world we live in and won that debate. That much is sensible. However, they went further in confounding the lack of certainty with lack of objectivity. That is where they make a serious error that every scientist (or at least every physicist) is trained – on pain of ridicule under peer review – not to make.

The liberals seem to think that just because we cannot know something for certain (i.e. with exactly zero error), we cannot produce/compare/agree on uncertainty bounds on predictions of a theory. This is a very mistaken notion. E.g. the concept of “acceptable error” is a central dictum of physical theories. Scientists are trained to live with error, and not just tolerate it but see it as a confirmation of the utility of their and others’ theories. Error can make physics wrong, but that’s already infinitely better than being not even wrong. And yet, that’s precisely what the Western liberals are these days.

Post-colonial moral relativism is just the same woolly-headed lack of commitment to error and objectivity being applied to moral theories. The liberal anathema to error is so debilitating that they are not even willing to measure or compare error in moral theories across societies and cultures. Indeed, much effort is spent on finding more novel and innovative ways to avoid criticism necessary for identifying and correcting error: safe spaces, echo chambers, de-platforming, narrative control, language policing and the suchlike. Even the word “criticise” is now seen as negative, and “critique” (which wasn’t a verb in olden days) is now preferred as its de-fanged version. A sad state of affairs.


18 Replies to “Good liberals make bad physicists”

    1. Does Slapstik think that conquering the rest of the world was necessarily a *bad* thing?

      For example, he has clearly stated before that he considers Hinduism to be an inferior product before Enlightenment values – not too different from colonisers bringing enlightenment to backward heathens.
      He thinks Enlightenment values are the end goal of all human society – not too dissimilar to the Spanish Conquistadores or the James Mills of Europe.

      Clearly such a jaundiced view of the “Enlightenment”(a much more complex period than what this fanboy portrays) cannot but help make me feel that he is glad to be at the receiving end of the white man’s burden

    2. @Zach

      Nobody is so enlightened to not make mistakes. In fact, that is sort of the point of the above piece.

      Secondly, the reason for colonialism and Enlightenment occurring simultaneously almost is not random chance. It sounds paradoxical, I know, but the reason is that progress in morality typically lags in technology, because the former is harder to formulate.

      A toddler knows how to throw a ball as a projectile long before (s)he knows when and to whom to throw it. The decision of under which conditions one applies a new skill is informed by ethics and morality. Colonialism and slavery, absolutely terrible mistakes, were a result of that lag in moral progress.

      1. Well said. The last century has numerous examples of people developing capabilities well before developing the judgment to exercise them wisely. Early proponents of caution or morality are generally derided in their own time as impractical, overly intellectual, luddites etc.

        Morality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You don’t become careful about calories until you first learn how to make an excess of food.

  1. Two people can agree on the amount of error in a moral theory and all error is measurable.

    What is an example of a measuring (involving quantification?) of error in a moral theory?

    1. @kUpamaNDUka

      A = practising nihilist
      B = practising fatalist

      A: I will kill B’s daughter because I think she is going to grow up in a meaningless world of unbearable sadness and the sooner I put her out of that certain misery the better. Of course I don’t have any offspring myself for the same reason.

      B: It is a shame that A does not have any offspring. I think this is destined for a nihilist like A to remain childless.

      Whose moral philosophy is better?

      If you can answer the question you have shown that order relations on the set of moral errors work. If you can’t answer the question, I have no further comment to make 🙂

      1. Good physicists are somehow supposed to see this as an act of “measurement of moral error” (which is what I asked an example for)?

  2. Thank you very much for replying to my rather basic questions. I have to do quite a bit of background study in basic philosophy of science (I grasped the subject once in entirety during my later teenage years but completely lost material from mind afterwards) to understand your post well and the important keywords of the post currently for me to study are falsifiability and error.

    Trying to tackle these basics using my recent memory of numerical-methods knowledge though, error is true value of some quantity minus approximate value (called true error) or approximate_value_2- approximate_value_1 (called approximate error; approximate_value_2 is usually a better approximation than approximate_value_1). Approximate error may be what you are referring to (I’m not sure about it). But what is required in all these are quantities. The major problem I see is with the selection of quantities relevant for the representation of moral good by various people and people groups all over the world though – an indicator of some renown like the HDI that measures some variables thought to be pertinent to the development of humans and may be to some extent also the moral health of a society may be completely irrelevant for many people groups (like, say, the Islamists or fundamentalist Christians or ultra-orthodox Hindus) who may privilege totally different things and quantities and those (like, say, piety measured through mosque/church/temple-visits or things like that) which are of a very different nature as indicative of the moral goodness in a society.

    (I personally don’t support moral relativism; I also in that comment mistakenly thought of the other concept in the pair that has moral relativism as moral universalism*; I see that it is typically something called as moral objectivism instead. I probably am a moral objectivist too to the extent that obviously (to me) it seems behaviours of people from different places and times are comparable with each other using relevant quantities (if I am not totally butchering the standard understanding of moral objectivism here). But do people ever agree on what those quantities should be? Maybe large percentages of people in all spaces and times do tend to agree on the list of quantities as relevant for the problem and only relatively very few number of people tend to disagree?

    Again, sorry very much for my very rudimentary thinking above and also probably a significant number of blunders I must have made above lol. Edit: And wow, why do my comments always end up as so long? Trust me, I never intend them to be that way; they just happen like that.)

    *Edit 2: Apparently, the terms moral objectivism and moral universalism are perfectly interchangeable.

    1. @Santosh
      I will read your comment in detail later. I would just say that being “measurable” is mathematically not the same as associating a real value to a variable, but a much wider concept.

      A simple example which I provided to another commentator was to illustrate how one can make a sensible judgement that error in decision 1 is bounded by error in decision 2, without knowing (or caring to know) what real values you assign to either.

      1. Look dude, anyone with half a neuron can think up the example you mentioned, and indeed that example was the first thing that came to my mind before I typed my first comment above. And I didn’t think of a real-valued function as you slyly suggest, rather I thought of some possibility of a structure involving a partially ordered set.

        The point of my still having asked that question, **obviously**, was that such vague and handwavy examples that don’t even address my question directly are too vague and handwavy to be of help to make even a remote case that a meaningfully rigorous definition and treatment of a notion of measurability of moral error providing any useful perspective on what happens in the real world exists.

        Sentences that are handwavy beyond a point convey no meaningful information, and amount to just name-dropping.

        1. My apologies if my answer didn’t satisfy you, but I wasn’t trying to. I was not being sly. I was not even answering *you* when I mentioned real-valued measurements of error. I was responding to Santosh’s question about quantification and making reference to an earlier example of how I think about it in terms of boundedness.

          PS: Dial down the condescension. It depreciates your comments, whatever their worth.

  3. Nice post, although I think you might be casting a wider net with the liberal moniker than the one I have in mind? Alan Sokal self identifies as a liberal after all (and he’s a damn good physicist ;))

    Applying your argument to the group I’m inferring to be your target (an example would be the subjects of the recent grievance studies hoax — tell me if you think this is inaccurate), then I think we’re on a crash course for some sort of reductio ab absurdum. Not *all* of the work in these fields is bunkum, but a lot of it is, and the signal to noise has long since dipped to << 1, although I suspect things will get more absurd before we see the correction.

    Totally unrelated, but while I have your attention (as the resident expert) — I've seen the Hindi/ Marathi word करिश्मा translated as charisma. Is there a Sanskrit etymology for this, or is it a loan word?

    1. @SP

      //casting a wider net//

      Yes, as I cheekily admit in the post I was being clickbaity 🙂

      On karishma:

      I don’t think it is Sanskrit, though -shm- consonant cluster is not uncommon in Skt. No ref either.

      I certainly traced charisma to Gk kharisma (divine gift). Maybe borrowed via Farsi, which can explain /sm/ to /shm/. Though didn’t find any Farsi reference to کرشمہ.

      1. “On karishma:

        I don’t think it is Sanskrit, though -shm- consonant cluster is not uncommon in Skt. No ref either.

        I certainly traced charisma to Gk kharisma (divine gift). Maybe borrowed via Farsi, which can explain /sm/ to /shm/. Though didn’t find any Farsi reference to کرشمہ. ”

        Thanks for the clarification… fascinating (and puzzling at the same time!) The context which prompted my query was that it was used in a newscast in reference to Modi’s public appeal, hence the almost direct translation into charisma, which google translate corroborates.

        Treating it as if it were a Sanskrit word, does it factor into components by some undoing of sandhi? (beyond me)


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