Only Connect ~ The Hard Problem

Something that has always given me great pleasure is the light bulb moment that comes about when one piece of art connects with another.  As Forster suggests in Howard’s End, it is like sliding into place the capstone of an arch: the key stone that not only manages to bridge the gap between two monumental marble pillars but also makes each one of them stronger than they were when they stood on their own.  Last Sunday, therefore, was a day of great illumination because a friend and I went to a screening of Tom Stoppard’s latest drama, The Hard Problem, which proved not only to be a magnificent play in its own right but also got me thinking in new ways about aspects of two other works that I have been engaged with.

The play is about a young psychology student, Hilary, whom we first meet when she is in the process of applying for a post at a brainscience institute where they are researching ‘the hard problem’: where do psychology and biology meet and, if there truly is nothing but matter, then what is consciousness?  Faced with fellow researchers who are busy mapping the brain and explaining how it works through the expediency of the computer program, Hilary and her boss, Leo, struggle to maintain a line of investigation that affirms the existence of something ‘other’ in the human psyche, something which cannot be explained simply through a process of ever more intricate dissection.

During the course of the play one of Hilary’s PhD students comes to her with an experiment which appears to show that there is a core of altruistic human kindness present in young children that is gradually whittled away by contact with a more self-seeking and egotistical world.  The resulting paper is published to much acclaim only for the student to then admit that she had removed the results of eight children from the final data because they were outliers: in other words, their results didn’t fit the nice neat pattern that she was hoping to present.  The work was fundamentally flawed.

I can’t even begin to tell you how my heart sank at that moment.  If you have at any point worked in a research situation you will understand just what an unforgivable crime this is.  If, as an academic community, we cannot trust each other’s integrity then we have nothing.  Inevitably both Hilary, who has verified the results, and the student have to go.  And, in one of those light bulb moments I recognised a link between the action of the play and a situation that is raised in the book I was then reading, Sissel-Jo Gazan’s latest novel, The Arc of the Swallow.

You may not have come across Gazan, a young Danish writer who has published one previous work, The Dinosaur Feather.  She is a biology graduate from the University of Copenhagen but has turned her hand to crime fiction in which her main protagonists are involved in the world of science.  If you enjoy really intelligent crime writing which demands that you keep up with a good deal of scientific information then she is worth looking out for.

In The Arc of the Swallow a young researcher, Marie, is accused of having committed the same sort of scientific dishonesty as Stoppard explores, in her case concerning findings to do with the side effects of certain childhood vaccinations.  In this instance we know pretty much from the start that it isn’t Marie who has been massaging the data but rather scientists in the pay of those drug companies who cannot afford to have their, quite literally, fatal shortcomings exposed.  In some ways the situation, or at least the motivation is reversed.  The drug companies are spurred on by greed, whereas Stoppard’s student is driven by a desired to please her tutor.  And, in fiction, Gazan’s plot is the more common.  The bad guy at the top is shown to have been the one who cannot be trusted and we can all cheer along with feelings of righteousness when the little guy is vindicated.  What Stoppard shows us is that in the end it doesn’t matter whether it is the bad or the good guy who turns the figures on their head.  The results are false and if we cannot trust the integrity of the researcher we are lost.

Or are we?  In respect of another aspect of her life Hilary feels that she needs a miracle, and she is prepared to pray for one.  When that miracle come about she decides that the loss of her job and the prestige that goes with it has been but a small price to pay.

In fact, my friend and I disagreed as to whether or not Hilary was actually a believer.  My friend thought she was, whereas I thought her prayers were more akin to those promises that many of us make to an unseen, unknown deity in times of crisis.  I didn’t see any other signs of belief portrayed in the character.  However, the very fact of raising the question of God brought about another of those lightbulb moments.  If the play does ask us to accept the possibility of a God then it is in respect of the outside factor that influences our lives and thus makes it impossible for the biologists ever to completely account for the way in which our minds work.  But, at the moment I am teaching Richard III and we have been having some very interesting discussions about the role of religion in the play, especially as it relates to the way in which the original Elizabethan audiences would have understood it.  One line in particular came up for debate.  When Richard says I am determined to be a villain does he mean that he has made his mind up to be a villain (which is the way most modern audiences are likely to interpret it) or does he mean given the deformities he has burdened me with God has predetermined me to be a villain?  The notion of predetermination was certainly current among some believers at the time as was the idea that a deformed body was the outward symbol of a deformed mind.  However, if God does predetermine the ultimate destination of a human soul then doesn’t this, in fact, make him the supreme computer programmer?  And if that is the case how does it factor into the discussion that Stoppard is initiating.

Don’t you just love it when one piece of art makes you question another in this way?

Only Connect

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14 thoughts on “Only Connect ~ The Hard Problem

  1. Wonderfully thought-provoking post Alex, and I too love it when things intersect and you find unexpected connections – in fact I used to love watching James Burke’s popular science series Connections just because he always did exactly that. I shall look out for Gazan’s book.

    1. I seem to have missed the Burke programmes, Karen, I must see if they are available anywhere. The Gazan books are interesting. They are very slow paced when compared with most British police procedures, but I find them fascinating.

  2. Tom Stoppard always intrigues me and gets me thinking – and I’ll be searching out Gazan’s work too. I often get such serendipity with books I read – or perhaps my mind chooses to see patterns everywhere?

    1. I have a librarian friend who is convinced that books talk to each other so often does she find that the one she is reading in some way connects with its predecessor.

  3. I’d not heard that interpretation of Richard’s declaration. Predetermination was quite a nifty belief wasn’t it, enabling you to act badly and justifying it as being the way you were made. It’s not his fault therefore, he’s just acting the way he was made to act.

    1. And, of course, if you believed you were already saved (as so many who joined these movements did) then you had the same freedom to behave however you liked because you were saved whatever!

  4. I’d seen the play on the big screen through the good work of National Theatre Live. My highest respect to Tom Stoppard for writing this play, in this day and age where science and technology reign supreme. I think the play has brought forth the point that, yes, Science can answer many questions, but not all, echoing that line from Hamlet and mentioned in the play: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” You and your friend’s discussion is meaningful too. Is Hillary a ‘true believer?’ I tend to agree with your point of view. But it really doesn’t matter. She may not be a firm believer from a strictly Christian sense of the word, but she at least has the humility to acknowledge there could be a Being out there larger than our collective rational mind. Unlike the certainty (hubris?) the scientific community carries, she admits her own limitations, has doubts and regrets for her past (the child) and that she sometimes needs a miracle or two to go through life. Which we all do. Thanks for posting about this excellent play.

    1. I’m so glad that you enjoyed this as well, Arti. It didn’t gets the best of reviews in the press, but I thought it was an excellent play.

  5. I’ve seen very few Stoppard plays and that’s something I’d definitely like to change. Never mind the reviews in the paper, I love the way he isn’t afraid to use ideas powerfully. I hadn’t heard of Gazan, but I’ll look her books up now. I’m always on the lookout for intriguing new crime fiction.

    1. I think you’d enjoy Gazan, Litlove. She develops her plots more slowly than perhaps we are used to in British crime writers, but her work is none the worse for that. And you must she more Stoppard. You would love him. Have you seen ‘Arcadia’? If not, it is a great place to start.

  6. I saw the reviews and was put off, but now wish I’d gone to see it on the big screen – they’ll probably do a re-show I hope. I have Gazan’s The Dinosaur Feather in my TBR, and will hang on to it now (I’m mid-cull). Sadly, the Connections series isn’t available on DVD, but the book is still in print.

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