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Floating in the deep end

The Human Touch Our Part in the Creation of a Universe Michael Frayn Metropolitan Books: 506 pp., $32.50

February 18, 2007|Seth Lloyd | Seth Lloyd, a professor of quantum-mechanical engineering at MIT, is the author of "Programming the Universe."

MICHAEL FRAYN is known as a playwright ("Noises Off," "Copenhagen") and novelist ("Headlong," "Spies"). But this prolific British author is also a philosopher, having studied philosophy at Cambridge in the 1950s. "The Human Touch" is a profound, personal account of his work on a range of topics, beginning (and ending) with the philosophy of consciousness and passing through the nature of physical law, the problem of free will, the relationship of language and thought to reality, and the origin of the universe.

These difficult ideas are effortlessly dealt with, leaving the reader with a sense of mild intoxication. Frayn's exultant prose entices and ultimately overwhelms you. Reading his arguments, I felt as though I were floating down a warm river, caught up in its playful, whirling eddies.

"The Human Touch" is beautifully written. Is this a problem in a book of philosophy? Philosophical arguments are often hard to follow. There's little danger that (for example) Hegel will convince you of his thesis by his sheer eloquence. On the contrary, one must have strong inducement (a cattle prod, maybe?) to extract it from the dense tangle of his writing. Within Frayn's joyous prose, by contrast, one can lose one's grip on the underlying reasoning about, say, the nature of cause and effect. As I was borne along, delighting in his tropes, some part of my brain would feebly assert itself. ("Wait! There's a simple refutation of this point. I remember it from school -- what was it?") Then I'd sink back into the flow. To be fair, Frayn claims that "The Human Touch" is not a work of philosophy, but given the topics he covers, this seems disingenuous. As an author, he has always gravitated to deep questions of existence; he is too modest in disavowing philosophical intent.

"The Human Touch" opens by raising a fundamental anomaly: The universe apparently has an objective existence independent of the presence of observers (like you or me). Yet the universe-as-perceived is a unique product of our individual ways of seeing and thinking: When you die, the universe dies with you. How can its objective and subjective natures be reconciled? This is an ancient question, still unanswered; that Frayn begins his book with it betrays his high philosophical ambitions.

To address this conundrum, he turns to an analysis of the natural world. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus claimed that even the most permanent of objects -- rocks, trees, planets -- were manifestations of the underlying flux of microscopic events. Frayn refashions this 2,500-year-old picture into a contemporary account of the objects of this world arising from the "traffic" of elementary particles. So far, so good: That a tree is constructed out of a buzz of elementary particles is something on which we can all agree. But what makes a particular buzz of protons and electrons a tree and another buzz a human being? True, the particles take on different patterns in a human and a tree, but at bottom, Frayn writes, it is human perception and human language that identify one pattern of particles as "tree" and another as "Donald Rumsfeld." Despite the apparently objective nature of trees and people as the "traffic" of fundamental stuff, their existence depends crucially, for Frayn, on their trafficking with our human senses.

According to playwright-philosopher Frayn, humans emerge front and center on the stage of existence. But a natural scientist (like this reviewer) might argue that protons and electrons themselves possess an objective reality, enshrined in the laws of nature, that transcends human involvement. Well, says Frayn, just what are those laws of nature anyway? The chapter in which he deconstructs the notion of the existence of objective laws of nature is delightful -- even if one disagrees (as I do) with his conclusion that such objective laws do not exist. In a flurry of footnotes, he documents the hopeless muddle scientists and philosophers have got themselves into by trying to construct a precise concept of a natural law.

But although scientists may have only a fuzzy idea of the true meaning of, say, the standard model of elementary-particle physics, that doesn't mean they can't use it to calculate what happens when two protons collide. Philosophical muddle-headedness doesn't imply that laws of nature don't exist; it simply implies that we don't understand them very well. Being muddle-headed about philosophy may well be a precondition for a scientific career: A scientist who worries about the ontological status of the second law of thermodynamics will do much worse science than one who explores the second law's implications for heat flow.

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