Court Theatre has unique and valuable resources as the resident professional theatre of the University of Chicago. We have the privilege of calling on world-renowned scholars to deepen our understanding of the plays we produce. Considering the intellectual complexity of this play, The Hard Problem artistic team was extremely grateful to work with faculty members that bring a diverse range of expertise to the rehearsal process. We took a moment to ask these scholars about whether or not they identify with the play’s protagonist, Hilary.
Jason Bridges, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy
Yes, I do identify with Hilary. She’s unsatisfied with easy scientific explanations of human nature, and I think she’s right to be. There’s no denying that human beings are part of the natural world. We’re products of evolution, just like every other living thing. Mechanical and chemical and electrical processes course within us. We’re made out of the elements. But none of this implies that the biological or physical sciences will ever be in a position to tell us the “true nature” of consciousness, or morality, or meaning. Hilary, I think, realizes this.
On the other hand, I don’t think, as Hilary sometimes seems to, that we can appeal to God to explain these things, either. Our understanding of consciousness comes from being conscious, and from sharing that consciousness with others. Our understanding of meaning comes from making meaning, through talk and action. Neither God nor science can decide for us what we are to value in our lives, or how we are to live. These decisions, unavoidably, are our own to make. This is a message, I think, of the moral crises Hilary faces in the play, and of her way of resolving them, a way that is wholly her own.
Peggy Mason, Professor, Department of Neurobiology
I don’t identify with Hilary at all. She’s tortured by giving up a baby and I think that has driven her religiosity. I really don’t like her praying—it grates on me. I also can’t identify with her choice in Spike, who is as obnoxious as it gets. She’s self-effacing, and her approach is very different from how I like to take up space in the world. I also don’t identify with Hilary’s intellectual style. She seems to want a certain answer—probably because she wants to assuage her guilt over giving up a baby. I don’t like scientists, male or female, who act as though they have a pony in the race. Students often say to me “we’re trying to prove,” and I interrupt them immediately to remind them that we are “testing whether,” and that any answer is great. Scientists who think they know the answer before they do an “experiment” are not doing an experiment (which is an experience where the answer is unknown) and are not true scientists in my book. No polemics in science.
The things I do have in common with Hilary are that we have two X chromosomes, and we have chosen to pursue science as a career. For me, being a female scientist is not a big enough commonality to drive me to identify with a person.
Leslie M. Kay, Professor, Department of Psychology, Institute for Mind and Biology
There are a few superficial similarities between myself and Hilary, the most obvious being that I am a female scientist in a traditionally male-dominated field. The real similarities lie in the questions we both ask regarding what we do or can know. I’ve arrived where I am by a similar set of experience, but in the opposite order. I started in Philosophy and Mathematics, did my PhD in Neuroscience (Biophysics) and ended up in a Psychology department. My research is firmly based in the neural mechanisms of sensory perception, and we do record lots of neuron and make hypotheses about how brains work, just like the members of the Krohl Institute. On the surface, I might appear to be the anti-Hilary. However, my research questions address the question of what we can know about thought and the world on an almost daily basis.
We have shown that at the most fundamental level, neural representations of the outside world do not objectively represent that world. They represent primarily the meaning of that world to the individual and the present context in which an individual answers a question as simple as “what odor is this?” So, I identify with Hilary’s frustration in the face of popular theories and experiments that try to make causal claims from data that are more flash than substance. I share her frustration with the idea that if we just record enough neurons and make detailed enough models we will ultimately be able to create a human mind in a computer. I think this is perhaps demonstrably untrue, given what we know about how fluctuating goals and situations can dramatically change the way a brain works at even the very lowest levels. I also share her concern about preserving truth and belief that science is ultimately about the truth; no matter how much we might want something to be true, if the evidence says it isn’t, then it isn’t. I disagree with her ultimate choice in how to explain the unknowable. I prefer to accept that some things are unknowable, and I rest easy in the belief that we have the ability to point to explanations using tools of complex systems and emergent phenomena. But these differences are really window dressing; at the heart of the matter and our similarities are the questions and commitment to rigorous inquiry as the only path to real knowledge. Despite popular opinion, that rigor comes not from the practice of experimental science, but from philosophy.
David Finkelstein, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy
In college, I was—like Hilary—surrounded by, and influenced by, people who thought that every real phenomenon could, in principle, be understood scientifically. Like her, I was disturbed by evolutionary accounts of “altruism” that seemed to reveal that our concern for others’ well-being is really just a maximizing strategy arrived at by “selfish” genes. Like her, I was both struck and comforted by the fact that although consciousness is undeniably real, it doesn’t seem to be scientifically explicable. Like her, I worked in psychology labs—before I recognized that the questions that most concerned me weren’t scientific questions at all. Having realized this, I decided to pursue philosophy rather than cognitive science. So yes, in a number of ways, I do identify with Hilary. I wish her luck.
Photo: Chaon Cross who portrays Hilary in The Hard Problem (Joe Mazza).