The New Seekers

As though a splinter of light, long flickering upon the wall of Plato’s cave, it has finally been noticed by some of the prisoners.

In January at London’s National Theatre, playwright Tom Stoppard will premiere his new play, The Hard Problem. The title of Stoppard’s play is taken, oddly enough, from the work of the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, a superstar in the exotic sub-culture of the philosophy of mind, who distinguishes between the “easy” and “hard” problems related to human consciousness. The easy problems of consciousness, says Chalmers, are those which cluster around phenomena such as the difference between wakefulness and sleep; the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli; our ability to make verbal reports of our mental states; and the deliberate control of human behavior. Problems related to these phenomena are termed “easy” by Chalmers because he believes they can all be more or less explained by a thoroughly materialist neuroscience.

The hard problem of consciousness, however, is the problem of why we are conscious at all. Why do we have this “movie” playing inside our head at which we serve as the spectators of our own thoughts and feelings, memories and imaginings? Materialist neuroscience, Chalmers argues, provides impressive objective accounts of how certain brain areas correlate with certain kinds of conscious experience. But it simply doesn’t have an explanation for the subjective experience of consciousness.

From Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) to Jumpers (1972) to The Coast of Utopia (2002), the drama of Tom Stoppard has combined broad humor, sly verbal dexterity, and a keen interest in moral, political, even metaphysical problems. Thus in one sense it is no surprise that in The Hard Problem Stoppard has turned his attention to the mystery of consciousness. What we know at this point about Stoppard’s new play is that it is about a young woman named Hilary, a psychology researcher at a brain-science institute, who is nursing a private sorrow and a hard problem at work, namely, “If there is nothing but matter, then what is consciousness?” In an interview with Vanity Fair, Stoppard describes the play as about “the scientific explanation of everything possibly being incomplete.”

It is intriguing that two pretty bright and prestigious bulbs like Chalmers and Stoppard are occupied with the deficiencies in orthodox mainstream scientific materialism. Whatever their particular answers to the conundrum of consciousness may be, it is at least noteworthy that they find this orthodoxy worth challenging.

Tom Stoppard
Tom Stoppard

And in this effort they are joined by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, another superstar in the philosophy of mind. In 2012 Nagel published Mind and Cosmos, the thesis of which is that “the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.” Specifically, in his book Nagel defends “the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life.” Nagel’s skepticism about the reigning orthodoxy is, interestingly, not based on religious belief or on any definite alternative (including the arguments of Intelligent Design theorists). He simply finds the arguments of scientific materialism wanting, especially in its accounts of the subjective experience of consciousness. Nagel suggests that behind the emergence of consciousness may be principles of a teleological, i.e. goal-directed, rather than mechanistic, character.

So here we have a set of highly regarded contemporary thinkers, imprisoned in their various ways in the cave of secularism, getting, as it were, onto the search. As opposed to the New Atheists, we might call them the New Seekers. That all three mentioned focus on the strangeness of human consciousness calls to mind Walker Percy, for it was Percy who thought that the way modern man might most easily be prompted to search for his lost place in the cosmos is through the enigmas of the subjective experiences of consciousness and selfhood. As an epigraph to Lost in the Cosmos, Percy quotes these lines from Nietzsche: “We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves…for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, “Each is the farthest away from himself”–as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.”

For Percy, the search for ourselves begins with an understanding of consciousness as “that act of attention to something under the auspices of its sign.” Only human beings communicate with one another using signs. All other interaction in the cosmos–particles hitting particles, chemical reactions, energy exchanges, mother dolphin calling to her calf, et cetera–are what Percy calls dyadic: an interaction between two or more entities. But with man comes consciousness and language and these depend upon a triadic relationship between a speaker, a signifier (a word or other sign as product of the speaker’s grasp of a concept), and the thing signified by the sign.

But our triadic form of communication comes with a price. Consciousness makes us aware of ourselves as sign-givers, yet also aware that we have trouble capturing our own identity through signs. We are, as Nietzsche saw, unknown to ourselves. We are faced with the problem that no other organism in the cosmos has to face, that of finding our place in the world.

But if we face this problem, we can begin the search for our place in the cosmos. However consciously (pun intended), that is what the New Seekers are up to. And who knows? Perhaps their search will lead them to that God, who, as Percy writes, “transcends the entire Cosmos and has actually entered human history…in order to redeem man from the catastrophe which has overtaken his self.”

Even Stoppard’s protagonist Hilary, as we read in the play’s synopsis, needs a miracle, “and she is prepared to pray for one.”

Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.