Hard Problem defeats legendary playwright

I’ve written a review of legendary playwright Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem at the National Theatre, where he tackles neuroscience and consciousness – or at least thinks he does.

The review is in The Psychologist and covers the themes running through Stoppard’s new work and how they combine with the subtly misfiring conceptualisation of cognitive science:

This is a typical and often pedantic criticism of plays about technical subjects but in Stoppard’s case, the work is primarily about what defines us as human, in light of the science of human nature, and because of this, the material often comes off as clunky. It’s not that the descriptions are inaccurate – allusions to optogenetics, Gödel and the computability of consciousness, game theory, and cortisol studies of risk in poker players, are all in context – but Stoppard doesn’t really understand what implications these concept have for either each other or for his main contention. Questions about mind and body, consciousness and morality, are confused at times, and it’s not clear that Stoppard really understands the true implications of the Hard Problem of consciousness.

It’s worth saying, I actually enjoyed the play, but it was Stoppard’s philosophy and unwieldy use of neuroscience that didn’t quite hang together for me.

The full piece is the link below.

Link to review of The Hard Problem in The Psychologist

3 thoughts on “Hard Problem defeats legendary playwright”

  1. Nice review, rings true (though I haven’t seen the play). Very sorry to hear it though, since Stoppard is such a fine playwright and evidently was trying to get it right — a missed opportunity for something great, sounds like.

  2. Hi Vaughan, I liked your almost throw-away line about “the pre-enlightenment view that equates mystery with morality and suggests that morality is necessarily mysterious.” An interesting way to view the apparent need to see if x is “really” altruistic or “just” acting out of an extended self-interest.

    As Habermas put it “The unfinished project of modernity”.

    Many thanks for your blog!

    Warm Regards,
    Simon Mundy

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