It was exciting to hear that Tom Stoppard’s new play was going to be called The Hard Problem, although until it opened recently details were scarce. In the event the reviews have not been very good. It could easily have been that the pieces in the mainstream newspapers missed the point in some way; unfortunately, Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks didn’t like the way the intellectual issues were handled either (though he had an entertaining evening); and he’s a very sensible and well-informed commentator on consciousness and the mind. So, a disappointing late entry in a distinguished playwright’s record?
I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve read the script, which in some ways is better for our current purposes. No-one, of course, supposed that Stoppard was going to present a live solution to the Hard Problem: but in the event the play is barely about that problem at all. The Problem’s chief role is to help Hilary, our heroine, get a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, an organisation set up by the wealthy financier Jerry Krohl. Most of the Krohl’s work is on ‘hard’ neuroscience and reductive, materialist projects, but Leo, the head of the department Hilary joins, happens to think the Hard Problem is central. Merely mentioning it is enough to clinch the job, and that’s about it; the chief concern of the rest of the research we’re told about is altruism, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The strange thing is that within philosophy the Hard Problem must be the most fictionalised issue ever. The wealth of thought experiments, elaborate examples and complicated counterfactuals provides enough stories to furnish the complete folklore of a small country. Mary the colour scientist, the zombies, the bats, Twin Earth, chip-head, the qualia that dance and the qualia that fade like Tolkienish elves; as an author you’d want to make something out of all that, wouldn’t you? Or perhaps that assumption just helps explain why I’m not a successful playwright. Of course, you’d only use that stuff if you really wanted to write about the Hard Problem, and Stoppard, it seems, doesn’t really. Perhaps he should just have picked a different title; Every Good Girl Deserves to Know What Became of Her Kid?
Hilary, in fact, had a daughter as a teenager who she gave up for adoption, and who she has worried about ever since. She believes in God because she needs someone effective to pray to about it; and presumably she believes in altruism so someone can be altruistic towards her daughter; though if the sceptic’s arguments are sound, self-interest would work, too.
The debate about altruism is one of those too-well-trodden paths in philosophy; more or less anything you say feels as if it has been in a thousand mouths already. I often feel there’s an element of misunderstanding between those who defend the concept of altruism and those who would reduce it to selfish genery. Yes, the way people behave tends to be consistent with their own survival and reproduction; but that hardly exhausts the topic; we want to know how the actual reasons, emotions, and social conventions work. It’s sort of as though I remarked on how extraordinary it is that a forest pumps so much water way above the ground.
“There’s no pump, Peter,” says BitBucket; “that’s kind of a naive view. See, the tree needs the water in its leaves to survive, so it has evolved as a water-having organism. There are no little hamadryads planning it all out and working tiny pumps. No water magic.”
“But there’s like, capillarity, or something, isn’t there? Um, osmosis? Xylem and phloem? Turgid vacuoles?”
“Sure, but those things are completely explained by the evolutionary imperatives. Saying there are vacuoles doesn’t tell us why there are vacuoles or why they are what they really are.”
“I don’t think osmosis is completely explained by evolution. And surely the biological pumping system is, you know, worth discussing in itself?”
“There’s no pump, Peter!”
Stoppard seems to want to say that greedy reductionism throws out the baby with the bath water. Hilary’s critique of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that it lacks all context, all the human background that actually informs our behaviour; what’s the relationship of the two prisoners? When the plot puts her into an analogous dilemma, she sacrifices her own interests and career, and is forced to suffer the humiliation of being left with nothing to study but philosophy. In parallel the financial world that pays for the Krohl is going through convulsions because it relied on computational models which were also too reductionist; it turns out that the market thinks and feels and reacts in ways that aren’t determined by rational game theory.
That point is possibly a little undercut by the fact that a reductionist actually foresaw the crash. Amal, who lost out by not rating the Hard Problem high enough, nevertheless manages to fathom the market problem ahead of time…
The market is acting stupid, and the models are out of whack because we don’t know how to build a stupid computer.
But perhaps we are to suppose that he’s learnt his lesson and is ready to talk turgid vacuoles with us sloppy thinkers.
I certainly plan to go and see a performance, and if new light dawns as a result, I’ll let you know.