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Friday, February 13, 2015

The Hard Problem

Tom Stoppard is tackling "the hard problem" of consciousness. The play has just opened on National Theatre in London last month. I have not seen any reviews and am curious to see it at some point.

The last time I saw his "Arcadia," in which he dramatized the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I did not love it. It was clever but kind of lacked emotional impact. Well, I guess it is too difficult to be touched and moved by the inevitable rise of entropy in a closed system ...

Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian recently wrote a fairly comprehensive introduction about the current debate among neuroscientists over "the hard problem." I dunno. From where I sit, there is no convincing logic or evidence to suggest that a physical and material consciousness is impossible. I don't understand this insistence that consciousness is immaterial. Why can't it be as material as the electrochemical signaling system that runs breathing and heartbeats, sends commands to muscle contractions, processes visual and other stimuli, and stores and retrieves memory, etc., etc., etc.? If we are to believe that memory is not elusive but rather material (and we have pretty good evidence now that it is), what makes you believe that consciousness is fundamentally different from memory?

The romantic notion that consciousness is immaterial and therefore unknowable is, in my opinion, just a reincarnation of our past romantic notion of the soul, which itself was a variation of beliefs in one or more supernatural powers (ie, gods) and an afterlife. We are just unwilling to let go of the immaterial concepts, so we transfer this wish from god to soul to consciousness, keeping the romance alive!

I don't know if Stoppard is going with the romantic or the kill-joy approach in "The Hard Problem."


Post Script: From a review of the play, I suppose I should adjust my expectations accordingly. Yeah, I know, I am being difficult here. Is it ever possible to be both scientific and emotionally appealing and resonating? Well ... the answer seems to be no. The truth is usually pretty unappealing to us.

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