In The Hard Problem, Hilary is a young psychologist who struggles with questions of faith. She is mocked by fellow scientists for her beliefs, from her nightly prayers to her attempts to meld her scientific research with her faith.
While it may seem contradictory for a scientist to be a person of religious faith, it’s actually more common than you might think.
A 2009 poll of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed that 51 percent of respondents reported belief in a higher power. Compared to 95 percent of the general public reportedly believing in God, scientific believers are certainly less common. However, these results also show that scientists are truly split down the middle on this issue. Where does this controversy stem from?
There is a scientific principle that states that the absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence; for example, if a scientist was looking for evidence that it had rained overnight, she might not see any water on the ground and (incorrectly) assume that this lack of evidence of rain meant that it hadn’t rained. In reality, however, it is perfectly possible that the rainwater evaporated quickly before she began to look for the evidence. This same logic can be applied to questions surrounding faith and the existence of God; it is currently impossible to provide indisputable evidence that God exists, but it is equally impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist.
As neuroscientist David Eagleman explains in an interview with Discovery News, “It seems to me that we as a society have lately been caught in this false dichotomy where it’s either God as the guy with the beard on the cloud or nothing at all … We know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism. [But] we know way too much to commit to any particular religious story.”
For Hilary, the absence of evidence for the existence of God is no deterrent. One of Hilary’s many reasons for refusing to give up her faith is her belief in altruism, which is a major topic of debate throughout The Hard Problem. In short, to believe in altruism is to believe in the existence of selfless concern for the well-being of others. Many scientists believe that altruism is impossible, as evolutionary biology teaches us that all animals – humans included – are biologically programmed to put the survival of their genes above all else, including the well-being of people they care about. For example, an evolutionary biologist might argue that a parent only cares for their child because they are hard-wired to ensure that their genes are passed on, which can only happen if their child is healthy enough to reproduce. Hilary, like most people, believes that a parent’s love for their child is much more than biological hard-wiring. Her belief is largely founded on her own experiences as a parent, and her devastation at having had to give up her child for adoption when she was very young.
Although scientists are nowhere near proving or disproving the existence of God, it continues to be a heated debate within and without of the scientific community.
To see this and many other fascinating debates explored by one of the sharpest writers of our time, don’t miss Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Court Theatre, which runs March 9 – April 9, 2017!