Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Michael Frayn's "The Human Touch"

Recently I posted an essay by the political philosopher Eduardo Velásquez about Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.

Frayn himself takes an indepth look at the themes and concepts discussed in that essay in his new book, The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe, which will not be available in the U.S. until February 2007. While we wait for it here, in Britain the book is getting some lively coverage.

Click here for Boyd Tonkin's review-interview about/with the book and its author. It contains this nugget about the argument in the author's words:
There is this paradox that lies behind philosophy and science and everything else.... On the one hand, human beings are plainly very peripheral phenomena in the universe, both in time and space - an unimportant bubble on the surface of the ocean. But on the other hand, without human beings to perceive it from a particular point of view, and to talk and think about it, I don't see what substance the universe has. To me it's a tautology that, if there's no one there to talk about it, there's nothing that can be said. And at the same time one has to be bear in mind that it has this completely objective existence, independent of us.
John Carey's review summarizes Frayn's argument thus:
time and causality are by no means the only victims of his erudite, imaginative, funny and dazzlingly clever philosophical inquiry. He unbolts, chapter by chapter, the fabric of the universe. Things that most of us regard as certainties (the laws of science, the dependability of logic) vanish like smoke. It has become apparent, he contends, in the wake of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle, that scientific laws are human artefacts, with no real existence outside our statement of them. Logic is just a system we have made up, not an inherent condition of the natural world. The universe itself is our invention. All its characteristics exist only as figments of the human brain. Without us it would have no characteristics at all, and so would not exist.
Bryan Appleyard visited with Frayn and reports on the man and the book.

John Banville offers a positive and appreciative take on the book here.

Jerry Fodor, a professional philosopher of some considerable reputation, is not as enamored with Frayn's book as the non-philosophers. Click here for his review. And even if you are not interested in the review, check out the joke he tells in the last paragraph: it's pertinent to the review, of course, but it's also pretty good stand-alone humor if you know philosophers.

Here is an excerpt from The Human Touch:
In so far as you can say anything about it at all, a dream, like a story, is something complete unto itself, not verified or justified or given meaning by any causal relationship with the world. Whatever goes in as input, something happens to it that transforms it and makes it what it is. Something or someone takes over.

The question is: who or what takes over?

The answer's obvious: I take over. The dream, after all, is being performed inside a theatre owned and managed by myself, and I surely have a considerable say in the way things are done here.

At once, though, a difficulty arises. I am also an actor in this theatre. I am in among the action, just as I am in life. I am one of the characters, limited to a particular point of view, and while I'm down there on the stage I can't easily take an overview of the script, or keep an eye on the box-office returns. I often seem to know no more about what's going on in my own theatre than the rest of the cast do. In fact, I often seem to know a lot less than I do in the waking world. Things that I know perfectly well in daylight I don't know at all when I'm dreaming. I also entirely fail to notice the existence or significance of a lot of things that seem obvious as soon as I think back on them in the morning. [Click here to continue reading this excerpt.]

--Marshal Zeringue