Howard Adelman

Where does this analysis of the process by which the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) arrived at the recommendation that Palestine be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state leave us? The conclusions fall into a number of headings. The first and most important deals with historical myth and fact. The very widespread belief that the creation of Israel was supported by non-Jews because of guilt over the Holocaust proves to be a myth. If the proceedings of the UNSCOP offer any clue, and I believe they offer a very core and central piece of evidence, there is absolutely no support for this belief. It can and should be relegated to the ash heap of academic history as a total myth. Of course, it would be of great historical interest to trace the origins and consolidation of that myth as a critical part of interpreting the story of Israel. But that is a job for another time and another person.

Israel began its national life by declaring itself as a redeemed state by and for the Jewish people and accomplished by the dedication, labour and sacrifices of those people. Israel was not brought into being because of a series of reports culminating in that of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) or the resolution in November 1947 in support of partition. However, UNSCOP’s majority recommendation for partition and the United Nations General Assembly majority vote endorsing that recommendation did add a considerable measure of legitimacy to the Israeli declaration of independence, but it was not the reason Israel came into being. Further, even in the reasoning behind legitimating this outcome, few believed that the outcome was just and justified because it would be the realization of a dream of self-determination of the Jewish people. The much more important factor was where to settle the 250,000 Jewish refugees in Europe in 1947 when very few states indicated any willingness to resettle the refugees in any significant numbers.

A second set of conclusions entail explaining historical events in general and in explaining this precise event in particular. I wrote my PhD thesis on historical explanation. There were two predominant theories in contention. The positivist thesis, the foremost proponent of which was Carl Hempel, argued that events were explained when we enunciated all the relevant historical laws and all the specific kinds of particular events that would allow us to predict the occurrence of the event as a definitive or, at the very least, probable outcome. A rational explanation was akin to a scientific explanation and was valid when it retrospectively facilitated prediction.

Opposed to this positivist account was an idealistic one, led by Bill Dray when I was a graduate student. That thesis argued that one explained an event when one could re-enact the internal thinking of individual historical agents so that, instead of propositions such as Hempel proposed – If C1, C2, C3…Cn (the classes of historical conditions) and L1, L2, L3…Ln (the presumptive laws of history) then (probably) E, where the event, E was the class of events into which the specific event being explained fell. The idealist model, in contrast argued that, “If C1, C2, C3…Cn (the specific conditions as perceived by the agent) and P1, P2, P3…Pn (the general norms held by the agent) then the thing to do would be A (the action in question, in this case, vote for and recommend the partition of Palestine).

If the positivist account in which scientific modelling was imposed on all thought now seems so ludicrous and irrelevant, one wonders why it was taken so seriously seventy years ago. Certainly, no scholarly historian has been shown to undertake his work in conforming to such a model. Further, theoretically, there is no way he could since history has never been about predictability but more often about unpredictability until positivism began to rage across the intellectual stage in the nineteenth century and scholars tried their hand at devising large scale historical laws.

The idealist explanation gained much more traction because it had a much better pedigree when discussing an actual historian’s work. Certainly one of the intellectual devices used by historians was a re-enactment of the thinking process of an agent involved in making a significant historical decision. However, as useful as this device is in understanding one person’s decision-making in some circumstances, it is useless in most actual cases. Even in the cases cited as illustrations, my thesis argued that the model and the actual case were incongruent. Further, what is most often being explained is the result of collective decision making an action rather than the decisions of an individual. In addition, as I have argued in this case, most of the processes of thinking and drawing conclusions are a mixture of deliberation, pre-fixed ideologies, current and recent experience, dialogue with others and chance circumstances and external pressures. The latter may be limited when a committee is truly set up to be independent.

The most important reason why the above models are totally inadequate is that historians do not explain events or actions or decisions so much as events, decisions and actions are used to explain conundrums or puzzles about history. And one of the duties of a historian is to discover those puzzles. In the case of the UNSCOP recommendation, I argued that the puzzle was why UNSCOP recommended partition when the initial alignments as discovered and documented by historical research indicated that such an outcome was quite unlikely.

In this case, key factors that came into play were not allowed for in either the positivist or the idealist model of historical explanation. Chance is perhaps the most important. The outcome could not have been and should not have been expected because who knew that, during most of these proceedings, John Hood of Australia and Dr. N.S. Blom of the Netherlands were toadies of the foreign affairs departments or the foreign ministers of their respective states rather than independent-thinking contributors to the work of the committee. More importantly, until the last three weeks of the deliberations, both were instructed to oppose partition. The first ended up abstaining because his Foreign Minister did not realize his ambitions for which he needed the support of the Arab states and the second reversed himself and supported partition when, in August, the Arab League came out and openly supported the Indonesian nationalists in their fight against the Netherlands.

However, the role of serendipity is not the only factor to challenge the models held in such high esteem seventy years ago – at least by philosophers though not so much by most historians who recognized that what they did had very little to do with the models put forth by philosophers at that time. Ideology is critical. That is the predispositions with which decision makers and deliberators bring with them to the table are extremely important. Well, perhaps some might argue, this fits in with the idealist model where general principles held by an individual are taken into account in a calculation. But there is no indication that any of the deliberators held that the principles they believed in governed universally even if they were disposed to believe that this should be the case. They may have believed that the principles they held should be universal, but nowhere is there any evidence that they argued that those principles should govern, though perhaps Dr. Jorge García Granados of Guatemala) came closest.

In fact, in examining the deliberations one comes to the conclusion – accepted implicitly by most historians and political scientists – that in the deliberations, as well as in the expectation of each of the parties, there was a belief that a practical solution had to take into account the incompatibility of the principles in contention. The process was a matter of negotiations and not deductive decision making, whether from descriptive or prescriptive laws.

That is why a person like Ivan Rand looms so large in understanding the proceedings of UNSCOP. Sandström may have quietly looked down on him as unprincipled given his shape-shifting during the discussions. Ralph Bunche may have regarded him as an opinionated verbose loudmouth and blowhard. However, Ivan Rand emerges as the key individual seeking compromise and, thereby, was perfectly positioned to write the draft of the majority recommendation. In the process, he was critically influential in shifting two of the eleven members from supporting a single state dominated by Arabs to a federal solution (the minority report) and shifting one of the delegates to support partition because the draft made room for that representative’s primary concern with the role of Christianity in Jerusalem.

Beyond the serendipity of exogenous factors, the ideological differences and dispositions of the members of the committee, the process of compromise involved and the role of a mediating entrepreneur, there was also the most fundamental split of all in the committee, the one between the East and the West, and, more specifically, between Muslims on the committee and others.

There are also implications for more substantive matters. One is Jerusalem. When one knows that the recommendation to internationalize Jerusalem and make it an independent state arose primarily from the need to win over one member to the partition side, when you add to that the total ineffectiveness of the UN in taking over the governance of the city after the mandate ended, when one notes that in all cases, the city has been governed by those that took it by force, how can one expect it to be divided again by a peace treaty, in spite of my idealist expectations that, in the name of peace and recognition of the position of the East Jerusalem Arabs, I personally would be willing to divide the city.

My desires are a matter of indifference to historiography. It is precisely such an expectation that is as unrealistic as Martin Buber’s hope for a bi-national state was at the time. When you add to that the current fact that Jerusalem is now Israel’s largest city (of course, Greater Tel Aviv is larger, but not Tel Aviv per se), and that 350,000 Jews live in what was once Jordanian governed territory, it is totally unrealistic to expect Jerusalem to be placed partially under Palestinian sovereignty, whatever my hopes might be, and whatever the desires of those unwilling to fight for a different result.

Though requiring much more stretch, the same might be said about the West Bank or Judea and Samaria, at least of the densely populated Jewish parts of those areas. A trade of land was once a realistic prospect, but since Yasser Arafat walked away from the compromise proposal post-Oslo, as each year passes, the prospect of surrendering the Jewish populated parts of the West Bank even for land to be given to an independent Palestinian state grows more remote and more unlikely. This is a major reason for the shrinkage of the peace camp and the left in Israel. In the process, the role of the revisionists is now being read in a new light by historians, just as the hagiography on Israeli history had to be rewritten as a result of the work of the new historians beginning thirty years ago.

Truth has often been said to be a silent casualty of war but there may be an even larger more valid generalization. Hopes projected onto polities by dreams of peace may be an even greater casualty when war is found to be the main determiner of the actual outcomes in deep-seated conflicts, a conclusion that is diametrically at odds with my role as a peacenik my entire adult life.

This set of blogs has been an inquiry into why UNSCOP made a recommendation for partition, admittedly shortened by a focus on only one of the two sub-committees supplemented by references not documented in the series. It is clear that a very few members of UNSCOP did agree with the Zionist narrative of restoration and self-determination and a few others referred to this as one argument favouring partition, but one is convinced in reading the discussions that, although this was a factor, this was not a major consideration in their thinking. Further, there was never a majority of the members who supported this position even though, in the final analysis, 7 of the 11 members voted to recommend partition.

What is unequivocally clear is that in no one’s minds was the occurrence of the Holocaust and certainly not guilt over it offered as a reason. The most common reason for sympathy to the Zionist cause, even among the three members who supported the minority report advocating a federation, was the plight of the 250,000 Jewish refugees still remaining in Europe and the fact that no country wanted to resettle them in any significant numbers. There was also admiration by many members of the committee for the accomplishments of the Zionists in agriculture, education, science and commerce. There was a parallel distaste for the working conditions of Arab employees, including the employment of children, when committee members visited a cigarette manufacturing business. The failure of the Arabs to fully cooperate with the committee did not help. But what united the committee was the conclusion that the Mandate had to end, and end sooner rather than later, even by an Anglophile like Dr. Blom.

This was no partition like any other peaceful partition one can recognize – Norway from Sweden or Slovakia from Czechoslovakia. It had far greater similarities with the breakup way of Pakistan from India and of Yugoslavia where there were some areas of concentration of ethnic groups, but many other areas of overlap. In Palestine, the same situation existed and, hence, the recommended division into eight segments. Further, the partition recommendation for Palestine involved religion in a unique way – three religions were recognized as contenders for control of the eighth segment – the recommended assignation of Jerusalem to international control to settle the irreconcilable positions of the different sides was unique to this conflict. This meant that good-will diplomatic efforts could come up with a Goldberg contraption, but the facts on the ground, and the willingness of people to fight for what they believed in, counted rather more than any determination as a result of decisions resulting from rational deliberations.

Ex Machina

Ex Machina


Howard Adelman

What a surprise to have two movies two years in a row with Alan Turing as a central figure. In last year’s Oscar nominee, The Imitation Game, Alan Turing himself, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the star. This year, Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, has as its central plot device an application of Alan Turing’s test, a mental game intended to differentiate human from artificial intelligence. The Imitation Game is an application of the Turing Test. Robots can purportedly imitate the human mind; they cannot replace or displace it.  My son has been urging me to see the movie for the last 4-6 weeks. (He saw it when it first opened.) Last night we finally went. He insisted it is a marvellous film, and it is.

For Turing, an artificial intelligence could imitate human thinking and even surpass it in certain respects – in the movie, by acting as a polygraph test to differentiate a true statement from a lie. Though a machine could imitate the motions of our bodies, including mouthing words, in Descartes’ words, a human intelligence could still be distinguished from an artificial or machine intelligence by two measures. First, machines would be unable to put words together to express thoughts. But, as we now know, they already do. An artificial intelligence can currently string words together to answer questions posed to it. Secondly, machine thinking is supposed to be incapable of plotting and foresight that would enable it to initiate actions. But we now know we can have driverless cars that can respond to threats of accidents much faster and better than humans. In other words, Descartes’ preview of the Turing Test was easily surpassed.

The Turing Test proposed even more stringent criteria as variations of the Cartesian ones. That the test set forth more systematically the determination of the logically sufficient conditions so that one can claim that a machine exhibits the attributes of a mind, of thought and intelligence. The movie takes the test one step further and seeks to determine whether a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) a) can think outside the box, and b) is capable of emotional intelligence. I will not give the movie away by simply saying that somehow, in establishing that Ava’s brain can think outside the box and that she also has sufficient empathetic emotional judgment to understand the motives behind a person’s intelligence, she is also revealed to have the ability to exploit that capacity for her own ambitions. In passing that test with flying colours, the humanoid proves it can imitate the language and performance games of the world’s greatest, and most nefarious, minds. Further, though there are action scenes near the end, the movie largely consists of talking heads as Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) interviews Ava in a series of seven interview sessions to ascertain whether she can pass and even surpass the Turing Test.

Like the spy thriller, The Imitation Game, the movie depends for its grip on the audience, not on unravelling the intellectual puzzle, but on secrecy and deception, betrayal and determining whom to trust. Instead of taking us backwards in time, this sci-fi flick thrusts us forward into the future. The Imitation Game had a somewhat trite message: “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.” Ex Machina has a variation on that theme: sometimes it is the machines one creates through one’s imagination that can end up performing actions that very few can imagine, but still not be able to translate that imaginative ability to enable one to predict behaviour and control that behaviour by appropriate preventive measures.

Ex Machina begins on the floor of a dot.com company, Ludwig Enterprises, named after Ludwig Wittgenstein. The opening scene is focused on one programmer mesmerized by his screen as he searches to see who won the lottery. The lottery, as it turns out, is not one where one buys a ticket and hopes for a big monetary win. Instead, it is an intra-company lottery of the Ludwig Corporation, the world’s largest and most powerful search engine company. Wittgenstein in his second coming taught that philosophy was about analyzing language as performance with performance itself reflected in language. For what humans think and believe is always expressed in what they do and how they perform. The challenge for philosophy was not to unravel the mysteries of the universe but to analyze language to unravel the roots of a conundrum.

The company is owned by a genius, the reclusive Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). The lottery prize: a week with the owner at his estate. Caleb, the programmer in the opening scene, lands via a helicopter after flying over the estate for the previous two hours. Caleb is told by the pilot that he is forbidden to land his helicopter any closer; what goes on at the estate is highly secret. In this valley between mountain ranges, Caleb is instructed to walk the rest of the way by following the river.

He arrives at a place that soon turns out to be an exaggerated version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, with its exceptional setting astride a beautiful waterfall, but with  a claustrophobic very modernistic interior. Though the living room and kitchen have beautiful views of the outdoors, Caleb’s bedroom is an electronically locked windowless room. Fallingwater’s philosophical premise had been that people were creatures of nature, hence, architecture was required to conform to nature and, hence, reveal and express what is basic in people. But the estate in Ex Machina was designed to prove that man was not confined to natural laws, but could master those laws to build an artificial intelligence that could surpass all that nature had to offer. So at once a paean to Fallingwater, Nathan’s estate in Ex Machina is a direct perversion and inversion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy.

When we finally meet Nathan, the owner of Ludwig Enterprises and of the estate, though he is a nerd par excellence having discovered the code at age 13 that allowed him to create the best and most powerful search engine ever, he is not anything that we expect. He works out with a punching bag, drinks like a fish and refuses to techno-speak and instead swears like a trooper and explores the meaning of Jackson Pollock’s art like an expert. He greets Caleb like a host inviting a friend to spend a week. Nathan in the film sets Caleb the task of learning whether Ava, the humanoid he created, has achieved self-consciousness and has passed the Turing Test.

In reviewing and writing plays as a callow youth, I learned to be very wary of the use of a deus ex machina (DEM), an arbitrary and artificial device introduced unexpectedly into the plot of a drama to overcome a problem. Deus ex machina, however, has an equivocal meaning. On the one hand, as in this dramatic sense, DEM means a divine intervention in the natural flow of events to disrupt that flow. It is artifice without art. On the other hand, the phrase literally means turning a machine into a god, that is, extracting the divine out of a machine. The movie Ex Machina plays on both meanings, but without reference to an interruption from outside the natural order, from the divine, as it were, or that the divine is being extracted from a machine, just a superior human but without shame or guilt. The film is about man playing God and turning what he creates into a being that surpasses man in terms of both rational and emotional intelligence, particularly in using rational intelligence to exploit emotional intelligence.

In Greek drama, the use of a deus ex machina was not proscribed. Quite the contrary. In many of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, especially the latter, a god suddenly appears, usually near the end of the play, as a convenient method of overcoming a conundrum. The intervention is improbable, unexpected and contrived, usually to restore order to a situation that is quickly dissolving into chaos.

Modernity was antithetical to any use of a deus ex machina. All puzzles were soluble without resorting to divine intervention. In modern philosophy, particularly in the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, there is an explanandum, that which requires explanation, and an explananda, that which provides the explanation for the action or event in question. In my PhD thesis, I offered two apparently opposite cases of such a logic. On the one hand was the positivist thesis, Carl Hempel serving as my exemplar, that explananda had to conform to a lawlike structure that allowed the explanandum to be deduced from the explananda when combined with the particulars of the case, if not with certainly, with great probability. On the other hand, in the idealist thesis, associated with R.G. Collingwood, but my exemplar was the philosopher of history, Bill Dray, the explananda was not a law-like proposition as found and used in science, but a proposition with the character of an imperative.  The generality was about what to do, not about what is.

Instead of, “If Li, L2, L3…Ln (set of laws) and C1, C2…Cn, a set of particular circumstances, in which the conclusion followed with a certain degree of probability, a historical explanation conformed to a quite different and distinctive model, beginning with hypothetical imperatives, (If I1, I2…In – a set of hypothetical imperatives – and C1, C2….Cn – a particular set of circumstances, then it naturally followed that “the thing to do” was x, x being the explanandum, not the probability that the event would take place, but the need to do what one’s thinking prescribed. In one, the model of explanation in history following the ideal of science. In the other, the model followed the format of moral reasoning.

But both models insisted that the explanandum could be deduced from the explananda.  I argued that history, even in the examples both philosophers offered, was not about explaining actions or events but about explaining and unravelling puzzle, conundra and incongruencies. The two philosophers did not envision that history is really and most fundamentally about the dialectical interplay of reason and emotion, of scientific detachment and emotional empathy, something which the movie grasps for that is the interplay between Nathan who lives in a fantasy world of women made to serve men’s needs and the naïve Caleb who has retained his sense of pity and empathy.

No deus ex machina was permitted in either model. Hence, the publication that followed was entitled the Hempel-Dray theory, arguing that the two main competing models of explanation in history had more in common than the stark differences that they appeared to have. Both ruled out the intervention of accidents or the significance of chance or contingency, on the one hand, or divine intervention on the other hand.  The philosopher Louis Mink, who edited History and Theory, wrote to me and joked that anyone who had the audacity to put a hyphen between the great philosophic opponents in the philosophy of history, Carl Hempel and Bill Dray, deserved to be published just for the chutzpah exhibited.

In the history of modern philosophy, Leibniz accused Malebranche of resorting to a deus ex machina (Psychophysical Parallelism and Pre-established Harmony). However, Leibniz was never self-conscious that his presumption – that the laws of mind and of moral reasoning conform to the laws of nature and are in harmony with them – was itself a form of deus ex machina. Instead of abandoning arbitrary interventions, his whole philosophical position rested on a mammoth one, that God programmed the world to have a pre-established harmony between the psychic and physical worlds.

In the movie Ex Machina, God is not present. There is just Nathan, the owner of the largest and most probing search engine in the world. His company has evidently made him fabulously wealthy. But he is not satisfied. He wants to use that massive data to create a humanoid that could do anything a human can. And more – such as “mind reading” and being able to tell when a person is lying. The humanoid is thus, on the one hand, a supernatural being since that humanoid does not belong to the natural world, but that humanoid is also a product of human evolution and not an intervention from outside.

The rationale for bringing into existence such a creature as this humanoid is simply the proposition that if man is capable of bringing to birth such a being, that is the very opposite of a robot for it can determine both its own thought processes and its actions, then it is his obligation to do so. As a scientist he is governed by that imperative. What can be done should be done. This is, of course, the inversion of a moral imperative that begins with what one should do in general to conclude what should be done in a particular situation. The inversion of moral reasoning is like Leibniz’s perversion of natural reasoning in extremis. This inversion is as arbitrary as the use of a deus ex machina inserted into the natural order. Therefore, the plausibility of the movie depends on the importation of two deus ex machina maxims, pre-established harmony of the mind and body and the inversion of the moral order to derive an imperative.

There is a third element of the movie that draws on the arbitrary and the inexplicable. The movie explains why Caleb, the programmer chosen from Nathan’s company in a “lottery,” has been chosen by Nathan to test the applicability of the Turing Test for determining self-consciousness, but we are left bereft of any explanation of why Nathan set out on such a course to create such a creature, especially since he was clearly bright enough to know that if he succeeded, mankind was doomed, a propositional belief that clearly weighed on him and drove him forward into a chaotic inverted world in which Nathan could certainly adumbrate but, in spite of all his efforts, he could do nothing to prevent what he himself had foreseen.

But the deus of deus ex machina, though omitted from the title, is present in a multitude of other ways. For the movie is not just a rich exercise in the scientific world of artificial intelligence, but it is full of false clues, diversions and distractions, much like any good detective story or magical performance. And it is self-consciously so and rich in biblical references beginning with the meaning of the name “Nathan,” namely God has given. Nathan in the film is a seer, one who predicts the future even though the very future he predicts and helps bring about will be the source of his own undoing.

Nathan is the prophet that told King David that that he should do whatever was in his mind, advice which David and Nathan in the film followed, but divine intervention told Nathan that even though David dreamt of building the temple, that would have to be left to King David’s successor to the throne. Who would be that successor became the battle within King David’s court. Nathan in the film also operates through flattery, telling Caleb, a seemingly everyday nerd, that he is quotable.

Caleb, the second major male character in the film is, like Kaleb, the son of Jephunneh of the tribe of Judah, one of the twelve spies sent to assess the desirability and feasibility of  Moses entering the promised land. In the biblical account, Kaleb is the only one of the ten spies who reports back and recommends conquest. In Numbers, Kaleb (30:13) tells Moses to move swiftly and conquer the land. Caleb is determined to resolve the version of the Turing Test that Nathan sets him, but in setting out on that path he develops an agenda of his own that he believes, or pretends to believe, is private to himself for he has already figured out that Nathan was watching and listening to both him and Ava even when there were power outages.

The third major character is the humanoid, Ava. In the Bible, she is someone who overturns the existing order and turns it into ruins. So when we hear the names of the different characters, we already know the outcome. The mystery will be how we get there. And this slow-moving film is mostly a talking heads account in which Caleb ostensibly interviews Ava to see if she passes the Turing criteria. In the Bible, Kaleb desperately desires to get into the promised land and Nathan dreams of enabling King David to build his temple to the divine, but, as we shall see [spoiler alert], it is Ava who makes it. Her emotional intelligence as well as rational intelligence proves to be superior and more sophisticated than that of either Nathan or Caleb. More importantly, her ability to use both reason and emotion to deceive is more powerful that either of the men’s. She is a supreme example of the femme fatale. Judith Merril would have been delighted with this movie for it is sci-fi at its best, a simple idea in which every scene follows with logical consistency but nevertheless rarely fails to surprise and delight.

The technological effects to produce the costuming and soundtrack match the claustrophobic cinematography except when, in rare moments, the characters get out into the fresh mountain air. The play between transparency – seeing Ava’s leg bones and silver metallic mesh skull to which her face is attached  – and the cover-up as Ava increasingly dresses as a full human, is just superb. The transparency reveals itself to be the highest kind of deception. Even Kyoko, Nathan’s sex fantasy of a dumb and deaf woman made flesh, played by Sonoyo Mizuno, is the opposite of how she appears. Dialectics have rarely had a better treatment.

Like history, this movie is not basically about a series of actions or events, but, like a very good puzzle, an unravelling of a conundrum, of an incongruency between two approaches. The acting could not be better. Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb shows just the right balance of naiveté and intellectual sophistication. Oscar Isaac as Nathan demonstrates the right combination of boyish enthusiasm and a brilliant but gamey mind. And Alicia Vikander as Ava is mesmerizing and anything but robotic.

It is a brilliant film with a brilliant cast clothed in the most imaginative scenery and subdued technical effects.