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Floating in the deep end

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.

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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.

Frayn’s discussion of causality and chance is illuminating, and his treatment of time reflects his extensive knowledge of physics -- notably quantum mechanics, whose physics, let alone its ontological status, is highly confusing. (An electron can be here and there at the same time.) The evolution of a quantum-mechanical system is in some funny sense both deterministic and probabilistic. Quantum mechanics makes even the simple notion of a number indeterminate: Two plus two equal four? Guess again! Here, Frayn’s gift for exposition and explanation is a godsend. His effervescent style, which nibbles at a subject from all sides until it is helpless to conceal its secrets, perfectly matches the elusive nature of the quantum world.

Frayn’s style also stands him in good stead when he analyzes human agency. Consciousness, like quantum mechanics, is notoriously hard to fathom. How and why, for example, do we choose to spread marmalade rather than honey on our breakfast toast? (That cozy condiment analogy brands Frayn as an adherent of the Anglo-Saxon school of philosophy.) What goes on in our minds when we make such a choice? I don’t know, I just make a decision. Why? Because I’m the decider. Frayn disentangles our thoughts and actions as we make choices and shows us our decisions from inside and out.

Interestingly, his style is less suited to the philosophical treatment of words than to that of the natural world. As 20th century philosophy showed (to the chagrin of 20th century philosophers), attempts to pin down the relationship of words to objects often crash and burn; it may be the circular nature of using words to describe how words describe things that causes the trouble. The first time Frayn unravels what seemed a substantial fabric of reasoning to show its flimsiness, you’re impressed. When he goes on unraveling fabric after fabric, it becomes less thrilling. It was cute when the kitten demolished the first sock, less so the seventh. OK, the socks weren’t indestructible, but they were warm. Similarly, our attempts to construct models of nature or language are imperfect -- but they’re better than nothing.

Where “The Human Touch” makes an important contribution to 21st century philosophy is in clarifying our understanding of the truth or falsity of assertions about the world -- such as “tonight the moon is full” or “a penny is covered in copper.” Although such statements seem straightforward, generations of philosophers have shown that their exact relation to reality is problematic. Frayn argues that to understand the role of factual statements, one must look at the role of analogous statements in fiction. The book’s core analyzes the role of assertion in Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”: The assertion “Onegin shot Lensky” has no factual content in the real world; there it is neither true nor false. But in the context of Pushkin’s poem, it is patently true. By detaching the status of assertions from their relationship to the real world, Frayn shows that truth or falsity is to be understood in the context of a narrative.

This is a powerful insight: It frees us from the illusion that we can utter the truth independently of the context in which we speak. One of the wonderful moments in the book occurs in a footnote, where Frayn provides his own translation of those stanzas in which Onegin fires and Lensky’s life, together with the universe constructed by Lensky’s perception, ebbs away. The rendering of rhyme and meter (Pushkin is no pushover to translate) echoes the beating and failing of the human heart.

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Frayn’s brilliant insight into the relationship of utterance to reality returns us to the place of humans in the universe. Meaning arises along with narrative. Human narratives differ in crucial ways from those offered by entities such as animals or computers. It is the ability to describe and make sense of things that distinguishes human language from other forms of utterance. When are we most human? “The Human Touch” tells us: It is when we are talking quietly with each other, or sitting in peace, conscious of nothing in particular, or gazing up at the night sky at that eternal universe and making it our own. *


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