Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Human Touch

Review by Ann Skea

The Human Touch.
Michael Frayn.
Faber. 2006. 505 pp.
ISBN 0571232175.

You have to admire Michael Frayn's courage. He has taken on all the major problems that philosophers have argued about over the centuries; all the major assumptions about the universe which underlie the scientific experiments on which we spend billions; and all the ethical credos on which we base our judicial system; and he has come to the conclusion that we make it all up.

He may, of course, be right. But his totally anthropocentric view of the universe—a sort of unified field theory of philosophy—suggests that none of the truth we think we have discovered over the centuries is necessarily true: that whatever is out there (and he agrees that there is something out there which we see, feel, smell, hear etc.) may, for all we know, just be meaningless chaos.

It is difficult to determine what sort of reader this book will satisfy. It is too esoteric for the casual reader. It probably covers too many highly complex arguments in simplified form for those who like thought-provoking books. And most serious philosophers will find it prolix.

Of course, Frayn writes fluently and well. And he adopts a ploy that is common in philosophical argument, which is to try and make extremely complex, abstract ideas more understandable by using concrete examples drawn from everyday life. So, philosophers talk about the behaviour of billiard balls; or the existence of their left sock (as Tom Stoppard demonstrated in Jumpers); or, as Frayn does, about their choice of marmalade on their breakfast toast and the seemingly automatic rising of a man's cock. He does follow his arguments through and he offers interesting scenarios drawn from myth and literature as freely and easily as he uses philosophical, psychological, scientific and religious arguments. He is no novice to philosophy and he covers a huge amount of philosophical debate with admirable ease and precision.

Yet, although this book discusses such fascinating human dilemmas as how, exactly, we make the decisions we do make, and whether we can or do control our lives, Frayn's discussion is shaped, always, to lead to his own conclusion that "every path eventually leads us back to where we started": that the human touch ("our part in the creation of the universe," as the subtitle of the book says) prevails and we make it all up inside our own heads. If that is the case, then why bother with the arguments in this book at all? Clearly, most people don't, and they get along just as well as those who do. Those who are curious about life, however, and want a quick overview of philosophy, might just as well read the first and last pages of each chapter to see what Frayn is discussing, then think things out for themselves. That meticulously careful thinking and arguing process is what philosophy is: and it can't be learned from books, however persuasively they are written.


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