Monthly Archives: January 2009

Loewenstein: Israel should be tried by popular appeal

Antony Loewenstein: Israel must pay for crimes

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Evolution, agency, and Darwinian discourse — part I

As follows are my comments on an ongoing evolution-education post over at ecobobble:

I agree 100% with the argument that ID is trying to present itself as something it’s not (science). This is disingenuous, misleading, and fraught with lameness. …

[However] What i’m suggesting is that the reason ID proponents feel the need to promote their agenda is inherently tied up with the fact that, not least through the semantic terms it uses, *science* tries to present itself (inadvertently) as something *it’s* not: a worldview expressing an opinion on where there is ‘agency’ and where there is not. Where there is ‘order’ and where there is not, where and what ‘intelligence’ is, and where and what it is not. This is not science–this is metaphysical opinion!!! This is hubristic. Subtle, perhaps, maybe indetectable for those engaged in science, but hubristic nonetheless.

E.g. by saying genetic variation is the result of copying “errors” — which is precisely the word that’s used in modern darwinian discourse — the implication is that it’s a ‘machine’ that *mal*functions occasionally. I.e. it’s imperfect and ‘tries’ to do something, but ‘fails’ at this.. because of these ‘failures’ we get variation, adaptation over generations, and voila, evolution… a ‘mindless’, ‘random’ process. This assumes ‘mind’ and ‘intention’ are *produced* by complex neural structres such as the human brain. But there are alternatives to this view–current mainstream darwinian discourse ignores this.

Conway Morris tries to account for this by inverting the whole idea of agency, consciousness, or intelligence. He posits that material structures are not ‘producers’ of intelligence/agency, but rather ‘receivers’ of intelligence/agency.

His point is that we may be mistaking the radio program as a *product* of the radio, rather than something ambient that we can receive via the complex machinery of the radio!!!

It’s like mistaking your browser for the cloud. My grandma makes this mistake all the time. She thinks all the stuff she can access via the internet is somehow stored permanently on her computer, and she has to continually ‘erase’ all the stored up data. She makes the simple mistake of thinking the browser *is* the information, not a tool for *accessing* the information.

Darwinian discourse so far hasn’t accounted for this. The Evo-ID debate could probably be somewhat defused if this was taken into account. It takes some metaphysical humility on the part of scientists, however.

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Life, meaning and |truth| — part I

On another blog i contribute to–ecobobble–i recently replied to a co-author re: the ‘meaning of life’ … Here’s an excerpt of my comments, which basically reflect my inklings of |truth| (more to come):

Like many, i’d been struggling with this q how to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ for years. Somewhat recently, i stumbled upon something which, it seems, happens to work quite well. It turns out similar schemas have been around in ‘mystic’ [i cringe at this term], esoteric religious traditions since time immemorial; so, accordingly, i lay no claim to it.

Essentially, begin by stripping away all assumptions, regardless of whether they seem true or not. This is in the spirit of pure logic; the ultimate rationalist approach to reality. What you are left with, if you cross the rubicon of Descarte’s assumption of individualist agency (i think therefore i am, etc.) … is, well, nothing!

No assumptions at all leads to a kind of metaphysical nihilism; emptiness; non-existence… nothing… 0. (…this might resonate with those familiar with Buddhist scriptiure …)

…now, how helpful is that for functioning in the world? Not very.

Ok, so let’s make the next simplest assumption… …something… ‘existence’ … ‘everything/time/place/space,’ etc. … 1 … ‘the axiom’ … |reality| …

(note the similarity to the 1/0 binary system used in technology) … its essentially choosing 1 over 0… this is a belief–an assumption… trust in existence, |reality|, |truth|

…stop here! yes, stop!

…Now, if you keep to this–|truth|–as the most ‘real’ assumption possible, how should you then act? …

This worldview implies that our subjective experiences are merely miniscule, inherently ‘imperfect’ or ‘incomplete’ subsets of our primary axiom (i.e. 1, |reality|, |truth|…the set of all sets, etc.). [Although we perceive ourselves as ‘separate’ entities, which we must do in order to function, at root, ‘we’ are in fact unfathomably interconnected parts of one whole. This can have interesting implications for what we assume to be individual, separate ‘consciousnesses,’ ‘intentions,’ and so on, although perhaps that’s best left for another post.]

What we view as in our own individual interest, therefore, is most apparent to us, and we should not ignore it. But, in terms of how we behave … [towards entities we perceive as separate and distinct from ourselves, in the spirit of truth, we must then do our utmost not to lose sight of our primary axiom: namely, that there is only one reality, one complete, absolute truth; that the ‘independent’ existence of ‘separate’ things is relative, transitory and ultimately less than absolutely true.] … it then follows we should try to imagine what others’ (social groups, humans, animals, etc.) ‘view’ as in their own interest , [regard this as our very own interest (since our ‘distinctiveness’ is transient and relative)] and act accordingly… if our actions are related to something more abstract, with less perceived ‘agency,’ like a landscape, or population of a given species, etc., we have to really exercise our moral imagination and act according to what *we* think is in our objects’ best interest … this, of course, has to be weighed with the interests of everyone/thing else of which we’re aware!!

[In a way, the normative implications of this non-dualist assumption is to make an effort not to act like autistic children with respect to the world around us. Autistic children have a genuine inability to imagine how others think and feel. Being non-autistic, but acting as if you were, is essentially ‘untrue’ in a metaphysical sense, insofar as it flies in the face of our primary axiom/assumption of non-duality, and is arguably akin to ‘evil,’ in the moral sense.]

That’s pretty much it.

Sounds simplisitic at first, but as you can see, the implications get quite complex, as we must constantly apply this principle to all the temporal and spatial contexts of our everyday lives.

This, in my opinion, is where religions (or personal philosophies, such as GerBear’s) have key roles to play … they’re basically heuristics for applying this rather daunting principle to the exigencies of day-to-day banality.

Along the same logic, certain religions/philosophies emerge, and catch on, in certain temporal-historical contexts.

A problem with this is that contexts continue to change… all these heuristics are only *relatively* true/helpful insofar as they are products of their time and place.

E.g. stoning adulturers to death may well have been the necessary execution of our |reality| in the socio-historical context of ancient Canaan. Today, obviously, this is no longer the case. Similarly, 1000 years from now our present-day norms may well appear ‘barbaric’ or ‘backwards’ … this is normal.. with respect to our axiom (|reality|), it is apparent that we live in a contingent, incomplete world (a factor, i postulate, of our perception of time as linear..but who knows)… change is a constant from our limited human perception (although rate of change is also subject to change) …

Where problems arise is when people mistake the temporally-contextually specific heuristics for the axiom they aim to approximate.

…anyway, these are just some thoughts on my inherently imperfect, incomplete heuristic for deriving the ‘ought’ from ‘is’ ; )

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The Onion on Israel

via Vacation To Israel Canceled Due To History Of Israel | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.

Vacation to Israel Canceled due to History of Israel

HOBOKEN, NJ—With only three weeks to go before embarking on a much-anticipated vacation to Israel, 34-year-old Jeff Kaufmann made the difficult decision to cancel his trip yesterday, citing unfavorable exchange rates and the entirety of the Jewish nation’s 60-year existence. “I’d been looking forward to this for months, but hotel prices started going up, things got kind of crazy at work, and also Israel’s whole history is basically a decades-long horror show of ethnic violence, harsh reprisals, and geopolitical madness.” Kaufmann said. “The Negev Desert is supposed to be amazing, but on the other hand, ever since its founding in 1948, Israel has been spinning downward in a chaotic spiral of fear, hatred, and death. So it’s a tough call.” Kaufmann added that he hopes the Arab and Jewish peoples will be able to put aside a century of bloodshed before his travel voucher expires in June.

This speaks for itself.

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Palestinians as UN citizens?

During a recent moderated discussion on campus, I had the chance to pose a few questions to Canadian international law expert (and recent federal NDP candidate) Prof. Michael Byers.

Interested in what light his expertise may shed on ways forward for Israel-Palestine, i asked if there was any historical precedent for the UN asserting a mandate over contested territory.

Byers answered that, although there were small-scale precedents, the UN has (understandably) been loathe to put itself in such a situation given post-colonial realities. However, he then paused briefly and recollected with some interest that after the first Gulf War, there was confusion over how to disburse reparations from Iraq to Palestinian residents of Kuwait (of which there are, or at least were at a time, hundreds of thousands).

Byers explained that since people can only receive international reparations (reparations may be the wrong term, here, but it captures the idea) through the apparatus of their home state–and most Palestinian residents of Arab countries do not have citizenship in their country of residence–the UN, in effect, stepped in and acted temporarily as the Palestinians’ state so as to ensure those who were due payment under international law received it.

After another brief pause, something occurred to Byers, and he went on with a mixture of surprise and stifled enthusiasm: “Actually, if you wanted to get really provocative, you could even call for Palestinians to be granted UN citizenship.”

Hm. I wonder what effect that would have on Israeli military policy.

Food for thought.

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Palestine-Israel: the East Timor model?

As a sort of stop-gap compromise between the two-state solution and a permanent international protectorate, Prof. Dan Jacobson wrote this several months ago in the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture:

…given the fundamental weakness of both the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian governing institutions… reputable observers of the Middle East scene are renewing their call for trusteeship-like solutions… Accordingly, the West Bank to begin with, and at a later stage Gaza, is to be held in trust for the Palestinians for a pre-determined transitional period, while the trustees work with responsible Palestinian partners to create the institutions of a viable, independent state. As in East Timor [halewi’s link], a UN Security Council-endorsed international force will replace the Israeli army in the occupied territories. The force will be responsible for maintaining order, preventing terror attacks against Israeli targets and rebuilding Palestinian security forces. According to expert projections it will have to consist of at least 10,000 troops, led by special forces and supplemented by civil police contingents (CivPol). U.S. or NATO leadership of the force is usually seen as a requirement for its success. European participation may provide a much-needed perception of impartiality to the effort. Arab and Muslim participation in the force would provide legitimacy, particularly if units from countries with open channels to both Israelis and Palestinians are included, such as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco and the Gulf States, under a consensual Arab League umbrella. Arab participation in the multinational force is of the utmost importance, in order to prevent its being construed as yet another neo-colonialist exercise in the region.

via Palestine – Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture.

Although this wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of Israeli settlements, water use, other shared resources, demographic pressures, justice for ‘Israeli Arabs’, etc., it’s certainly a laudable vision.

Apropo, i was heartened  to be at a small-scale campus dialogue on Gaza last evening, where a number of Israeli grad students were in essence calling for just this sort of thing. Maybe it’s time, one said, to simply bring in international forces. We need help.

A silver lining, perhaps, in the otherwise horrific human tragedy that is Gaza (?)

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Israel-Palestine and the UN: back to the drawing board.

Two years ago, Brent Scowcroft said the following (via Tony Karon @ The Rootless Cosmopolitan):

Hezbollah is not the source of the problem, … It is a derivative of the cause, which is the tragic conflict over Palestine that began in 1948. The eastern shore of the Mediterranean is in turmoil from end to end, a repetition of continuing conflicts in one part or another since the abortive attempts of the United Nations to create separate Israeli and Palestinian states in 1948.

Despite Scowcroft’s age (and some may say political and religious affiliations, although i withhold judgement here), this strikes me as precisely the sort of wisened, historically-informed, big-picture thinking that’s  needed today. This is not in spite of 21st century globalized media, the dominance of pro-growth consumerism or the world’s concomitant cornucopia of  identity crises. Rather, it’s precisely because of these things, because of the ‘global village’ that adaptive long-term thinking (both proactively and retroactively) now matters to virtually everyone. As Scowcroft goes on to say,

The current conflagration has energized the world. Now, perhaps more than ever, we have an opportunity to harness that concern and energy to achieve a comprehensive resolution of the entire 58-year-old tragedy. Only the United States [halewi winces] can lead the effort required to seize this opportunity.

I’m not convinced of the US’ suitability, let alone omnipotence, in leading the charge, here. But Scowcroft is dead on about how energized (if polarized) the world has become over this issue.

I’ve mentioned this briefly before, but i feel compelled to expand on it further. Israel-Palestine is an ill-adapted vestigal appendage of an outdated, geographically misplaced sociopolitical entity–the nation state.

It’s no coincidence that the very birthplace of this ‘imagined‘ ethno-political system–Europe–is now moving to a supranational, federal union with devolved cultural autonomies.

Europeans have literally lived through the horrific consequences of nation-state logic a full generation before most in the post-colonial world. This is not an argument for European superiority–far from it. If anything, the opposite. Rather, it’s an argument for the long-term untenability of the nation-state (a gift for which the world can thank the idiosyncratic territorial rivalries of 17th century European power brokers). This is particularly true for regions that have seemingly intractible competing claims.

In this light, the two-state solution no longer seems particularly adaptive for our current day and age. Not on the issue of the region’s shifting demographics, nor on its resource scarcity (namely, water, so often overlooked), nor with regard to ‘imagining’ an identity politics fitted to the 21st, as opposed to 19th, century.

Israel-Palestine, despite the endlessly ironic tragedy of the current situation, holds promise–perhaps the world’s best promise–for demonstrating how a new sociopolitical system can be concsiously imagined, cultivated and employed.

The region must become a permanent international protectorate.

Absurd–i know. But no more absurd than a flourishing nuclear ‘ethno-Jewish democracy’ living ‘side by side in peace’ with a demilitarized Palestinian Bantustan. Please.  No more absurd than perhaps the holiest place in the world devolving into a wasps’ nest of low-grade ethnoreligious civil-war, which is precisely what a Middle Eastern South Africa would look like.

The UN gave birth to this mess (not least out of western guilt for the Holocaust); now it’s a global tinderbox. Time has come to take collective responsibility–to take the potential, nay the necessity, for a powerful set of global institutions seriously, and turn Israel-Palestine into an internationally-administered, shining beacon of hope for the world. No, really. Call me crazy, but i mean it.

This is not as hard to do as it may sound–it takes some creativity and vision–but, phased in, from Jerusalem outwards, for instance, it may even be doable within this generation.

Combining the overarching structure of the late Ottoman millet system with the innovative democratic innovations of the EU, the result could be an entirely new paradigm of sociopolitical organization: the Permanent International Zone, a multicultural global protectorate.

Eventually, a series of such protectorates would have a far easier time of coordinating issues of macropolicy, such as trade, ecological concerns, migration, and so on, than exists within the current system of international relations, which is dominated by (somewhat) enlightened national and corporate anarachy (aka realism).

It may seem an impossible goal at the moment, but i honestly believe (perhaps against all common sense) that it is the way forward. If enough people take the time to think about it–Jews and Muslims especially, but the greater international community as well–i’m confident its utopian pragmatism will begin to shine through.

It seems high time we put aside our obsession for nation states. Diverse cultures and identities can persist, even thrive, without these relics of European cultural imperialism. The world doesn’t have to remain the hapless victim to historical accident; we don’t have to buy into the imaginings of centuries-old power-hungry western ideologues or the knee-jerk reactions of their non-Christian contemporaries. We now live in a world where the scale of civilization requires us, at the very least, to effectively coordinate policy, if not get along. This is the way forward. It just takes some constructive vision. No lobby, state or corporation has monopoly on that.


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