A few weeks ago I saw a live screening of Tom Stoppard‘s new play The Hard Problem staged by the National Theatre and directed by Nicholas Hytner.
As would be expected from Stoppard it was entertaining, funny and emotional as well as being a bit mind-bending and very “now”. The play tells the story of a psychology student as she secures a job at a prestigious private neuroscience research institute and who has to battle the epistemological dominance of evolutionary biology.
This narrative ingeniously provides Stoppard with the opportunity to stage many debates on the cutting edge of different disciplines. Most thrillingly, however, these are not abstract discussions but always situated within the social, political and economic context of conducting research. For instance, the position of the psychological researchers at the institute is always precarious as they search for the kind of “sexy” results which would provide them with influential publications and impress their hedge fund owning boss.
Many jokes are also made at the expense of academic snobbery and hierarchies with psychologists usually the butt of the jokes of the evolutionary biologists, with philosophy further down the pecking order and the company pilates instructor at the bottom of the pile.
The central debate of the play is over the question of consciousness which is pretty much the only human phenomenon that the evolutionary biologists of the play admit to being unable to solve. Neuroscience can show us how the brain reacts to stimuli and what it does when performing particular tasks or experiencing emotions but this does not explain consciousness. This is The Hard Problem of the title.
After all of the grappling throughout the play we are left with consciousness as an open question but I can’t help but think Stoppard only presents a quite limited two way debate between the two most dominant and popularly accepted disciplines which share a little more than he acknowledges. Rather than representing the polar opposites of the debate on consciousness they both present a highly individualized take on consciousness.
For the “evo bios” consciousness is nothing more than mechanical process and they see no logical reason why a thermostat, if sufficiently developed and complex, could not develop consciousness. For the psychologist it must be something else, something spiritual, perhaps. There is no acknowledgement of sociological or even social psychological explanations of consciousness. While these might not be accepted by the ultra-materialist “evo bios” they offer more explanatory power than the either side of the debate Stoppard presented.
Lev Vygotsky, George Herbert Mead, Charles Cooley, Norbert Elias as well as Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche and many other have offered variations on the idea that consciousness is the effect of living in a society. We learn to reflect on ourselves and develop an internal world of the mind through interactions with others.
The protagonist of the play, a Christian as well as a psychologist, assumed morality to come from an “extra material” realm and prays for forgiveness. Her frequent interlocutor explains morality away as nothing more than the expression of genetics; altruism is itself ultimately a selfish survival mechanism.
The “evo bio” explanation (of everything) is frequently picked apart by the young and brilliant psychologist who shows up the analogical explanations they offer when intentionality is attributed to genes. The dominance of the “evo bio” perspective, and the brutality of their world-view, is repeatedly asserted by the macho posturing of one of the scientists (and the frequent display of his gym toned chest). Stoppard cleverly shows how this world view is dependent on persuasive, physical and financial power (the research centre is backed by a hedge fund) rather necessarily than rock solid evidence.
But Stoppard situates the battle between these intellectual forces in terms of materialism and dualism as can be seen by the prominent place Descartes and Dawkins are given in the program. As expressed in a citation of a letter to Stoppard which is published in the program it seems that the choice is between materialism and metaphysical extremism. Sociological analysis shows us not only how moral pressures are exerted on us through social structures but that religious feeling (a connection to something bigger than us) can also be identified in the social.