The Human Touch Our Part in the Creation of a Universe

Michael Frayn




Trade Paperback

512 Pages


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Humankind, scientists agree, is an insignificant speck in the impersonal vastness of the universe. But what would that universe be like if we were not here to say something about it? Would there be numbers if there were no one to count them? Would the universe even be vast, without the fact of our smallness to give it scale? With wit, charm, and brilliance, this epic work of philosophy sets out to make sense of our place in the scheme of things. Our contact with the world around us, Michael Frayn shows, is always fleeting and indeterminate, yet we have nevertheless had to fashion a comprehensible universe in which action is possible. But how do we distinguish our subjective experience from what is objectively true and knowable? Surveying the spectrum of philosophical concerns from the existence of space and time to relativity and language, Frayn attempts to resolve what he calls “the oldest mystery”: the world is what we make of it. Then what are we?
All of Frayn’s novels and plays have grappled with these essential questions; in this book he confronts them head-on.


Praise for The Human Touch

"Frayn . . . has a healthy respect for the power of external reality to constrain our world-making. Indeed, what makes The Human Touch so rewarding is the subtlety and humor with which he examines 'the great mutual balancing act.' There may be something godlike in the way we 'bring into their various forms of existence all the receding ontological planes of the world we inhabit,' but we are also at the mercy of that world's whims. A brick to the head and the whole show comes to an end."—Jim Holt, The New York Times
"Michael 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 . . . Beautifully written."—Los Angeles Times

"His command of current scholarship in physics and biology is impressive; his discussion of psychological issues is discerning . . . Witty and ingratiating style."—The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"The target audience: anyone who enjoys gaping at the complexities of existence. The topic: everything."—Entertainment Weekly
"As a primer in where we are up to, these days, vis-a-vis the universe . . . could hardly be bettered."—The Observer (London)
"The subject here is not dumbed-down; rather, the reader is gently and ingeniously clevered-up."—Sunday Telegraph (London)
"London-based novelist, playwright, and self-proclaimed amateur philosopher Frayn tackles the big questions of human understanding in this profound work. Beginning with a description of the continual 'traffic' between humans and the universe, Frayn shapes a cohesive introduction to philosophy that includes elements of science, determinism, physics, mathematics, psychology, linguistics, and epistemology. Throughout, he makes great use of articulate and witty examples to supply answers (or, more often, lines of thought that provide paths to satisfying nonanswers) without leaving the general reader too far behind. In the end, Frayn succeeds in peeling back the layers of both the external and the internal thought processes of humans, and he conveys an illuminating proposition that establishes human intellect as a distinct, necessary mediator of our universe."—Jason Moore, Library Journal
"A vade mecum for head-scratchers by the multifaceted Frayn, 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."—Kirkus Reviews
"When a playwright does physics, the spotlight falls on the actor at center stage. And 500 years after Copernicus pushed our planet to the periphery, Frayn finds that Earth's curious inhabitants still dominate the cosmic drama. Among the creatures inhabiting this chaotic universe, only Homo sapiens registers natural phenomena in a consciousness that translates them into mathematical formulas and verbal narratives. Frayn probes the mental dynamics that generate the numbers and words that ensnare quarks and quasars, only to find himself bumping up against stubborn paradoxes: How can the scientific laws that reduce man to an absurd accident depend for their very existence on human thought? How can the ruptures pervading quantum probability simply disappear in the seamless music of the human mind? Why does the rigid determinism governing atoms and molecules sustain the free decisions of a human brain? Why do computers that mimic mental functions still lack a human will? Readers looking for tidy answers will find none. But those looking for exciting intellectual vistas will find them here. In a science that spans galaxies and eons, Frayn finally discerns the remarkable magic of the human imagination here and now. A rare work illuminating both the syntheses of art and the rigor of science."—Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)

"British playwright and novelist Frayn has nursed a serious interest in philosophy since studying it at Cambridge in the 1950s, a fact that won't surprise fans of the writer best known for his 1982 farce, Noises Off, and award-winning 1998 drama, Copenhagen. This bold, original spin on the role of the human imagination in the construction of reality reflects the same robust intellectual curiosity, keen powers of observation and ingenious sense of humor that characterize all his work. Ranging over science, mathematics, philosophy, psychology and linguistics—with a grasp that would be admirable in a professional but is astounding in a self-confessed amateur—Frayn rigorously exposes the human scaffolding propping up what we like to see as a detached, neatly ordered universe. Gazing both outwardly at the indeterminate cosmos suggested by relativity and quantum mechanics, and inwardly at the slippery constructions of consciousness and our sense of self, he focuses on the narrative compulsion that arises from the continual 'traffic' between human beings and their ever-changing, ephemeral surroundings . . . Frayn's ecstatic embrace of a human-made universe is a fascinatingly persuasive ride."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Michael Frayn is the author of ten novels, including the bestselling Headlong, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and a Booker Prize finalist, and Spies, which won Britain’s Whitbread fiction award. He has written fourteen plays, among them Noises Off, and Democracy, as well as Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards in 1999. A philosophy graduate of Cambridge University, Frayn is also the author of Constructions, a collection of philosophical meditations. He lives in London.

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  • Michael Frayn

  • Michael Frayn is the author of ten novels, including the bestselling Headlong, a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection and a Booker Prize finalist, and Spies, which won Britain’s Whitbread Fiction Award. He has written fourteen plays, among them Noises Off and Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards in 1999. He lives in London.
  • Michael Frayn Eamonn McCabe