I hope that some of you have had, or will have, the opportunity to see Tom Stoppard’s play “The Hard Problem” at the National Theatre. I saw it conveniently at my local Odeon – along with a grandson who is studying philosophy at Durham. It is of considerable interest to Secondsight Blog.
The plot itself is a little thin, but it provides a matrix in which a number of important issues are argued out between the main characters. A central theme is what I call the “Turing” problem. You will remember that Turing spoke of the possibility of developing a computer so sophisticated that anyone entering into conversation with it would be unable to distinguish it from a human being. We are faced with the question of the difference between a person and a machine, when the latter is at least equally competent, and often more so. This brings us up against the “Hard Problem” of the title , which is of course the question of our consciousness.
On the way we have to consider whether there is such a thing as altruism. One character argues strongly that there is no such thing as altruism in the sense of someone making a sacrifice for another. In all the examples presented to him he is able to show reasons why the ‘altruistic’ person is in fact seeking to gain direct or indirect advantage from his action. There is no room for an element of choice to benefit another at a cost to oneself. We can see this to be true at the level of the computer – where, ultimately, all operations are causal. The thought of a computer being kind just doesn’t fit the bill.
As you would expect, the idea of free will gets short shrift. In the mechanical (scientific) world a choice which is uncaused has no place. I was interested to read this weekend a draft dissertation from another grandchild who is studying philosophy (at London). He takes for granted that our decisions are all determined by our existing mental states, and bases his argument on that assumption. So much for five years of education at a distinguished Jesuit school!
The problem of consciousness is indeed hard. It faces the difficulty that one has to assume consciousness in order to enable it to be considered. That is, unless your brain can accept the idea that a philosopher or a scientist can solve a problem without using his consciousness. I have read many articles which promised to solve the problem but, in the end, they all turn out to be possible ways in which the brain is able to gather and present the stuff of which we are conscious, while leaving out the key step of consciousness itself.
In fact, although this was not mentioned, I think the real “Hard Problem” is freedom of the will. Consciousness is a necessary part of this of course, but it adds the additional problem of choice. Or we could take this further by considering the difference between good and bad choices. The computer has no use for “good” except as an alternative for “useful” or some such.
It is an irony that the scientific sceptics in practice accept altruism, freewill, consciousness as a personal quality, morality and the value of the good, in the conduct of all their daily life. How they live with the inconsistencies between their real life value systems and their intellectual denial of any basis for them intrigues me.
I will have given the impression that Stoddart is championing scepticism in this play. But the impression I received was that the jejune arguments of the sceptics became more and more incredible – not because they received an intellectual battering but because they appeared more and more ridiculous and irrelevant as the plot worked itself out with its all too human emotions and outcomes.