Last weekend, I had a wonderful treat. My husband and I went to see Tom Stoppard's new play, 'The Hard Problem', at the National Theatre on London's South Bank.
Tom Stoppard is my all-time favourite playwright, simply because his plays are so intelligent and make you think in a way that no other plays do. So I was very excited when I found out that Stoppard had written a new play, and I was lucky enough to be given tickets for my birthday.
'The Hard Problem' didn't disappoint. Essentially, the play is about the problem of consciousness--how, given the materialist nature of science, it is possible to adequately explain the phenomenon of consciousness in purely scientific (i.e. physical) terms (via neurobiology, for example). The vast majority of scientists, psychologists and philosophers today believe that the mind (or consciousness) in some way reduces to brain activity, hence can be explained in physical or scientific terms. However, they all agree that no-one to date has come close to doing so -- simply because, they argue, the brain (and mind) is simply too complex for us to understand at this stage. Hence, the problem of consciousness is the Hard Problem for scientists.
Stoppard's play explores the flip side of the coin -- that perhaps the mind or consciousness cannot be reduced to physical brain activity. The key protagonist of this argument within the play is Hilary, a psychologist who feels extreme sorrow and guilt for having given her daughter up for adoption and who prays to God for forgiveness. These concepts -- sorrow, guilt, forgiveness and God -- are not, she believes, rooted in the physical. Rather, they are something more than physical.
As is typical with Stoppard, the play is fast moving and covers a variety of topics. Areas that loom large are the nature of altruism, the behaviour of financial markets, whether or not machines can think, and what any of this has to do with how people behave in the real world (outside academia) day to day.
I loved this play. My academic background is in philosophy, which means that I was familiar with most of the concepts discussed. However, that kind of knowledge isn't necessary to enjoy the play -- I know of several non-specialists who loved it. All you need is an ability to listen carefully and to think outside the box.
My husband and I came out of the theatre discussing the issues raised in the play and we are still discussing them. Wonderful!