Stoppard: The Hard Problem

April 8, 2019

The Hard Problem
Tom Stoppard
(Faber and Faber, 2015)
76 p.

Tom Stoppard has always had a reputation as a playwright with an intellectual bent, bringing science and philosophy to the stage in a way that is accessible to audiences and infused with personal significance for his characters. The Hard Problem, his first play in nearly a decade, continues this tradition, though perhaps not as successfully as in earlier plays. The “hard problem” is the famous problem of consciousness: both whether and how conscious experience can be given a scientific explanation.

The play’s central character is Hilary, a young brain science research scientist, who has been well catechized. She knows that science is the privileged means of knowing the world and ourselves, that we are material in every aspect of our being, and that there are no mysteries in the world, but only problems to be solved. The trouble is — and this is what makes her an interesting central character — she doesn’t believe it, and is adept at ferreting out the cracks in the explanatory facade. She asks awkward questions. She calls bluff. She even prays.

The “hard problem” of consciousness is hard for a variety of reasons. One is that there is an explanatory gap between the kinds of entities that science deals with and the phenomena of first-person experience. One can know everything there is to know about the neurobiology of how photons of a particular energy incident on retinal cells trigger electrical signals to certain regions of the brain, but nothing in that body of knowledge tells us anything about what it is like to experience the colour blue, nor is it clear how knowledge of matter — which, according, at least, to the reigning scientific paradigm for the past 500 years, is defined to be essentially mathematical in structure and devoid of all mental properties — ever could tell us anything at all about conscious experience, or indeed why it ever could or would produce something like conscious experience in the first place. Given our understanding of what matter is, we can’t get there from here.

I am sorry to report that Stoppard does not solve “the hard problem” in the course of the play. Nor, to be honest, is the play much concerned with the problem of consciousness in particular. It comes up now and then, but the play’s interest is more broadly in whether scientific claims to complete or exclusive explanatory authority are justified. Are we really convinced by the portrait science paints of us? Thus in addition to the problem of consciousness, the play devotes quite a lot of time to the “problem” — for Darwinists — of altruism, and hints here and there at deeper problems posed by moral claims in general, which creep into our thinking and acting, and into the very practice of science itself, in ways that are subtle and often overlooked. In one funny scene Hilary asks an atheist character to pray for her, and, when he protests that doing so would compromise his moral and intellectual integrity, she asks, rather pointedly, “And that’s a problem, is it?” It is amazing how bags of chemical reactions get uppity when provoked.

The play therefore takes a refreshingly unorthodox approach to its subject matter. I note with pleasure that a review of the play at New Scientist complains of the “great shame” that Stoppard is interested in “what he sees as the limitations of science”. Clearly he’s doing something right. That said, the philosophical wealth of the play is more pauperish than princely. Even within the ambit of “the hard problem”, there is so much more that might have been said — about the common view that consciousness is like software running on brain hardware, for instance. And the play leaves untouched other aspects of mental life at least as difficult to account for in materialist terms, such as intentionality and even conceptual thought itself.

However, a play with a running time of 90 minutes cannot do everything. Its main purpose, of course, is to tell a compelling human story, and Hilary’s story, leaning heavily but effectively on dramatic irony, was interesting to me, and if the play raises provocative questions along the way, and does not presume that the received answers are the right ones, so much the better. Tom Stoppard hasn’t let me down yet.

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