Saturday, August 30, 2014

Are Nato the bad guys?

Today there is a Nato summit going on in Newport, Wales, and some people are protesting against it. Here are some of them:

I know it looks like they're protesting in support of Palestine, whose main antagonist (Israel) isn't in Nato, but I'm assured that it's an anti-Nato protest. 

At the same time, there are Russian tanks invading Ukraine. You can watch a video of that happening here.

Now, you'll notice that CND tweeted the picture of the protesters, and that's because they agree with them; they've been encouraging their Twitter followers to go to the protest for a while. As I understand it, they think Britain should unilaterally leave. They think Nato makes the world less safe from wars. I agree with CND (which stands for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) about nuclear disarmament: I'm really not persuaded that nuclear weapons help anybody except the people who make them and the North Korean government. I'm also pretty anti-war in general, and Nato does participate in wars. But I'm not sure I agree with CND about Nato.

They make their case against Nato here. Basically, they have these problems with it:

  • Nato was set up to defend against the USSR, which doesn't exist anymore.
  • Since the USSR broke up, Nato has expanded to include former USSR members and allies, and is trying to include even more, which winds Russia up and makes them invade Ukraine.
  • Now that the Cold War is over, the Devil is making work in Asia and Africa (Libya) for Nato's idle hands, instead of Nato just focusing on defence.
  • America bullies Nato members in Europe into hosting nuclear weapons, which violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Now, on the whole I've thought that Nato's expansion into Eastern Europe was a fine thing which allows peoples formerly under the Soviet boot to be relatively confident of peace and self-determination. The central idea of Nato is that if one of the members is attacked then all the members treat it as an attack on themselves. Since the combined military force of Nato is huge, this makes it a pretty big step invading a Nato member. While Russia can invade Ukraine now and invaded Georgia in 2008 without starting World War Three, they seem to let the Baltic states and the rest of the eastern part of Nato get on with joining the EU and whatever other unRussian activities they fancy. Turkey (in Nato since 1952) also seems to have been quite safe for a country with such nasty neighbours (USSR, Assad, Saddam Hussein, Iran). From this point of view, Ukraine's current crisis doesn't result from Nato expanding too much, but from it not expanding enough.

Now, while it's obviously nice if peoples can be more confident of peace and self-determination than eastern Europe was when the USSR existed, this isn't CND's main concern. CND, naturally, is most concerned about protecting humanity from annihilation in a nuclear war. I think that's the concern behind most of their objection to Nato. So, are they right? In my zeal to protect the people of Latvia, am I supporting an institution which risks killing us all? Well, let's look at CND's objections to Nato.

"The USSR doesn't exist anymore."
It is true that the threats faced by Nato members aren't exactly the same as they were when Stalin and his successors were around. It's also true that around the start of the 1990s Russia became much less interested in controlling its neighbours. If Gorbachev or even Yeltsin was still in charge of Russia, maybe there still wouldn't be such a problem. But Putin and whoever else wields the power in Russia are quite obviously very interested in influencing and annexing parts of their neighbours. The Cold War is over but Russia is still obviously a threat to eastern Europe. It's invading it right now.

"All this Nato expansion is just winding Russia up."

It isn't easy to adjudicate the extent to which Russia's current aggression results from being wound up by Nato expansion. Maybe Putin wants to grab as much of Ukraine as possible before it joins Nato and becomes untouchable. Maybe he wants to be the most successful, powerful politician he can be, and that means grabbing places that are vulnerable. Either way it seems pretty harsh on the Baltic states to leave them vulnerable for fear of what Russia will do somewhere else.

"Nato members end up having to go along with US aggression"

The point about sucking countries into America's military adventures isn't easy either. One thing to point out is that how involved countries got in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya wasn't determined by whether they were in Nato. Another thing is that you can't really say that military action which is conducted under the auspices of Nato now wouldn't happen if Nato didn't exist. You might even think it's better if countries that suck up to America by joining in with their military adventures at least get a mutual protection pact out of it, rather than being left in the lurch if Putin comes a-calling at the wrong part of the American election cycle. But it's probably true that Nato gives America a list of ready-made allies who feel pushed into joining in with America's wars, which often lie somewhere on the spectrum between catastrophic foolishness and racially aggravated mass murder.

"America is violating the non-proliferation treaty."

The last point, about making non-nuclear countries host nuclear weapons, isn't really something I know much about. I don't know why they don't just tell the Americans to take their WMDs elsewhere, or whether the reason has anything to do with Nato. It does however seem like pretty small potatoes. The risk of Russia invading an undefended Latvia seems a lot more real than the risk of someone accidentally setting off a nuclear bomb. People nearly accidentally detonate nuclear bombs every few decades; Russia actually invades an ex-Soviet state every few years. And if we do all die in a nuclear war, I'm not convinced it might be because the missiles were based in Germany.

I guess it might seem like I'm pretty pro-Nato, but I wouldn't go that far. I don't know enough about it, as well-informed readers can presumably tell. But I don't think CND have made the case well enough, and I think they're focusing too much on the threat of nuclear war and ignoring the rest of the picture. I'm not saying that Nato's wonderful or even that all things considered Britain shouldn't leave, but I am saying that if you were protesting in Newport and you don't live somewhere like Latvia or somewhere else like Ukraine then maybe you should think about how lucky you are.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A good day to create the universe

Ancient and medieval cosmologists used to wonder whether the universe had always existed, or whether it had come into existence at some particular time in the past. (I don’t think it had occurred to them that it might have existed throughout an open temporal interval bounded at the start but with no first point.) One of the arguments in favour of the universe always having existed was based on what philosophers call the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The idea was that if the universe had come into being at some particular time then there should be some reason why it came into being at that time rather than at another. This worry can be beefed up a bit if you think that God created the universe: even if random events can happen for no reason, it seems odd to think God would make a decision for no reason. Of course it’s odd to imagine God paralysed between two bales of hay like Buridan’s ass, but it’s actually kind of hard to explain exactly how arbitrary divine decisions are meant to work.

One option in the face of this problem is to say that the universe has always existed, and if you want to put a theological spin on that then you can say that God constantly acts to keeps the universe going, or that it depends on him in some other way besides being created at a particular time. An alternative is to say that there was no such thing as time independent of the universe being created: God’s act of creating the universe also created time itself. That option goes back a long way, but it’s probably harder to square with a pre-modern understanding of time than with the picture offered by contemporary physics, so people still fretted about it. It’d be nice to have an explanation for why one time to create the universe might have been better than the others, so that’s what I’m going to offer today.

When philosophers of religion aren’t fretting about cosmology, they’re usually fretting about free will and divine foreknowledge. If God knows this morning what I’ll do this afternoon, how can my actions this afternoon be free? Well, one option put forward by Boethius is to say that, just as seeing something happening now isn’t making it happen, seeing/knowing about something happening in the future doesn’t make that happen either. We control what we’ll do, and that determines what God (correctly) believes we’ll do. If that’d be a case of backwards causation, then there’s backwards causation. (Backwards causation? Wouldn't that mean time travel is possible? Well, yes: with God all things are possible.) Now, if you take this line on free will and divine causation, then I can help explain why God created the universe when he did.

The idea is that, at each time while he was waiting to create the universe, God knew which free choices the people would make if he created the universe then. The same initial conditions could lead to different outcomes – that’s what indeterminism is – and at each time God knew which outcomes he’d get if he put his initial conditions in place then. He waited until the time that would lead to the best choices, created the universe then, and here we are.
For someone with the prior commitments I have about time, free will, the existence of God and the principle of sufficient reason, this puzzle is basically moot. But a puzzle being moot never stops philosophers trying to solve it. And if you have different commitments, maybe my idea can help you more substantively. What do you think?