I am sitting on a balcony in Haifa, Israel. Looking westward, I can see a sleepy haze obscuring the horizon where the Mediterranean meets the sky. The atmosphere here is calm – it is Saturday, a holy day. Occasionally I hear the blaring of a car horn, or the happy squeal of a child, or the squawk of a seagull. But otherwise there is silence.
In the laziness of the afternoon it is difficult to imagine this city during times of war. Yet even today I cannot ignore the signs of conflict. There are the more noticeable auguries: my grandparents’ guest room, where I have been sleeping during my visit, is also their bomb shelter. The news says that another rocket has fallen in the South. Settlers in the West Bank have burned down a house with a child inside. Of such signs everyone is aware, and they are the talk of the town. But there are the more subtle portents: the pervasive sense of being surrounded by an Other, the fear that the Other dwells within our walls, and memories, always fresh, of death.
I am often asked my opinion of the conflict. It seems unavoidable – as either an Israeli or a Palestinian, you are a political body, and you are supposed to have an opinion. Of course I have my thoughts about it, which change every week, but I won’t say them here. My voice will only get lost in the din of opinions that rings loud here in the Middle East. But this visit has led me to think more broadly about violent conflict, which I now think is the result of, or is at least greatly facilitated by, an unscientific understanding of nation and identity.
Take the concept of national identity, which is simply a way to describe a person. A person is a highly complex arrangement of cells, which are made up of organic (i.e. carbon-based) molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of protons and neutrons and electrons, which are made of even smaller sub-atomic particles, which are themselves just excitations of various interacting quantum fields. A human is not itself a fundamental thing, but rather a label for a process or way in which a group of more fundamental things like sub-atomic particles behave. National identity is even less fundamental, since it simply labels groups of people; it is one level of abstraction up from the concept of a person. Identities like “American, “Russian,” “Iranian,” or “Englishman” are entirely social constructs.
The concept of a country is even more problematic. A country is a tiny stretch of rock on Earth (itself a dust mote in an insignificant corner of an insignificant galaxy), which some number of carbon-based life forms claim is theirs to the exclusion of other nearly identical carbon-based life forms. These carbon-based life forms usually develop some level of social organization to govern that tiny stretch of rock. From a scientific perspective, this is highly suspect. First, it is unclear what it means for some number of carbon-based life forms to own a stretch of rock. It is even less clear what it means to have a “right” to a stretch of rock, since a “right” is most certainly not a real, fundamental thing. Just like the identities of the groups of carbon-based life forms that live there, the stretches of rock called “America” or “Russia” or “Iran” or “England” are convenient fictions.
In the face of such a worldview, values like the importance of one’s nation or ethnic identity inevitably erode. But one value remains resolutely intact, and that is human wellbeing. Though we may be sacks of chemicals, we are sacks of chemicals with very real feelings and desires. The scientific worldview simply asks us to expand the circle of sacks of chemicals whose wellbeing we care about, because we cannot rationally justify prioritizing the wellbeing of one group of sacks of chemicals over that of another nearly identical group of sacks of chemicals. And, as I have argued before, we do have good reason to care about other sacks of chemicals within a scientific worldview. The goal of politics should not be to protect fictional constructs like ethnicity or state, but rather, ultimately, to increase the overall wellbeing of sentient sacks of chemicals.
Of course, realpolitik will always be realpolitik. Tough political situations often force us to think practically rather than ideologically, especially when at least one group in a conflict considers violence a viable option. Fortunately, I am not a politician or a political theorist so I do not have to think practically. What I am is a scientist and a science communicator. So I will go on doing my best to broadcast the scientific worldview to as many people as I can. If in doing so I manage to convince just one person of the irrationality of fighting over a piece of rock, then I will have done my part.
In the meantime, I will have to content myself with sitting on this balcony and watching the eerie calm here on this tiny stretch of planet earth, penetrated here and there by the crying of a baby or the murmur of the few cars on the road, all of it capped by that lazy haze that is still obscuring the line where the Mediterranean meets the sky.