Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem

I wish I had something substantial to say about Tom Stoppard’s play The Hard Problem. But here is short note. Perhaps because I saw it – two weeks ago – a couple of hours after seeing The Changeling at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre – whose nastiness had entered my soul – I didn’t much mind the lack of emotional drama, the theatre perhaps, of The Hard Problem. But as a professional philosopher of sorts, I might not be the ideal audience member for a play that crams together the Prisoners’ Dilemma, the Milgram Experiment, a ‘New Mysterian’ appeal to the brute intractability of the hard problem and a kind of theology motivated by intuitions about moral realism.

I guess it would be possible to rationalise why a subject who takes the anti-reductionist views of the main protagonist would be rerunning (for real!) the Milgram Experiment but it wasn’t really rationalised. But I was struck by two kinds of blind spot in the philosophy. Theological realism played two roles dialectical roles in the play. One was a sort of negative comparison. It stemmed from the argument: given the palpable lack of success of reductionist attempts to provide explanatory solutions to the hard problem, their adherents were no more rational than those with religious faith. Well, perhaps. But that neglects the flip side that one might be driven to think that some reductionist account must be possible by an argument for example Fodor’s argument:

I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they’ve been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm and charge will perhaps appear upon their list. But aboutness surely won’t; intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep. It’s hard to see, in face of this consideration, how one can be a Realist about intentionality without also being, to some extent or other, a Reductionist. If the semantic and intentional are real properties of things, it must be in virtue of their identity with (or maybe of their supervenience on?) properties that are neither intentional nor semantic. If aboutness is real, it must be really something else. [Fodor 1987: 97]

Of course, theology may also be based an argument – for example, from design – but if so then that does not fit the play’s opposition of faith and reason. (The strongest argument against reductionism is when the the protagonist Hilary points out that an evolutionary account cannot merely explain the surface form of behaviour that expresses thick moral concepts but also what we mean by those concepts. At least, that’s an argument I fancied I heard. The New Scientist review objects that the play implies that scientists cannot appreciate art because the main reductionist figure gives what I took to be very much a jocular reductive description of Raphael’s The Madonna and Child as ‘woman maximising gene survival’. But there is a serious point here. Not that scientists cannot appreciate art but whether a reductionist science can explain the terms of art criticism in accord with its  own austere vocabulary or else, I assume, convict all such appreciation as illusion.)

Odder was the idea that theological realism was suggested as the only alternative to reductionistism. Dramatically, this was demonstrated by scenes in which Hilary prays, kneeling by her bed. But dialectically, it was suggested that this was the only way in which moral judgements would not be a case of doing ‘one’s own marking’. But no one thinks that physics needs a god to avoid this worry: the subject matter that disciplines the relevant judgments is enough. So why not in this case too?

Where this preoccupation seemed better was where it stemmed from closer to the philosophy of mind but in an invocation of the spirit not of David Chalmers (who coined the titular phrase) but Tom Nagel. Our antireductionist asks her reductionist lover whether the world might be teleological. Nagel distances teleology from the intentions of a creator but perhaps that is a subtlety that perhaps could not be communicated in a play and hence the shorthand of theology makes sense.

I suspect that no one with whom I ever enjoy a beer doubts the importance of Darwin and evolutionary theory. But for those of us who also resist reductionism, balancing an evolutionary story of how humans came to be with a resistance of reductionism prompts just such speculation. How could brute evolutionary forces enable us to resonate to the space of reasons? Now that seems to be a genuinely puzzling difficulty with mounting a rearguard defence against reductionism.

(The Book of Mormon was more of a hoot than either this or the Changeling, by the way.)