Sketches on Atheism

Foreword by Stephen Law

Stephen Law was gracious to pen the foreword for my latest book, On the Problem of Good. One of the world’s most renown thinkers on religion, Law is an English philosopher and Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, fellow of The Royal Society of Arts and Commerce and Provost of the Centre for Inquiry UK. He also edits the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal Think, and is the author of eleven books, including The War For Children’s Minds, The Great Philosophers, Really, Really Big Questions, and Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole.

FOREWORD

BY STEPHEN LAW

Could the universe be the creation of a supremely powerful and wicked deity? Most of us will rightly dismiss that suggestion out of hand. ‘Of course not’, we’ll say ‘Look around you – at all the love, laughter, ice-cream, and rainbows! This world contains far too much good for it to be the creation of such an omnipotent and omnimalevolent deity.’  And there’s no denying that while there is suffering and misery in the world, there is also much good – good of such depth and on such a scale that it really is highly unlikely there’s some evil-God justifying reason for every last ounce of it. And the one thing we can be sure such an evil God won’t allow is gratuitous good – good for which there is no evil-God-justifying reason.

Now of course the objection we have just raised to the suggestion that we are the creation of an omnipotent and omnimalevolent deity is just the mirror image of a much more familiar objection – to belief in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity. Just as it strikes most of us obvious that there’s no Evil God given the abundance of good in the world, so it strikes many atheists as just obvious that there’s no Good God either, and on much the same basis – an abundance of evil.

So how do those who believe in a Good God respond to the problem of evil? Some construct theodicies. They appeal to free-will. They say this is a vale of soul making. They say no pain, no gain. They say much pain and suffering is caused by laws of nature required for greater goods. Or they say that just because we cannot think of a reason for all these evils, doesn’t allow us reasonably conclude there is no such reason. Such reasons could easily lie beyond our limited ability to think of them.

Now, interestingly, all these strategies can be employed by someone intent on defending belief in an Evil God. Indeed, it’s fascinating to explore Evil God apologetics and the mirror manoeuvres that can be made. It’s not just intellectually interesting. It gives you an insight into a certain mindset – a certain way of looking at things – on which everything fits, everything makes sense given – everything really can be squared with – the existence of a supremely malevolent deity. It’s a mind-set exhibiting ingenuity, imagination, and lunacy in equal measure.

We who live in the Judeo-Christian West are very familiar with the mirror version of that metaphysical mindset. Indeed, Good God theodicies, appeals to Good God’s mysterious ways, and so on, are such a familiar part of our cultural landscape – are so habitually trotted out – that we don’t even notice their bizarre, convoluted, and ultimately absurd character. Ours is a mindset that has acquired the anaesthetic of familiarity.

Our first encounter with the mirror, Evil-God version of this mindset can, for this reason, be a very powerful and disturbing experience. We’re suddenly presented with our mirror selves, our mirror culture, our mirror beliefs and mirror intellectual strategies – and the absurdity of our own metaphysical edifice becomes gloriously apparent, at least for a moment. We are afforded a brief glimpse of how things really are, and what we’re really like.

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66 thoughts on “Foreword by Stephen Law

  1. A foreword by Stephen Law indicates your book must be particularly good.

    Both you and your latest book deserve praise, John Zande!

    Kindest regards from Sweden (the secular country in northern Europe)

    Liked by 2 people

      • WTF? Do you know about Swedish “surströmming”?

        Then you have to be almost omniscient, maybe even a demigod. Can Odin be your father? Or Freya your mother?

        You know, John Zande, that because we Swedes don’t worship any gods longer, we have become coprophages. We lack both morality and good manners: and we eat all sorts of shit. Even “surströmming” is to be found on our smorgasbords.

        That’s the price we have to pay for not believing in gods. We behave like animals.

        But I have to confess that I do believe in you, John Zande!

        Your blog, and probably also your books, should be regarded gifts of the gods for me – and other Swedish heathens as well.

        God bless you, my learned and so witful cyber friend! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. And best wishes from Scotland, a secularising country (if I have anything to do with it, and I’m dong my best) in Northern Europe.

    Amazon.com tells me to buy it from amazon.co.uk, but Amazon.co.uk doesn’t seem to have it. Malevolence at work,in small things as in greater!

    Liked by 3 people

      • Still confused. On the Problem of Good: The Owner of All Infernal Names18 Feb 2017 is “currently unavailable” on Amazon.co.uk, but The Owner of All Infernal Names: An Introductory Treatise on the Existence, Nature & Government of our Omnimalevolent Creator6 Jun 2015 is available in paperback and at a proper paperback-like price (not like what World Scientific did to mine). Are these in fact the same book, give or take format and Stephen’s intro?

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      • No, different books. TOOAIN is available across all markets, but this new one is only available through amazon.com. Being in the UK I’m pretty much sure you can get the print version through Createspace (the link I included in the above comment), which is actually an amazon company but runs different channels. Confusing, I know. If you like, I can then email you the eBook file (in whatever format you want per your device). If you’re having troubles, just send me an email OK.

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  3. When Dr Law writes:

    “We’re suddenly presented with our mirror selves, our mirror culture, our mirror beliefs and mirror intellectual strategies – and the absurdity of our own metaphyscal edifice becomes gloriously apparent, at least for a moment. We are afforded a brief glimpse of how things really are, and what we’re really like.”

    Law means this (look it up John Zande):
    Remark number 6.54 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

    He is paraphrasing Wittgenstein…. And he is correct to a degree (like usual he does not follow the full trajectory of his thought, he can’t bring himself to question the ladders of philosophy, he is bewitched by words)…

    Because really your book has nothing whatsoever to do with an Evil God… nothing whatsoever…

    Really what your book does is reveal that “The Owner of All Infernal Names” is “Philosophy”.

    Now, if you ended your book with Wittgenstein’s 6.54 remark… then you would have a book worth studying in a philosophy class room…

    But, as I have mentioned to you previously… scientifically the model does not give you what you wish…. I would have posted you the results of my computer simulation (really quite interesting results)… but you got into bed with Law…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Philip, and thanks for your comment.

      I must say, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus reads like a work of Poe’s Law, it’s fantastic, but it appears from my brief reading (which could well be hopelessly mistaken) to only have merit if both language and the world were static, were fixed and unchanging. Unfortunately for Wittgenstein, they’re not. His allusion therefore to senselessness is, to a degree, inherently senseless.

      I could, however, be misreading that.

      Are you aware of the work of Yāska, the Vedic grammarian and author of the Nirukta; a technical treatise on etymology, lexical categorisation, and the semantics of words? His work laid the foundation of contemporary studies in cognitive linguistics and semantics, including phonetics, grammar, syntax, lexicography and morphology. It was Yāska who first categorised nāma (nouns), ākhyāta (verbs), upasarga (prefixes), and nipāta (particles and prepositions). He created ontological categories to describe actions (bhāva) with past, present and future connotations. He formulated grammatical aspect, the murta, which identified perfective and imperfective situations. In all, it was Yāska who first looked at the entire lexicon of language and wrestled it into a system of understanding which we still use today.

      An uncommon man to say the least, but his true stroke of genius came in the seemingly elementary conclusion that words, not sentences, were the fundamental carriers of meaning; that is to say, the primary element, or prakṛti, of reality. Words, Yāska saw, were the smallest indivisible unit, where clusters of words arranged in a certain way following strict grammatical systems (laws) formed a sentence whose meaning (although intended) was entirely unique to its constituent parts. It sounds intuitively simple, almost childish, but Yāska had arrived at atomism, and he did it eight generations before the Greek philosopher, Leucippus, asked one of the most important questions ever asked: If you break a piece of matter in half, and then break it in half again, how many breaks will you have to make before you can break it no further? Leucippus called his answer, the Atom. Yāska saw the same thing, but called it the word. Arrange words (like the atomists’ atom) in a certain way and one external meaning is derived. Arranged in another way the same words produced another meaning altogether. Linked to suffixes and prefixes and the meaning of the sentence would change again, and reality with it.

      This, I believe, is where we see the folly in Wittgenstein treatise. Reality (this artificial world) shifts. It transforms. It evolves, and so too does language, does the “word.” To call that senseless is senseless as you can’t cage a shifting target.

      You write: ”Because really your book has nothing whatsoever to do with an Evil God… nothing whatsoever…
      Really what your book does is reveal that “The Owner of All Infernal Names” is “Philosophy”.”

      Interesting. Firstly, you’re absolutely right, although not for the reasons you’ve attested. I do not call the Creator “evil.” If you’d read the works, you’d know that. What is described is a Creator whom, when viewed from inside Creation, appears “evil.”

      ”Who else but the perfect expression of debasement could set the conditions of a universe where suffering is not only inescapable, but growing, only to then cast Himself into that Creation, not to observe like some docile voyeur, but to experience directly? Who else but the embodiment of corruption would choose not only to inflict pain but also suffer pain by simultaneously playing the role of both predator and prey?

      Would not this act of perverted self-abuse be the very definition of absolute madness; of maximum evil?

      At one earth atmosphere the accusation might therefore indeed be profoundly meaningful, but this does not, however, necessarily mean the world-shaper, God, is in fact something that may be called mad, evil, wicked, or even malevolent.

      Not in actuality.

      Not in the only reality that matters: that of the Creator’s opinion of Himself, of His interests and His pallet. The impression (be it accurate and faithful or not) is however undeniably cogent and immediate to all things outside the mind of God.

      An opinion, after all, is all that stands between pragmatism and hostility. A sentiment is all that differentiates entertainment from cruelty. An impression is the only thing that separates the stimulating from the terrifying. And a judgment, ultimately, is the only thing that disentangles the appalling from the delicious.”

      Does that make more sense now?

      I’m curious as to how you arrived at your second point, that TOOAIN is a philosophy. This comment seems to me to be a little fictitious as I actually go to great lengths to avoid any and all allusions to metaphysics. The first and second books are in essence historical with a teleological scorecard attached. I believe this fact alone sets the treatise apart from any philosophical, or indeed theological, work. Indeed, I am at pains to present something that does not demand an excuse (a theodicy) to be meaningful.

      That is, in my opinion, the work’s strength.

      Your model. I’ll have to look at it in more detail, but I do appreciate the effort. It deserves attention in relation to the first book. In that work it was proposed that TOOAIN (perhaps) suspends his omniscience so as to amplify his pleasure through the element of surprise. This originally made great sense to me, but in this new work I have discarded that proposition, realising that TOOAIN’s omniscience could only ever apply to the actual world: his world. This world, our world, is artificial. He, therefore, could never see its future.

      Here is how that idea is presented in the current work:

      ”Unable to die, powerless to be no more, incapable of even experiencing the thrill of the fear of approaching annihilation, and yet blessed with all the powers necessary to explore this fantastic anomaly, it was inevitable that a non-contingent aseitic being (that seminal consciousness: God) would come, eventually, to gather and focus His impossible powers to contrive artificial environments inside which He could cultivate all those things He, the Creator, could never directly experience in the actual world. Incapable however of even knowing the depth and scope of fear and terror and annihilation, such environments (tourable theme parks, in a manner of speaking) could never be built complete; not as some pre-packaged pits of despair inside which readymade sentient avatars could be released to suffer the full force of every ill imaginable.

      Such things would be unknowable, and being unknowable these artificial worlds could only ever be fashioned in such a way that they could self-experiment and freely evolve from some basal expression fixed between concepts He, the Creator, could never touch, but could impose on an artificial scape: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

      Inside these sealed-off worlds (these self-complicating petri dishes) profoundly ignorant avatars could be cultured and grown; evolving surrogates raised like experimental animals to probe and explore this extraordinary curiosity. And through these proxies, these naïve stand-ins, He, the Creator, could taste the fear He alone could never experience, feel the suffering He alone could never know, and meet every pedigree of oblivion denied to Him by dying vicariously.

      That is the social contract history informs us of, and it is a contract even Plantinga seemed to have recognised, stating:

      “God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering.”

      Albeit imagining a dramatically different relationship, one no doubt stitched-through with genuine compassion and sympathy, Plantinga’s observation appears accurate by every meaningful measure. The Creator enters into and shares our suffering, tapping into those veins, experiencing directly through surrogates what He alone could never experience directly.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • John…

        It would appear that the key point of your outline is contained in this statement:

        “Such things would be unknowable, and being unknowable these artificial worlds could only ever be fashioned in such a way that they could self-experiment and freely evolve from some basal expression fixed between concepts He, the Creator, could never touch, but could impose on an artificial scape: a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

        Which simply appears to be saying:

        “We exist in a holographic universe”

        You see, you have a big problem…. the first is that if you are the attacking Judeo-Christian view… then you have to accept that all we perceive of the universe is post-fall….not at its creation, i.e. t=0….. scientifically one would equate post-fall with Planck time…. anything below this time is unknowable.

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      • “This originally made great sense to me, but in this new work I have discarded that proposition, realising that TOOAIN’s omniscience could only ever apply to the actual world: his world. This world, our world, is artificial. He, therefore, could never see its future.”

        This is an interesting argument, John. It responds to, I believe, orthodox Christianity in its more intellectualized forms. Orthodoxy ultimately must deny the reality of free will, as God Knows All. Your mind game provides a unique “solution” to this problem!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Any theodicy based on free will is a fundamentally flawed argument. Omniscience gets any god hypothesis into enormous trouble. If, though, we recognise Creation as an artificial scape (what I call a type of laboratory, or petri dish) entirely independent of the actual world (that known to the creator, but inaccessible to all contingent things) then there’s no great problem between that being’s existence, maximum power, this world, and logic.

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  4. More congratulations John! Law’s Forward is spot on about the odysseys (oddities?) of their theodicies! 😉

    Isn’t it a very “good” thing that most of the world are NOT followers of the Abrahamic religions!? LOL I mean, how can the majority of the secular world — and those who believe in different dieties — ALL be wrong about the god of Abraham!? Hah! The answer is clear, eh?

    Again Sir, applause and congratulations on your work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great foreword. It’s a valid statement though, that we are only limited by our capacity to reason and think beyond our current delimiters, of which, when it really comes to it, are few. The stretch of the imagination is grandiose, but not without merit if explored with any kind of creativity and desire.

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  6. Pingback: What Would Convince You? – Waiving Entropy

  7. ‘ Dont get sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole ‘ yes I like it and there are plenty of those type of black beauties around. I’m fairly safe with an IQ of about 105 the downside is I read a lot which has its dangers. My advice would be spread your interests too much physics will doom you to a black hole death; try a little poetry or a few good long novels , or , dare I say it a bit of political maneuvering. Above all don’t take yourself or anyone else too seriously remembering a little kindly indulgence goes a long way.

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