This and that

Abebooks

The Advanced Book Exchange is simply terrific, isn’t it? Search over thirteen thousand second-hand book sellers, and — more often than not, in my experience — you can find what you are looking for, and frequently at a decent price.

Of course, there’s a downside. Booksellers can now easily check on-line what is rare and what is not, and check what others are charging. It’s not that many years since I picked up the complete Principia Mathematica for £30: I can’t imagine a bookseller now being so ignorant of its true worth. Still, plenty of bargains are to be had: a copy of Wolfram Pohlers’ Proof Theory has just dropped through the door. I paid all of $5.95 plus postage.

It’s a bit disturbing, then, to read a paragraph in Private Eye which reports that abebooks have been hiking the commission they charge to booksellers and are about to add more charges. It would a great loss indeed if they price themselves out of having such a wide coverage of booksellers.

Edinburgh: Gödel, Raphael, …

In a world of such ready e-communication, where people put work-in-progress online, where there are terrific discussion forums like FOM, not to mention blogs and the like, I do wonder about the value of so many conferences. I’m just back from one in Edinburgh on Truth and Proof: Gödel and the Foundations of Mathematics. The first conference I’d travelled to for some time, and to be honest I wasn’t really very encouraged to repeat the experience soon, good though it was to put some faces to some familiar names. In the event, only two papers were directly on Gödel, one by Richard Zach (based on the draft paper which you can read here), the other by Panu Raatikainen (based on his paper which you can read here): both interesting pieces, particularly Richard’s, but I had read them long since. Oh well, …

But Edinburgh of course was quite wonderful, not least because I got to the National Gallery of Scotland more than once. (And a happy discovery since: you can get some impression of most of their major pictures on-line, as e.g. here or here.)

A spell broken?

Out last night to hear Dan Dennett lecture, talking about his new book Breaking the Spell. A pretty terrific lecture. But the book is, in a word, disappointing. Which is not to deny that it’s full of intriguing insights and illuminating suggestions about e.g. the possible evolutionary sources of dispositions to religious belief. But the structure of the book is surely a little too meandering (I found the first 100 pages dragged), the writing too allusive, to get through to the wide audience he is aiming for. I can see why Dennett often pulls his punches. Full frontal assaults on the frankly dotty aspects of mainstream religious belief-systems would just produce an unthinkingly hostile response, while the cumulative effect of jokes, analogies, biological speculation, just-so stories, reminders of what we all know (e.g. about the variability of religious beliefs), etc., might just get under the defences of some of those he wants to reach, and give them serious pause for thought. I hope so. But the pace isn’t zestful enough, the points not pressed hard enough and clearly enough to really have the impact Dennett wants. In fact, I suspect he should have written two books: a punchier, shorter, less complex book for his desired wider audience and a more fact-strewn, more analytically complex book for those who want the whole story as Dennett currently sees it.

But we’ll see. And certainly, I’m all for his spell-breaking project (the spell he wants to release us from is the idea that we shouldn’t treat religion as a natural human phenomenon with its own biological rationale). Dennett is dead right that we can hardly overestimate the importance of understanding more about religion as a natural phenomenon.

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