Tricky, Abstruse Questions Fielded by Frayn the Brain

The world is a scrim, left blank for the tints and whorls of the ego. Void an object of its quantum of human aspiration, and you might as well annihilate it. I think, therefore I am. Fine, but even better: I desire, therefore you, he, she or it is, according to a mobilized army of metaphors and metonyms and anthropomorphisms. We walk through ourselves, endlessly meeting ourselves. Homo Mensura: Man, the Measure of All Things. The trail of the human serpent is everywhere.

Wait, check that.

The world is the sum of its (empirical) parts. These behave regularly, and the rules of their behavior can be made perspicuous. One day, thanks to the successful in-captivity mating of behavioral economics with string theory, science will have swallowed all knowledge. There will be nothing we don’t know, and an abbreviated course catalog will reflect this: The Theory of All Theories (Prereq: Introduction to the Theory of All Theories). All Babel translated, all beans counted, all Da Vinci decoded; and all of it bits and bytes, stored on a central server. Finally, the human serpent is nowhere.

Crap. Give me another go, alright?

It’s kind of a bit of both. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, good night!

So Michael Frayn might have written. Instead, he gave us The Human Touch. As the author of Copenhagen (1998), a prize-winning play about the relationship between the physicists Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Mr. Frayn is well-practiced at taking the most abstruse ideas and making them entertaining for a lay audience; and much of The Human Touch is an elegant summation of the uneasy relations between (hard) science and (soft) humanism, so long as elegant isn’t taken to mean “concise.” This is a volume, in every sense of the word; Bishop Berkeley himself couldn’t temporize it into corporeal nonexistence. Reader, be warned: The Human Touch is long.

And why shouldn’t it be? Mr. Frayn has laid out for himself a nearly impossible task. As he puts it, he wanted to answer one modest question: “Are the qualities (physical, moral, aesthetic) that distinguish one thing from another objective realities, or are they subjective imposition on things?” My sympathies are immediately with him, and with his book. Mr. Frayn is most often a lovely writer, and in precisely that British way, when the British set aside their pretentious pretense to an utter lack of pretense and engage with ideas. He writes companionably, fluidly and lucidly. He’s both trying to do away with the small bore, lab-coated problem-solving of analytic philosophy, itself a pathetic sort of science envy, and engage with the cosmos; and to work beyond the current dead-end enmity between the “two cultures” (as C.P. Snow had it) of science and the humanities.

He starts strongly, with a nicely wrought précis of the state of the debate, summing up the work of the relevant philosophers of science, pre-eminently Kuhn and Popper, and the scientists who grappled honestly with the philosophical puzzlements thrown up by quantum physics, notably Einstein, Planck, Bohr and Heisenberg. Then the central problem sets in.

Philosophy is an exacting discipline. It proceeds by three principal methods: platitude, tautology and error. Should the initiate falter, and make a positive or progressive contribution to human knowledge, he would become, in the instant, a mathematician or a scientist, not a philosopher. (Give me one counterexample and I will gladly re-Kant.) What philosophy can do, and beautifully, is limn the boundaries of human ignorance, but with no recourse, ever, to human superstition. By doing this with scrupulous honesty, it creates a new kind of description of what it’s like to be a human being, the universe’s sole source of ignorance, of not-knowing, of openness and incompletion. “The world is everything that is the case,” or “Being is not something like an entity” are truthful but not factual statements: They opened up a line of creative argument and foreclosed nothing. You’re less likely to create an enduring legacy with sentiments like “This is what it comes down to in the end: 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.”

Making scientific realism chime benevolently with postmodernist chicanery is not the same as resolving an apparently hopeless contradiction with dialectic, any more than waving a sheet of paper brings peace in our time. Philosophy is not progressive, but neither is it solely descriptive. When we’re told, by some quite reputable philosophers, that consciousness is a hopeless mystery, the rigor of the path they took to get there ennobles the dead end. If nothing else, their confusion enlightens us somewhat from bearing the burden of the mystery entirely alone. Ironically, when an author writes about something as vexed as consciousness lightly, the burden of the mystery only feels heavier. Here then is Michael Frayn: “Someone jabs a pair of dividers into us and we scream. The jab sets the tone of the exchange; the exclamation is our helpless response. At the other end of the scale are hallucinations in the dark, where there is no external given at all, and everything has been supplied from our end. In between come a range of possible conversations, which seem as difficult to examine, as vanishingly elusive, as all the other conversations we have—as beyond examination or description as a row or a reconciliation with someone we love.”

Once committed only to reveling—poetically, let me hasten to add, often exquisitely, though never, ever economically—in the mystery, while pretty much forswearing precise argumentation, there’s no corner of human experience you can’t conjure with idly. The laws of nature, rule-following, consciousness, storytelling, cosmology, Pushkin, Robbe-Grillet and of course (here, kitty, kitty) the ubiquitous Schrödinger’s Cat, all come in for their care and feeding. I am as starved as anyone for a philosopher to defy the flyspecking of the tenured specialists, to light the collective mind on fire. But The Human Touch took me to a most unexpected place: It left me longing for peer review.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate magazine’s critic at large.