Tom Stoppard, of all writers, should know that he’s not going to solve one of the persistent philosophical/scientific problems of the past 1500 years in 90 minutes. So why does his new play set itself up as an inquiry into a puzzle that has plagued philosophers as far back as Gautama Buddha and ancient Greece? In 1994, the philosopher/mathematician/cognitive scientist David Chalmers reframed the age-old mind-body problem–what is the relationship between the physical body, including the mass of tissue and neurons that we call the brain, and the consciousness/soul/self that operates our mind?–in terms of brain science. The brain, Chalmers said, presents all kinds of puzzles and problems for researchers: how we store memories, why we react to pain, how we filter sensory information. But most of these are “easy problems,” ones that science, given time and resources, will undoubtedly crack. The truly hard problem of consciousness, he said, is why those understandable neurological processes give us consciousness at all, why we feel ourselves to be, well, selves, rather than, as he puts it, zombies: humanoid figures who behave exactly as we do, with the same capacities and the same interactions, but without the motivating, self-perceiving sense of identity behind it all.
The term stuck. And twenty-five years later, Tom Stoppard sets up a group of researchers on opposite sides of the debate in The Hard Problem. Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), upon completing her psychology doctorate from a second-rate British university, by some miracle (her word) receives a job offer from the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, a research think tank founded and funded by a hedge-fund billionaire. Despite her lack of a “hard-science crossover” in her work, Hilary beats out a cocky mathematician, Amal (Eshan Bajpay), for a job after she impresses her interviewer, Leo (Robert Petkoff), by flat-out acknowledging she has no idea how consciousness comes about, “and neither does anyone else.” What she does know is that she believes in altruism, “being good for its own sake,” and wants to figure out the science to marry to this article of personal faith.
Five years later, she’s working on the study that could make or break the careers of Hilary, her junior researcher Bo (Karoline Xu), and in fact their entire department at Krohl, a study correlating egoistic versus altruistic motivations with age, cognitive development, and other traits in a group of children. Yet she hasn’t really convinced anyone; those who began by thinking that human behavior and consciousness are entirely determined by our biology and our “programming”–like Amal and Hilary’s tutor and sometime lover, Spike (Chris O’Shea), who thinks Raphael’s Mother and Child should be called Woman Maximizing Gene Survival–grow only more certain of this as the play goes on. Those who doubt, or who look for a way to keep concepts of “good behavior” and “overall moral intelligence” in the world, like Hilary and Bo, move if anything farther away from deterministic or mechanical ideas of consciousness. In a sharp piece of irony, if any hypothesis is actually successfully tested by the mechanics of the plot (hardly a controlled study, of course), it’s the efficacy of prayer. (Hilary prays every night, much to the contempt of Spike.) From the brain-science side of the story, it’s a whole lot of high-level, expertly navigated exposition that ends up without a lot of forward progress.
Understandable: remember, no one has solved the hard problem. No one has even come close. And in a sense, Stoppard is less interested in explaining the reasons for consciousness than exploring what we, as humans, do with it; the solution to the problem is less important, from a storytelling perspective, than how each human, endowed with an inexplicable consciousness, chooses to live in the world (or, for the determinists, how each human plays out the patterns set for it by its genome and brain chemistry). Which characters line up on which side of the debate (a breakdown, in this case, that’s largely gendered, but with intriguing outliers)? How do social and intellectual alliances form; what are the dynamics of in-groups and outliers, and do those dynamics play out differently in social settings versus scientific ones? (Or, in the case of a truly disastrous dinner party Hilary throws to celebrate the publication of her and Bo’s paper, social and scientific settings at once; the party is a positive laboratory for fraught social and philosophical debates.) Do we have the capacity for actual change?
Stoppard is also interested in our ethical responsibilities to one another: Is the value of money in the good you can do with it once earned, or in making it doing something that has value independent of financial markets? As Bo, who began as a quant in Jerry’s hedge fund before coming to the institute, says, “The money was good, but it wasn’t good money.” Hilary, we learn, was something of a bully in high school, before having her adolescent life changed by a pregnancy: Is her research into selfishness and altruism all about seeking absolution from her own youth? Why do she and Bo genuinely seem to care about being “good people” and pleasing others, while the hotshot young male mathematicians and scientists believe even motherlove is just another way to game the system and provide for one’s gene pool?
And a final, critical thread that runs through the play is the relationship between coincidence and perfect information: Jerry doesn’t believe in coincidence or miracle; he believes in using perfect information in order to act with the greatest possible chances of success. Yet he and Amal, looking at the same information about the markets, come to different conclusions about the best way to act. And he and Hilary share a connection that predates her employment, one that’s either annoyingly engineered by the playwright or cleverly engineered within the world of the play: either a heavy handed piece of overdetermination, or a subtle maximization of result based on the information asymmetry created by different access to resources.
Despite the amount of science and philosophy crammed into a short play, the tone remains light and bracing, thanks to the quality of director Jack O’Brien’s production, buoyed by a roster of excellent performances, anchored by Adelaide Clemens’s impassioned yet fragile Hilary, using her work to bolster her faith in humanity, and her deft sparring with the different registers of arrogance displayed by Chris O’Shea’s Spike, Eshan Bajpay’s Amal, Jon Tenney’s Jerry Krohl, and Robert Petkoff’s Leo. And every design element works, especially David Rockwell’s sets, which use silhouetted views through windows to signify the relative status of the characters, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes: a muted blue-and-gray palette that aligns with Rockwell’s imagining of the Krohl Institute, with occasional pops into red and pink at key moments. O’Brien has filled out the cast with a six-member ensemble that engineers physical transitions and otherwise watches certain scenes from upstage risers, almost like Chalmer’s zombies: mirrors of the characters, but without meaningful consciousness. It’s a little gimmicky, but allows for more intricate staging possibilities.
Hilary says: “You can’t get an ought out of an is. Morality is not science. So there must be something else, which isn’t science.” The other thing science leaves out, of course, is art: the human intention to tell stories, make beautiful objects, create products that seem to defy productivity and purpose. In The Hard Problem, Stoppard, in a sense, tries to force materialism’s hand by using the ideas of brain science to make art about the human condition. Its characters may sometimes come too close to being mere positions in a debate, but the overall shape of the project is nonetheless beautiful: a work of craft that stakes the playwright’s claim to the thing that isn’t science. We are more than machines, I think, in Stoppard’s cosmology, and I for one am reassured by that.