Monday, October 5, 2015

Questions anticipating Everybody Is Wrong About God

As many of you will already know, I have a new book coming out this December 1, and it's called Everybody Is Wrong About God, which should have gone to print today or is going tomorrow. An early version of the preface (a few very minor changes have been made in the final editing since putting it up) and the table of contents are already available on this blog with a short introduction to the book.

Between the commentary of some of the people who kindly offered to read it in advance and in various avenues after announcing it, it occurred to me that it would be of some interest to answer some questions people have about the book, and so I solicited even more of them on Twitter. I figure I can keep taking these at least until the book comes out in December, and when I have enough since the last time to make it worth doing (so at least five or six new ones), I'll address them here on the blog. So, keep the questions coming if you have them--in comments, email, on Twitter, or whatever.

Here's a first installment, then, of your questions about the book and my answers to them. I'll start with questions that aren't about content and go from there.

Question: Will the book be available on Kindle?

Easy enough. To quote my publisher: Yes, there definitely will be an ebook edition (for pretty much all readers/retailers -- Kindle, Nook, iBook, Kobo, etc.). Purchase buttons for ebooks might not post for another few weeks. 

Question: Will there be an audiobook?

Maybe. It can be done, and if there's enough interest, either I can record a reading of it or have someone else do it. Currently, I'm open to the possibility and optimistic about it but haven't settled on it. Definitely don't count it out, though!

Question: How many pages is the book?

The paperback will run 248 pages, or for those that know how word counts go, roughly 80,000 words.

Question, adapted from a concern of fellow author John W. Loftus, who very kindly blurbed the book for me (NB: I thank Loftus for voicing these concerns and include them here for that reason): Does this book, in calling for the end of "atheism" and the philosophy of religion, advocate silence in the face of theistic arguments?

Not exactly, no, it doesn't. It advocates refusing to take theism seriously on its own terms, and it advises against beating the same dead horses over and over and over again (who wants yet another argument against the Kalam Cosmological Nonsense? Right, nobody). In Everybody Is Wrong About God, I am making a call to start a post-theistic turn, one where we treat theistic arguments with decreasing seriousness. I think it's time to turn the corner and start heading down the street to where we treat theistic arguments on the same intellectual level as we do astrological ones, for example.

Everybody Is Wrong About God is calling for a new and different way to handle theistic arguments, one that requires a finer touch than reflexively trying to rebut them. Rebuttals lend seriousness to the arguments that they do not deserve. Sometimes there is a need to answer the arguments, but at other times it's better to ignore them. In the book, I try to give some suggestions, using a good example or two, to give a sense of when different approaches are worth taking.

Generally, though, I do make the case that elaborate philosophical-ish arguments for and against theism are not a good use of time, and that our time could be better spent dismissing the arguments than engaging with them--even explaining why arguments for theism work against theistic religious beliefs.

Question, adapted from a concern of Loftus again: Won't these suggestions (specifically an end of "atheism" and disengagement from theistic arguments) let theism take back the ground it has lost in the last decade?

I have to say, yet again, no, I do not think they will, at least not if I'm right in thinking that the arguments for theism have resoundingly lost the intellectual, but not the cultural, fight. It is for this reason, though, that I encourage compiling useful, accessible resources that rebut the majority of common theistic arguments, like the Secular Web.

I'm certainly not advocating that we give up the fight, I'm really just arguing that we engage in it more appropriately, addressing what's really at stake and what really matters. In a way, I'm saying we should stop treating the symptoms and start treating the cause.

Question, another adapted from John Loftus's concerns: Why do you think we need an argument for the end of "atheism"? Won't it be readily apparent because believers aren't making the arguments any longer?

I'm not as optimistic, I'm afraid, as John is here. From all of the reading I've done of religious psychology and other psychology, I think the arguments come after the beliefs, meaning I think people only make the arguments because they hold the beliefs for other reasons and yet feel like they need to be intellectually defended against the many challenges that evidence and better sense reliably present. In other words, I think that theistic arguments will come about for as long as there are serious and devout believers. I also think the ongoing debate--attempts to answer those arguments--maintains the attitude that the debate has more merit than it does, and thus maintains reasons to believe and thus beliefs.

In the book, I try to make a solid case for the connection between the ideas called "God" and the reasons that people believe in such a notion in the first place. In doing so, I undermine the entire notion of "belief" in the first place.

Question: What does the "end of atheism" mean?

I cover this point rather thoroughly in the book, so I won't get too deeply into it here, but when I say the end of atheism, I mean it's time to stop calling ourselves atheists with pride and to move past the label. I mean it's time to do as I've outlined in the above paragraphs. I mean, especially, that anything that can be taken as "my atheism" or "her atheism" or "being an atheist" or "doing atheism" or "being good at atheism" is something we'd all do better without.

When we really understand that theism is totally bankrupt, that it's mythology, there's no reason to be an "atheist" anymore, and the "philosopher's" term is pointless. Belief itself is the wrong way to think about "God," and understanding that is one avenue to getting post-theistic in a hurry. When we're post-theistic, nobody will be an atheist because that word is, itself, pointless.

Question: What do you mean by post-theistic?

The term explains itself: after theistic, after the phase in which we treat the theistic enterprise with serious consideration. When we look at belief in God the same way that we currently look at astrology (which says very little about how many people subscribe to it), we will be post-theistic. Being post-theistic means realizing that theism is not a mature way to make sense of anything, and not much more. Going post-theistic is leaving theism, and the religious beliefs predicated upon it, in the superstitious past, in the childhood of our species, as it has been called.

Question: If "everybody" is wrong about God, aren't you wrong about God too?

On one level, yes. I wrote this book specifically to begin a more fruitful conversation about religious belief than the one we're currently mired in. I've certainly not been completely comprehensive or perfect in my account, though I do think I've made a pretty good stab at it.

More importantly, "everybody" is rhetorical here. Everyone, though, who thinks about God in the terms of theism, though, is thinking about God the wrong way, and so in a sense, that's pretty much everyone who tries to talk about God. Theism has completely monopolized that conversation, and it's time for that to end.

If you happen to already think rightly about God, good for you. Don't take it hard. It's just the title of a book.

Comment: If God does not exist, then atheists aren't "wrong" about God.

Well, kind of. If people feel the need to identify as atheists, they're still talking about God in terms of belief and nonbelief, which is to say in the terms of theism. If they're thinking about God in the terms of theism, they're wrong about God. They're not wrong about God's existence, but they are wrong about God. 

Question: Will this book prove there is no God?

No, of course not. It argues instead that it's a waste of time to bother with fussing with such a thing, now that enough of the theistic edifice has been smashed, primarily by New Atheism, though "old" atheism did much of the heavy lifting. The goal of the book is to illustrate that God, the theistic concept, is the wrong way to think about the ideas called "God," and when we think about them in the right way, belief becomes nonsensical (in the sense of a category error--"God" isn't a thing to be believed in or not believed in).

Question: Do you think God means nothing more than "my values"? That is, are most believers not making an ontological claim at all?

No, I do not think that, on two levels, and I do think most believers are making an ontological (existence) claim--just not one we need to take seriously. I think believers really do believe what they say they believe, and that means they really do believe that there is a deity that exists in some way or another. I certainly believed exactly that kind of thing when I believed in God. I merely think they're wrong in that claim and that I expose what I think is really going on in Everybody Is Wrong About God.

Also, I think the "my values" part, mentioned in the preface, is a large and significant part of what people mean by the word "God," although there are other facets as well. As just indicated, these aspects all underlie the fact that believers also believe there really is a deity, a belief that defines theism. The book's primary thrust is that the term "God" can be accounted for more successfully without theism than with it.

Question: Could valuing of objective truth be an individual difference variable accounting for some difference between believers and nones?

Yes, it could, but I think it's important to remember that most conservative believers (if not most believers) think not only that they believe the objective truth but that their religion alone accounts for the objective truth. That is, I think most believers do value objective truth, even if they're not evaluating it very well.

Much of the book is dedicated to a discussion of religious psychology, and in that capacity, it discusses some ways in which people evaluate "truth," many of which cause them to diverge directly from what Enlightenment thinkers would call "objective truth."

Question: If people believe in "God" rather than God, do they also believe in "Hell," not Hell? It takes a real God to make a real Hell.

I'm really glad this question came up. In the preface, I say God doesn't exist, but "God" does, but that's not a statement about what people believe. People very much and definitely believe in God; they're just wrong about what the word "God" means. I think anyone who really believes in "God" is probably already post-theistic. Those who are theistic believe in God.

Comment: The biggest mistake we "atheists" do is to assume that religious people actually take their faiths seriously.

I see exactly what is meant by this comment, but it's very important to point out that religious believers, even the very liberal ones in my experience, most certainly do take their faiths seriously--way too seriously, like sacred seriously. The thing is that believers usually seem not to behave in ways that would indicate taking their faiths seriously, meaning that they're relatively casual about which parts they believe and act in ways in outright defiance of the things they profess to believe.

This is exactly the kind of confusing situation that Everybody Is Wrong About God was written to address. When we understand that religious beliefs, including in God, do things for those who believe them on a psychological and social level; when we understand that religious beliefs, including in God, act to amplify the sense of importance and realism of the moral attitudes of the moral communities that define the religious sects; only then do we start to see exactly why religious believers simultaneously take their faiths--their sets of beliefs--very seriously and yet do not agree with all of the pronouncements of their faiths, often explicitly and often by deeds that contradict their professions of belief.

Question: Won't this only be realized in the far-distant future? (NB: This was a concern also voiced by John W. Loftus.)

Maybe? And if so, so what? I don't think so, though, and I try to make the case for why now is the right time to start making the turn toward post-theism. People are getting ansy for a change, at least in the conversation, for one thing, and I'd rather they turn this way than some other ways, like ideological atheism or whatever the hell the Regressive Left is doing right now. Also, people are already turning post-theistic on their own. I am happy to listen to dissent, but I really do think that the time is upon us, here, at least.

That "here" is important too. This turn isn't about to  happen in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, or a lot of anywhere outside of advanced democracies. And of course it won't happen all at once, but it has to happen somewhere first. From there, it can spread.

Still, I think it is of enormous importance to realize that if I am right about the term "God," then belief and nonbelief become the wrong way to think about the thing, like a category mistake. If it doesn't make sense to believe at all, if the terms of belief are inappropriate to the question, people coming to understand that point of view should only hasten the goals of "atheism" (here really meaning antitheism, secularism, and humanism, which often get conflated with "atheism" because they are so often embraced by those lacking belief) where they still progress.

Question: To what degree is the conversation [about God] still relevant?

It is obviously still relevant, and will be for some time, everywhere religious belief is common, especially where it is societally privileged. The cultural fight is going to continue for a long time yet in a lot of places, although that doesn't mean the intellectual fight retains any merit. We don't have to keep having the conversation, however, in the same tired and damaging terms. We can talk about belief differently, and Everybody Is Wrong About God is an attempt to start that new, better direction of conversation.

Final word, for now:
Thanks, everyone, for your questions, and I look forward to more of them, so keep them coming! Everybody Is Wrong About God is a conversation-changer, and it is to be released on December first this year. It is available for pre-orders now and, at the time of this writing, fairly significantly discounted by Amazon, so you can do that now and connect yourself to a new, better way to think about "God" and religious belief today.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Sam Harris, Max Tegmark, and mathematical ontology

This afternoon I saw that Sam Harris was in conversation on his podcast with MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark, famous for his book Our Mathematical Universe, in which he famously argued that our universe is mathematics, if we really get down to the fundamental nature of reality. When I did, I sighed audibly and decided that this episode of Waking Up probably would not be worth listening to since I generally find so much metaphysical speculation an absolute academic sinkhole, especially when that bizarre.

No such luck for me, though. I was cajoled by my friend Pete, despite being desperately busy at the moment, into listening (at least to the first third--and I made it through half so far) and, if I thought it worthwhile, to write a little something about mathematical ontology. I mean, I had to. He wrote me an email including words in all caps to this effect, and maybe he was right. I was stunned by what I heard, and I hopefully can make some small contribution to their discussion here.

Before getting started, let me credentialize a little, though in a way I doubt will prove odious. I have a doctorate in (abstract) mathematics, an undergraduate degree in physics, and have thought about these topics for getting on a decade and a half or two. I am not a mathematical ontologist (someone who fusses about with trying to figure out what constitutes the existence of mathematical objects), and I'm only a "philosopher" insomuch as other people keep accusing me of being one. I also wrote a book a couple of years ago dealing with some of what they talked about, and notably, I've never found "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" the least bit mysterious and am thoroughly confused at why people are so easily mystified by the question.

Since I only listened to the first half of their talk, I'll keep my commentary limited to the relevant bits, which stretch roughly from 19 minutes into the podcast until about the 37-minute mark.

Why should we trust mathematics?

Harris asks this question to really open the discussion about mathematics, and his take is that our intuitions are often very misleading about reality, citing quantum mechanics and relativity theory. If our intuitions are so misleading, why should be be so willing to trust mathematics epistemologically, stating clearly that he understands the pragmatic reasons--it works.

In response, Tegmark talks about how physics is able to make predictions that are able to be proven correct, and so in a way, he is suggesting that empiricism (data, which means asking reality for feedback) gives us a firm epistemological foundation to work from. I don't disagree. Where I do diverge from the thoughts of these two, though, is that I think mathematics is far more empirical than most people think.

Perhaps it is because my doctorate was done in combinatorics (as opposed to some useful branch of mathematics), but I see math, at its very basis, as being about counting. Certainly, counting is where math began, a fact that seems to account for why it took so long for the number zero to be invented. The thing is, counting is inherently empirical.

If I think I have five things, once I have a definition for five, I can count them. One, two, three, four, and--I do have five, okay. It turns out that I can separate those five things into two piles, one of two things and one of three. I can see them. There's two. There's three. And then I can put them together, and there's five. I can do it like an experiment: five balls, five trees, five sticks, five rocks, five people, five birds. Every single time, I can separate those five into two groups of two and three (or one and four, or, a bit more abstractly, five and zero), and I see 2+3=5. This isn't some abstract effort. It's naming sizes of collections and then looking at them, counting them, in reality.

I can make predictions too. I can come up with all these names for numbers, which ultimately come down to "add one more this many times," and then I can make predictions about them. I can imagine I have ten grapefruits over here and another twenty grapefruits over there, and I can do the math, play with the abstracted things we call numbers, and predict that if I combine my piles, I'll have thirty grapefruits. Then I can combine them, and, as predicted, I'll have thirty grapefruits. I don't think anyone calls this level of effectiveness "unreasonable."

Notice that this is exactly the epistemic basis that Tegmark asserts, apparently to Harris's satisfaction, that gives physics its legs, and I don't think it's one any but the most hardened skeptic would doubt. Math, at least where it comes to counting and basic arithmetic operations, has empirical foundations--indeed, that's how the math was invented in the first place.

Tegmark remarked slightly before this part of the conversation began that he thinks that a scientific theory should be taken seriously even if it includes unfalsifiable elements so long as it has other parts that are testable, and he implies that our trust in a theory increases with the number of tested and proven cases. He mentions black holes and general relativity, the wobble in the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, and so on. We can't know what's going on in a black hole by observation, but we can predict it using a theory that works so well in so many other places that we should probably at least listen to what general relativity has to say about your fate if you fell into a region of super-gravity.

So too in mathematics. Suppose I only have access to a few thousand things that I can count (as many ancient number systems seems to indicate was often the case in the ancient world--see Chinese which uses ten thousand, wan, and then one hundred million (ten thousand ten thousands), yi, as its basic big numbers, which makes saying big numbers in Chinese pretty inconvenient sometimes). If that's the case, I'll quickly run out of a practical way to keep testing my theory of numbers. Sure, I can define a number called a million and add it to another number called one hundred thousand and come up with 1,100,000, and if that is (practically) unfalsifiable, we can still trust it is correct because every other pair of numbers we've added in the same way has worked out.

That example may seem silly, but there are really impractical numbers. Take a number that has a trillion digits, for example--or one that the number of digits is described by a number with a trillion digits. What does such a number count? Nothing real, without getting really abstruse (the number of atoms in the observable universe is estimated to be an 81-digit or 82-digit number). Now take another number of similar size. Add them together, or multiply them, or raise them to powers of one another, say that many times over. Somewhere in here, we get beyond anything that's like being falsifiable in any realistic sense, and yet we know we can trust the numbers will come out right if we have a machine that can do the arithmetic because we trust the theory. Really big numbers, then, are like the insides of black holes, and we trust the mathematical structures because they work in literally every little case we can possibly check.

But proofs

But aren't these mathematical facts proven, and so we don't have to trust the theory? Well, yes, they are. The point, though, is that we could trust the theory even without the proofs, although in doing so, we'd introduce an element of uncertainty and find a gap in which we can argue about epistemic warrant and other things that philosophers of science like to argue about--sometimes for good reasons.

The proofs aren't irrelevant, though; they're very important. They are not so important, however, that we get to commit the philosopher's greatest error of forgetting the world for his abstractions. Math is, at bottom, empirical and then abstracted from there. It is not the other way around. Let me explain. 

Mysticism and Platonism

It's easy to argue that my last book, Dot, Dot, Dot, is largely a treatise on why people shouldn't be Platonists. I'll avoid rehashing too much of it here.

Harris wonders at the primacy of mathematics, or its "unreasonable effectiveness," and asks Tegmark for his take. Tegmark notes that we have to ask what mathematics is and correctly notes that if we ask lots of different people, we'll get lots of different answers. He then says most mathematicians would say mathematics is a set of "structures" that are "to be discovered," giving examples like numbers: 1, 2, 3, and so on, and 2+2=4. I assume that by "to be discovered," he means by logic, as opposed to empirically as I just discussed. In so doing, he echoes Ian Stewart's remark (quoted in Dot, Dot, Dot with a reference) that most mathematicians hold some kind of "unexamined blend" of two takes on mathematical ontology: Platonism and formalism.

I explained this in Dot, Dot, Dot in considerable detail. The general thrust of my explanation is that mathematics is a kind of philosophy that performs logic on certain axioms which are, in many cases, very "self-evident" statements. Indeed, as I just argued, they are ones that can be (and were originally) derived empirically and then made into abstractions. Once a set of mathematical (or other philosophical) axioms are determined, though, and the type of logic being used is given, the combination of the two produces a structure, to borrow Tegmark's word, called an axiomatic system.

An axiomatic system is a collection of statements together with their truth values under a specific kind of logic, all standing in relation to the set of axioms that underlie them. And this is why mathematics seems so discovered. The truths, falsehoods, and undecidables of every axiomatic system--all abstract objects, which means ideas--are determined in total in the very instant the axioms and logic that define the system are chosen. Finding them out is discovering them, as if they exist in an imaginary landscape defined by the axioms and logic themselves. It's exactly like turning over the cards in the children's board game Candyland, as I argued in the book. Once the cards are shuffled (axioms and logic are chosen), the game (entire axiomatic system, or "mathematics") is determined. It's just a matter of going through it and discovering what happens (though harder, more interesting, and more useful by far).

The axioms, though--those we invent, sort of. We certainly invent some of them, but I'll come back to that. The ones we didn't invent are merely "not invented" because they're empirical. Numbers like one and two and three, even zero, fundamental definitions for the way addition works, and so on, are either self-evident axioms or direct consequences of others that are either self-evident or abstracted variants on ones that really are self-evident.

Some aren't so clear, though, like the Axiom of Infinity, which implies that at least one infinite set exists. That, I'd say, we invented. And we can choose to use it (standard mathematics, and some weird others) or not (finitist and ultrafinitist mathematics). Once we have infinity, we have to wonder about choice across infinite sets (Axiom of Choice), and we can choose to accept it or reject it. In each case, we get a different axiomatic system, a different mathematics.

So when Harris says that "mathematics is a landscape of possible discovery that exceeds our current understanding--and may, in fact, always exceed it," yes, and yes, necessarily.

This is the case without even remarking upon Godel's famous incompleteness theorems, results that show that the kinds of axiomatic systems we usually associate with mathematics cannot simultaneously be complete (all statements have determinable truth values) and coherent (no contradictions). Because there are infinitely many numbers (or indefinitely many, to satisfy the finitists out there), there are infinitely many theorems, and we'll only ever state a finite number of those. Harris alludes to this directly by implying that we'll always only know a finite number of primes while also knowing the cardinality of the set of primes to be infinite--and so there's always another theorem lurking out there: "p_newly_realized is a prime number" (although "n is an integer" would work too, for any big enough integer n because as there are infinitely many such theorems, there isn't time to think them all up).

The fundamental mystery isn't mysterious

Harris goes on to raise the point again about the "fundamental mystery: why should mathematics be so useful for describing the physical world and making predictions?"

Tegmark responds that you'll get a lot of answers depending upon who you ask. He says some people (who are not like me) will say there's no mystery: "math is useful, go away," they'll say. I don't think there's a mystery, but pragmatism isn't my reason. He says others are Platonists, and so on, going to the extreme case of himself where he answers that it's because the world is mathematics. Bah. Metaphysical speculation.

So here is why mathematics is reasonably effective, and why we should be surprised if it weren't. Mathematics, at the beginning of its efforts, is about counting things. This effort is inherently empirical, as I argued, so we are linking mathematics to the world from its very basic beginnings and then abstracting via logic from there. All of the math we have ever built started with counting and added layers of abstraction from that concrete basis. I suppose it didn't have to be this way, in some grand sense of the phrase, but really, it did. Why would we have expended energy developing mathematics that didn't apply to the universe we find ourselves in? Even now many of us wrinkle our noses at mathematicians who are too enamored with that endeavor, despite having sufficient resources to fund it.

There's, as Harris alluded to, an infinite landscape of mathematics that could have been, but we built the mathematics that is rooted in our experience of reality instead of something else. We could define addition or multiplication or even numbers differently, and for some abstract purposes, mathematicians sometimes do. We don't do much with that, though, because if we used those axioms for "basic" mathematics, we'd get answers that diverge from our experience.

Perhaps the most famous an obvious example of this fact goes all the way back to Euclid, some two millennia ago. While laying out the foundational axioms (postulates) of geometry, he included the parallel postulate (usually stated via Playfair's Axiom now: In a plane, given a line and a point not on it, at most one line parallel to the given line can be drawn through the point.) This is an axiom, a self-evident truth, of planar geometry--often called Euclidean geometry--but it is not true of spherical or hyperbolic geometry, both of which are important in cosmology. Those two are different geometrical systems.

What we see is that when we change the axioms, we get completely different mathematics, and there are lots of possible choices, though the vast majority of them are bad. The entirety of my argument for the reasonableness of the effectiveness of mathematics is that we chose to keep and develop those axioms that are useful to the real world or seemingly logical extensions of those instead of any number of others--and we didn't have to.

So why is mathematics unreasonably effective? Because out of all of the many possible ways we could have built math (infinitely many, really), we built the one that applies to our world by starting with self-evident axioms and building upward and outward from there.

Is all math unreasonably effective?

No, not even within the confines of mathematics we have developed. It isn't clear, for example, that infinity is terribly useful. Finitists claim that all relevant mathematics can be done without it, and they seem to have made a strong case for that fact. There are also frequent articles being published arguing that infinity is where physical models break. So should we accept the Axiom of Infinity or not? Is infinity, and all its corollaries, unreasonably effective mathematics? Probably not. Maybe--but probably not.

Let's say it is, though. Let's say that the Axiom of Infinity is surprisingly effective for something. That will bring us to the Axiom of Choice pretty quickly. Is it unreasonably effective? Well, there's a reason there has been a lot of controversy in mathematics surrounding Choice. On the one hand, it seems desperately arbitrary to reject Choice, even on infinite sets, but on the other, accepting it causes the Banach-Tarski Paradox, in which a single solid object can be deconstructed into five distinct pieces and reassembled into two exact copies of the original object (apparently implying that, in some sense, 1=2, or that two is just another form of one). So, is mathematics on one side or the other of Choice unreasonably effective? Who knows?

This is what I know, though: if the universe provided some solid empirical reason (to root Harris's question about epistemology) to accept the Axiom of Infinity and the Axiom of Choice, say some weird quantum effect showed that the Banach-Tarski Paradox isn't only not paradoxical but is part of how nature works at sufficiently small scales within certain energy ranges, we'd accept them both and declare the mathematics that results "unreasonably effective." On the other hand, if nature showed us good reasons to reject them both as bad axioms, we'd accept their negations and declare the mathematics that results "unreasonably effective."

Quelle "unreasonably effective."

Is the universe made of math?

Who knows? This is pure metaphysical speculation, but if I were invited to speculate, I'd say it isn't. Metaphysical speculation of this kind is probably always more likely to be wrong than right. Still, this case is probably worse, and Harris catches Tegmark at it with exactly the pertinent question.

Harris pushes Tegmark on whether or not language can be said to do the same thing as mathematics--characterize the universe at a fundamental level since the universe is describable in language (this being a big part of Tegmark's case--electrons, etc., are identifiable with a set of numbers, and that's that). I think Harris busts the whole thing there: yes, the same claim applies to language, because math is just a subset of language (because everything in math can be expressed in language, and most of "math" is shorthand).

Tegmark, of course, dissents. He says that math is inherently more powerful than language, but he gives himself away (and is wrong) in the moment where Tegmark admits that human languages are "notoriously vague." At that, he also admits that the power of mathematics is that it is a very precise kind of language. But why is mathematics so precise?

It is precise because of something few readers will believe: math is precise because it is simple. Math is reality stripped of everything complicated about reality. Math is a kind of philosophy in which we use very robustly self-evident axioms or those that seem to logically follow from those and in which pretty much everybody agrees upon those axioms, at least for the "basics." It's simiplified but empirically based axioms and cold, cruel logic.

A conversation worth having

Now, Tegmark makes some remarks near the end of this segment that let me come full circle when he discusses his "optimistic view" of a mathematical universe. He says something that implied to me that eventually we'll run out of better data, but we'll always have math, and imagination, to continue to push the boundaries of our knowledge. This is an interesting conversation to have.

When I first met Vic Stenger, I asked him this very question: What happens when we get to a point where there's no practical way, or maybe even no physical way, to extract more relevant data from the universe? Say, for instance, we physically cannot, for whatever reasons, pry another decimal place out of our measurements. Now suppose we have two competing models that would be resolved two or four or twenty or one hundred decimal places further down than we can get. How do we choose between them?

Sadly, Vic told me he didn't think that would be possible. He didn't think there would be limits on how much information we could pry out of reality, but even if there aren't physical ones (I suspect there are, given Heisenberg and the Planck dimensions), there certainly are practical ones. What if the particle collider needed to answer the question requires more energy than the total output of our sun for a century, for instance? Even a tiny fraction of that much energy is unlikely to be worth the effort.

Tegmark is right, though: there, at that limit, if nowhere before, math and our imagination, along with the other elements that lead us to accept physical models, become the defining criteria for choosing one model over another. Working out what those criteria are constitutes an excellent pursuit for the philosophy of science, and I think the question is fundamentally very hard because it asks how we will define scientific epistemology in a domain in which empiricism can't rule the epistemic roost.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A New Book Coming Soon: Everybody Is Wrong About God

I've all but vanished from blogging, due to a number of constraints on my time and interests. Not least of these is the process of having written and begun to finalize my next book, Everybody Is Wrong About God, which will be published by Pitchstone Press, with whom I'm very happy to be working. It should be available on the first of December (though it is available for pre-order on Amazon now!).

It's relatively short and has a nice foreword by my friend and colleague Peter Boghossian, of A Manual for Creating Atheists fame, who was kind enough to describe the book as "crucial," "a signpost at a crossroads," and taking "a completely novel approach." 

Everybody Is Wrong About God is, frankly, an ambitious project of mine in which I aim to completely pull the rug out from under theism and theology. With them, therefore, atheism has to go too. My goal, then, is nothing less than turning the first page in a new chapter, one that points us toward a new post-theistic phase in human history--one that leaves God behind, for good (and I mean that both ways).

Not wanting to spoil too much of the fun too early, I won't elaborate too much on how I argue this case save to say that I draw deeply from the psychological literature in an attempt to reveal theism for the myth that it is. Though the curious will have to wait until December 1, I should be appearing on a number of podcasts and other venues over the next couple of months to provide pretty substantial nuggets of my thoughts on these matters.

Here, though, to give a little bit of a taste of where I'm going with it, I want to share my very short preface to the book. I'll also include the table of contents below that. At the very least, Everybody Is Wrong About God is a preview of what the last chapter of humanity's theistic phase should look like, and hopefully, a guide drawing a line from where we are now to there.

Without further ado, then, I submit the following for your consideration.


I’m going to start this book by telling you a few things that do not seem to go together. Everyone will find these things controversial because everyone is wrong about God.

First, I want to tell you that “God” exists.

Second, I want to tell you that people who do not believe in God have it more or less right, and in fact, that at the level of ideas, their view has already rightfully won.

Third, I want to tell you that the key to getting “God” right, and thus getting over God and on with our lives and societies, is recognizing that belief in God itself is how we get God wrong.

Because “God” exists, when people say “God doesn’t exist,” they are not saying something intelligible to believers. In fact, what they’re saying is worse than nonsense. The trick is that God doesn’t exist; “God” does, and believers hear what they really mean by that word whenever they hear it. All that’s needed is sorting out whatever “God” really means. That is an effort this book will set into motion.

This is not paradoxical. Believers are speaking mythologically about something real, so they all talk about their beliefs in the wrong way. They talk about them theologically, and that’s really mythologically. Thus, they are wrong about God.

Very few nonbelievers understand this fact, and they also do not understand what “God” means. Lacking another way to talk about the topic, they argue in the same mythological language, and thus they are also wrong about God. While a lack of belief in the existence of God is the right position, theological terms are the wrong way to engage the topic. “Atheists,” increasingly identifiable as a motivated subset of those who lack belief in God, are particularly keen to commit this error and do so at two major costs.

First, they perpetuate the debate about theism on its own terms, and the continuation of that debate is all the intellectual defense that belief in God has going for it. Second, they set themselves up for a number of avoidable pitfalls, most notably becoming identifiable from the outside with being quasi-religious and, worse, actually becoming such.

Many atheist interest groups currently and ambitiously seek to “normalize” atheism, to make it a normal part of society. Once we understand “God,” we will understand why atheism, as anything that could be misconstrued as a thing, cannot be normalized. As we will see, the first thing “God” means to almost every believer is nearly always “how I understand moral values.” Second (or thereabouts), and intimately related, comes “how I contextualize myself in my culture/community.”

Atheism, from the believer’s point of view, is therefore always heard as a rejection of those values, hence we see rampant mistrust of atheists. We must understand that, alongside everything else it does, religion acts to form moral communities, which allow for a bypassing mechanism to our natural distrust of unknown others under the perception of shared moral and cultural values. Those values are grounded in the idea people call “God.” Atheism stands in negation to those values, as understood by the believer, and so the “theism versus atheism” conversation is doomed.

In too-short summary, “God” means “my values,” and so “atheism” is heard as “I reject your values.” This is why “atheism” needs to die. This is why we need to drop it and go post-theistic. The first step in doing so is understanding how everybody is wrong about God and starting down the road to getting it right.

This book is meant to change how we understand the term “God,” ending theism and theology in their entireties, and thus it will call for a complete rethink on atheism (unthink would be a better word, in fact). In a way, it will be a call back to roots, and in another way, it will be an open door to the next stage of humanity’s future.

Table of Contents*

  • Foreword by Peter Boghossian - 9
  • Preface - 13
  • Introduction: The Next Rational Move - 15
  • 1. Exposing Theism - 34
  • 2. The End of Atheism - 45
  • 3. Post-theism - 67
  • 4. The Goodness of God - 74
  • 5. “God” - 97
  • 6. Okay, Now What? - 175
  • 7. Uprooting Faith - 179
  • 8. Secularism - 196
  • 9. Unthinking Atheism - 203
  • 10. Filling the Religion Gap - 209
  • 11. Going Post-theistic - 227
  • Conclusion: The Future of Reason - 241
  • Acknowledgments - 245
  • About the Author - 248
*Page numbers unlikely to be final


Again, Everybody Is Wrong About God will be released on December 1 of this year, and you can go ahead and pre-order it on now.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Obama Condemns ‘Distorted’ Pretense to Knowledge

Obama Condemns ‘Distorted’ Pretense to Knowledge Not Had at National Talking To Yourself as a Coping Mechanism Breakfast

Clarified from an article by Adelle M. Banks 02-05-2015 | 12:24pm | here

President Obama on Feb. 5 called for an emphasis on what is just about the world’s religions as a way to counter the ways that pretending to know things that people do not know has been distorted across the globe.
President Obama speaks at the National Talking To Yourself as a Coping Mechanism Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 5. Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

“We see the act of pretending to know things we do not know driving us to do right,” he said to more than 3,500 people attending the annual National Talking To Yourself as a Coping Mechanism Breakfast. “But we also see the act of people pretending to know things they do not being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge—or worse, sometimes used as a weapon.”

He urged all who actively pretend to know things that they do not, often with complete the confidence typical of complete assent, to practice humility, support church-state separation, and adhere to the Golden Rule (a useful but oversimplified heuristic mistaken for profound moral wisdom as often as it is misattributed to being a unique utterance of the Christian figurehead, Jesus) as ways to keep religion in its proper context.

“As people who also pretend to know things we don't actually know, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our systems based around pretending to know what we don't—these being any religion—for their own nihilistic ends,” Obama said. “Here at home and around the world we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom: freedom of religion, the right to pretend to know things we do not know however we choose, to change how and what we pretend to know but don't know if we choose, to stop pretending to know things we don't know at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.”

Obama denounced the so-called Islamic State that is waging a bloody war across Syria and Iraq against fellow Muslims and religious minorities, labeling them a “a brutal, vicious death cult.” (He did not, however, admit that they are doing so, quite obviously, based upon things they pretend to know but do not know, nor did he mention that this is a glaring similarity between them and many of us, including nearly all members of the upper levels of the government of the United States, himself included—that is, unless he's pretending to pretend to know things so that people who pretend to know things will think they can trust him more.)

The breakfast has often turned controversial, and this year was no exception with the inclusion of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who, in addition to being widely recognized for pretending to know many outlandish things he does not, attended but did not speak and was not seated on the dais with other speakers.

Under pressure from China not to recognize the Nobel laureate, Obama nonetheless opened his remarks by welcoming the Dalai Lama, who he called “a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion” and someone who “inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.” He did not mention that the Dalai Lama, as a Tibetan Buddhist, pretends to know, but does not know, some truly astounding things, including, of particular noteworthiness, the mechanism by which the Dalai Lama is recognized as a kind of legitimate spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama waves towards the head table, where U.S. President Barack Obama is seated. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

Chinese officials had criticized the Dalai Lama’s plans to appear at the event.

“We are against any country’s interference in China’s domestic affairs under the pretext of Tibet-related issues, and are opposed to any foreign leader’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in any form,” said Hong Lei, spokesman for the China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, before the breakfast.

Obama and the Dalai Lama have met several times at the White House, but the White House usually keeps the meetings private and low-key so as not to anger China.

NASCAR commentator Darrell Waltrip, the keynoter of the breakfast, joked about his being invited two years after conservative neurosurgeon Ben Carson raised eyebrows by directly confronting the president about Obama’s signature health care reform.

“I’m not a brain surgeon, and I’m not running for office so I’m the perfect guy to be here this morning,” he said. It isn't clear what Waltrip pretends to know but does not, but given the context, it can be assumed to be something many Americans, but not all, would feel comfortable with him pretending to know.

From a distance, Pope Francis joined Obama in calling for greater religious freedom (which is a bit odd, in a way, given the kinds of things Pope Francis pretends to know but does not know—readers familiar with the ancient and venerable tradition of pretending to know things called "Catholicism" will have some good guesses at what is being referred to here).

“I ask you to talk to yourself for me and to join me in talking to yourself for our brothers and sisters throughout the world who experience persecution and death for pretending to know things they don't know,” the pontiff wrote in a letter to attendees that was read in part by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who co-chaired the breakfast with Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

The famously ecumenical pope failed to address any persecution faced by people who, sensibly enough, work as well as they can to avoid pretending to know things they do not know, and he also neglected to add the obvious subtext: “as a method of coming together and coping with the fact that this feels completely outside of our control.” Instead, he implied that he pretends that talking to oneself, either alone or in groups, will possibly invoke a kind of ancient magic that might make things better by processes that he also pretends to know can work.

Following the recent deadly attacks on a French newspaper that had published satirical cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, Obama also spoke of the need to support both freedom of speech and religion.

“If, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s system of beliefs they pretend to know but do not know, however ridiculous they may be, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults,” he said drawing applause from self-satisfied people who fail to understand the difference between satire, a form of humor, and insults, “and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities, who are the targets of such attacks.”

Obama expressed thanks for the safe return of Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, who was held in North Korea for more than a year, and recounted his recent meeting in Boise, Idaho, with the family of U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini, who remains imprisoned in Iran and has become a cause celebre for many evangelicals.

“We’re going to keep up this work for Pastor Abedini and all those around the world who are unjustly held or persecuted because of they are guilty of pretending to know the wrong sorts of untrue things, things that they don't know, in places where other people pretend to know contradictory things that they also don't know,” he said, noting that Rabbi David Saperstein, the new U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, would be heading soon to Iraq to work with religious leaders there.

The breakfast, in its 63rd year, is chaired each year by members of Congress who meet weekly to engage in a ritual of talking to nobody together, as a coping strategy, a tribe-building activity, and, mostly, as a public show of moral symbolism, when Congress is in session. It draws politicians, diplomats and prominent evangelical Christian leaders but often includes an interfaith roster of speakers, forming a more comprehensive set of beliefs that people pretend to know are true while not actually knowing that. (Hey, at least it brings people together, right?)

Rabbi Greg Marx of Maple Glen, Pa., gave the invocation and former Ambassador Andrew Young, once an aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King and a president of the National Council of Churches, gave the benediction. Both of these solemn rites are ways to set the mood and state clearly what kinds of things all members present should pretend to know whether they know them or not.

Vicker read from the Gospel of Matthew—an explicitly Christian sermon, which is simultaneously shocking and completely unsurprising given the circumstances—in place of the scheduled speaker, King Abdullah II of Jordan, reciting the story of the Good Samaritan. Abdullah had to return home after a hostage crisis involving the Islamic State turned deadly.

“We all know the heartbreaking circumstances his country is experiencing at this point,” Vicker said. “Our prayers,” [by which we really mean our sense of goodwill and concern but pretend we mean more than that], “are with the people of Jordan during this troubling time of crisis.”

Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national correspondent at RNS. Via RNS. The work presented here is a satirical parody of Banks's work and is protected under the Fair Use clause of American copyright law.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Ten Non-Commandments

Recently, there was a rather well-publicized contest (at least within the Atheist Community™) to come up with ten new "non-commandments" that secularists, atheists, and humanists--unhappily blurred into a single kind of entity--should aim to follow. The context was based upon a new book by Lex Bayer and John Figdor (commentary about publicity stunts suspended), Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century. Obviously, the book aims to list non-commandments for heathens to follow, or not-adhere to, or--never mind.

In the spirit of the enthusiasm, here are ten "non-commandments" I might suggest, as I've been pondering this silly exercise for a little while now because of the contest.
  1. Don't go in for commandments. (This one is the only one I would call a commandment, and so it applies autologically as well--sometimes rules are okay.)
  2. Try to take the risk of thinking for yourself--particularly, realize that your team is more likely to be wrong than you are.
  3. Aim never to be boring or boorish.
  4. Do what you can to be honest with yourself, especially do whatever you can to avoid pretending to know things you do not or cannot know.
  5. Try to live long and well, but know that you will die and let that inform your life.
  6. Seek to do whatever kindness you can.
  7. Strive to minimize the harms generated by your actions, particularly those performed in service of your own benefit.
  8. Do all you can to respect the dignity and autonomy of others.
  9. Try not to let it bother you that the promise of ten fell short at nine; that's life.
Cheers! Happy holidays and whatnot from me to all of you.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Mechanics of a Category Five Social Justice Shitstorm

Apparently, a dissection of the word "pride" in the context of "[social group, especially one that is systematically oppressed, e.g. gay] pride" is harder to talk about than I might have thought. I have tried to be careful already, and so I encourage people to read those thoughts here.

Here's a point worth elaborating upon, though. In my previous essay on the topic, I included this statement, which I think to be of incredible importance to understanding the impact of the term "pride" in the given context.
Still, to consider "gay pride" in the context of celebration is bizarre because it is insinuating that gay people should be celebrating being how they were born for the sake of having been born that way (with the added implication that others, or at least certain others, shouldn't--the term "straight pride" is rightfully considered rather abhorrent). (bold added)
This is actually pretty significant, possibly the most significant point in the entire long discussion. I'd like to invite a thought experiment, then, to see why.

Imagine if in the first place, attempting to make the same point, Peter Boghossian had tweeted instead that he, in exactly the same way as (Apple CEO) Tim Cook is about being gay, is proud to be straight, white, and male.

Let the thought sink in for a moment. Try to picture that it really happened (which may require some of you to stop pretending it did). The result would have been even more predictable than the rage that followed his actual tweet. People would have went completely bonkers. Bonkers like berserk. Bonkers like a hiccup in gravity that would have sent Jupiter into the Sun and blown up the whole damn solar system.

And that's what's offensive to so many people about so much of what gets called "Social Justice"--to be specifically disambiguated from "gay pride" here.

(Before crucifying what I just wrote, bear in mind that in my previous post, I discussed at length the reasons I believe that all people who have faced social oppression and unfair obstacles have a legitimate right to be proud of having done so, survived, and come out to be the wonderful people that they typically are. Bear also in mind that I don't think "gay pride" is actually offensive to anyone except gay-hating bigots, although what tends to get branded "Social Justice" far too often is.) Additionally, though too few will believe me, let me try to make it as plain as may be that I understand the facts of social oppression as deeply as who I am and the total capacity of my experiences, empathy, and abstract reasoning capabilities will allow.

That said, when a message of "pride" carries with it an implicit understanding of "I can be proud to be who I happen to be, but you can't," there's a serious problem at hand. That problem exists for the movement based upon the claim to pride more than for anyone else. That problem, in fact, is like spraying rocket fuel on the already burning opposition to pride movements.

Here's the problem spelled out: "I can have pride, but you're an asshole if you do" is a message that is utter poison. Once that aspect of the sentiment is realized by anyone decent, it is resisted vehemently, and rightfully so. It's a huge part of the reason so many women and genuinely women-allied men reject feminism now--not because they're "gender traitors" or closeted "misogynists," but because they refuse to sign up for that kind of patent inequity, particularly under a banner of undoing social inequity.

Sadly, this toxic sentiment almost typifies the "Social Justice" progressive ideology that straight, white, and male have had their day in the sun and now it's time for them to get out, as if space in the light and warmth of an empathetic, equal society is somehow zero sum.

Even more ridiculous is the fact (pretending Boghossian even thinks such a thing make sense) that had he tweeted about having pride in his race, gender, and sexual orientation--as they just so happened to be by the accidents of his birth--the "Social Justice" angle would be to argue that as a straight, white male, he's not entitled to that feeling.

The argument is as predictable as it is presumptuous, that--as who he happens to be--he can't ever have been on the receiving end of anything remotely like systematic social oppression (never mind that had he ever lived in certain other areas in the world, he most certainly could have experienced just that). That they would make this specious argument while proceeding to systematically oppress him for who he happens to be, by telling him his opinion isn't sufficiently informed to be valid, would get lost in all the glorious righteousness--presumptive, ideological righteousness that itself engenders both more resistance and a doubling-down upon its own stinking assumption of irreproachability.

And this is the mechanics by which the whole toxic spiral of a Social Justice Shitstorm turns, sucking rational discourse into the black hole at its center and centripetally flinging shit as far and wide as its considerable angular momentum will allow. 

So a reality check is in order, as a worthwhile aside. Boghossian is a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences--in the humanities half of that--at one of the most liberal universities in the country, Portland State. I would bet my last dollar that he has routinely faced a very oppressive atmosphere of the kind that stymies him from sharing his opinion, or one that tells him outright that because of who he happens to be, his opinions (and opportunity) are rightfully diminished. He is, after all, a member of what too many "Social Justice" crusaders refer to as the "oppressor class," which they seem to be able to identify solely by looking at a picture of him. Not only that, he's utterly surrounded by and in many respects subject to the people who think that kind of thing about him.

I know this is very likely to be true because for years now I've personally been terrified to say so much as a word about any social leftist line of thinking, however unfair, lest I get vilified for it--having experienced every single one of the things in the proceeding two paragraphs without ever having said anything so obviously callous as that I'm proud to be who I happen to be (I'm not, actually--partly because I don't think it's the right word and partly because I honestly think that aspect of my psychology has been beaten out of me by my social environment.) I bear this fear as a compassionate, caring, empathetic, allied, left-oriented individual, and my money is on that I'm not alone here. (Ample evidence exists to back this observation up, in fact.)

To the central point, that cringe-worthy hypocrisy doesn't matter, though, not really. This blog post isn't a defense of being straight, white, male, or anything else anyone happens to be born as. This isn't a "oh, we have it bad too, boo-hoo" post.

This is a plain statement of two things. (1) The Social Justice ideology doesn't get to hijack social discourse any more than any other ideology gets to. That's what fairness means. (2) Any ideological position or social movement that bases itself upon a concept that can be read as being patently unfair, like, "I deserve self-worth, but you don't, these being simple facts of the accidents of our birth," screws itself, however worthy and noble a social movement it may be. Taking upon itself such an attitude and its defense sets the movement up for the hindrances of vehement resistance, including outright rejection by man of its natural allies. (NB: Self-worth is a big part of the operative and legitimate meaning of the word "pride" in the context at hand, cf. my previous essay on the topic.)

So, think again of the possibility that Boghossian had tweeted his pride in who he happens to be, especially had he dared to add that his open acceptance of his own self-worth constitutes pride in defiance of social leftist oppression to which he is personally and professionally subject. The explosion that followed the tweet he actually did make--that he doesn't understand how anyone can be proud to have been born who they are--would have been as a firecracker to an atom bomb, as would have been the predictable backlash that followed it. The casualties are rational discourse and an important aspect of the fairness pride movements seek to establish.

Now realize that he didn't tweet that at all, and he wouldn't have dared to even if he believed that it was the right use of the word.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Not Pride and Not Prejudice: Is "Pride" Right for Uses like "Gay Pride"?

Yesterday, presumably following Apple CEO Tim Cook's announcement that he's "proud to be gay," philosopher Peter Boghossian raked some serious muck with social progressives by tweeting:
Knowing him, and having bothered to discuss it with him more thoroughly, Peter's point is that the term "pride" carries certain meanings (here: in reference to achievement, in particular) that may make it somewhat inappropriate to apply to a concept like "gay pride." As he has done in the past--controversially with groups wedded to certain other terms and ideas connected with them--he has asked for a disambiguation of the term "pride" in this context. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though for some legitimate reasons, there was a rather substantial blowback to his request to carefully consider the terminology being employed as dispassionately as possible.

So here, after having spent an interesting twenty-four hours thinking on-and-off about the topic and discussing it with a handful of different people, I feel like it's probably worth picking apart the meanings of the word pride to try to get at that dispassionate examination of the use of this term. Of course, this will require me to deploy a flotilla of should-be-superfluous caveats from the start.

Caveat: Nothing here seeks to diminish the dignity of any person whatsoever nor to hamper any attempts to promote equality, fairness, or the undoing of socially harmful mores and norms. Perhaps surprisingly, the goal of such a disambiguation is to effectively further attempts to secure equality and dignity for all people, particularly those who have been marginalized and oppressed by insensitive social circumstances.

Caveat: Nothing here seeks to diminish the experience, feelings, or sense of strength, community, or belongingness of any person.

Caveat: Nothing here diminishes the significant social struggle experienced and still experienced by any marginalized group, and it, indeed, honors and seeks to clarify the situation so that credit can be given everywhere it is due. 

Caveat: I don't really care what terms people use to help themselves feel legitimately good about themselves, particularly when there are copious reasons for them to rally around something that improves their sense of self-worth and authenticity while abolishing shame that has been unjustly laid upon them and simply doesn't belong to them.

Caveat: This is just a discussion about words and the ideas they represent, one that is intended to be a bit deeper than semantics, and it is unhelpful in all regards to shout down such explorations when engaged in by genuine, curious, well-intended folks (even if they end up being wrong, which is okay).

Those listed, let me add, in bold so it won't be so easily missed, there is a completely legitimate definition, and thus usage, of the word "pride" consistent with the meaning apparently intended by phrases like "[group in question] pride." Furthermore, there are legitimate reasons to be proud related to the social situations at hand, and those deserve to be recognized and honored.

Now, to necessary tedium--definitions.
One definition of pride matches Boghossian's question, as given by Google:
Pride: a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
On that definition, as being born how someone is born, phrases like "gay pride" are more political slogans than anything else, and it seems that the connotation of the word "pride" flowing from this definition of the word lies at the center of Boghossian's request to look at things more carefully.

Another definition, as mentioned above, fits perfectly, again given by Google:
Pride: the consciousness of one's own dignity.
On this definition, every person is entitled, even encouraged, to be proud of who they are. Boghossian's point seems to be that this meaning, while technically applicable to pride, is not congruous with the connotations usually applied to that word, some of which are unquestionably negative.

Now, while every person is entitled to consciousness of his or her own dignity, those who are subject to social circumstances opposing that basic human right constitute a special case. For them, owning this meaning of pride--which is synonymous with "unashamedness" and "unabashedness," close to "self-esteem" and "self-worth," and seems to be an expression of personal authenticity--is hard; it is therefore an accomplishment to overcome the social mores working against the oppressed to own one's own identity and claim consciousness of one's own dignity. Thus, for these people pride in the sense of satisfaction derived from one's achievements also applies.

I would like to argue that "unabashedness," for what it lacks in rhetorical punch, is probably a better word to use than "pride" in the context of phrases like "gay pride," although when it comes to social movements, rhetorical punch is of great value.

There is, though, of course, another definition of pride. Turning yet again to Google,
Pride: the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one's importance.
The connotation in this case is explicitly negative, and because of the nature of words and their connotations, this nasty sort of pride comes as part of the package for anyone wanting to assert pride in who they are, especially as a political slogan in a charged, reactionary, sensitive social arena. Those who want to have "gay pride" should realize that those who oppose them will hear this connotation of the word pride more clearly than all others when it comes up, and the result can be the kind of reactionary attitudes that make driving a worthy social agenda much more difficult than it needs to be.

To summarize quickly, there is, then a sense that the term "pride" doesn't fit--as being born who one is doesn't constitute an accomplishment or a quality which equality seeks to elevate to a status of admirability. There is also a sense in which "pride" fits perfectly: every human being is entitled to his or her dignity and to conscious awareness of it, this being a basic human right. The meaning here, then, is mostly in negation of "shame," imposed by an unjust social milieu, and so unashamedness is a more fitting term than "pride." Further, there is a sense in which the term "pride" can be turned back against a well-intended social movement, particularly by those who demonize "sin," among which they count both homosexuality and pride.

On those grounds, it seems pretty clear-cut that while the use is technically legitimate, Boghossian's call for disambiguation and, perhaps, application of better terms is not as far out of bounds as many people seem to believe.

For a bit more context, philosopher Russell Blackford expressed some disagreement with Boghossian's point about achievement being necessary, tweeting

He added, further, in direct reply to Boghossian, that he doesn't see a problem with being proud, as he has indicated, even if the person with pride did nothing to achieve the relevant qualities. 

Another meaning?

I drew a comparison on Twitter to nationalistic pride, hoping to poke a little at progressive hypocrisy, though as was noted, the analogy is imperfect.
This raised a somewhat tangential discussion that brought to fore another question about the meaning of the term "pride" and its application in this circumstance. A genuinely interesting conversation with Helen Pluckrose (@HPluckrose) followed, where she sought to connect the idea of pride to something I would describe as being akin to belongingness. She went on to ask Peter Tatchell (@PeterTatchell), of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, his thoughts about "pride" in "gay pride," and he specifically says that he "thinks and hopes" that pride there means all three of "achievement, self-esteem, and celebration." Here is Pluckrose's tweet and Tatchell's response:
This is seriously confusing to me. Because I think Pluckrose is genuine, and because Tatchell is apparently a voice of some significance in this discussion, one who embraces something that sincerely confuses me, I would like to elaborate. The necessary context was provided in the first half of this post.

Being gay simply is not an achievement. It is (in very high likelihood) intrinsic to the person in question. Now, being openly gay in a gay-hostile climate (and only in such a climate) is an achievement. It takes guts and work, real work, to embrace authenticity in a social climate that wants you not to. Embracing personal authenticity for anyone is an achievement, but it's particularly celebratory in the context of being authentic against pressure trying to force you to be inauthentic. All socially marginalized people, including gay people, who stand up and embrace who they are authentically should be proud of that fact, for the achievement that it represents and for the quality of character it exhibits. We might call that "pride in being openly gay," and it fits without a shred of doubt.

Still, it is significant to pull apart the ideas of "pride in being who I am" and "pride in having fully accepted who I am." The first seems inappropriate, at least at the connotative level, as was Boghossian's point. The second is clearly appropriate, but they aren't the same thing. Though it seems to have been widely missed, Boghossian explicitly stated that he understands this nuance:

Moving on, Pluckrose's use of the term "self-esteem" is the meaning of "pride" that is unashamedness or unabashedness. Again, it is the one legitimate use of the term pride in the context of being able to be proud of who one happens to be, though it suffers in that it doesn't do a great job of matching pride's usual connotations. Recognizing these two facts is critical to the disambiguation of the term that Boghossian is calling for (including that he should note that the definition does apply legitimately).

A majority of the connotations of the term pride, specifically, are largely negative, especially within contexts like Christianity, which lists pride as one of the seven most deadly of sins. Note, in fact, that despite behavior clearly consistent with the theme, we do not very often see overtly named "Christian pride" initiatives. This is important. Labelling oneself "proud" when one's primary social opposition comes from a powerful, well-populated, moralistically motivated organization that sees both your behavior and pride as sinful is going to drag down the efforts. If there is a better word than "pride," it should be adopted. Disambiguating the terms is needed to find out what term might work better.

Back to Pluckrose and Tatchell's three terms, "celebration" is the most confusing. Pride isn't celebration, not in any of its meanings. Here, I think Pluckrose is trying to articulate succinctly the fact that she has tied a sense of belongingness (necessarily to a framework-moral community) onto the term "pride," but it is also being conflated with the sense of achievement inherent in authentically owning one's person, even against a hostile social climate. To underscore this point, she tweeted the nearest thing she could write to the feeling she wishes to capture as being inherent in the term pride:
That's fine, but we must be careful with the idea that pride and belongingness are synonyms, even if a feeling of belongingness can evoke a sense of pride at being part of a broader (morally positively evaluated) group. This, in fact, is likely to be the seat of self-esteem in general, and as discussed, self-esteem is, loosely, the definition of the term "pride" that actually fits the context in question.

Still, to consider "gay pride" in the context of celebration is bizarre because it is insinuating that gay people should be celebrating being how they were born for the sake of having been born that way (with the added implication that others, or at least certain others, shouldn't--the term "straight pride" is rightfully considered rather abhorrent). Maybe this is connected to authenticity--celebrating the acceptance of themselves, which is legitimate--and maybe it has to do with belongingness to a community breaking the shackles of a shitty social climate, but it doesn't make sense for "gay pride" to hitch itself prima facie to a celebratory wagon. Indeed, with the gay pride events, this is exactly what causes the most polarizing recoil, the kind of stuff that may have shaken up society and helped to move things forward but also that mobilized the (well-funded, highly motivated) resistance the most effectively.

So we come back to the point about achievement, which is, perhaps, the main reason disambiguation is needed. To remind, Google's first definition of pride is "a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired." So, what is the achievement? Being gay is not the achievement, as already discussed. Embracing oneself authentically in the face of unjust adversity is, and there we find something worth celebrating. (And, if I might say so, what appears, in fact, to be what is being celebrated.)

Hopefully the case is strong that disambiguation is important here, and it's utterly fascinating that there's such staunch resistance to it, particularly with so many more positive terms available to us. It's as if the progressives and LGBT activists have defined themselves in terms of "gay pride" and their relationship to the set of ideas represented by that phrase and are unwilling to consider whether it has flaws, including some that can be trouble for the very agenda that they seek to push. Few words are more positive than "authentic," and the footholds for (Christian) opposition against it are far fewer.

These motivated groups also seem to fail to recognize that "gay pride" is necessarily asymptotic to zero in all applications except "unashamedness." (There's an analogy to the term "atheism" here, for those interested in that discussion.) As being gay becomes more and more perfectly socially accepted, all meanings nested within "gay pride" but "unashamedness in who one happens to be" fall apart. If being gay were suddenly 100% accepted right now, "gay pride" would become as peculiar an idea as "white pride" is, though not quite for the same reasons and patently less offensively for social and historical reasons.

But here's a problem: celebrating "gay pride" and defining oneself (as moral) in terms of the meaning of such a phrase is a kind of limit to its natural asymptotic nature. That is, it sets being gay apart in some, but not all, ways from being human. In reality, if being gay were suddenly 100% accepted right now, "gay pride" wouldn't go away because people have invested their senses of self into that idea. For gays who have spent their lives dealing with an unfair lack of acceptance, that's one thing. For progressives, that's another--they'd be fighting a battle that no longer needed to be fought on behalf of someone who would no longer needed it, and so it becomes a kind of bigotry of lowered (or at least different) expectations.

The word we're looking for, then, may be "authentic." I mused about it on Twitter earlier, wondering aloud how "Authentically Gay" would stand up as a slogan in comparison to "Gay Pride." One advantage that springs to mind is its immediate generalizability. "Authentically Me" sounds like something everyone should be able to get behind, whatever "me" happens to mean, and it works in a way that "Self Pride" simply wouldn't.

Edit: The original of this post incorrectly named philosopher Russell Blackford as Russell "Blackwell." I have corrected and regret the error (and have no idea how my fingers managed to mistype that--sorry Russell!).