Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Mind’

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.

Linked links

March 15, 2018

Today a set of items sewn together by threads firm and flimsy:

  • Some of us read not so much for plot as for style, but what is style? At The New Criterion Dominic Green has some ideas about it, expressed with style. It’s a splendid essay.
  • Joseph Epstein has written a nice appreciation of that delightful stylist P.G. Wodehouse. It led me to Roger Kimball’s older essay in a similar vein. And that led me to Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts on the subject. Wodehouse has been an obsession of mine of late; I’ve nearly completed all the Jeeves and Wooster novels. As displays of wit they are hard to beat.
  • And what about displays of Whit?
  • The film that won the Best Picture Oscar this year was del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which Ross Douthat sees as a rather unsubtle example of liberal myth-making. I’ve not seen it myself.
  • Neither have I seen — it was a strictly auditory affair — a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and philosophy’s own Angel of Death, David Benatar. At issue is anti-natalism, a view that holds that sentient life is an evil. (Peterson’s against it; so am I.)
  • I’m more likely to throw my support behind a proposition implicit in the novels of our great English moralist Charles Dickens: that coffee is an evil.
  • You have to wonder what the dickens the consciousness deniers are thinking. (Technical answer: nothing.) The linked essay is a good one, but over contented with its preferred solution, and not quite grappling with the scope of the problem. Most educated Westerners today are committed to a metaphysics that leads where the consciousness deniers have ended up. Do I hear someone whistling past this graveyard?
  • I think so, and I think I know the tune. Didn’t Ian Bostridge mention it in his reflections on the English choral tradition?

As an envoi, let’s hear something from that tradition. Here is Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Lecture night: Hart on consciousness

October 19, 2016

Today’s lecture is a treat: David Bentley Hart speaks about consciousness to an audience at (I believe) Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Hart is currently writing a book on the subject, a book which is to be an expansion of the treatment he gave the topic in The Experience of God. The talk describes a number of the problems faced by attempts to provide a materialist account of mind and consciousness, and outlines the features that a successful account of consciousness would need to have.

As usual with Hart, the ideas are challenging, the perspective is fresh, and the whole is expressed in melodious prose.

The talk raises a number of questions in my mind, but foremost among them is an issue that has long puzzled me. Many of the arguments against a materialist account of mind have the following structure: “Given the premises of the mechanical model of nature, it is impossible to provide a scientific account of this-or-that feature of mind.” The mechanical model is the one that has prevailed since the early modern period: the real is just atoms and the void, there are no formal or final causes, the mathematical structure of matter exhausts its properties. And, given those premises, I think the arguments Hart (among many others) offers are persuasive.

Yet it seems to me that one possible response, for those committed to a “naturalistic” view of mind and consciousness, is to challenge the prevailing premises of the mechanical model. Perhaps a materialist model of mind could succeed if the potentiality of matter were not stripped down to its mathematical minimum. For instance, if contemporary models of mind fail to bridge the gap between matter, on one hand, and characteristically mental properties (intentionality, unity, conceptualization, teleology), on the other, might this not be plausibly due to the fact that, in our theory of nature since Descartes, matter has been defined to have none of those characteristically mental properties, no final or formal causes? As such, the project was doomed from the outset by the very terms in which it was posed. If we were to restore the full panoply of causes to nature, à la Aristotle, might that not provide sufficiently rich resources to permit mind to find its place within the natural order? The pan-psychism that has been advocated by, for instance, Thomas Nagel, seems to me a step in this direction, and a not unreasonable one, given the objective and the obstacles.

In the lecture, however, Hart raises this prospect only to dismiss it, and I admit I didn’t understand his reasoning. If somebody feels able to explain this to me, I’d be grateful.

Much ado about nothing

March 15, 2012

A few interesting articles about science or philosophy of science:

  • William Carroll criticizes several recent statements about nothing by prominent physicists. That might sound like an odd thing to do, or like an awfully easy thing to do, but it is neither — well, maybe it is fairly easy. I recall that Stephen Hawking, in his most recent book, made a statement that deserved some kind of award from the Association for Short Term Memory Loss, for by the time he reached the end of the sentence he appeared to have forgotten how he started it. To wit: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” One is tempted to ask, “What part of nothing don’t you understand?” Clearly, there is some conceptual confusion here, and Carroll is doing his part to try to clear it up.
  • Edward Feser gives a nice summary of Karl Popper’s arguments against the computational theory of mind. If you’ve ever passed an unpleasant afternoon reading contemporary philosophy of mind, you’ll have run into the idea: the mind is a computer program and the brain is a biological computer. Popper’s argument, which is essentially an argument against any causal theory of intentionality — where ‘causal’ means the kind of spatio-temporal causation relevant to physical science — is quite fascinating, and even thrilling. It has given rise, in the hands of folks like John Searle and others, to a suite of related arguments, all of which hinge, more or less, on the materialist’s own ‘interaction problem’, namely, the fact that there is a difference between physical causation and logical causation. Good stuff, and Feser’s writing is clear and accessible.
  • Finally, I am delighted to inform you that the Super Mario Bros. video game has been proved NP-hard. The march of knowledge is truly relentless.