Report of meeting, 10 October 2007

We met on 10 October at David Lambourn's house. Present were John Challenor, Paul Graham, John Howard, David Lambourn and Stephen Williams.

As arranged, Stephen talked about The Human Touch by Michael Frayn (now available in paperback). It had been a demanding read, not because of the style but of the complexity of the argument and the scope of the material covered. The subtitle is ''Our part in the creation of a universe'' and the central idea is that while the universe exists independently of human consciousness nothing can be said about it that is not mediated through that consciousness. He uses the word ''traffic'' to indicate our interaction with the world around us, a two-way process in which we both experience the universe and shape it. The universe is characterised by indeterminacy and it is we who give it form and structure, not as a mechanical exercise but in response to specific motives and purposes.

The idea of indeterminacy comes from quantum physics which Frayn in works like Copenhagen has obviously found very stimulating, but his argument goes much wider. In successive sections of the book he looks at the physical world, including things like our understanding of causality; mind and emotion, including ideas of free will; literature and metaphor; language; and the way, we experience consciousness of dreams.. He is particularly taxed by artificial models that simply push explanation one stage back without explaining anything so that he is critical for instance of Chomsky's linguistics or modern fashions in literary criticism. In contrast his argument is a celebration of human imagination and creativity.

Not surprisingly for a novelist and playwright, the chapters on literature illustrate this particularly well. He starts with the question in what sense it is true that Lensky killed Eugene Onegin in Pushkin's poem and how this compares with the real life event of D'Anthes killing Pushkin in similar circumstances. He argues that we are quite capable of understanding the truth of the two events in different ways and takes issue with the idea of suspension of disbelief : fiction and drama aren't meant to be believed in that sense and we don't approach them with an attitude of disbelief that has to be suspended before we can enjoy them - we all know what they're about!

Thinking about it we recognised that that argument doesn't really work in a religious context where belief is part of the currency - we may have literally to suspend disbelief to share in communal religious experience. However, Frayn's argument is very relevant to ideas of realism and non-realism in theology by placing human creativity and ingenuity at the heart of the way we make sense of things. He touches on religion in passing without exploring it systematically but it seems clear that the book occupies some of the same territory as SoF and offers some stimulating new ideas. It's worth the effort of reading.

We agreed that at our next meeting we would look at the talks given at this year's conference, now reprinted in Sofia. That will be on Wednesday 14 November 2007 at 1930 at David Lambourn's house in Edgbaston (0121 242 3953 and David.Lambourn@blueyonder.co.uk). The meeting after that will be on Thursday 10 January 2008.