The fundamental paradox: Michael Frayn and A.C. Grayling on philosophy and writing

FRAYN: I’m immensely honoured by this election. I’m very grateful to this society, and I’m particularly pleased to receive it from the hands of Michael Holroyd, who is a very old friend. I’m also pleased and touched to find that I am a Companion of Literature, because literature and I have not always been companions in the past. When I was beginning to study A level English at school, the English teacher started by saying, ‘This course is not for those boys who do not get on with books.’ I had a terrible guilty sinking of the heart, because I knew he was talking about me. I certainly get on with some books and have been immensely moved and changed by them; but I couldn’t claim I got on with books in general – and indeed when I went to university and attempted to study literature I had to give up because I couldn’t discover what I was supposed to say about literature in the examinations and weekly essays. I had to change to philosophy, which I found rather easier to have some thoughts about. So at last this breach between me and literature has been healed. I’m very happy about this. What literature feels about it, I don’t know.

GRAYLING: I think Michael has let slip a trade secret there, that philosophy is easier than literature. Those of us who profess the subject don’t like to bruit that too far abroad, so keep it under your hats.

It’s philosophy we’re going to talk about tonight, because I know you are all very familiar indeed with Michael’s work as a novelist and a playwright, but he is also a philosopher in the academic sense of that term – not just in the sense that we are all philosophers and think about the great questions at some point in our lives.

Michael’s most recent book, The Human Touch – Our Part in the Creation of a Universe is a very serious and deeply interesting contribution to a discussion which is as old as philosophy itself, about the relationship between our thought and our minds and the world. During the course of the next half hour or so I’m going to try to elicit from him an account of this fundamental and deep metaphysical matter; but I shall begin by asking him about his study of philosophy at Cambridge. It’s news to me, Michael, that you changed to moral science at Cambridge because there were too many books to read in literature.

FRAYN: Yes, I was very pleased to read moral sciences, because only Cambridge had a moral sciences department – everybody else had a philosophy department. They’ve changed it now – they call it the philosophy department – which is rather sad, I think, because no on outside Cambridge had the faintest idea what moral sciences were, and they sounded rather impressive. Actually, not many people in Cambridge had much idea what moral sciences were, including some of those in the moral sciences department.

I’m particularly grateful to two people in the department. One was my tutor, a man named Jonathan Bennett, who has remained a friend through life. One of Jonathan’s great skills as a philosopher is that he is immensely argumentative, and this has wrecked his career, because he’s fallen out with every philosophy faculty he’s been a member of. But it made him a wonderful teacher, because he wouldn’t agree with anything you said, and you were made to defend it any statement you made – even ‘The sun is shining’.

I had a supervision with Jonathan at twelve o’clock every Thursday and we would talk for an hour about my essay, and then we would retire to the pub next door and talk over lunch; and then often we would go back to his room and argue until hall in the evening. Whenever I see him we start to talk and to argue – and he loves arguing so much that although he is a professional philosopher and I’m not – I’m out of touch with the subject, and he could simply knock me out of the ring effortlessly at any point – he’ll keep me on my feet long enough to carry the argument through. We were once talking about what made us happiest in life, and he said – and I think it was with some insight into himself – that he thought that what made him happiest was being in severe intellectual difficulties.

But I’m also grateful to the man who was the head of the faculty at Cambridge when I was there, the Professor of Philosophy, who was called Wisdom. It was a very wonderful name for a philosopher, since philosophy means ‘love of wisdom’ – and we all loved Wisdom. He had a cousin, also called John Wisdom, who was a professor of philosophy at London – and I wonder sometimes if that doesn’t shed light on the old philosophical debate about whether the world determines language or language determines the world.

This was just after the Wittgenstein period: Wittgenstein had been Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and died in 1951; I arrived in ’54.

GRAYLING: So there was no connection.

FRAYN: No, although I continue to admire Wittgenstein enormously – I think he was one of the great philosophers. He was a terrible human being – he was a terrible bully, and a control freak – but the wonderful thing about him was that he did philosophy in front of you. That’s to say that whatever current problems he was thinking about, he went on thinking about them publicly in the lecture room; and sometimes he would get stuck and ask piteously for help. The problem was that if you made a suggestion which he thought was unhelpful he would be extremely angry. There’s a story that he threw Keynes out of his lecture room for making an unhelpful suggestion.

Well, Professor Wisdom had inherited this style of teaching philosophy: he did philosophy in the lecture room – and it was a very exciting experience. But the great difference was that Wisdom, unlike Wittgenstein, was a very kindly man, and however idiotic the suggestions you made when he got stuck, he would always gratefully accept them and not chuck you out of his lectures.

I remember one particular occasion, which was not in a lecture but at a meeting of the Philosophy of Science Club, which was where moral scientists and natural scientist met to talk about things and to discover that they had absolutely no common ground at all. There was a paper given by a biologist to which Professor Wisdom was to reply; the biologist spoke for about half an hour, and I realised after a few minutes that I could not understand anything whatsoever – I could not understand even the most general drift of his paper.

Finally he sat down and Wisdom rose to reply. When Wisdom was in severe intellectual difficulties he would tip his bony head back and screw up his eyes like this [demonstrates] and clap his hand to his forehead and think. Well, that’s what he did on this occasion: tipped his head back, clapped his hand to his forehead and thought – and we all waited respectfully. And he went on thinking‚Ķand he went on thinking‚Ķ

You know, it’s very embarrassing if there’s silence on a public occasion: if Anthony and I sat here in silence for a minute you would begin to shift uneasily around in your seats; if we sat here for five minutes and said nothing, I think the weaker spirits would begin to leave the room and go off and have dinner. Well, after ten minutes half the audience had disappeared; and finally Wisdom took his hand away from his forehead and said, ‘Would you mind repeating your main points?’ And that’s what he’d been doing for ten minutes – trying to summon up the courage to admit that he hadn’t understood it any more than the rest of us.

I’ve taken that to heart. For the last 30 years I’ve been trying to summon up the courage to admit that I don’t understand anything either – which is why I wrote the book.

GRAYLING: Interestingly, at almost any other university in the United Kingdom, moral philosophy was contrasted to natural philosophy, which means physics and chemistry obviously – it’s only in Cambridge that they would have got it the other way round: arguably the right way round, because in the seventeenth century ‘science’ was the word used to denote what we now call philosophy and ‘philosophy’ was the word used to denote what we now call science. Cambridge kept true to its roots.

Now I’m going to ask why, when you finished at Cambridge, did you go into journalism rather than the academy?

FRAYN: Partly because I could never have coped in the academy – I simply cannot cope with any academic subject on that level – and partly because I passionately wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a writer as well, but that seemed a somewhat implausible ambition to announce to the world, so when people said, ‘What do you want to be?’ I said, ‘I want to be a journalist.’

I said that to the university appointments board, and they got me an interview with the editor of the then Manchester Guardian, who in those days – how the world has changed –would visit Oxford and Cambridge every year and select one graduate from each to try out on the paper. No other universities – just Oxford and Cambridge. He was a young man, Alistair Hetherington, who had just been made editor. Well, I’d never actually read the Guardian at that point, but I’d heard stories about the great editor C.P. Scott – this old man who used to ride around Manchester on an ancient bicycle wearing plus fours – and I was expecting a grey-bearded old man. So when I found myself face to face with this young man, I assumed he was the warm-up act. I had a very relaxed, easy chat with him – sat back in the chair and talked about this and that – and as a result he offered me a job. Had I realised he was the editor, I would have stammered and stuttered and never have got the job – so it’s one of those little points in life where one’s whole career turns for the better on a total misunderstanding.

GRAYLING: But despite all the seductions of being a Guardian journalist, you kept up your interest in philosophy, and your first philosophical book rather than novel, play or essay was Constructions. And this book is interesting for a number of reasons: one of them is that it has something of the format of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – these little aphoristic remarks and apercus. Was that a conscious choice – was it a form of expression which you found suited to what you were thinking then?

FRAYN: I suppose I had been very influenced by Wittgenstein – I think probably not so much the Tractatus as the later work, the Investigations, because the bits in my book are not as aphoristic as the remarks in the Tractatus, and certainly not so opaque – they’re very straightforward and simple. But what I consciously thought was that I should not pad the book out – if I had thought about something, I should simply write that down that and shouldn’t try to write a passage connecting to connect it to the next thought.

I have to say that the book has disappeared virtually without trace, partly as a result of the choice of title. I realised I’d got a completely dud title even before it came out, when I was talking to my agent about it, and she referred to it once as Conceptions and once as Contractions. And indeed no one’s ever remembered it since.

GRAYLING: Hilary Putnam is a very well-known American philosopher who once said that if you can put something in a nutshell, it belongs there; so I’m rather loath to ask you to put in a nutshell what it was that you were trying to do in Constructions – but will you try?

FRAYN: I think I was starting to do what I’ve being doing at greater, possibly more tedious length in a more recent book, The Human Touch, which was to explore what seems to me the fundamental paradox. On the one hand, the position of human beings in the universe is an extremely modest one: we occupy a very, very small corner of the universe, and we have occupied it for a very, very brief proportion of the time the universe has been in existence; we will go out of existence quite soon, and the universe will go on a long time after us. The universe is very large and we are very small; the universe is long-lived and we are very briefly lived. However, if you think of the implications of that – of saying that the universe is large and long-lived – difficulties appear. What does it mean to say something is large? It must be a comparative statement – it must mean that it’s larger than something else. You must be saying, indeed, that it’s larger than things of our experience; and when we say it’s long-lived, we must be saying that it’s longer-lived than things of our experience.

Now, you can only say that if you’ve got something nominating those two things you’re comparing. You might say, ‘Forget vague words like long and short and so forth – you can make very accurate measurements, and the universe can be very precisely measured, and has been.’ But what is a measurement? A measurement is a comparison between one thing and a standard object, and the point of making that comparison is so that one object can be brought into relationship with another object. Well, for that to be done, something needs to have nominated at least two objects – separated out two things in the world and perceived some analogy between them which makes them members of a class and makes them capable of being compared.

I’ve been recently in Cern talking about the book to physicists – and physicists and mathematicians are natural Platonists: they believe that numbers and physical laws, for instance, are real objects out there in the universe. But if you think about physical laws: what is a physical law? Once again it’s a generalisation for the behaviour of classes of objects. For a generalisation to be possible, somehow particular objects have to be nominated. and an analogy has to be seen between them which gives them some kind of class membership.

So it seems to me that we can’t make any sense of the universe at all without the idea of some kind of living organism. It doesn’t have to be human beings – any living organism which has to find food and has to find partners has to divide the world around it into what can be eaten and what can’t be eaten, what can be mated and what can’t be mated. On the other hand, we all know that the universe was here before we were here to discriminate classes of objects, and will be here long after we’ve ceased discriminating classes of objects. I think that this paradox is at the root of everything that philosophers have been worrying about for the last three or four thousand years.

GRAYLING: It’s certainly been with us since Plato, the debate about just what is the relationship between experience and thought on the one hand, and on the other hand the reality or realities over which that thought ranges and to which it refers. But in The Human Touch you work your way through this to a position which has come to be called in recent philosophy ‘anti-realism’ – and just a little footnote here, it’s done with beautiful use of lucidity, and anyone who’s not a student of philosophy or hasn’t read much will find this a very accessible book and a deeply interesting one.

The central claim of ‘anti-realism’ is as follows: that our na√Øve attitude towards the world and our relationship to it is that we look out of our eyes as if they were windows and we see a world arrayed out there in space and time just as if we were literally looking out of the window at the world outside whatever building we happen to be in. But a little reflection shows that that can’t be right. When you think about the contribution that our faculties make to the way things seem to us, the categories of our thought interfere with the information that comes in from the external world: we recognise that the way the world seems to us is very, very richly coloured and textured by our ways of cognizing it, and that we cannot escape that fact – you cannot take your head off to see whether the way you represent the world to yourself inside your head really matches up to the world outside. It’s a very central problem in philosophy. But you don’t, I think, take it as some people interpret it – as Berkeleyists take it: that we are responsible for creating the world, and it wouldn’t be there if we weren’t.

FRAYN: No, I don’t. I’m not at all trying to say that the world doesn’t exist outside ourselves – that it’s all really our ideas and impressions inside our head. There is, it seems to me, a world out there which we all share, and which constrains what we can say about it and what we can see of it, and what we can learn about it scientifically.

But how it constrains that is very difficult to state, because you can’t go round the back of things to see how the words we’ve got fit to the world they describe, or how the mathematical formulas and laws of physics we have fit. We just have to use the conceptions we’ve got and see how they work – and some work better than others. Scientists in particular are perpetually improving the machinery – the concepts they’ve got, and making them fit better and better for a wider variety of situations.

One of the things that’s interested me is that a lot of physicists have been very impatient with what they would regard as an anthropocentric view of the universe. They see the universe as having absolutely its own laws and human beings being essentially irrelevant to them. And its been one of the criticisms of the so-called ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics that it involved an observer and observation and measurement, and quite a lot of physicists who’ve come along later in the day have tried to find ways of avoiding the concept of the idea of an observer.

But in the last few years, there have been physicists and cosmologists who’ve come round to the view that you can’t give a complete account of the universe without taking human existence into consideration; and for cosmologists, as you know, this is quite a convert’s point of view, because they say that the universe has had to be so fine-tuned for life to be possible, and that at every point in the history of the universe since the Big Bang there have been only narrow parameters through which development could go to end up in life. So you’ve got to give some account of the universe which explains why those parameters were possible.

That’s one of the reasons of course why cosmologists have wanted to consider human beings. The other is that more and more physicist, cosmologists and biologists in particular think you can’t really make sense of the universe without a standpoint in time. Ever since Einstein, physicists have treated time as a dimension like a spatial dimension, and you can make all the mathematics work perfectly well like that. But quite a lot of physicists now think that this view of the universe misses some absolutely essential point about it, which is that the future does not exist in any sense – especially with the probabilistic biology and probabilistic physics which has developed in the last century. How you apply probabilism to a future which is as concrete as the spatial universe is very difficult to see; and it’s very difficult to see what would provide a standpoint in time except some sort of living organism.

GRAYLING: I want to move onto something else, but you see that Michael very cleverly stuck in the word ‘Copenhagen’ there and I’m going to pick up on that – that the anthropic principal you mentioned there, is an artefact of our own epistemology, and it’s our limitation in the understanding of things that makes us have to accept something like the uncertainty principle. But this is for another time.

What we’ve been talking about here is metaphysics – our understanding of the nature of reality, and how we relate to it, and how we know anything about it. That is certainly one of the two great questions in philosophy; and the other great question is what matters in what exists – what’s of value? This is where ethics comes into it; and I’m very struck by the fact that everything you’ve thought and said about the appearance/reality distinction and relationship comes up again and again in very, very interesting ways in your literary work – in your plays and your novels.

I remember a character in your play Alphabetical Order saying that she’s exhausted from the effort of trying to make sense of things – which pretty well sums up the effect of philosophy on people. But the question of appearance and reality comes up in lots of other ways too – it comes up inCopenhagen, it comes up in the novel Spies, it comes up in Democracy: what’s real, who’s sabotaging things from behind the scenes, is anyone doing so, and so on. Is that a parallel you’re conscious of?

FRAYN: Yes, in a particular form – the form of how we make sense of what’s in front of our eyes; and until something has been made of it, in a sense there isn’t anything – it’s the sense we make of it which is the reality.

This is of course very deeply affected by our own experience, by our intentions and hopes, and beliefs. Spies is about two small boys in the Second World War, one of whom tells the other that his mother is a German spy; and the friend who is told this then sees the world as being like that. He entirely accepts it because his friend says so, and he then reinterprets everything in front of his eyes to make sense of this game. I hope that any adult reader is very unlikely to go along with this thesis that the boy’s mother is a German spy, but will read this in quite another way; I also hope that as the book goes along the adult will see that even his more sophisticated view of what’s been going on doesn’t actually fit the case.

GRAYLING: I’ve often thought that some of the very best philosophy of the ethical kind – the exploration of what matters, of how we should live with one another, treat one another, our responsibilities, the education of our moral sensibilities – is best done in literature: not by straightforward, discursive philosophy, but in the great novels, the great plays. That’s where we see the deepest philosophical dilemmas that we might face being addressed, not always with a conclusion or direction of what to think or how to feel at the end of it, but just giving us materials for our own reflection. So what I’d like to invite you to comment on is whether you feel – given that you’ve written about metaphysics in a straightforward way – that intuitions that you have of an ethical nature are more easily, more richly expressed in novelistic or play terms than they are discursively.

FRAYN: It’s a very interesting point. I don’t think I consciously have any didactic purpose – I’m not trying to make any particular moral points when I write a story or a play. But I think when you tell a story, you have to follow the logic of the story. You have to follow the behaviour of those characters, and however much you plan in advance as you tell the story, the characters seem to begin to talk and behave of their own accord; and I think you can often discover a lot about the way people behave and the way you think yourself by observing what your characters are doing. It’s not that you’re telling them to do this or do that in order to demonstrate that altruism is a better policy than selfishness or whatever: it’s that they do this or do that, and when you look back on it you can see that there is perhaps some moral point being made.

Questions were then invited from the floor. Among them was:

MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE: With all the different kinds of writing that you do, are you very aware of wearing different hats? Do you feel that there are lots of different voices in you that need separate expression, or are they all just facets of the same voice?

FRAYN: I feel that even if you’re writing philosophy, you’re trying to follow the logic of the story through. But I think there are a number of differences between writing for the page and writing for the stage. The most important is quite a fundamental one – that anyone writing a novel or a short story can, if he chooses, know all about the thinking and motivation of the different characters. He doesn’t have to, but most writers of fiction choose to: if you think about the novels that you’ve read, they’re full of things like ‘She felt furious that he had said this’, or ‘He intended to do this but then forgot about it’. In a play you can’t really do that – all we know is what the characters tell us. Of course they can tell us that they’re thinking this or feeling that, but we have to trust first of all that they’re being honest – which not all characters are – and secondly that they understand themselves. And notoriously a lot of characters in plays don’t understand themselves – this is their problem.

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