Saturday, December 31, 2016

Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the UN

Mathew Goldstein

Security issues for the government of Israel include the Jordan Valley, strategic hilltops in the West Bank; protections for the aerial approaches to Ben Gurion International Airport; access and control over the main east-west roads and passes in the West Bank.  I am not an expert on this issue, but it is my understanding that such security concerns became an obstacle to a final agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli governments that the United States tried to facilitate during the Obama administration in 2014. Israel does not trust international actors or technology alone to protect border security, while Abbas rejected anything more than a five year Israeli presence inside a Palestinian state.  Israel currently has 200-500 troops in the Jordan Valley and wants to retain them there after a peace agreement.

John Kerry recently said that the settlements have nothing to do with security.   I know less about the settlements than I do about the Jordan Valley disagreement.  It seems to me that Israel thinks of some of the settlements as a form of protection against potential attacks.  Maybe they are thinking of what damage can be done by someone who possesses some of the various military weapons that Hamas continuously tries to acquire.  Settlements are then located in areas with the highest risks.

Settlements are also located wherever settlers start them.  The current government expresses the view that settlements are OK.  It appears that the only way to invalidate a settlement in Israel is for the land to be documented to be owned by someone else. Although there are a variety of opinions inside Israel on settlements, the government does not appear to accept the notion, commonly expressed outside of Israel, that settlements are an obstacle to peace or are illegal.  A more pluralistic future Palestinian state with towns that were started as settlements arguably provides the potential for a better quality of peaceful coexistence than a Palestinian state with no Jewish citizens.  Militant settlers who want to remain where they are as Israeli citizens, along with some right wing Israelis who are not settlers, and Palestinian militants, including Hamas, may try to scuttle such an agreement (a few militant Palestinians tried to scuttle the 2014 negotiations with violence).  The settlers would have to choose between leaving or becoming citizens of the Palestinian state.  The current Israeli government may have to replace its most right wing coalition partners to continue with a peace deal but I do not think that would be difficult to pull off.  Something along these lines appears to me to be the view of the current government of Israel, but I am not aware that they say much publicly about this.  

My guess is that settlers who remain without acquiring citizenship could be denied access to utilities such as electricity and water, denied access to banks, denied vehicle licenses, denied entry into neighboring countries, refused employment, detained, maybe deported to another country.  I do not know what will happen, but there are multiple ways to create difficulties for them.  Uncooperative settlers are a complication, particularly if they are numerous, but I am skeptical that they can block a Palestinian state from forming or functioning.  

When two countries sign a treaty, it could be a loan agreement, a trade agreement, a peace agreement, etc., they are usually both exchanging national sovereignty for a benefit.  One such possible exchange is to commit to not granting citizenship to anyone who is violating the citizenship laws of the other country. At the same time people who comply with the citizenship requirements of both countries can obtain dual citizenship.  This arrangement benefits both countries by supporting their citizenship laws. 

The UN and many countries generally, in contrast, prioritize political boundaries such as East Jerusalem (no mention of West Jerusalem), and the pre-1967 line as it was after all of the Jewish residents were forceably expelled by Jordan.  Oddly, they fail to make the Golan Heights versus a future Palestinian state distinction.  But those political boundaries, land ownership boundaries, and demographic boundaries as they were before 1967 do not always align with Israel's security concerns.  Israel recently has had a number of small skirmishes in the vicinity of the Golan Heights.  I think it is unlikely that any Israeli government will be willing to evacuate the Golan Heights regardless of how many resolutions are passed at the UN asserting that any non-negotiated changes to the pre-1967 line are not recognized, and regardless of any past offers by Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights.  With respect to Lebanon and whatever Syria becomes, it will be peace for peace or no peace.  I predict that there will be no future offer by Israel to return that particular territory Israel captured in the 1967 war.  The results of that war with regard to the Golan Heights are final.

Everyone in Israel is not comfortable with the notions that every time Israel offers new concessions in its negotiations with the Palestinians that those concessions are retained and carried over to future negotiations, that every time there is a negotiation the Palestinians use the opportunity to communicate through the press why everyone should think Israel is evil, and that the 1967 war and its outcome are legally invalid while everything starting the week before Israel won that war is legal and retained as the starting point for negotiations.  Jordan and Egypt did not behave that way when they negotiated peace with Israel. Reaching an agreement with the Palestinians will be more difficult than I think many people realize.  When Netanyahu imposed a 10-month construction freeze on all of Israel's settlements in the West Bank in response to pressure from the Obama administration, the Palestinian Authority rejected the gesture as being insignificant due to the limited construction on some pre-approved housing units, failure to extend the freeze to East Jerusalem, and failure to dismantle already-built settlement outposts.  Although Abbas did negotiate anyway in the ninth month, it appears (to me) unlikely that Abbas will change his mind and agree to the concessions that Israel requested, such as a long term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley.  We do not know who Abbas successor will be or whether his successor will be more accommodating to Israel's security concerns.  Nor do I think that Israel's requests for security concessions are going to diminish or change significantly after Netanyahu is replaced.   I do not know where the focus on the settlements as a "flagrant violation of international law" will take us, but without Israel's long term security concerns about that volatile region being respected I do not think we are going anywhere we want to be.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Religion and politics

By Mathew Goldstein

Is modern knowledge a pure, stand-alone, collection of information disconnected from conclusions about how the universe functions?  Of course not.  That question is ridiculous for entertaining an obviously untenable fiction.  Yet religious believers depend on arguments that modern knowledge is irrelevant or wrong when their religious beliefs clash with modern knowledge.  This has political consequences.

Should health insurance cover contraception?  If we live in a natural universe then the answer is yes.  If we live in a supernatural universe then the answer to this question, and for that matter the best answer to almost any other question regarding government policy, and individual decisions, depends on what it is claimed a supernatural entity wants, as was revealed to us in various texts, according to the interpretations of some religious authorities.

Some people who self-identify as secularists say that because our government is defined as secular it does not matter what anyone thinks regarding deities because it is legally forbidden for lawmakers to even consider such claims.  After all, any claim that asserts god says such and such is automatically religious.  So there is no practical problem here.

Such secularists are wrong.  There is still a problem.  One remaining problem is that the definition of secular depends on utilizing modern knowledge as our decision making foundation.  Yet this principle of basing decision making on modern knowledge is itself rejected by many religious people.  Furthermore, it cannot be otherwise.  Religious people must reject at least some modern knowledge because otherwise they cannot maintain their mutually exclusive religious beliefs.  They may deny this conflict between their beliefs and modern knowledge, but this conflict is there, and their mistaken denial does not make the problem go away.

When some secularists campaign for an end to establishment of monotheism they are criticized by some of their fellow secularists.  The criticisms go like this: There are more important issues!  We cannot win!

The "there are more important issues" complaint is bogus.  Ok, there are more important issues.  We agree.  So what?  There are always more important issues.  No one claims this is a most important issue.  That is not a reasonable standard or demand.  It is hypocritical.  No one can claim that they only focus on the most important issues.  The only valid standard is this:  What is better versus what is worse.  When we advocate for what is better against what is worse then we have met our civic obligations to ourselves and to everyone else.

The "we cannot win complaint" gets more to the heart of the problem.  This is about fear, fear of the unknown.  And it is reasonable to fear popular bigotry, hatred, intolerance, resentment.  Hell, I have experienced this too much in my own life.  So what do we do?

A good place to start is to acknowledge the fact that popular opinion matters.  Then we can tackle popular opinion as the problem that it is.  The other thing we should acknowledge is that there is no easy way to do this.  We cannot tip toe around the tulips here.  Addressing the public opinion problem entails confronting it head on.  People who insist otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking.  We should get off of our high horses and engage. We should not leave the public space to conservative and liberal theists debating between themselves.  We should actively argue against theism.  The best kind of citizen (contra Boy Scouts of America) debates other citizens to correct popular misperceptions that we live in a supernatural universe.

Debating the issues at the higher levels alone is a bad strategy.  That approach simply fails to address the underlying motivations for the disagreements which are sometimes rooted in opposing understandings of how the universe functions.  It cannot be overemphasized that people who make decisions, and advocate for policies, that match their understanding of how the universe functions are correct to be doing that.  We should be unembarrassed about focusing on that lower level, on people's understanding of how the universe functions, and in particular on the natural versus supernatural universe disagreement.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The arguments of Christian author Timothy Keller

By Mathew Goldstein

The NY Times columnist Nicolas Kristof turned to the Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the award-winning bestseller The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, to tell us if Mr. Kristof is a Christian.  An excerpt of the interview was published the day before Christmas.  I could not care less who the Rev. Keller claims qualifies as Christian (he concluded Mr. Kristof appeared to be "on the outside of the boundary").  The focus here is his arguments for why we should be Christian.  Let's see if the Rev. Keller's argument for why we should be Christian is compelling.

In response to Kristof saying he doubts the veracity of the Christian claim that a virgin women became pregnant and gave birth, the Rev. Keller points out that saying that climate change is a hoax is inconsistent with being a board member of Greenpeace.  Similarly, he argues, any religious faith must have some boundaries for dissent that cannot be removed without destabilizing the whole thing.  OK, but climate change is backed by empirical evidence, it is not a faith, and this distinction is important for the quality of any argument defending factual claims about how the universe functions.  Greenpeace is properly justified in claiming that climate change is factual.  We agree that boundaries are needed.  Let's begin by properly setting the boundary between justified and unjustified beliefs.  We know that women who become pregnant are not virgins.  The Rev. Keller's response here does not succeed in arguing otherwise.

Mr. Kristof points out that the earliest accounts of the life of Jesus do not mention a virgin birth and the virgin birth story in the Book of Luke was written in a different kind of Greek that indicates it was added later.  This is a reasonable, best fit with the empirical evidence, argument against the veracity of the virgin birth story.  The letters of Paul, the gospels of Mark and Thomas, say nothing about a virgin birth.  The Rev. Keller replies that dismissing the virgin birth "would damage the fabric of the Christian message."  He then argues for the centrality of belief in the virgin belief to the Christian message.  The Rev. Keller's argument here violates a basic premise of empiricism.  We do not start with a conclusion and then dismiss the counter-argument on nothing more than an a-priori, circular, commitment to retain that conclusion.

Mr. Kristof then asks if the Resurrection must be taken literally.  Again, the Rev. Keller mistakenly responds by citing the centrality of Christianity's historical doctrines to its ethical teachings.  OK, but when people die our metabolism stops, our body disintegrates, and shortly thereafter the physical damage is too substantial for any possibility of the metabolism restarting.  Gravity keeps the disintegrating body attached to the earth.  The Christian message is not empirical evidence otherwise.  The Rev. Keller appears to fail to recognize that historical assertions are factual conclusions, not doctrines, and that such conclusions can only be justified with supporting empirical evidence.  Christian beliefs are not empirical evidence for Christian beliefs.

Mr. Kristof points out that the first gospel, Mark, is "fuzzy" about the Resurrection being an actual historical event.  The Rev. Keller responds that Mark's gospel "ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us."  He then makes the argument that the fact that women who had social low status were the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection implies that their Resurrection claims are true because a fictional account would have cited men as the eyewitnesses.  He then cites "thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshipping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical."  These are empirical evidence based arguments.  

The Rev. Keller is now recognizing that empirical evidence carries weight and has a place in this argument.  But he is being noticeably selective here, citing empirical evidence only when it favors his conclusion, having abandoned empiricism altogether when it was unfavorable to his conclusion.  His arguments are weak and dubious.  The Rev. Keller overlooks that the gospels (after Mark) all included male eyewitnesses to bolster credibility, in addition to the initial female eyewitnesses.  His claim of thousands of sudden Jewish converts to Christianity is a dubious historical factual assertion.  Most of the converts to Christianity were likely polytheists.  Christian beliefs likely spread gradually, starting with small groups of people who came in contact with the first traveling evangelical, the originator of Christianity, Paul.  Out of 1-2 million Jews, maybe 1000 were Christian at the end of the 1st century, we do not know the actual number. The Rev. Keller's claim that "most scholars" think that there is an additional final section to Mark's gospel that is missing is also dubious.  Mark, the first gospel to be written, ends where it does because the resurrection eyewitness stories were first introduced in the subsequent gospels.  We have no evidence otherwise.  I think he is defining "most scholars" as most Christian believers with a graduate degree in religious studies.  Those graduate degrees are occupational, not scholarly.  Early first century historians never mention a resurrection of Jesus (Philo-Judaeus, Martial, Arrian, Appian, Theon of Smyrna, Lucanus, Aulus Gellius, Seneca, Plutarch, Apollonius, Epictetus, Silius Italicus, Ptolemy).

Mr. Kristof responds that, as a journalist, he wants eyewitnesses and evidence because without such skepticism we apply a different standard towards our own faith tradition than we do towards "Islam and Hinduism and Taoism".  The Rev. Keller responds that he agrees we require evidence.  He then defends the existence of a god as being best fit with the evidence, citing human consciousness, cognition, and moral values as being non-materialistic.  We disagree both that those traits are unique to humanity and that those animal traits are non-materialistic in origin.  I am convinced that best fit with the available empirical evidence favors the conclusion that those capabilities found in biological creatures are manifested physically.  They are materialistically derived via selection of advantageous changes to DNA over multiple generations of reproducing life.  Physical damage or abnormalities to particular areas of the brain, or drug induced interference with particular processes that occur in the brain, alter or undermine consciousness, cognition, and moral attitudes and behaviors. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that those are human capabilities that lack a materialistic foundation and therefore evidence supernaturalism.  We now have an argument for deism.  There is still a large distance to travel from supernaturalism all the way to a bible based Christianity.

The Rev. Keller then argues, citing Nietzsche for support, that human rights, concern for others, and equality have no basis in a materialistic universe, that humanistic values require a leap of faith for non-theists.  I am not convinced that such goals have no logical or reasonable justifications in a materialistic universe.  As temporary, fragile, dependent, materialistic beings, we do better when we cooperate together towards realizing shared goals rooted in a collective respect for our common, naturalistic, needs.  But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Nietzsche and the Rev. Keller are correct.  Does supernaturalism avoid this leap of faith problem?  How?  God said so?  

Furthermore, how is a difficulty in justifying justice as a goal that is worthy of expending effort to try to achieve relevant to choosing between theism versus atheism?  We either live in a naturalistic or supernatural universe regardless of how easy, or difficult, it is to justify particular social goals.  These are two different, distinct, questions with the question of naturalism versus supernaturalism describing the larger context within which we subsequently tackle the second question.  The first, natural versus supernatural, question may have relevance to the second, justification for justice as a goal, question.  But the second question has no relevance to answering the first question.  The horse goes before the cart, not the other way around like Rev. Keller is trying to argue here.

Mr. Kristof responded to Rev. Keller by questioning whether holding beliefs consistent with modern science, such as supporting human rights, is analogous with beliefs "that seem inconsistent, like a virgin birth or resurrection?"  The Rev. Keller denied his Christian beliefs are inconsistent with science.  He cited divine miracles as the explanation for those two conclusions.  He pointed out that there is no possibility of proving that miracles do not happen.  OK, but we humans are not all present and all knowing (of course).  Therefore, this request from Rev. Keller for proof in this context is unreasonable.  Best fit with the available empirical evidence is the standard.  Without reliance on empirical evidence there is no proper justification for believing in miracles.  It makes no sense to claim otherwise.  Possibility alone does not justify belief that the possibility is true.  Certainly, science does not function that way.  Science depends on empirical evidence backed probability, not mere possibilities.

The Rev. Keller then asserts: "Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause."  Repeatability is a limitation.  But his claim that science must always assume a natural cause is false.  Science a-priori assumes nothing regarding whether a cause is natural or supernatural.  Science seeks out whatever is successful with regard to methods and conclusions.  The methods adopted by science are themselves conclusions derived from science.  Science adopts the methods that science concludes, based on successful outcomes, work.  For several hundred years science has relied exclusively on naturalistic methods and conclusions, not because science a-priori excludes supernaturalism, but because only naturalism is successful, supernaturalism always fails.

The Rev. Keller then argues that a one time miracle is beyond the reach of science.  OK, we agree that science can miss one time events that occurred two thousand years ago.  But where does this fact take us?  Is this is justification for being a monotheist, let alone for being a Christian?  We all agree that we have limitations that carry over to the human activity we refer to as science.  We do not eyewitness the past or the future, for example.  Our capabilities are clearly limited, particularly without the assistance of machines that are more capable in some respects than we are.  But we have no business going from our limitations all the way to factual conclusions about how the universe works.  Ignorance is not a proper justification for beliefs.  Ignorance is a justification for not knowing, it is not a justification for knowledge.  When we lose our keys at night in the dark we may not find them without a flashlight, at least not until after day break, unless the keys conveniently lay under a street lamp.  Meanwhile, it is not reasonable to conclude that by a one time divine miracle the keys were transported to the far side of the moon.

Mr. Kristof then asks the Rev. Keller if it is OK to have doubts and struggle over these kinds of questions.  The Rev. Keller answers yes.  Quoting from the Book of Jude, he claims doubts lead to stronger faith.  We disagree.  Doubts about the veracity of factual claims should take us to skepticism and away from belief in those conclusions.  The Rev. Keller then asserts that our choice is between faith in naturalism or faith in supernaturalism.  We disagree.  The only option is the best fit with the available empirical evidence conclusion.  The available evidence decisively favors naturalism, the evidence is neither silent or neutral on this question.  The laws of physics that best describe the functioning of our universe are mathematical equations consistent with our universe being mechanical, material, and physical.  There is no astrology, or evidence for a God, in those equations.  Or in biology, or anywhere in our shared modern knowledge about how the universe functions.

Mr. Kristof then questions the Christian belief that billions of people are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian countries.  The Rev. Keller responds that the bible clearly asserts that "you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus".  The Quran makes a similar claim that Islam is the exclusive postmortem route to a kingdom of God.  Some arguments are so convoluted and parochial they can come only from the mouths of some Christians, or Jews, or Muslims.  They resort to similar non-empirical, anti-empirical, and empirically weak or dubious, circular, incomplete, biased, arguments.  Instead of asking Rev. Keller to judge if he is Christian, Mr. Kristof may do better to say he has no desire to be Christian.