The Hard Problem

What is “consciousness”? In an evolved human being, is there any space for altruism? The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard deals with such questions, in a blisteringly intellectual way. At the National Theatre, between scenes The Well-Tempered Klavier plays, with flashing lights symbolising neurons and dendrites. At one point, characters debate whether a machine can be conscious. Yet rather than arid it is beautifully warm, with the most delightful heroine, and a vile, hedge-fund billionaire villain. I bought a copy, and reading it see more complexity in its structure.

Can altruism evolve? Yes. It could be sexual selection: men are drawn to women who are self-sacrificing. (Where would that put me?) It could be a by-product: a genetic variation gives you particularly efficient kidneys, say, but also makes you kind. It could be that genuine altruism exists in outliers, genetically programmed, as an effect of having more canny subjects who do favours in expectation of reward. It could be the evolution of groups, which I understand EO Wilson has advocated.

Some things are not altruistic. A mother’s self-sacrifice is in the interests of her reproduction. Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath, cited by the heroine Hilary, bears her child still-born, and the book ends with her breast-feeding a starving man. After such a crushing blow, Rose might be doing something to make her feel life has meaning.

The Hard Problem is not evidence for altruism. As a character says in the first scene, “Don’t cite works of fiction”. But it is evidence of our desire to believe in kindness for its own sake. The villain profits hugely from the crash of 2007, encouraging irrational exuberance then betting the other way at the right time. He funds The Krohl Institute for Brain Science– is that an altruistic act, or just something which amuses or interests him? Would either explanation make him more or less “good”? There is a series of actions in the play, about which we, and sometimes the characters, speculate on their level of altruism.

I am delighted to see a lesbian couple, played straight as it were- they are just a normal couple who bicker a bit and love each other, living together easily. In lesbian Love, a woman does what she imagines her desired one would want, who is revolted; much of the “generosity” is a way of getting sex.

I want to believe in altruism, particularly in my own; unless I am altruistic I have no understanding of myself, and I may merely be broken.

Paul Cézanne - Nature morte avec du lait et des fruits

2 thoughts on “The Hard Problem

  1. There is no “hard problem”, for the subject-object distinction is a phenomenological theme, not a phenomenological prerequisite.

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