Monday, July 28, 2014

The War in Gaza

For those interested in the situation in Gaza there's an interesting piece in the Jerusalem Post about the Maglan unit, an Israeli commando force which operates behind the lines:
Operating behind enemy lines in Gaza during the conflict with Hamas, the elite Maglan unit has attacked dozens of terrorist cells that fired on the IDF, destroyed areas used to launch rockets and killed and injured 40 terrorists in the last few days.

A senior source from the unit revealed that its members targeted Hamas gunmen waiting in ambush for the IDF’s ground forces, striking the threats before the soldiers passed by the would-be attackers.

The Maglan unit has detected and destroyed forward Hamas posts and rocket launchers. It detected a cross-border underground attack tunnel leading into Israel from Gaza, and found 20 bomb-laden, booby-trapped Gazan homes. The unit also uncovered a large quantity of weapons in raids.

The source said the company is operating in a heavily built up area, characterized by residential buildings, orchards surrounded by buildings, and tunnels. Hamas planted its military assets deep inside the very fabric of Gazan civilian life, he said.

“Hamas operatives and area commanders, as well as their rocket cell members, keep one part of their home for normal family life. A second part of the home is the command center, or the start of a tunnel. Daily life and military infrastructure are totally interwoven,” the source said.

“This is the source of the complexity we face in our combat. We must overcome the challenge of differentiating between Hamas and the civilian population,” he added. The Maglan unit has met the challenge, having detected a series of Hamas assets, he said.
The spokesperson also noted that the Hamas fighters seem to have lost their appetite for fighting Israeli soldiers:
The source added that in recent days, a recognizable wave of demoralization has washed over Hamas’s combat battalions. “They simply escape, leaving behind weapons and suicide bomb vests that were laid out for battle. This morning we stormed a position, and they just weren’t there. I don’t see a determined enemy. We have encountered stronger pockets of fighting in the past. But now, I would not give them a high grade for fighting spirit.”
I came across a report elsewhere that claimed that Hamas fighters are often abandoned by their officers and left to face the Israelis alone. In any case, one of the objectives of the Maglan unit is to identify and destroy the tunnels:
Hamas built a network of tunnels that begin a few kilometers away from the Israeli border, and pass under the frontier, the source said, in a bid to enable dozens of terrorists to infiltrate the country. In response, the IDF has used a wide array of firepower and ground units to tackle the challenge, employing a rapid maneuver to “shatter the enemy and deny it freedom of operation in closed areas, where it is based,” he said.

“We move in as quickly as possible, engage in close combat, and prevent the enemy from using its tunnels to enter our territory,” the source said.

He recalled seizing large numbers of weapons, suicide bomb belts, and projectile launchers in recent raids.

“Hamas has turned tunneling into a national profession. They lean on highly skilled engineers to do this. We’re dealing with all of these threats through close-range combat,” the source added.

Hamas has built “defensive layers around the tunnels. They have attack positions in mosques, in the homes of operatives, and tunnels that allow terrorists to approach our forces,” he said.
As for the attempts to avoid civilian casualties these are complicated by the use of civilians and their homes as shields and weapons repositories.
“I have not entered one civilian home that did not have weapons, suicide belts, or booby traps in it,” the source said. Any home found to be containing women and children leads to an immediate halt of the raid, he said.

“We hold our fire, there’s no question. We don’t take chances with children and women. We allow them to leave, and then continue the raid. That’s who we are, and this is the source of our strength,” he said.
Israelis try as hard as they can to avoid harming civilians while Hamas and the other Palestinian terror groups are trying as hard as they can to ensure that the Israelis inadvertently kill Palestinian civilians. They're also trying as hard as they can to kill Israeli civilians. How much outrage did the world express about Hamas' use of human shields and the rockets they and their associates launched against Israeli cities? Very little.

When the Israelis kill a Palestinian civilian who has been forced to remain in a house from which rockets are being fired, the western media is in high dudgeon. When the Palestinians force that same civilian to remain in a targeted building or shoot two thousand rockets at Israeli children, the world yawns.

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine that instead of Russian backed Ukrainian terrorists accidentally shooting down the Malaysian airliner and killing almost 300 people suppose Israelis had accidentally shot it down. What would the world's reaction have been? Why is the United Nations not demanding that Russia stop meddling in the Ukraine and cease supplying the terrorists there with weapons with the same fervor with which they call upon Israel to stand down? Why are there no riots in the major cities of the world against this horrible deed?

Why, on the other hand, when several dozen people are killed in an accidental strike on a Gazan hospital (which may have been due to a failed Palestinian rocket) do anti-Israel and anti-semitic protests break out all across the globe? Why do people tisk when airliners are shot down but demand the deaths of Israelis when a hospital is accidentally bombed? Why is there not universal outrage at Hamas for building tunnels directly under Israeli kindergartens? Why is the world not outraged at threats to Israeli civilians by high-ranking officers in the Iranian military

This is a pretty good illustration of a reprehensible double standard if not of arrant moral bankruptcy on the part of those who condemn Israel for the war in Gaza.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Is Matter All There Is?

Science writer George Johnson summarizes in a piece in the New York Times the perplexity many thinkers feel when they look at the cosmos through the eyes of materialism. The perplexity results from a sense that materialism is leaving something out. Johnson is evidently a naturalist, i.e. he believes that nature is all there is, there's nothing that transcends nature, but he wonders if nature might include mind as well as matter. Materialism, the naturalistic belief that everything that exists reduces to a single substance, matter (and energy), seems inadequate to account for what science is learning about the cosmos.

Here are some excerpts from Johnson's essay:
[I]t is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time.

Since it was published in 2012, “Mind and Cosmos,” by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, is the book that has caused the most consternation. With his taunting subtitle — “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” — Dr. Nagel was rejecting the idea that there was nothing more to the universe than matter and physical forces. He also doubted that the laws of evolution, as currently conceived, could have produced something as remarkable as sentient life. That idea borders on anathema, and the book quickly met with a blistering counterattack.

What makes “Mind and Cosmos” worth reading is that Dr. Nagel is an atheist, who rejects the creationist idea of an intelligent designer. The answers, he believes, may still be found through science, but only by expanding it further than it may be willing to go.

Dr. Nagel finds it astonishing that the human brain — this biological organ that evolved on the third rock from the sun — has developed a science and a mathematics so in tune with the cosmos that it can predict and explain so many things.

Neuroscientists assume that these mental powers somehow emerge from the electrical signaling of neurons — the circuitry of the brain. But no one has come close to explaining how that occurs.

That, Dr. Nagel proposes, might require another revolution: showing that mind, along with matter and energy, is “a fundamental principle of nature” — and that we live in a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” Rather than being a blind series of random mutations and adaptations, evolution would have a direction, maybe even a purpose.
Indeed. In their book Quantum Enigma physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner make a compelling case that so far from the materialist belief that mind, whatever it is, arises as an epiphenomenon from matter (much as light is an epiphenomenon of fire), it's coming to look as though matter arises as an epiphenomenon of mind. In other words, mind, not matter, is the fundamental substance which makes up reality.
“Above all,” Nagel wrote, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.”
Although Nagel's book made materialists apoplectic (Neuroscientist Steven Pinker dismissed it as the "shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker") he's certainly not alone in suspecting that materialism is an obsolete metaphysical hypothesis.
While rejecting anything mystical, the biologist Stuart Kauffman has suggested that Darwinian theory must somehow be expanded to explain the emergence of complex, intelligent creatures. And David J. Chalmers, a philosopher, has called on scientists to seriously consider “panpsychism” — the idea that some kind of consciousness, however rudimentary, pervades the stuff of the universe.

Heading off in another direction, a new book by the physicist Max Tegmark suggests that a different ingredient — mathematics — needs to be admitted into science as one of nature’s irreducible parts. In fact, he believes, it may be the most fundamental of all.

In a well-known 1960 essay, the physicist Eugene Wigner marveled at “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining the world. It is “something bordering on the mysterious,” he wrote, for which “there is no rational explanation.” The best he could offer was that mathematics is “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

Dr. Tegmark, in his new book, “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality,” turns the idea on its head: The reason mathematics serves as such a forceful tool is that the universe is a mathematical structure. Going beyond Pythagoras and Plato, he sets out to show how matter, energy, space and time might emerge from numbers. But is mathematics, for all its power, really the root of reality? Or is it a product of the human mind?
If numbers are the root of reality where do numbers come from? Do they exist in some Platonic realm transcending space and time or do they exist in some transcendent mind? And why, when so much that we are learning, points to the universe as the product of a mind, is this idea so viscerally opposed? What are the implications of this view that so many thinkers find so repugnant and unacceptable, and why are they so repulsed by those implications?

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Left's Moral Blindness

In any conflict between peoples or nations the Left seems to assume that the stronger party is ipso facto villainous and the weaker party is noble. This simplistic assumption is nowhere more pellucid than in the current Israeli/Palestinian war. In order to maintain this assumption, though, the Left has to deny or suppress a host of facts. It also has to hold the stronger side of the battle to a standard that it's not willing to impose on the weaker side nor, for that matter, would it be willing to impose it on itself. This is either unintelligent or dishonest, or both.

Consider a recent editorial in the LA Times which is so estranged from reality as to justify the inference that it was written by representatives of Hamas. Breitbart gives us a summary:
The Los Angeles Times leads Thursday with a story entitled: "Gaza's dilemma: Deadly war or suffocating Israeli embargo." According to the story, Palestinians in Gaza are left with no choice but to wage war, because if they do not fire rockets at Israeli civilians, they must accept an Israeli [sic] "embargo." The article omits the obvious point that if Hamas would stop trying to kill Israelis, neither the embargo nor the war itself would be necessary.

The authors, Alexandra Zavis and Bathseva Sobelman, accept that Hamas started the war--and even suggest that most Palestinians in Gaza support it, though there is nothing beyond anecdotal evidence to prove that claim. They also describe Hamas's smuggling tunnels to Egypt--which have been used to import deadly weapons--in positive terms, lamenting their supposed closure: "Residents are left to struggle just to get by."

Nowhere--not once--in the entire article do Zavis or Sobelman note the terror tunnels that Hamas has spent the past several years building to attack Israel, diverting humanitarian aid and building materials for that purpose. Nowhere do they mention the fact that Hamas is using Palestinians as human shields, or that Israel has offered many ceasefires, or that the rockets fired from Gaza are intended to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible.

The article presents "war" or "embargo" as a false choice for Palestinians, utterly ignoring the fact that Gazans could choose peace instead of either of those options.
The Washington Post offers a condign rejoinder to the nonsense purveyed by the LA Times:
The distinguishing feature of the latest war between Israel and Hamas is “offensive tunnels,” as the Israeli army calls them. As of early Wednesday, 28 had been uncovered in Gaza, and nearly half extend into Israel, according to Israeli officials. The tunnels are the reason that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu decided last weekend to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, and they explain why that operation has strong support from Israelis in spite of the relatively heavy casualties it has inflicted.

Most significantly, the tunnels show why it has been difficult to reach a cease-fire and why any accord must forge a new political and security order in Gaza. Hamas’s offensive tunnels should not be confused with the burrows it has dug under Gaza’s border with Egypt to smuggle money, consumer goods and military equipment. The newly discovered structures have only one conceivable purpose: to launch attacks inside Israel. Three times in recent days, Hamas fighters emerged from the tunnels in the vicinity of Israeli civilian communities, which they clearly aimed to attack.

The ­concrete-lined structures are stocked with materials, such as handcuffs and tranquilizers, that could be used on hostages. Other tunnels in northern Gaza are designed for the storage and firing of missiles at Israeli cities.

The resources devoted by Hamas to this project are staggering, particularly in view of Gaza’s extreme poverty. By one Israeli account, the typical tunnel cost $1 million to build over the course of several years, using tons of concrete desperately needed for civilian housing.

By design, many of the tunnels have entrances in the heavily populated Shijaiyah district, where the Israeli offensive has been concentrated. One was found underneath al-Wafa hospital, where Hamas also located a command post and stored weapons, according to Israeli officials.

The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.
Thanks to Hot Air for the links. I was watching MSNBC's Morning Joe yesterday morning when one of the panelists asked a retired El Al Israeli security chief one of the most boneheaded questions I think I've heard since this new war began. He asked the Israeli why, if Iron Dome is so successful in deflecting Palestinian missiles, do the Israelis feel they need to invade Gaza to defend themselves. After all, Hamas has tried without success to kill Israeli civilians by futilely firing thousands of missiles into Israel so why not just sit back and let them keep doing it?

The question was breathtakingly otiose - not just because the rockets aren't the primary reason for the invasion, the tunnels are, but because even if they were the primary reason, they're reason enough. The questioner, whose name I missed, apparently thinks that a policeman shot numerous times by a thug but saved each time by his kevlar vest, should refrain from using deadly force against his assailant by returning fire because he really hadn't suffered any harm.

The MSNBC panelist's question simply shows the lengths to which some will go, even to the point of self-embarrassment, in order to try to pin blame on the tragic Palestinian casualties on Israel rather than on Hamas where it belongs.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kristallnacht All Over Again

A Parisian suburb known for its multiculturalism exploded in antisemitic hatred the other day.

It's interesting that news reports emphasize that the suburb was a multicultural oasis. Multiculturalism is just a feel-good euphemism for tribalism. Wherever disparate cultures are thrown together they either assimilate or they eventually wind up at each others' throats. The concept of a mosaic of cultures living together in harmony is a liberal fantasy rooted more in an unfounded belief in the inherent goodness of human beings than in empirical historical precedent.

People will only tolerate each other if they share a common core culture - particularly language and values. The more differences there are between people the more they are seen as "other" and the more friction there'll be between them. If there's a history of conflict and bloodshed between them in the countries of origin then the hope that they will get along in their adopted multicultural environment is almost certain to be dashed. This is why celebrations of differences among cultures living together is ill-conceived. What we should celebrate are the things that make us alike. We only encourage resentment and conflict by celebrating our differences and treating others as outsiders. Nations with large minority populations should strive to be cultural melting pots, not mosaics.

Lest we think that an apparent reprise of 1938 in Paris is limited to Europe and the effete French, the same sort of hatred for Jews is simmering in American cities. Boston saw a series of protests in recent days not just against Israel, but against Jews. Antisemitic insults were hurled and police had to extract several Jewish demonstrators from a crowd of pro-Palestinian leftist demonstrators who shouted for Jews to be killed and/or sent back to extermination camps.

The last time the Jews were targeted for murder it was by extremist socialists like the Nazis. This time it's socialists simpliciter. The Left and other Palestinian sympathizers, frustrated by their inability to harm Jews living in Israel, threaten to take out their hatreds on Jews living in supposedly enlightened Europe. Of course, "enlightenment" means little when it comes to tribal hatreds. Germany in 1938 was the most enlightened place in the world. Europeans, just like all human beings, have the heart of a beast covered by a thin patina of civilization. It doesn't take much to dissolve the patina away. Antisemitism seems to be an acid that dissolves that patina more quickly than just about anything else.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Michael Ruse's Ethics

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting recently interviewed atheist philosopher Michael Ruse for his series of interviews at the New York Times Opinionator blog. At one point in the exchange Gutting asked Ruse about his views on the relationship between religion and morality.

Gutting asked, "Is one of religion’s merits that it provides a foundation (intellectual and practical) for morality through the idea of God as divine lawgiver?" To which Ruse replied,
I am on record as an “evolutionary skeptic.” I don’t deny substantive morality — you ought to return your library books on time — but I do deny objective foundations. I think morality is a collective illusion, genetic in origin, that makes us good cooperators. And I would add that being good cooperators makes each one of us individually better off in the struggle for existence. If we are nice to other people, they are much more likely to be nice to us in return.

However, as the philosopher J.L. Mackie used to argue, I think we “objectify” substantive ethics — we think it objectively the case that we ought return library books on time. But we do this (or rather our genes make us do this) because if we didn’t we would all start to cheat and substantive ethics would collapse to the ground. So I don’t buy the moral argument for the existence of God. I think you can have all of the morality you need without God.
Ruse's response raises several questions. If morality is merely a set of "substantive" rules that we ought to follow if we want other people to treat us well, what if I can get along perfectly well in the "struggle for existence" without following these rules? Would it be wrong for me to ignore them? What if it actually promotes my chances for evolutionary success to flout the rules, would it be wrong to flout them? What if I don't give a fig for my evolutionary success, why should I follow those rules?

Consider a concrete example. I choose to ignore, let us say, the suffering of children in some other part of the world. I'm in a position to help them, I even present myself to others as one who is helping them, but in fact am not. Am I doing anything wrong by ignoring them? What obligates me to help them? Why is it wrong to pose as their benefactor when in fact I am not? On Ruse's view why is it wrong to refuse to help others who will never be in a position to ever return the favor?

Or consider a very powerful ruler who has life and death authority over his subjects. If no harm can come to him for anything he does, what's wrong, on Ruse's view, with such a man treating his political opponents cruelly? Imagine further that this man is able to deceive his people into thinking that he is in fact a kind and benevolent ruler when in fact behind the scenes he's a terribly cruel tyrant. Would Ruse think that would be wrong? It's hard to see how.

Ruse's position leads inevitably to egoism, the view that my good is the only good I need be concerned about. When he says that morality is an illusion that our genes create to get us to cooperate with each other he undercuts any ground for taking morality seriously. Why should we take an illusion seriously? Why should we think that a random, impersonal process like genetic evolution could ever impose a duty on us to behave one way rather than another?

Unless there is an objective moral law established by a transcendent moral authority able to enforce the law and hold us accountable to it there simply is no right or wrong behavior. There are only actions that some of us like and others dislike.

In other words, one can hold that it's wrong to be cruel or one can hold that there is no God (setting aside the matter of how we should properly conceptualize God), but what one cannot do is hold both of these propositions simultaneously. If one is true the other is false.

Atheist philosopher Richard Rorty saw this clearly. He famously observed that "For the secular man there's no answer to the question 'Why not be cruel?' "

On atheism, morality is nothing more than a set of subjective preferences and tastes, of no more significance than a person's preference of one flavor of ice cream over another. That being the case, when an atheist says anything more about another person's behavior than that they like it or don't like it, they're acting as if God exists while simultaneously denying that he does, and that's irrational.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Angry Atheist

A year ago a video appeared on YouTube that ultimately went viral. Perhaps you saw it but, as often happens with pop cultural phenomena, I missed it completely. Happily, it was resurrected by Hot Air's resident atheist Allahpundit who pondered whether the tirade of the man on the video was staged or genuine.

I tend to think for reasons stated by the man who filmed it that it was genuine, but that the man who is the subject of the video needs help and compassion. He seems to be suffering a psychotic episode, but may, on the other hand, not be mentally deranged at all but just be releasing a lot of pent-up anger.

In any case, one wonders how representative of contemporary atheism this man is, not in terms of his behavior so much, but in terms of his convictions. How many people out there are as angry and hate-filled as he? How many atheists are laboring under as many misconceptions about Christianity as this fellow is? For that matter, how many Christians come across to non-Christians as angry and irrational as this man comes across?

The video is both funny and sad - sad because if it's genuine this man has evidently experienced a lot of pain in his life, and funny because, well, you'll have to watch it for yourself.

The incident takes place at Sproul Plaza on Berkeley's campus and viewers are cautioned that there's a lot of obscenity. I was reluctant to post it for that reason, but I chose to do so because I believe the man gives us an important look, though he's an extreme example, at how many people view Christians and Christianity.
You might wish to read also the commentary by atheists Allahpundit and Hement Mehta at the links above.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How the Israelis Know Where to Look

I returned Saturday from a vacation in Italy having spent a week admiring that country's vast treasures of art, history, and architecture. I had been pretty much out of touch with the news while abroad but had heard bits and pieces of the attack on the Malaysian jet by Russian-supported separatists in Ukraine, the ground invasion of Gaza, and the continuing crisis on our southern border.

The globe seems to be overwhelmed with unmanageable crises and yet the President's press secretary, Josh Ernest, assures us that his boss' policies have "made the world more tranquil." Either the world looks very different to people in Washington than it does to us living in the hinterlands or Mr. Ernest has been spending too much time in Colorado availing himself of opportunities afforded by Colorado's new pot laws.

Anyway, I came across a piece at Debkafile on how Israel knows where to look to find targets for their air and ground forces. Here's an excerpt:
IDF (Israeli Defense Force) obtains its eyes on the ground either voluntarily, inadvertently or by interrogating prisoners.

The spies on the ground of the Shin Bet, IDF combat intelligence-gathering and AMAN field units, trained in clandestine operations in an Arab environment, may pick up data bonanzas from ordinary people in war zones, who are willing to talk out of various motives:

Financial: Ordinary Gazan Palestinians, in contrast to their ruling elite, are in dire financial distress. They may be persuaded to part with valuable information for a cash reward or a permit to cross into Israel.

Revenge: They are deeply fragmented by factional and personal rivalries. Certain elements may offer information to settle scores with their opponents.

Safe Guarantee: A Palestinian in Gaza may be willing to sell valuable secrets to buy an IDF guarantee of safety from attack for himself, his family and his property for the duration of the Israeli-Hamas military conflict.

Buying long-term collaborators with financial or medical rewards is one of the key HUMINT operations which are performed under cover of the IDF ground incursion.
How likely is it, do you suppose, that the Palestinians have cultivated the same sorts of sources among Israelis?

Of course, different measures are employed against captured combatants but even with these the Israelis prefer subtlety to force:
Contrary to conventional assumptions, Israeli interrogators have not found violence to be the most productive method of extracting secrets from unwilling subjects. They obtain their best results by tricks and subterfuge and, dovetailing the information obtained with the data incoming from other sources, human and other.

They also act on the premise that their subjects may be utterly faithful to their national and religious ideals, but some may also be human beings with personal ambitions, wives, aging parents or sick children in need of medical or other assistance. Therefore, a detailed rundown on the subject’s CV obtained in advance will give the investigator the advantage of knowing where to apply pressure to extract information.

This sort of pressure is apt to produce a gold mine, the key piece of information for unlocking such secrets as the locations of terrorist tunnel openings – the first of which Israel ground forces in fact found Friday night in schools, private homes and greenhouses.

It may also yield from prisoners such valuable data as the whereabouts of the booby traps Hamas rigged for invaders, the identities of contact men, the Hamas chain of command, its combat systems, its technological resources and its command and control centers.
One of the things Israeli interrogators have learned is that Hamas has built its command and control center in the basement of a hospital to protect it from Israeli air attack. They've placed their rocket launchers in schools and homes for the same reason. That is a very illuminating fact for two reasons: It's an acknowledgement that Israel tries hard to avoid civilian casualties, a fact which Hamas exploits, and it offers a stark contrast with Hamas which would not be deterred at all from bombing an Israeli hospital whether or not there were military targets therein.

As Benjamin Netanyahu said the other day, Israel uses missiles (Iron Dome) to protect it's people. Hamas uses people to protect it's missiles. Indeed, Hamas is reported to be telling people in Gaza not to flee their homes because they know that if the people flee the Israelis will be less reluctant to assault urban areas, and they also know that if the people stay and some are killed this works to Hamas' advantage in the court of world opinion.

It could in fact be argued that Hamas cares less about the welfare of the Palestinian people who are useful merely as human shields than do the Israelis. If Hamas did care about their people they would've spent a far larger percentage of the millions of dollars in aid they've received from the global community, including the U.S., on mitigating the rough edges of the poverty in which Gaza is mired and less on weaponry and tunnel building.

All of which illustrates the difference between a civilized people and barbarians.