Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers said it best when he asked: “Why and how do physical processes in the brain give rise to conscious experience?” In other words, how does the material brain produce thought?
Known as “the hard problem” of consciousness, this mystery is at the heart of Tom Stoppard’s newest work, aptly titled The Hard Problem. The Lincoln Center Theater production reunites Stoppard with Tony-winning director Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia) and stars Adelaide Clemens as the brilliant Hilary, a psychology student working at a neuroscience think-tank. Hilary finds herself increasingly engaged with the hard problem, convinced that gray matter alone cannot produce thought. And more importantly, that it isn’t an adequate explanation for morality.
“The reason it’s important to her is that she doesn’t like to think of good and bad as being merely biological constructs of our evolution,” explains Stoppard. “She would prefer a world in which the idea of goodness was, as it were, an objective criteria for our behavior.” Hilary wants to believe in the possibility of genuine altruism, not simply because it’s her job, but because she’s privately banking on it as the answer to a personal dilemma. What Hilary really needs is a miracle.
The idea that consciousness may in fact be a sign of the spiritual is something that Stoppard, now 81 and for whom faith has waxed and waned, has thought about a lot. “There’s a relationship in my mind between altruism and consciousness. Simply because, the idea of goodness for its own sake isn’t really intelligible unless you’re conscious,” he says. “You can live your life without thinking about it at all, but I do think about it a lot.”
Though The Hard Problem touches on complex philosophical and scientific ideas, the writer of such plays as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Thing, and Travesties insists that it’s possible to “write an intelligent play without really knowing that much.” “I’ve always found writing plays particularly attractive because you don’t need to know so much to write a play,” he says. “The characters in my plays sometimes say clever things and sometimes they suggest that you’re just seeing things on the surface of what they know.”
Though passionate about reading and excited by intellectualism—and with a wide and varied body of work to prove it—Stoppard says he doesn’t really know why he writes the plays he writes. And while he may not be able to solve the hard problem of consciousness, the answer to what continues to drive him as a playwright is comparatively simple: “I love theatre and I would like to be a part of it for as long as I’m sentient.”
The Hard Problem plays Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre (TK) in a limited engagement run beginning October 25, with an official opening night set for November 19, and a closing scheduled for January 6, 2019.