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Tom Stoppard’s New Play Tackles Consciousness Itself

Consciousness is a hard problem for science, principally because no one quite understands what makes us the subjects of our experiences.
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Stoppard at a reception in Russia in 2007
Tom Stoppard/Alexander Kondrashkin

Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (b. 1937) broke the artistic silence of a decade when he burst on the scene again recently, with a play simply named, The Hard Problem

According to one critic, the problem that has preoccupied Stoppard throughout his career is “Are the materialists right, or is there more to man than mere flesh?”:

Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), the protagonist, is a youthful research psychologist-in-the-making who longs above all things to crack the hardest problem in to her field, the conundrum of human consciousness: “Who’s the you outside your brain? Where? The mind is extra….We’re dealing in mind-stuff that doesn’t show up in a [brain] scan—accountability, duty, free will, language, all the stuff that makes behavior unpredictable.” For her, a computer that plays chess can be conscious only if it “minds losing,” and the problem of consciousness is directly related to the problem of morality: “Morality is not science. So there must be something else, which isn’t science. Which science isn’t. What is it?” On the other side of the fence is Spike (Chris O’Shea), Hilary’s sort-of-boyfriend, an evolutionary biologist who is no less sure that goodness “takes millions of years to evolve, but it’s evolved behavior, whether you’re a person or a vampire bat….Altruism is always self-interest, it just needs a little working out.” (paywall) Terry Teachout, “‘The Hard Problem’ Review: Goodness Has Everything to Do With It” at The Wall Street Journal

Teachout reminds us that Stoppard also wrote Jumpers in 1972, a play about “a dystopia led by a gaggle of intellectual thugs dedicated to the proposition that there is no truth, only power” and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), focusing on minor players from Hamlet, on the theme “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.” Stoppard doesn’t offer to resolve the Hard Problem but he makes clear that breezy TED talks’ “theories of the month” don’t measure up to experience when dealing with it.

Here is a roundup of other reviews, featuring comments like “ brain-stretching intellectual exercise trading more in theoretical concepts than flesh-and-blood drama,” “Stoppard, who is now 81, has retained an ability to mine all sorts of complicated subject matter with compassion and empathy as potent as his wit,” and “the topic may especially inspire some interesting post-theatre chatter.” One gets the feeling that viewers who get their information about the Hard Problem from TED talks will understand the questions less well as a result.

See also: Panpsychism: You Are Conscious but So Is Your Coffee Mug. Materialists have a solution to the problem of consciousness, and it may startle you

A short argument against the materialist account of the mind (Jay Richards)

and

What great physicists have said about immateriality and consciousness