Coincidence and Belief in ‘The Hard Problem’

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What is consciousness? Does it even exist? Is consciousness just the sum of our synapses firing (and misfiring)? Are our personalities formed by the way these electrical discharges travel through our brains? Or does consciousness come from a higher power or God?

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

British Playwright Tom Stoppard tries to explore the above-mentioned questions in ‘The Hard Problem,’ which is currently playing at Washington DC’s Studio Theater. Of course, this question – and all variations of it throughout the centuries- has been explored, debated, dissected, rejected and defended by thousands of thinkers and religious figures.

In this production, the age-old discussion of whether consciousness comes from God or just a product of biological processes is being tackled by Hilary, a doctoral student who’s trying to get at the heart of the debate. In the opening scene, she’s having a discussion with her tutor/lover about consciousness. For him, consciousness is purely a biological product. He points to the pain signals that come from a finger and travels to the pain receptors of the brain. But he’s at a loss when Hilary asks him about sorrow.

For those who are people of science, this debate over consciousness is silly. Of course, we are the sum of our biological processes- our thoughts and emotions included. One just has to look at all the scientific research of the past century or so involving our brains- especially in the field of psychopharmacology. It’s widely known that people diagnosed with major depressive disorders experience improved states of mind within months of taking medication that is scientifically proven to alter chemical processes in our brains. Scientists have even pinpointed which parts of the brain are responsible for our emotions.

But Hilary believes that human consciousness transcends biology. She believes in God, free will, and the human soul. She persists even as her colleagues and friends tell her stance is indefensible in the face of science. This single-mindedness and her belief in a human soul are what eventually lands her dream job at a neuroscience research unit at a cutting edge think-tank. It’s funded by an arrogant thinker/billionaire entrepreneur much like in the mold of a Steve Jobs like the character who scoffs at faith. Instead of believing certain inexplicable facets of faith and belief in a higher power, he believes in coincidence and happenstance as primary explanations for the mysteries of life.

This interplay between science and faith is where Tom Stoppard’s script gets most of its mojo. Research and hard scientific evidence can take you a certain distance but beyond that how do you account for human qualities like altruism. Are we to believe that goodness is a product of the electrical impulses in our brain? Beyond physical inputs like pain, cold, heat, etc, there’s been no research that shows chemical reactions in your noggin lead to more ennobling pursuits.

To prove her theories, Hilary comes up with a study involving children and their propensity for altruism. Her research reveals that ultimately human beings are hardwired to do good. It enforces her belief in God and in a human consciousness. Eventually, we learn why she’s dogged in her defense of her theories. She had given a child up for adoption in her teens and had been feeling guilty for it ever since. But as the cosmos would have it- or for the atheist, a mere coincidence- her daughter was adopted by the founder of her think tank. While Stoppard may have intended this twist to be clever, it was more annoying than anything else.

Another gripe about this particular production of the Hard Problem, and I admit it’s a little nitpicky, is the laughably bad British accents put on by some of the actors. At one point I wanted to tell one actor to drop the bad patois made up of faux British and Australian accents.

Overall, the Hard Problem is very entertaining because it delves into both religion and the current zeitgeist that everything in the universe can be explained by science. Tom Stoppard’s examination of the push and pull between those two poles of belief exercises the audience’s’ intellect but that debate never really goes anywhere in the end. It’s as if he lost interest near the end of the script and decided to make it a bittersweet melodrama between a mother and long-lost child.