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Topic: The Hard Problem - Tom Stoppard on the limits of what science can explain

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The Hard Problem - Tom Stoppard on the limits of what science can explain

The below is a must read for anyone interested in the debate in The Hard Problem!
The Hard Problem - Tom Stoppard on the limits of what science can explain | The Guardian



Can evolution explain acts of kindness, and morality? We arranged a debate between a sceptical Tom Stoppard and the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. Stuart Jeffries acted as referee

David Sloan Wilson and Tom Stoppard.
 David Sloan Wilson and Tom Stoppard. Photograph: Lauren Atherton

When Tom Stoppard was writing The Hard Problem, his play about the conundrum of human consciousness, one of the scientists he consulted was American evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. The play offers, among other things, a challenge to Wilson’s view that altruism, as a consciously motivated action, can be completely accounted for in terms of evolutionary theory. In the play, Hilary, a young psychologist, scornfully rejects the idea that brain activity “explains” emotions such as sorrow. She ends up quitting a brain science institute and heads off to study philosophy in New York.

Wilson has just published a book called Does Altruism Exist?, in which he argues that not only does altruism indeed exist, but that science can explain why we are altruistic. He wrote it to counter a clutch of theories in evolutionary biology that, he claims, have tried to explain altruism by explaining it away – specifically by transmuting it into selfishness. The villains of his book are Richard Dawkins’s selfish-gene theory, evolutionary game theory and inclusive-fitness or kin-selection theory. Dawkins’s theory, for instance, Wilson writes, “performed the ultimate transmutation of calling everything that evolves by genetic evolution a form of selfishness”.


For such theories, selfless actions boil down to selfish ones. “A relative helping another relative became an individual helping its genes in the body of another individual, thereby maximising its own ‘inclusive fitness’,” writes Wilson. So, for these theories, what looked like altruism was really about the pay-off for the ostensibly selfless individual. Viewed thus, altruism is a feel-good fiction, and if you scratch an altruist you’ll see a hypocrite bleed.

In his book, Wilson tries to return evolutionary theory to the orthodoxy he claims Darwin believed in, namely that altruism is not a fiction, but rather involves real sacrifice that can be explained scientifically. He argues that, in evolutionary terms, selfishness beats altruism within groups, but that altruistic groups beat selfish ones. Consider, Wilson suggests, the male water strider. For our purposes there are two types: the “rapist” and the “gentleman”. The “rapist” attempts to mate without regard to female receptivity, the “gentleman” mates only when approached by females. Within groups, “rapists” out-compete “gentlemen” for mates and so, if within-group selection were the only force, the “gentlemen” water striders would be extinct. But they are not: “rapists” prevent females from feeding and so cause them to lay fewer eggs. Groups consisting of all “gentlemen” lay more than twice the number of eggs as those consisting of all “rapists”.

What’s true of water striders is true of all functionally organised groups, even human ones: in evolutionary terms, a functionally organised group of altruistic Mother Teresas would beat a functionally organised group of selfish Ayn Rands.Rand once wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness; Wilson’s suggestion is that, at a group level, it can become a vice, leading in extremis to a group’s extinction.


Stoppard, while admiring Wilson’s book, remains, like his character Hilary in The Hard Problem, sceptical about science tackling such age-old philosophical problems as whether altruism exists, and claiming to have solved them. For him, Wilson’s notion of altruism, involving the evolutionarily optimal functioning of groups, scarcely overlaps with what we ordinarily mean by altruism, namely selfless behaviour that benefits others and involves personal sacrifice.

Wilson is unapologetic: he claims the type of altruism that makes the world better is of the sort he describes in his book; any other kind of altruism is a delusion and so not worth having. His kind of altruism is all about the consequences: what motivates someone to be altruistic may be an important cause of selfless actions, but for Wilson, it’s the success of those actions that really matters.

We arranged for the two to meet recently in the grand boardroom of Wilson’s London publishers to discuss their differences, and reflect on two hard problems – what is the proper scope of science, and what is it to be human.

Tom Stoppard: Could you relate cultural evolution and biological evolution for me? You write about cultural evolution and genetic evolution as being equal partners in the process, but culture doesn’t bypass the physics and chemistry of the brain. The brain is the station where every railway line passes through.

There’s an exchange in the play where there’s a young woman who believes X and a man who believes Y, and the man asks her why she’s afraid to make her own values instead of wanting them underwritten by a “supreme being”, and she says to him something like, “What is the difference between a supreme being and being programmed by your biology?” He replies: “Freedom. I can override the programming.” And she says: “Who can? Who is the you outside your brain? Where?” And I still do not understand how you escape that loop.

David Sloan Wilson: Yes. It’s true, of course, that nothing is for sure in science. What seems most certain can be overturned. At the same time, there are some things which are unlikely to be overturned – we’re unlikely to change our minds about the fact that continents drift and that the Earth revolves around the sun. There is something that deserves to be called progress in science and there is something that deserves to be called a fact. And so one of these things I think can be resolved, and in some sense has been, is: can altruism and morality be explained from an evolutionary perspective?

You have a quote at the beginning of your play where Spike, the representative of the scientific worldview, says: “Above all, don’t use the word ‘good’ as though it meant something in evolutionary science.” And I’m here to say that we actually can, that what we conventionally call altruism and morality can be explained by evolution.

When I would give talks on the subject, I would ask the audience to describe for me the morally perfect individual and every time I got the same list. The brave, the loyal, the giving. And then of course, their evil twin would be dishonesty, murder, theft. So the evolutionary challenge is to explain how that person, both in the exterior, in terms of what they do, and the interior, how they think about it, can somehow evolve by Darwinian process.

Darwin said that although such moral qualities do not benefit the individual compared to other members of his own tribe, it is also true that a tribe consisting of such individuals will survive compared to other tribes. It’s not complicated, it’s not like quantum physics or anything like that, anyone can get their head around it.

Stoppard: I’m sure the word “transcend” or the noun “transcendence” must be impolite in the sciences ...

Wilson: Not true, but keep going.

Stoppard: I think it would be surprising if most people thought their behaviour, particularly when it comes to self-sacrifice for the benefit or advantage of another person, derived from how we have evolved physiologically in response to our environment. And when I said: “could you relate cultural evolution to biological evolution”, that’s where I think there’s a fudge or a missing rung. I don’t understand what you mean, because your starting point is that there is no you and me outside our brains.

Wilson: There’s a moment in the play where Hilary challenges Spike to explain consciousness, and he grabs her finger and pushes it into a candle flame and when she quickly withdraws it, he says: “That’s consciousness for you – the signal went to the brain ... and that’s all there is to consciousness.”

Stoppard: She rejects that with contempt and asks him to do the same thing for sorrow ... I think the reason we’re talking about this at all is that for most people that doesn’t do justice to the way we shape our lives, and this is why I asked you about using a word such as transcendence. There’s a discontinuity that shows up at various points in the sciences. There’s a moment of discontinuity when brain activity becomes content, and that is our mystery, it’s what makes us human. Human beings of course are animals, but are we just very, very sophisticated animals or does being human mean something beyond biology, and if it seems to, is that something only our illusion, our conceit?

Science looks fair to solve the technical mysteries one by one. And when they are solved the question is: what is the meaning of that, does it have any meaning? I think a lot of our altruism, which we all exhibit, happens on a one-to-one level, with family, for example. You’re impassioned about making the world a better place in your town and ultimately in the planet and you’re going to do it by manipulating the environment so that the environment produces objectively better social behaviour. That’s admirable, but in the truest kind of way it misses out altruism completely. Altruism is what you do for somebody you love, and you don’t love good order and sociality in the same sense that you love your family.

Very often conversations between artists and scientists suffer from a shortfall of vocabulary. I am left with a sense that an idealist in improving the planet will have to start around his table and try to make the values which work for that work for the neighbours, and when that’s sorted to try to make it work for the village and so on, it needs everybody to drop this pebble so that the ripples finally cover the entire lake. That’s something I can understand.

Wilson: And do you think that’s absent from my book? The final chapter is titled “Planetary Altruism” and in my mind makes that point.

Stoppard: I’m agreeing that in your book you’re going out to achieve the same thing, but engineered altruism doesn’t touch the mystery of the altruism I’m talking about.

Wilson: The study of religion from an evolutionary perspective has a lot to say about this – and the new atheists are a sideshow. The serious scholarly study of religion from an evolutionary perspective has been in progress for about 15 years. But what’s interesting is that you have people who are religious and spiritual meeting in the middle and this includes ... the Dalai Lama. One of his most recent books is called Beyond Religion, and what he is saying is we really need to express our spirituality and our meaning systems in a way that’s compatible with modern science.

Stoppard: What is spirituality for you?

Wilson: I have a chapter in my book The Neighbourhood Project in which I quote a webpage for Alcoholics Anonymous and it says for some people spirituality is just a feel-good thing, they say they’re spiritual but it doesn’t translate into action – that’s not a form of spirituality worth wanting. A form of spirituality worth wanting is a form of discipline. And to behave that way leads to expansive actions, actions that aren’t self-defeating. AA tells you that the root of alcoholism is selfishness, that people are stage-managing all the time and trying to manipulate others for their own benefit. So what you need to do is, if you’re an alcoholic, to acknowledge a higher power – it doesn’t matter which one – and then you have to cultivate a certain attitude and this will lead you out of your alcoholism, and spirituality is a form of discipline that you practise. Now, I like that form of spirituality. If I encounter spiritualities that don’t make any difference in terms of how people act, I regard that as a spirituality not worth wanting.

Stoppard: It doesn’t matter how and why you’re good, the point is to be good?

Wilson: Exactly. Motives are important in terms of what you’re going to do in the future. But if I decide that your motives are such that you’re going to be a reliable social partner, it’s at that moment I should stop caring about your motives or at least I should accept you as a trustworthy social partner. One friend of mine who is a very observant Jew said: “Whenever I go to a synagogue, I don’t care what the other people think about a higher power. The important thing is to be there.” In a sense, that’s not exactly true because the thoughts and feelings are not superfluous. They’re what, in a causal, mechanistic, physical sense, causes the individual to behave as they do.

Stoppard: What we’re talking about, and you clearly don’t suffer from it even potentially, is a sense of incompleteness in the explanation. All scientists say to me, as you do: “What is your problem? This is not merely complete, but beautiful both as an intellectual construct and as a physical construct – it has a grandeur beyond anything any artist has ever created.” That picture you have drawn is not only complete but it’s astounding and satisfying and a kind of triumph of the human intellect so far.

Wilson: There’s a “but” coming. There has to be.

Stoppard: Would you buy a “however”?

Wilson: Sure!

Stoppard: With value judgments, especially judgments of moral value, for them to be self-sufficient and absolute, one wants them to break out of this orbit you’re talking about. Otherwise, as Hilary says in the play, “We’re just correcting our own homework.”

Wilson: I think science is incomplete because it only tells you the facts of the matter and in that sense it’s devoid of value. Therefore if we want to make a meaning system that is respectful of science, then we need to be explicit about our values. At the same time, you don’t want to mix facts and values – any meaning system in the past has been a conflation of facts and values.

Now you used the word “grandeur” and that takes me back to the final paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species, in which he says “there is grandeur in this view of life”. The thing that’s remarkable about Darwin is that he definitely wanted to include humans within evolutionary theory. So that’s why he talked about religion and culture and just about everything. Well, what happened was that the way the whole history of evolutionary theory developed is that it became partitioned within the biological sciences – and the whole idea of including humans within it took a nap, like Sleeping Beauty, for a century. Only now, in the last couple of decades, are we restarting that project of including humans. It’s not faith, it’s a strong hunch that we could explain all these human-related things from an evolutionary perspective.

Stoppard: There is a tendency to hubris in science as an enterprise, a tendency to triumphalism. It makes remarkable progress in who knows how many fields, but I’ve got a sense that one’s temperament masquerades as one’s intellect most of the time, or operates one’s intellect, and I don’t exclude myself from that. I put a value on humility, which then colours my judgment when it comes to other people’s intellectual constructions. Even so, I think there’s more to come.


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That's a really interesting read. Thanks for posting it domino.

My viewpoint pretty much changes with my mood, but I'm quite pleased to find myself in alignment with the thoughts of the Dalai Lama - science and spirituality are not polar opposites.  I was rather taken by Philip Pullman's name for sciene in His Dark Materials - 'experimantal theology'.  Religion and science are both fundamentally concerned with the same questions.... and it seems to me that belief in science can be as narrow minded, dogmatic and misguided as religious belief.   Maybe science discovering all of the answers is the key to spiritual  enlightenment! - if that day ever does come we shall surely have become gods!  I'm quite interested to know why Tom Stoppard decided to present Hilary as a Christian....especially as her belief in God wasn't particularly convincing. 

I also felt the the notion of cultural evolution was bypassed in the play - Spike insisted that human behaviour was all the result of biological evolution....... It's intersting that Tom Stoppard mentions cultural evolution twice in this conversation and it seems to me the Dr Wilson sidesteps the question.

Just one more thought which struck me when I saw the play, and comes up again in this conversation......  Am I the only person here who believes that an animal (non-human, that is) can feel sorrow?



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Thank you for leaping in fifi, I pretty much agree with everything you just said. Including that animals feel sorrow. But perhaps Spike would argue it was related to survival? (I wouldn't).


I kind of posted my reaction to this in another topic, so I'll just repeat that here if that's ok. 

I am not #TeamSpike or #TeamHilary. Their debate although so much more.. is fundamentally a science vs religion debate. For me personally science has not explained many things yet including The Hard Problem of coinsciousness or Altruism .. I am not satisfied with any theory yet... but that does not necessarily put those questions in the realms of the mystical. There is more to human experience and human being that appears to be mystical and spiritual (for example expanded consciousness) but perhaps one day science will have a theory for those things too... and it seems consciousness is a very interesting bridge point where certain science and spirituality seem to be on dual sides of the argument. I am kind of interested in quantum theories like this but I'm still not into the duality. 

If I am team anything I am #TeamTom! there are things as yet unanswered, or not answered satisfactorily. I don't have a theory or belief but know that reductionist views that shut everything down and reject anything else is not where I am coming from.  


Just to add, consciousness is where the objective and subjective worlds co exist. this is not science of spirituality.. it just IS. The fact that things cannot be proven does not mean they don't exist. Science has shaped the worldview on what is accepted as real or factual and very much based in the material because the immaterial is as yet 'ummeasurable; and therefore does not exist... or is thrown into the pot of 'belief' or religion. This is where the play irked me... in a way I wish God and religion were not brought into the argument. Not just cultural evolution but also the full exploration and expansion of the concept of the hard oroblem and consciousness was largely bypassed. I wish Hilary had been meditating instead of praying and reading Deepak Chopra. Lol. I wish the conversations were about expanded consciousness as a human development and evolution.. which could be 'simply' the brain but is still as yet unrecognised . exercised , largely believed,  human potential because the mainstream only operates on reductionist paradigm. 




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