[extropy-chat] book review: The Human Touch by Michael Frayn

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Thu Mar 1 00:57:12 UTC 2007

At 07:27 PM 2/28/2007 -0500, PJ wrote:

>Anyone read this yet? PJ 
>BOOK REVIEW 'The Human Touch' by Michael Frayn 
>Do we in some sense create the universe? By Seth Lloyd

By a stroke of luck:

The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe
By Michael Frayn
Faber, 483pp.

A thick philosophical treatise by an English 
playwright and novelist? Not quite the done 
thing, old chap. Not even sure if a drama or a 
novel dealing with ideas is really proper, don't 
you know. Good enough for those French and 
Germans -- Being and Nothingness, The Magic 
Mountain -- or Poles or Czechs like Lem and 
Kundera, but really, aside from oddballs like 
Aldous Huxley and John Fowles and perhaps A. S. 
Byatt, it just isn't cricket. If we must have 
that kind of thing declaimed from the bally stage 
in English, we can import Tom Stoppard, and toss 
the chap a knighthood for his troubles. Now those 
scientists, different kettle of fish. Richard 
Dawkins. Stephen Hawking. Don't they do some sort 
of philosophy? Natural philosophy, or something?

Michael Frayn, though, was something of an 
exception to the rule, right from the start. He 
was a witty columnist in the '60s, an excellent 
mimic, ready to parody the preposterous and the 
pompous. His novels were best read as satire, a 
sort of extension of the Angry Young Men like 
Kingsley Amis. His fullest flowering has come 
within the last decade with richly inventive 
plays, most notably Copenhagen -- German atomic 
physicist Heisenberg confronting Danish atomic 
physicist Bohr and his wife Margrethe in the 
depths of the Second World War over the vexed 
topic of imminent nuclear guilt -- and Democracy, 
exploring West German politics in the 1980s. His 
interest in formal philosophy is no belated 
turning to eternal verities (Frayn is 73 this 
year), but an extension of that probing mind 
bubbling always beneath the surface of his fictions.

Indeed, his Cambridge degree was in Moral 
Sciences, an archaic term for philosophy, as 
Natural Philosophy is an archaic term for the 
sciences. His studies were pursued at the height 
of the Cold War, and followed two years of 
military service in which he specialised in 
Russian, developing an interest in language that 
fitted well with what has been called the 
linguistic turn in western philosophy (away from 
positivism and the grand theories that preceded 
it). Now he returns to those old stamping 
grounds, conducting a long, long, unremittingly 
long tutorial under the benign virtual gaze of 
his own favourite Cambridge tutor, Jonathan 
Bennett, former professor of philosophy at the 
University of British Columbia. I was relieved to 
see Frayn's admission that Bennett rejected, as I 
did, "most of all the central argument, which he 
regards as `anthropocentrism run amok'."

The trouble with Frayn's ambitious book, or lay 
sermon, which I began at a high pitch of excited 
anticipation (as I had many years ago with 
Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach), is 
twofold. Its polymathic ambition is 
preposterously over the top. And the paradox with 
which it struggles for nearly 500 pages isn't one.

Unlike the implied Colonel Blimp of my opening 
paragraph, I am all in favour of intellectual 
ambition and reckless connections soldered 
between firewalled disciplines -- but it really 
is a bit hard to take seriously a 
philosopher at home who wishes to unsettle us on the 
topics of grammar (Chomsky is not only wrong but 
laughably so), quantum theory, the status of 
scientific laws in general, the mysterious nature 
of number, whether reality is any more definite 
than fiction, and what is fiction anyway, 
dreaming, deity and faith (believers are not only 
not believers but laughably so), causality... 
Oddly enough, the one topic that isn't tormented 
to within an inch of its epistemological life is 
moral science, assuming there is such a thing.

The repeated refrain – the reFrayn, therefore -- 
is what he dubs our "traffic with the world", and 
the supposed paradox that our part in the 
creation of the (or a) universe is entirely 
crucial, even though we are nothing but froth on 
the surface of an otherwise meaningless spume 
billions of years old. Oh no! Not that "You 
create your own Reality" New Age drivel? Well, 
no, of course not. Frayn is an intensely 
intelligent adult. He is not going to fall into 
that trap. Or... is he? Can the moon be there 
when nobody is observing it? A proposition 
apparently embedded in quantum mechanics, that 
question tormented Einstein, who thought, as you 
and I do, that it was ridiculous. Yet quantum 
mechanics turns out to be right, and Einstein 
wrong, although not necessarily about the 
independent reality of the moon, luckily.

Frayn seems to have got his foot stuck in the 
same tar, and he happily winds himself tighter 
and tighter in its sticky bondage, conducting a 
relentless Socratic dialogue with an imaginary 
partner whose answers he provides. Sometimes the 
partner appears to be his wife, sometimes an old 
friend, or his grown child or perhaps grandchild, 
sometimes the "astute reader" writers tend to 
invoke when they've just pulled a swifty. This 
quick and intelligent Other fires back all the 
smart ripostes we also wish to offer, but Frayn 
is always there up ahead, smarter still, winning 
all the arguments. You can't blame him, after 
all. If his imaginary opponent came up with a 
better reply, he'd be obliged to grab it himself. 
This is a search for truth, you know. But wait -- 
what do we mean by "truth"? And what do we mean 
by "mean"? And what do we mean by "we"? It's all 
the fun of a Philosophy 101 course, spiced up 
with Broadway-grade whimsy and bon mots.

The astute reader will have noticed that giveaway 
phrase in Frayn's subtitle: "Our part in..." Is 
it an accident that Frayn is a playwright, that 
all world's a stage, that his interest in 
performative language (the sort of language usage 
that enacts what it states, like the Queen 
declaring the Games open) blends linguistic 
philosophy in the tradition of Wittgenstein with 
a play script, all snappy dialogue and present 
tense abbreviated descriptions? No accident at 
all, but you can be sure that Frayn is there 
ahead of you. "You smile that sceptical smile of 
yours. You have read somewhere that I write 
fiction for a living, so my announcing that 
fiction is the archetype of truth sounds 
suspiciously like an armaments manufacturer 
insisting that war is the way to peace." Quite. 
Caught. Still, there it is. The starry immensity 
spreading outward for billions of light years did 
not spring from a stage director's instruction, 
nor do the actors give it shape except for their 
own small purposes and those of the audience, actors in their turn.

It's not at all clear that Frayn disputes this 
chilly but bracing truth. "The truly mystical 
thing... is our consciousness, and the standing 
of the world in relation to it; and that is 
indissolubly a part of how things are in fact 
disposed." Reality has no meaning without a 
meaning-giver, a truth universally acknowledged. 
Frayn stands with us at the end of the biblical 
Day Six of creation, and sees that "the arrival 
of man and his dominion finally brought the long 
darkness of Day Zero to an end." For all we know, 
of course, the galaxies might swarm with other 
minds. Each will hold a special affection for its 
part in the creation of a universe. Perhaps that 
is what Frayn is telling us, and perhaps we need 
the reminder. But keep an eye out for that sticky tar -- it can get everywhere.

  [and as a bonus:]

Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos
By Seth Lloyd
Jonathan Cape, 221 pp

Back when making an urn out of mud was hi-tech, 
sages taught that the universe had been turned on 
a potter's wheel, life shaped from damp soil by 
the deity's hands. In a yet more earthy image, 
ancient peoples supposed that heaven and earth 
formed from the sprayed semen of some lusty god; 
later, splattered milk from a sacred cow did a 
more decorous job. With the rise of literacy and 
the oil lamp, creation became text written upon 
the void: "Let there be Light!" Machines put in 
their appearance, and before you could say 
"Newtonian physics" everyone figured the world 
resembled a big steam engine. Sir James Jeans, an 
early cosmologist, declared that the universe was 
more like a Great Thought. Today, there's a 
computer on every desktop and in every cellphone, 
so it's not surprising that the Great Thought 
starts to look like... pure information. And not 
your father's information, the sort in the 
library. This is information with a vengeance: 
qubits, quantum information from parallel worlds.

A bit describes a single choice with two mutually 
exclusive answers. Yes or no, boy or girl, alive 
or dead. It's the basis of science. Does theory A 
match the experimental results better than theory 
B? It's also at the root of everyday decisions. 
Shall I take that path, or this? But wait, 
perhaps four or five choices are available? True, 
but once you've chosen one path, all the others 
collapse into "the roads not taken". Quantum 
physics makes that quite literal, in an odd way 
that goes beyond our usual experience. When a 
particle of light darts from a lamp to this page 
and then back to your eye, it always takes the 
path of least action, the shortest possible 
route. But in doing so, according to quantum 
theory, it actually took all possible pathways, 
which scrunched together to create that single shortest trip.

What's difficult to grasp about this bizarre 
perspective is that everything in the cosmos 
functions by those quantum rules. Underneath the 
everyday stolid sensible world, true reality is 
this hissing, seething fury of alternatives 
jammed on top of each other. To describe it, 
physics needs not just bits, the yes/no, one/zero 
binary choices of arithmetic and computer 
science, but qubits, units of information that 
contain both yes and no, one and zero.

So what can you buy with these strange new tools 
of thought? For Seth Lloyd, a distinguished 
theorist of computation and professor of 
mechanical engineering at MIT, and a pioneer of 
quantum computing, it's crucial that everything 
in the universe is made of qubits. Every atom, 
every elementary particle, is a tiny quantum 
computer that registers information, processes 
it, passes it along not as a stream of crisp 
binary code but in a blur of superimposed but 
tightly constrained possibilities.

Is this any more than a fancy way of saying the 
same thing? Yes, insists Professor Lloyd, because 
quantum computers can scratch itches that 
ordinary digital computers can't reach. As yet, 
in labs, only very limited quantum computers have 
been built -- but they do exist, so we know that 
they're not just somebody's clever but unlikely 
brainstorm. With a quantum computer, you can 
explore simultaneously all possible answers to a 
given question, and see the correct answer 
instantly fall out as the incorrect answers 
obliterate each other -- like out-of-phase sound 
waves in a first-class passenger's noise-reduction headset.

But if the universe is not just a regular 
computer, but a cosmic quantum computer, what is 
it calculating? Seth Lloyd offers an inevitable 
answer: it is calculating itself. The universe is 
no longer a book written by a divine author, 
scribbling and discarding multiple drafts. It is 
a colossal computation in which all those drafts 
come into existence at once and, in the jargon of 
physics, interfere constructively and 
destructively with each other. In the end, what 
you see is what you get, but it's just the 
faintest after-image of the compressed 
multiplicity of its computation. "In this 
picture," Lloyd says, "the universe embarks on 
all possible computations at once."

For us, a computation is a sort of strictly 
organised thought. Might we, therefore, imagine 
the universe not as the thought of God (an old 
idea) but as thinking a kind of God into 
existence, as process theology used to claim? 
"Some of the information processing the universe 
performs is indeed thought -- human thought... 
but the vast majority... lies in the collision of 
atoms, in the slight motions of matter and 
light... Such universal `thoughts' are humble: 
they consist of elementary particles just minding 
their own business." Yes, but as the universe 
expands and cools, Lloyds foresees life reaching 
"to encompass first stars, and galaxies, then 
clusters of galaxies, and eventually, it would 
take billions of years to have a single thought."

Such cosmic vistas can be remote and terrifying, 
as well as awe-inspiring, but Lloyd's treatment 
of the computational cosmos is laced with 
charming and sometimes deeply moving anecdotes: 
his gauche encounter with the brilliant Jorge 
Luis Borges, who first depicted in literary 
imagination a universe of infinite pathways; the 
tragic death of his no less brilliant physics 
mentor, Heinz Pagels, who crashed down a gully 
while they climbed Pyramid Peak near Aspen, 
betrayed by a childhood polio injury. "While he 
lived, Heinz programmed his own piece of the 
universe. The resulting computation unfolds in us 
and around us." Abstract consolation, but 
profoundly felt. Meanwhile, the cosmos continues 
its immense and star-blazing computation. 
Perhaps, since we're part of it, carrying our 
memories forward, that computation is not finally meaningless.


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