Year: 2010

Principia symposium, and another graduate conference

This year we mark the centenary of the publication of the first volume of Principia. There will be a symposium in Cambridge with seven or eight talks to honour the occasion, on November 27th and 28th, with the meeting suitably enough held in Trinity. Register by the end of the month for almost half price (and there are a limited number of places so early registration advised). It’s not a blockbuster mega-conference, but a small relaxed one (all the better for that, let’s hope), and a do-it-yourself affair as far as fixing accommodation is concerned: but you can always try inviting yourself to stay with a friend to avoid a hotel bill! Do come if you can: it should be fun.

A couple of months later, there’s the 4th Cambridge Graduate Conference on the Philosophy of Logic and Mathematics (held in St. John’s on 22nd and 23rd of January). The previous three occasions have been very enjoyable and seem to have worked extremely well: grads who want to submit a paper for consideration this time need to do so by the 15th November. Do come if you can (you don’t have to be a grad student to attend: again, if you aren’t one of the speakers, it’s a shoestring knit-your-own-accommodation affair). More logic fun — how can you resist?

And on sharp days and clear nights in winter, Cambridge can be a magical place …

Gödel Without (Too Many) Tears, again. Episode 1

I just started this morning giving this year’s Cambridge lectures on Gödel’s Theorems (targetted at philosophy undergrads doing our Part II Mathematical Logic paper). I’ll be giving out weekly handouts — to begin with closely based on some that I put together while a visiting Erskine Fellow at the University of Canterbury, NZ — under the friendly and hopefully encouraging title Gödel Without (Too Many) Tears. Here is the first one:

Comments are open for corrections and queries: there’s a dedicated GWT comments page here.

Second and third intro logic lecture

I have been pretty surprised to find that over four hundred people not doing my elementary first year logic course for philosophers have downloaded the slides for the first lecture. So I’ve decided to keep uploading the lecture slides here for a while — though after a time-lag —  so there will be roughly two more lectures every week for a few weeks, or at least while download rates make it seem worthwhile. They aren’t very exciting: but they do serve to keep the live show basically on message! (The slides as I use them of course reveal bullet points one at a time, but I’ve suppressed that in these early lectures.)

These next two lectures are the rest of my three introductory lectures before we get down to work on PL:

  1. Lecture 2 (The counterexample technique)
  2. Lecture 3 (Proofs: Divide and Rule)

If you want a bit more by way of elementary introduction at this level, read the first six chapters of my Intro. to Formal Logic (utterly splendid and amazingly cheap, it goes without saying: buy it — or at least ensure that your uni. library has the 2009 reprint)!

Comments and corrections welcome, of course.

First intro logic lecture

Here are the slides for the first logic lecture today for 1A Philosophy. (These were originally posted for those who were late/missed the first lecture: the slides will not be left online permanently.)

Heavens! —  45 people in the class, 445 downloads in a few days. Who would have guessed there would be so much interest in a very noddy intro logic lecture!

A proper bookshop is a lovesome thing …

You would think that Cambridge, of all places, could sustain an attractive general bookshop. But sadly not so. The University Press shop is quite nicely done, but of course only sells CUP books, so doesn’t count. We are stuck with Waterstone’s (a rather cavernous place, far too big to be comfortable, where we sometimes dash in to pick up “3 for 2” newly paperbacked novels for holiday reading, but which is entirely uninviting for idle browsing), and with Heffers (which is now Blackwell’s, and isn’t bad for philosophy books, but — stuck in a nasty subterranean hole under part of Trinity — is equally uninviting for non-work browsing).

What I’d love is a proper shop like the London Review Bookshop, which is just the right size, not so large it daunts but still large enough to surprise and delight, which has bookshelves high enough to need step ladders (as every decent bookshop obviously ought), which has comfortable chairs to read in, has eclectic and enticing selections of books displayed on the tables, is evidently run by people who care … and has a proper coffee shop attached. Not yet another Costa-almost-tastes-like-Coffee Shop with horrible pastries, but an individual and idiosyncratic place with wonderful cakes and books and magazines around. It doesn’t seem much to ask.

Math Overflow

This is a slightly embarrassing confession of benighted ignorance (until very recently), and a pointer for anyone who is still in the dark.

Quite some while ago I gave up looking at the sci.logic newsgroup: what was once a resource has become overwhelmed by the usual spam and porno links, interspersed with the occasional crank posting. Sci.math held out, it seemed, a bit longer but there’s now too much crap, or questions from students wanting homework answers, to make it worth bothering with (so people who used to have something useful to contribute stay away, so it gets even less worthwhile). Where, then, do you go to post serious techie questions in the hope of being read by people who might know, or to browse through spam-free, (relatively!) crank-free, discussions in the hope of serendipitous illumination?

Well, for a certain kind of question there is the terrific FOM of course. But, starting about a year ago, and now really flourishing, there is Math Overflow (which I confess I’ve only recently caught up with). It’s level is grad-student-and-upwards, explicitly not for undergrad homework questions, civil, moderated, well-organized. There are already over 400 threads tagged “lo.logic” with some pretty meaty and helpful discussions (with some overlap, there are almost as many threads on set theory, and there are more on category theory).

So Math Overflow is very well worth logicky people checking out if you don’t already know it.

C.D. Broad makes it to the SEP

I’m really pleased to see that a good piece on C.D. Broad has been added to the ever-more-wonderful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

It has always seemed to me that Broad has been underrated (compared e.g. with Moore); and — leaving aside the special case of Ramsey — Broad remains in many ways the philosopher from the first half of the twentieth century whom I feel most in sympathy with. So some years ago, as an act of Cambridge piety, I wrote the entry on Broad for the surely misbegotten Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I say ‘misbegotten’ as it seeks to go far too wide in a way that few users will care about at the expense of any real depth: cramped and confined as it  originally was by a traditional print conception of an encyclopedia’s role, the policy of going for breadth rather than useful depth meant that I had less than half the space  which my predecessor writing on Broad for the Edwards Encyclopedia of Philosophy had three decades before. My entry was therefore sadly trite.

I was asked, in fact, whether I’d like to write at proper length on Broad for SEP and was very tempted. But to do the job properly would have meant months away from other projects, as I’d have had to reread the great man’s works, and while that’s no hardship there are a lot of them, and I regretfully declined. So as I said I’m very glad to see he has got due recognition from Kent Gustavsson.

I would, it goes without saying, done things a bit differently — but that’s philosophy for you, and no criticism! In particular, I would have spent more time on Broad’s work on probability and induction. And I’d have given a special mention to that remarkable passage from An Examination of McTaggart’s Philosophy that was reprinted in the old Feigl and Sellars reader as ‘The “nature” of a continuant’ which talks about dispositions, essences and natural kinds, and perhaps — read by so many graduate students in the 1950s and 60s — sowed some important seeds in the revival of metaphysics.

Flattery will get you nowhere: I want cash

I’ve just been asked to report on an application for a substantial grant from a rather wealthy grant-awarding body. “We will greatly value your expert opinion” etc. etc. Huh. I’m sure you will. Value it so much you aren’t offering a penny for what would be most of a day’s work to do properly.

I gave my usual six word response: “No proper fee, no proper report”.

Of course, if the proposal had been bang on topics that I currently am tolerably up to speed on and from someone whose work I already know well and admire, I’d no doubt have done the job (it would have been a very much quicker task, and might help keep up activity in areas I really care about). But then, if that’s other people’s policy too for selecting when they are prepared to write reports, grant awarding bodies are getting a pretty skewed set of  views on proposals. I’d have thought they would have wanted reports written with a bit of distance. They should be prepared to pay decent fees to get them.

Taking it slowly, #3

That isn’t quite a picture of our house, though it is a bit of a losing battle against books piled in every room (and often dangerously on the stairs too …). They are tolerably organized in my study, not because I’m naturally tidy but because I know the aggravation involved if I can’t lay my hands on a work book that I know I have somewhere. But elsewhere things are rather more haphazard. Why is Lichtenberg next to Wolf Hall, or the great Courtesans and Fishcakes snuggled up to a mildly embarrassed Alan Bennett? But such happenstance makes for good browsing when you are looking for the book, the one that fits the mood and the time of day and the weather outside and all those other mysterious factors that determine what is right for the occasion. I know there are people who catalogue their books and know exactly who has borrowed which. But it’s not like that here.

Nor for Susan Hill, as she recounts in her engaging Howard’s End is on the Landing which I’ve just finished. If you too have accumulated more books than you know what to do with and have eclectic reading habits, you’ll love her book, nodding in agreement here (as she explains why she keeps books she knows she won’t read again), and starting with surprise there (she doesn’t ‘get’ Jane Austen? Twelfth Night doesn’t make her Shakespeare shortlist??). Reading her book is like a one-sided conversation with a ridiculously well-read, gently opinionated, meandering friend.

And as you’d expect from a fine writer, Susan Hill is very keen on the virtues of slow reading. “Fast reading of a great novel … will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence.” Which, pace the po-mo loonies, is why serious reading matters.

Taking it slowly, #2

The new Hans Rausing Professor of HPS here, Hasok Chang, is planning to run seminars in the mode of Peter Lipton’s much admired institution — and the plan for the first term, is to look at the collection of essays Scientific Pluralism, edited by Stephen Kellert et al. I’ve been having a quick browse, to see if I will want to go along. Well, I think not. The book seems a lightning tour ranging over far too much: I don’t find that kind of enterprise likely to be of much value.

I’m sad to say that this seems particularly the case with the essay by Geoffrey Hellman and John L. Bell on ‘Pluralism and the Foundations of Mathematics’ (complete in the Google Books excerpt linked above). I much admire both authors, but this is really ill-judged.

The essay divides into two parts. After a preamble, there are four pages — yes, just four pages — arguing to the conclusion that the “classicism-constructivism duality in mathematics” illustrates the need for a “pluralistic approach”. This is feeble stuff indeed. There is a bit of Dummett bashing that assumes that he just has a verificationist theory of meaning (as if e.g. Crispin Wright had never written). There’s the bald claim that “it is clear that classical reasoning is especially useful in scientific contexts” (so much for Neil Tennant’s defence in depth of the claim that good science only needs intuitionistic logic). There’s a long quote of David Lewis’s now too-familiar passage “I’m moved to laughter at the thought of how presumptious it would be to reject mathematics for philosophical reasons. Etc. Etc.” which, as a number have by now remarked, is dangerously near point missing (see for example Alexander Paseau’s essay in BJPS 2005). Fictionalists, predicativists, constructivists have their philosophical reasons for making philosophical claims, perhaps discriminating between different metaphysical statuses for different parts of classical practice: and sure, most mathematicians aren’t interested in reflecting on those discriminations. But so what? I’m afraid that Hellman and Bell’s breathless pages wouldn’t pass muster as part of a final year undergrad. dissertation.

The second part of their paper is mostly about topos theory as an alternative to set theory as a foundational framework. But again, as you’d expect from the fact that it is only seven-and-a-bit sides, this is far too fast and allusive to be of use to anyone who doesn’t already know a lot about this stuff (and even if you do, it is pretty unclear what the take-home message is).

Isn’t this kind of thing becoming more and more common? — pieces written for Yet Another Collection, maybe generated by Yet Another Conference, which don’t have to get past an anonymous refereeing process, and which just go too fast. I think it behoves philosophers, of all people, to take things slowly. Or am I just getting old?

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