That's some problem, that hard problem.
The "hard problem of consciousness" was formulated by Australian philosopher and psychologist David Chalmers in 1995. What is it? We'll get to that.
The Hard Problem is also a play by eminent British playwright Tom Stoppard. It will be given its U.S. premiere, as have so many Stoppard plays, at the Wilma Theater - Jan. 6, and will run through Feb. 6.
On Monday night at the Wilma, Stoppard will be in town for a special dialogue with Chalmers himself, a chat both say they're looking forward to very much.
Talk about a great night of consciousness-raising.
Stoppard has written such postmodern classics as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Thing, Travesties, and Arcadia, as well as screenplays for celebrated films such as Brazil and Shakespeare in Love. He has had what he calls "a long and special relationship with the Wilma" since 1994.
Speaking by phone from his home in London, Stoppard said, "I like [Wilma cofounders] Blanka and Jiri [Zizka]'s idea of what a theater should be like. Theater, like all culture, is not just an adornment of society - it's part of society." That sense of drama as social work, Stoppard says, is fitful in the United States, but "still strong in regional theater." Czech-born, he suspects he has shared with the Zizkas "a certain Eastern European DNA" in his approach.
Wilma artistic director Blanka Zizka - Jiri Zizka died in 2013 - is directing The Hard Problem, one of "at least a dozen" Stoppard plays the theater has put on since 1994. "I love Tom's plays," she says. "Putting them on has always been particularly exciting. He always deals with moral dilemmas, how we will live. It may be in sophisticated language, but these are elemental questions, and people answer them through their lives."
So. The hard problem. Let's ask the source, Chalmers, what it is. He's teaching at New York University and calls from there. He says it's a great experience to have a Stoppard play based on his ideas, "although it isn't only about those ideas - it turns out to be about a whole lot of things, ethics, altruism vs. selfishness, religion, many themes in philosophy and science." He looks forward to meeting Stoppard and thinks Monday's chat will be "a whole lot of fun."
The hard problem, he says, is this: "How do physical processes in the brain somehow give rise to the subjective experience of the conscious mind experiencing the world?" Science, so spectacularly successful in its objective, mechanistic approach to the universe, doesn't do that well, Chalmers says in accounting for the fact of subjectivity. "We all know it exists," Chalmers says, "but science has no room for it."
Stoppard has been "fascinated with this problem since I first read about it in the mid-1990s. Ever since, I've been following as if it were breaking news. But it has taken me this long to get as far as writing a play on it."
Scientific efforts to portray human consciousness as computerlike "feel wrong to me and to other people," Stoppard says. "I did sort of feel that human beings were operating on some depth which was not the same depth" found in computer models, "that there was something else defining our ideas of ethics."
But you can't write a good play on ideas alone. "I wanted to write a play about somebody who is trying to be good, in the sense in which Aristotle would understand it, or religious leaders throughout history," Stoppard says. "That sounds as if the play is on stilts, but I don't want that. If a play is to work, it has to work on an emotional level, not merely didactic or intellectual. The play is about Hilary, a modern young woman, here and now, and she has an emotional dissatisfaction with technical explanations."
Zizka agrees this play addresses life rather than concepts: "Tom's plays can be harmed if done only cerebrally - his characters live by ideas, ideas shape their lives, but the intensity comes from deep inside the personality."
Stoppard says he has gotten more good mail about The Hard Problem than about any of his previous plays. "That suggests," he says, "that the question - even if it's a question without an answer - gets to people."
"It's awfully nice," says Chalmers, "that this is being done by somebody like Stoppard, whose plays I've been going to for 30-odd years."
Tom Stoppard and David Chalmers: "The Hard Problem"
7:30 p.m. Monday at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.