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Michael Frayn


Our part in the creation of a universe

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Michael Frayn is best known as a novelist and playwright but also has a training in philosophy, and this is a book of philosophy—Frayn's philosophy. Its form is a little unusual, for in part it takes the form of a dialogue between Frayn himself and "you", who is less the reader than Frayn's alter ego who poses questions or objections to which Frayn responds. It has five main parts, each containing several sections or chapters. These are certainly wide-ranging.

The first part, Principles, discusses the laws of nature and the nature of laws, causation, the structure of space and time, and the philosophy of arithmetic. Part 2, Action, is about intention and purpose and the act of deciding. In Part 3, Stories, Frayn's experience as novelist and playwright comes to the fore as he looks at fiction and religion (which he seems to regard in much the same light). Literature, of course, depends on language, and Part 4 is titled Words: Frayn considers grammar, citing Chomsky a good deal though not, to my disappointment, Terrence Deacon. Part 5, Homewards, touches on consciousness and the nature of the self.

This is a long book; almost certainly too long. Reading it, I found my interest flagging fairly often. To include Russian poems in the original surely smacks of self-indulgence, and in general one gets the impression that Frayn has simply thrown in whatever happens to interest him.

On the other hand, Frayn has an acute intelligence and is very well read in many areas, especially physics. He is therefore an agreeable companion for much of the time and my attention was frequently caught by an idea or an insight; there are also plenty of jokes. So although I could not read the book continuously I did come back to it at intervals until I reached the end.

But I wonder for whom it was written. Not for professional philosophers; those who have noticed it have generally been dismissive. Not too many people with a passing interest in philosophy will plough through it either. Reading it, I was reminded of a book by another novelist-philosopher, Iris Murdoch. Her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, which appeared in 1992, was greeted, according to Peter Conradi, "with a certain baffled respect". My feeling about Frayn's book is rather similar, although it has to be said that Frayn is much the more readable of the two; there are no jokes in Murdoch's book. But both authors, I think, wrote primarily for themselves—not that I have anything against that; I've generally done the same. But it tends not to sell.

Not only is this a long book, but it is made even longer by the extensive (but often interesting) notes at the back. These almost constitute a book in themselves (there are even footnotes to the notes!). Both in the main text and in the notes Frayn is continually qualifying his own ideas as well as challenging those of others.

In essence, this is one very intelligent and well-informed man's account of the situation that many non-religious intellectuals find themselves in at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The world appears to have no meaning apart from any we may give it ourselves. And so Frayn concludes his book with a paradox. "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. But eventually the last man on earth will finally close his eyes, and what will happen then? The universe will go on exactly as before. The paradox remains. We have not even begun to resolve it."

We need thinkers like Frayn, not because they provide answers but because they prompt us to reflect on the questions.

%T The Human Touch
%S Our part in the creation of a universe
%A Michael Frayn
%I faber and faber
%C London
%D 2006
%G ISBN 0-57123217-5
%P 505pp
%K philosophy

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