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THE HUMAN TOUCH by Michael Frayn Kirkus Star


Our Part in the Creation of a Universe

by Michael Frayn

Pub Date: Feb. 6th, 2007
ISBN: 0-8050-8148-8
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

A vade mecum for head-scratchers by the multifaceted Frayn (The Copenhagen Papers, 2001, etc.), whose philosophical concerns are notably many and well attested in his body of work.

Humans were born to gaze at the stars and wonder, and when we do, most of us tend to be humbled by the vastness of the universe. But humans shouldn’t be daunted, counsels Frayn; instead, we should take courage from the fact that “the world has no form or substance without you and me to provide them, and you and I have no form or substance without the world to provide them in its turn.” The technical complexities of the Bishop Berkeley/tree-falling-in-the-forest argument and its counters are legion, but Frayn does a very nice job of adumbrating, observing along the way such legendary trip-ups as the principle of uncertainty and observational distortion and revisiting the questions that used to keep college students awake at night: How do we know that we know? Do we ever really make decisions? Why do we say that there’s a present when the present is already the past? Why is it that “the conscious subject that gives meaning to the objective universe cannot give meaning to itself”? Frayn takes clear pleasure in considering questions that make the heads of lesser mortals spin and pulsate, and he takes leisurely detours that sometimes lead to the neat destruction of philosophical positions and schools of thought; his dismantling of Chomskyan transformational grammar, for instance, is a masterpiece of gentle subversion, in keeping with Frayn’s overall playful and user-friendly approach. He spins out some nice apothegms, too: “The decisiveness of decisions is as elusive as the decisions themselves. It recedes like the intentionality of intention.” Indeed, and though the universe may spin merrily along without us, it requires us to interpret it—or, if nothing else, finds it congenial that we do so.

An inviting introduction to modern cosmology and philosophy with no prerequisites other than the willingness to entertain counterfactuals, imponderables and leaps of faith. Nicely done.