21st February 2015
A guest review by Derek Linney
My response to this new play by Tom Stoppard can probably best be summarised by my thoughts on exiting the theatre: “How do you stop audiences leaving a play at the interval? Answer: Stage it as a single act”.
The “Hard Problem” of the title is that of understanding / explaining human consciousness. Does one subscribe to Cartesian Dualism – in which the brain and the mind are essentially different: the brain being material and the mind, and hence consciousness, being insubstantive in the material sense. Or does one subscribe to Materialism: the mind and brain are one and the same material entity and consciousness is some, as yet unexplained, consequence of the complexity of the brain’s functioning. Both positions have difficulties. How does the dualist explain how thoughts – from the immaterial mind – can be translated into actions, for example the movement of ones arm, in the physical world? Also, how can one explain the emergence of consciousness during the course of evolution: presumably the original simple organisms lacked consciousness but at some stage it must have evolved; though how a non-material mind could emerge is problematical without recourse to an external agent such as God. The materialist, on the other hand, has to explain how consciousness intuitively seems to be a quality that cannot be possessed by a mere automaton – be that a computer or a physical brain.
The promise of The Hard Problem was a play that explored these questions. Instead we were served a hotchpot of declamations – to call them arguments would be stretching the reality of the script – regarding consciousness, morality and altruism, biased scientific research, god and miracles with a dollop of hedge funds and market modelling thrown in. While any of these could have formed the basis for an intelligent, challenging play what we got never went into any depth on any of these questions. By analogy, for Radio 4 fans, it was more like listening to Question Time – with party political representatives proclaiming manifesto points – rather than The Moral Maze – an in depth interactive debate of an issue.