As I walked into Tom Stoppard’s newest play, The Hard Problem, playing at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre, I inadvertently made a statement that would turn out to succinctly sum it all up.
“We really could do without the mood music,” I said, referring to the saxophone player providing pre-performance ambiance. Sitting in the front row, the jazz tunes (not my preferred style of music) seemed to screech in my ears.
As it turned out, the saxophone player – who also provided music during the play’s transitions, thus invisibly and almost unremarkably weaving himself into the fabric of the play – represented God, in rather the same way that a silent octogenarian represented Time in Willy Decker’s famous staging of La Traviata. Towards the end of the play, a climactic revelation would lead Stoppard’s protagonist, Hilary, to believe that a miracle had occurred; the lights would dim as she would stare at the musician in awe and devotion, her faith finally confirmed.
The problem is that The Hard Problem could really have done without God.
A play dealing with the eponymous “hard problem” – the problem of how our consciousness and experiences arise from the physical matter of the brain – it tells the story of Hilary, a young woman with a background in psychology applying for a position at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. It poses itself as an intervention in the debate between body and mind, gray matter and consciousness, evolved and chosen behavior. More debate than plot, the narrative uses Hilary’s trials and tribulations in the world of academia and research as the setting for arguments among the highly educated academics and scientists of the Institute about the nature of consciousness and human behavior. Each researcher neatly and conveniently falls into one of two camps: materialism, empiricism, positivism, and science; or altruism, ethics, morality, transcendence, spirituality, and potentially even God.
If those sound like false equivalences, they are. In fact, the irony of The Hard Problem is that, despite its insistence on the fact that the human brain is so much more complex than a computer, which functions via simplistic binaries and calculations, the whole play is reducible to a simplistic, and false, binary.
On the one hand, Hilary believes in altruism and a mother’s love (stemming from her own choice to have a child, and give it up for adoption, at the age of 15). Consequently, she rejects the validity of behavioral models based on the study of evolution, because evolved, animal behavior is selfish – but, in her experiences, altruism and selflessness exist. Thus, there must be an explanation of human behavior that exists beyond the brain, in the mind and the spirit. Morality conveniently disproves science, empiricism is useless because it has limits, and God (probably) exists, because if behaviors and moral stances such as altruism exist despite the selfishness that evolved behavior would require, they must come from God. (No, those statements don’t actually logically follow from each other. Stoppard just pretends they do).
On the other hand, her lover Spike (Ross Beschler) is a materialist and an empiricist. All behavior, according to him, is selfish, because we’ve evolved from lesser creatures with basic and savage instincts; the mind is no more than the product of the grey matter of the brain; everything can be mapped and predicted. Comically, he almost exactly paraphrases William Thomson Kelvin’s claim at the turn of the century that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Kelvin would be proven wrong by the discoveries of the theory of relativity and of quantum physics, and Spike’s similarly brash confidence seems to be intended – with no subtlety whatsoever – to be comic and thus to conveniently ridicule any possibility of human (omni)science.
With these false dichotomies, it’s utterly clear that Stoppard’s not interested in exploring the issue; he’s taken it upon himself to provide a neat answer to a question debated and studied by serious scientists for decades. The stance he takes isn’t hard to deduce, either: his cast is neatly divided into nice people and not-so-nice people, with the nice people predictably taking the stance of altruism, morality, mind over matter, and potentially even God and the soul.
Spike, for example, incessantly harps on about materialism and insults everyone until he literally gets punched by Hilary’s colleague, Cecilia. Hilary’s mentor, Leo, takes her side on “the mind over the brain,” and is indulgent of her behavior even when she embarrasses the Krohl Insitute at a conference. Amal, who competes with Hilary for the same position, with a background in mathematics and neuroscience, and eventually obtains a position at a hedge fund (where he gets to use neat mathematical models), is acerbic, cynical, and skeptical of humanity.
Hilary is clearly intended to pull at the audience’s heartstrings, with her tragic backstory of giving up her daughter at the age of 15, but she comes across as a two-dimensional figurehead for the author’s position rather than an actual character.
With a cast of characters so neatly divided, each “character” becomes either a figurehead or a straw man, leaving the actors to bring in what little personality they can into these black-and-white sketches.
Stoppard is clearly influenced (or wants to be) by the Platonic dialogue, since the “meat” of the drama is not in the action, but in the conversation. It’s a play entirely based on talking, but the seeming intellectuality and heaviness of a two-hour play based entirely on deeply scientific conversations is belied by the simplification process any idea goes through to end up in it.
Just as, in Plato’s dialogues, there may have been dozens of intellectual positions, but in the end Socrates always ended up being “right,” in this play, whatever stances are (simplistically) presented, there’s a clear “right” answer. In fact, Plato managed to weave more irony into his dialogues than Stoppard seems capable of: the Symposium, for example, in which Plato makes grand suggestions about the potential of love as inspiration, ends in an orgy, such that nobody really remembers exactly what Plato said. It’s an ironic twist to a philosophical text.
Stoppard’s play, by contrast, ties each thread into a neat little bow. The play opens with Hilary and Spike discussing the prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s behavior, Spike insists, can be predicted by behavioral models. Hilary disagrees: what if one of the prisoners is in love with the other? Doesn’t that throw a wrench into the model, as behavioral models that predict selfish behavior don’t accommodate this possibility? (Never mind that she’s introducing a new variable into the equation in an attempt to prove the lack of viability of behavioral models).
By the end of the play, predictably, the prisoner’s dilemma manifests itself in the form of an academic’s dilemma: Hilary’s assistant/intern/graduate student Bo (Jeena Yi) falls in love with her, causing her to forge experimental data in order to provide Hilary with the breakthrough she’s been hoping for. When the truth comes out, the two play a game of tug-of-war over who takes the blame, Bo out of love (as Hilary so neatly proposed in the first scene, even naming the hypothetical prisoner who’s in love “Bob”), Hilary out of a sense of altruism and responsibility. Bam. The prisoner’s dilemma is (seemingly) neatly undermined by a variety of shades of selflessness, and the neatness of this denouement once again ironically belies the complexity of human behavior that the play ceaselessly insists on.
But that kind of twisted logic – in which the limits of current scientific knowledge are equated with the chronic inability to know that is part of the human condition, and the appeal to some kind of transcendent truth as a source of knowledge – is actually not the most disingenuous and dishonest thing about the play. Rather, it’s Stoppard’s emotional manipulation of the viewer into the position he wants them to take. For all of its intellectual posturing – the play casually namedrops Gödel’s theorem, Cartesian mind-body dualism, and Hamlet’s famous, and over-quoted, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – The Hard Problem is neither intellectual nor complex.
It’s not just that each character is a figurehead or a straw man, or that a complex issue is reduced to a simplistic binary; it’s that the stark black-and-white lines with which Stoppard sketches his plot are merely the foundation for him to emotionally blackmail the audience into taking Hilary’s “intellectual” position by siding with her emotionally.
Hilary is, in many ways, the protagonist of a cheap melodrama: a single woman who’s lost her daughter, who prays daily and does good works in the hope that God will reward her. It’s these traits that motivate her to seek the explanations behind altruism and a mother’s love – such that, when she discovers her daughter has been adopted by Jerry Krohl himself, the man behind the Institute, this coincidence is a miracle in her eyes, confirming her faith. And as the lights dim and the music swells, one can’t help feeling it’s a moment of a Victorian melodrama as the faithful, constant, persevering and long-suffering heroine is rewarded.
This is the part where Stoppard could really, really have done without God.
The melodramatic moment sets itself up as the confirmation of the long string of disconnected beliefs Hilary seemingly connects: that miracles are possible, that God has rewarded her altruism and her maternal love, that morality and selflessness (evidenced by the reward of her prayers, inspired by her maternal love), and not just selfish, evolved behavior, exist – and hence that mind trumps brain, spirit triumphs over matter. It’s one of those classic and predictable twists: we don’t know whether it’s actually God or coincidence, of course, and that’s “up to the audience to decide,” but the emotional weight given to that moment equates the existence of God with the existence of the mind (rather than the brain) in a manner that’s about as subtle as a brick over the head.
This twist leads Hilary to quit the Krohl Institute and pursue philosophy at NYU. In that one decision lies wrapped all of the issues with The Hard Problem. There’s a reason philosophy is the undergraduate major that results in the lowest employment rate: it’s finding itself woefully insufficient to deal with the complexity of the human mind and human behavior. Ironically, this is what the non-materialists of The Hard Problem accuse science of, but realistically, it’s philosophy’s abstractness, its lack of adequate terminology, its insistence on clinging to disproven ideas (such as those of free will, which neuroscience now suggests is an illusion) that make it a useless tool in the modern world. For all of its appearances of intellectual rigor, created mostly via name-dropping philosophers who have been culturally significant in Western civilizations, The Hard Problem rejects the rigor and possibility provided by science in favor of abstractions and outdated terminology.
And in doing so, Stoppard painfully illustrates the limitations of the realist mode of literature. The Hard Problem has ended its run at the Wilma Theatre, but with Stoppard’s fame and pull in the intellectual world, it will likely be staged, re-staged, and published.
If it does, it’ll be based on Stoppard’s reputation more than on the content of the play. Realism, as a style and a mode, was a significant transformation in literary history: It provided for both psychological depth and a democratizing move in fiction, as suddenly the interior lives of common characters became worth telling about. But it’s a mode that is, perhaps, outstaying its welcome and its utility, as the increasingly complex modern world requires something with more rigor and nuance to understand it.
Watching The Hard Problem, I couldn’t help thinking that these questions, of consciousness, of artificial intelligence, of the mind, experience, and evolution, are issues that have been tackled by the best thinkers and scientists in the form of science fiction. The questions explicitly raised by this play, such as, for example, if an artificial intelligence that imitates human behavior could truly be created, have been hypothetically tested in fictional form unrestricted by the limitations of hard realism, and, frankly, Star Trek had much more innovative answers to that question than Stoppard did.
But genre fiction and “literary” fiction are still two different fields, one popular, the other prestigious, and consequently, one considered “entertainment,” the other serious thought. Methinks if this play could descend from its high horse and leave aside the outdated ideas of the Western canon in favor of more popular fiction, it could use the wide array of tools offered by genre fiction to do what it claims to: explore the complexity of the issue at hand. Genre fiction might be removed from reality in certain ways, but it has a much closer relationship to it than The Hard Problem, which, for all of its pretense at basing itself on current scientific debates (a pretense most visible in its title), exists in the realm of fantasy – and not in a good way.