Not Leopard

Sigh. This was going to be the post where I gave you my calm, judicious, balanced, critical appraisal of the truly awesome OS X Leopard. So imagine my frustration — or at least, fellow macheads will be able to imagine my frustration — to find that (i) the announced package in my pigeon hole which I’ve at last been able to go in to pick up wasn’t the expected one from Apple, and (ii) in fact the carrier tried to deliver the genuine article today, and there happened to be no-one in or around the Faculty Office to sign for it just at that time. How was that possible? Delivery rescheduled for Monday. It’s not been my week.

Ah well. I’m on the mend from the earlier unpleasantness. Life goes on. And patience is a virtue. They say.

Mocking the pomos

I was amused to (re)discover Communications from Elsewhere‘s wonderful Postmodern Generator. Just refresh the link and you are served up each time with a new generous helping of a randomly generated postmodernist-style word-salad: very clever and very funny. And yes, intellectual rubbish should be mocked and parodied and satirized wherever we find it.

Much more seriously, but of course not unrelatedly, you are also served up with a constant link to Alan Sokal’s page on the “Social Text Affair”: if you don’t know what that was, then exploring Sokal’s page will be a very instructive treat. (Oh, and I was delighted to discover that Sokal has a another forthcoming book announced for next year.)

In bed with a Trollope

I’ve been struck down over the last few days, and – judging from previous experiences with the same unpleasantness – it will be a few more days before I’m really up and about again, and a while yet before really 100%. Still, I’m on the mend, and have gone through the stages of just about managing a Michael Dibden, then devouring a second, and now I am up to the delights of a Trollope again (so back to Barchester Towers).

And also, thanks to wireless networking, I can idly surf the web in bed. I hadn’t previously noticed this excellent letter from Richard Dawkins, which ends:

Of course, university departments of theology house many excellent scholars of history, linguistics, literature, ecclesiastical art and music, archaeology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, iconology, and other worthwhile and important subjects. These academics would be welcomed into appropriate departments elsewhere in the university. But as for theology itself, defined as “the organised body of knowledge dealing with the nature, attributes, and governance of God”, a positive case now needs to be made that it has any real content at all, and that it has any place in today’s universities.

Spot on. It is depressing to find, though, that some comments on Dawkins would put philosophy in the same boat as theology. Now, a few ignorant remarks in this vein wouldn’t matter in themselves — but I suspect that they are symptomatic of a much more widespread deep ignorance of what analytical philosophy is about, even among those who should perhaps know. How else do we explain that the powers that be at Cambridge (of all places) think it is perfectly respectable to peg the philosophy faculty here at just twelve for the last nineteen years while our student numbers have grown by almost 80% — and indeed, they proposed to cut the number of faculty a few years ago — while there are twenty one(!) theologians in the divinity faculty. Sigh.

But Trollope would have been no more surprised by the oddities of ancient universities than by those of ancient churches.

Anjan gets real

Continuing the project of bankrupting my readers by recommending unmissable books to buy, let me add another warm recommendation, for Anjan Chakravartty’s A Metaphysics for Scientific Realism which has just appeared on the new book shelves at the University Press’s bookshop. On a quick browse through, it looks predictably terrific: Anjan is certainly tackling the right issues, and I’ve liked other things that he’s written about realism. I see that I come in for stick in Chapter 7 for some overhasty stuff I wrote a decade ago, and probably quite right too.

(It’s a handsome bit of book production too, as is usually the case with CUP. That’s more than can be said for the “Schilpp” volume on Dummett which has just arrived: the typography is an insult to the eyes.)

Harmless geekery

I was going to sound off on the subject of tripos reform: but on second thoughts, it’s probably safer to indulge in harmless geekery instead. So … (roll of drums):

  1. There’s now another much bigger, much better edition of the LaTeX Graphics Companion. It has, inter alia, some worryingly enticing/timewasting things to do with Beamer presentations … I suspect this might be fun.
  2. And from today you can pre-order Leopard which will of course make us all* so very much more productive, clear-thinking and happier. I just know this will be fun.

*For “all” read: all right-minded Mac users.

Semantics, Toyota style

Our math logic reading group is going through Manzano’s Model Theory as therapy/revision before tackling Hodges’s Shorter Model Theory. I’m not sure that Manzano was, after all, a good choice; though equally it isn’t clear what would have served our purposes better.

Anyway, I was struck again by the still-standard logician’s habit of treating the formal semantics of first-order languages by explaining how to extend an interpretation by assigning values in the domain to each and every variable of the language — and then later proving that e.g. different assignments to variables other than those that appear in the wff being evaluated don’t make any difference. I know this is how Tarski did things, but isn’t there something inelegant about stocking up on assignments of objects to variables only not to use infinitely many of them?

It is reminiscent of the bad old overstocking habits of industry! Toyota-style “just in time” production, where we only stock up with what we actually need next, is better!! Likewise, surely, giving a semantic story where we deal with e.g. “AzFz” by talking about alternative ways of extending an interpretation by assigning an object to “z” (treated as a parameter/temporary name) is more elegant and more intuitive. That way, we just talk about alternative extensions of an interpretation to cover particular variables as and when we need them.

Is there a good reason, other than historical piety for doing things the first, Tarski, over-stocking way, rather than the Toyota way? We couldn’t think of one.

Gödel: chapter one online

I’ve put Chapter One of my Gödel book — very short, and hopefully accessible — online at the book’s website here. Perhaps not of terrific interest to too many visitors here, as it is very introductory, but you can always tell your students!

Eating ice cream in Naples

There are noticeboards immediately outside my office, where seminars in other faculties are advertised. It’s often rather jaw-dropping what other people think it worth getting up to. For example, the History Faculty is running a series on “Consumption”, and the final meeting of the year is on “Paradigms of enlightenment and the consumption of ice cream in late eighteenth-century Naples”. Gosh. That sort of thing must be really demanding to do research on (and the library visits to Naples must be a bit of a pain too)!

Actually, I can see the topic might be quite amusing (and to be fair, it doesn’t sound a positive intellectual disgrace, like some of the post-modern bullshitting that goes on around here). But still ….

I’ve talked to a couple of our grads in the last few days about the significance of the proof-theoretic ordinals for various extensions of first-order Peano Arithmetic, about whether you can diagonalize out of the hypercomputable functions (on various natural understandings of hypercomputation), and about Kripke semantics and set theory (the issue at dispute between Jonathan Lear and Alex Paseau). Or, let’s be honest, the students in question sent me stuff/talked to me, and I nodded along trying to look slightly intelligent. I guess that outsiders would think this is an odd way for us to be spending our time too. But there is a difference, for all that. For this stuff is really difficult, requiring serious technical knowledge of the relevant maths, plus an even more serious amount of hard disentangling of intricate conceptual puzzles, and relates immediately to genuinely deep questions — in this case, in the foundations of mathematics and computation. It requires a heavyweight amount of intellectual firepower to get to say anything sensible about these matters. While ice-cream eating patterns …?

Blackburn, religion and respect

I have mentioned Louise M. Antony’s Philosophers without Gods before. But I have only just discovered that perhaps the best of the essays in the book — though it is a close run thing: the collection is consistently good — is available in draft form here. It is Simon Blackburn’s piece ‘Religion and Respect’, which is simply terrific. Here he is, for example, writing about the way that a proper human respect for emotions can be hijacked by those urging that we should respect religious beliefs:

I have said that holding a false belief does not give anyone a title to respect. Insofar as I cannot share your belief, I have no reason to respect you for holding it — quite the reverse, in fact. But the same is not true of emotions. If I happen upon the funeral of a stranger, I cannot feel the same grief as the close relatives and mourners. But I don’t think they are making any kind of mistake, or displaying any kind of fault or flaw or vice. On the contrary, we admire them for giving public expression to their grief, and if they did not show this kind of feeling they would be alien to us, and objects of suspicion. It is fair to say that we ought to respect their grief, and in practice we do. We may withdraw from the scene. Or, we may inconvenience ourselves to let them go ahead (we turn down our radio). Or, we may waive demands that would otherwise be made (we give them time off work). Similarly a birth or wedding is a happy occasion, and it is bad form to intrude on them with trouble and grief (let alone prophesies of such, as in many fairy stories). … Peoples’ emotions are important, and whether or not we can empathize with them, we do accord them time and space and a kind of shelter.

Unfortunately, it is a gross simplification to bring the essence of religion down to emotion. The stances involved are far more often ones of attitude. And it is a fraud to take the space and shelter we rightly offer to emotional difference, and use it to demand respect for any old divergence of attitude. The relevant attitudes are often ones where difference implies disagreement, and then, like belief, we cannot combine any kind of disagreement with substantial respect. Attitudes are public.

Suppose, for example, the journey up the mountain brought back the words that a woman is worth only a fraction of a man, as is held in Islam. This is not directly an expression of an emotion. It is the expression of a practical stance or attitude, that may come out in all sorts of ways. It is not an attitude that commends itself in the egalitarian West. So should we ‘respect’ it? Not at all. … I think it is a dreadful attitude and it is a blot on the face of humanity that there are people who hold it and laws and customs that express it.

The whole essay is shot through with the same straight-talking humane good sense. Read it! Even better, buy the book.

ACA0, #6: ACA0 vs ACA, and more

Rather than keep posting longer and longer contributions on ACA0 here, I’ve put together some thoughts on this and related stuff into the beginnings of a long draft essay. This is very much work-just-starting rather than work-in-progress, and I’m not really sure where the arguments are going to end up. But anyone interested will find the current version here. It goes without saying that feedback would be very welcome!

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