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Tom Stoppard’s Hard Problems
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

Editor’s note: A transcript of Wilson’s conversation with Stoppard is available here. An abridged version with commentary by journalist Stuart Jeffries was published in the UK newspaper The Guardian on May 23 2015

In February 2014 I received an email from my philosopher friend, Elliott Sober, to say that he had been contacted by the playwright Tom Stoppard to discuss the topic of altruism. I immediately asked Elliott to introduce me to Stoppard so that I could be part of the conversation.

Altruism was a topic that Elliott and I had been discussing for over 25 years, resulting in numerous academic articles and our 1998 book Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Our collaboration reflected a broader trend in the study of altruism. Traditionally the province of philosophers, it was increasingly becoming the province of scientists, including evolutionists such as myself.

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Tom Stoppard’s interest signaled another development. Widely regarded as one of the foremost playwrights of our time, he roamed outside the Ivory Tower. He had disdainfully walked away from college as a young man to make his own way, first as a journalist and then as a playwright with a genius for combining serious philosophical themes with storytelling skills that attracted a larger audience than Elliott or I would ever see. Tom contacting Elliott on the strength of our book Unto Others suggested to me that the philosophy-to-science transition was about to make a jail break, leaping over the walls of the Ivory Tower and into the madding crowd of everyday life.

Prompted by Elliott, Tom duly emailed to say that he was writing a play titled The Hard Problem that dealt with the theme of altruism. Unto Others was part of his preparation. Somewhat star struck, I tried to make helpful suggestions on the topic of altruism and sent him a manuscript copy of my newest book, Does Altruism Exist? He thanked me and I heard nothing for about a year, when his wife Sabrina emailed to ask for my mailing address to send a copy of the script. The play would be opening at London’s National Theater that night. Sabrina cheerily ended her email with the words “Fingers crossed!”

The script arrived a few days later as a thin paperback with an abstract blue and white cover that, after a bit of mental processing, resolved itself into a mother and child. The story within surprised me. It was about altruism but it was also about consciousness and the distinction between body and mind. Tom was combining several hard philosophical problems in a way that I couldn’t easily follow. Most unsettling, the play expressed doubt that science could solve the hard problems at all. It was as if Tom had examined our philosophy-to-science transition and wanted none of it. This was represented in the play by Hilary, the main protagonist, leaving the gleaming scientific institute where she had been working to become a graduate student in philosophy.

My association with Tom might have ended there, but the publication of Does Altruism Exist? in January 2015 led to an invitation to appear on a BBC radio show in April, requiring a trip to London. A flurry of emails led not only to a ticket to see The Hard Problem, but also to a joint interview with Tom for one of Britain’s major newspapers, The Guardian. A scientist and a playwright would share their perspectives on the hard problem of altruism.

Still a bit star struck, I did not think of imposing further on Tom until I received a call on my cell phone during a meeting a couple of weeks before my trip.

“Hello, David. This is Tom Stoppard.”

I bolted from my meeting to receive Tom’s call in the hallway. He said that he was reading Does Altruism Exist? a second time and was impelled to ask some questions. He hoped I didn’t mind being called out of the blue. His voice was as deferential as a novice asking a favor of an expert and it occurred to me for the first time that he might feel as tentative speaking with me as I did speaking with him. I was also surprised that Tom was still investing effort in thinking about altruism after his play had been written. One thing led to another and an invitation to dine with Tom and Sabrina after viewing the play the night before our interview was added to my itinerary.

It was fascinating to see the play after closely reading the script, something I had never done before. I was beginning to understand why Tom felt that the hard problems couldn’t be solved by science and why I thought they could. When it was over I met up with two of Tom’s friends from the theater world who were also seeing the play for the first time and we took a cab to the restaurant where Tom and Sabrina were awaiting us. In the cab they discussed the play the way that wine connoisseurs discuss wine, pointing out nuances that my palate was much too crude to notice. We entered a restaurant with photographs of stage personalities lining the walls and were led to our table. Sabrina was a slim woman with a warm smile who quickly put me at my ease. Tom had tousled hair and a face that somehow managed to look boyish, even though he was in his late 70’s. The conversation bounced playfully from topic to topic. I could tell that Tom wanted to return to our serious conversation and we agreed to meet for coffee before our interview with the Guardian the next day.

Interviews are supposed to be spontaneous and we didn’t know how the journalist for the Guardian might want to structure it, so we talked in general terms over coffee before entering the offices of Yale University Press and being shown up the stairs to an elegant conference room with tall windows overlooking Bedford Square. We were introduced to Stuart Jeffries, a feature writer for the Guardian, and decided that the interview should consist of an open-ended conversation between Tom and me, drawing upon my book and his play whenever possible, which would serve as a block of wood for Stuart to whittle into a piece of the appropriate length.

Tom began by observing that a book with the title Does Altruism Exist? would have been picked up by a philosopher in years gone by but today would be more likely to be picked up by a scientist. In agreement, I replied that my book was actually located in the science section of a London bookstore I had visited. By this measure, the philosophy-to-science transition was complete.

Then, like wading into a lake and encountering a sudden drop-off, our conversation plunged into deep water. Without a trace of malice, Tom made some points about my book and science in general that were uncomfortable to hear. The book’s answer to the title’s question might be “yes” for altruism as defined by a biologist, but “no” for altruism as defined by a philosopher and the kind of altruism that interested him. Moreover, he was struck by the tone certainty in my book, as if I couldn’t be wrong. He observed that the whole world of science exudes the same sense of certainty, as if the final word has just been said or at worst is just around the corner. As for the tone of my book, the last time he could recollect such certainty was The Selfish Gene, published by Richard Dawkins in 1976.

Ouch! The Selfish Gene is the book that my book was overturning! Worse, I was on record for saying “humility is a religious virtue but it is also a secular virtue and a scientific virtue” in a recent interview with the evolutionary scientist Richard Lewontin. Did this make me a total hypocrite?

I felt that I could explain how humility and certainty can go together in science, like a zen fusion of opposites. I also thought that Tom had Hilary walk away from science prematurely in his play, although I can appreciate why she wanted to leave. This was going to be a deep conversation indeed. It lasted 90minutes, 30 minutes longer than scheduled. The twists and turns can be followed by reading the full transcript along with Stuart’s whittled down version in the Guardian. For the rest of this essay I will attempt to describe three hard problems that Tom ponders in his play, why he thinks that the problems cannot be solved by science, and why he might be wrong. I say this without a trace of malice, just as Tom made cutting observations without a trace of malice toward me.

The first hard problem is altruism and goodness in all of its forms. For Tom and his protagonist Hilary, science is a parched desert when it comes to explaining the nature of goodness. As Spike, the supremely confident scientist in the play puts it, “Above all, don’t use the word good as though it meant something in evolutionary science!”

The second hard problem is that everything cannot be reduced to physical causes, but science pretends that it can. We don’t need a fictional character to express this opinion because we have Sir Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, who is quoted in the playbill of The Hard Problem as writing in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambition, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”.

The third hard problem is that even if science can explain the kind of instinctive altruism found in bees and brainworms (an example that Tom lifted from Unto Others to use in his play!) it can’t or at least hasn’t explained the kind of consciously motivated altruism found in humans.

In the play, Hilary challenges the scientists around her to address these hard problems. When they fail, she leaves the scientific institute where has been working to become a philosopher and in particular to explore dualism, the proposition that mind cannot be explained in terms of matter. She is leaving a sinking ship, because the institute is the toy of a billionaire hedge fund manager whose unethical trading practices are causing the entire economy to collapse.

I can speak from experience that Tom is like a real-life Hilary, seeking out scientists and challenging them to address the hard problems. The reason that he continues to think about altruism after writing his play is because he has been thinking about it and the other hard problems all his life. The play is a progress report on an ongoing quest. I can also appreciate why Tom might conclude that science can’t address the hard problems, based on his journey so far. The scientific landscape does give the impression that altruism doesn’t exist, that everything can be reduced to physical causes, and that there is no free will. Nevertheless, I think I know where we might dig to find water. Before using my dousing rod, I need to explain how it is not hypocritical for a scientist to express certainty and humility at the same time.

During our conversation, Tom somewhat guiltily dredged up Ronald Reagan’s retort “There you go again!” to Jimmy Carter during a 1980 presidential election debate. Tom’s point was that scientists confine themselves to a certain type of explanation and never stray outside its walls. I agree and the wall even has a name: methodological naturalism.

Several centuries ago, the idea that organisms are animated by a divine spark and are fundamentally different than non-living matter (vitalism) was a respectable scientific theory. Gradually, evidence accumulated that organisms are animated entirely by physical processes following unchanging laws. The universe and geological features of the earth likewise came to be explained in terms of the same physical laws without requiring divine intervention such as the creation of the earth or a great flood caused by a superior being. One problem with supernatural explanations is that they are too permissive, since God can potentially will anything. The term naturalism refers to explanations based exclusively on natural causes. A position called metaphysical naturalism claims that supernatural causes do not exist. The position of methodological naturalism makes a more humble claim that supernatural causes might exist but will not be invoked to explain the phenomena at hand. Most scientists and scholars subscribe to methodological naturalism for a practical reason, because inquiry that confines itself to natural causes is likely to be more productive than indulging in supernatural explanations. Methodological naturalism is a wall and a very useful one indeed. I am proud to say “Here I go again!” every time I confine myself to its boundaries.

As for certainty, some theories come and go but others are here to stay in all probability. The earth is very old and revolves around the sun. Continents drift. Evolution happens. We don’t need to remain tentative about everything. I stand by my certainty for two claims made in Does Altruism Exist? The first is that altruistic traits can and do evolve by group selection, as these terms are defined in multilevel selection theory. The second is that evolutionary theory is a vastly underutilized resource for understanding and improving the human condition.

One reason that I chose to express certainty as a rhetorical strategy is because both group selection and evolutionary theory in relation to human affairs were widely rejected in the past and must overcome stigmatization to become respectable again. I know a thing or two about the fallibility of received scientific wisdom, which is why a 2×4 is needed to make some of my points in Does Altruism Exist?

The wall created by methodological naturalism helps to clarify Hilary’s dilemma in the play and Tom’s dilemma in real life. The territory inside the wall appears unpromising for addressing the hard problems, but what are the conceptual tools for exploring outside the wall? Hilary and Tom are not trying to find God in any conventional sense. They are placing their faith in the philosophical tradition of dualism, with its concept of a mind that has no physical basis whatsoever. I wish them luck but I worry that they will go in circles. I also worry that we will lose a common vocabulary and will become unable to communicate at all. For my part, I prefer to continue prospecting for answers to Tom’s hard problems inside the wall of methodological naturalism. Here is where I would dig for each of the problems.

I think that Does Altruism Exist? makes a solid start on the altruism problem. Tom’s dissatisfaction is that it doesn’t say enough about consciously motivated altruism in humans. Hold that thought…

The distinction between ultimate and proximate causation is a promising place to dig for solutions to the second problem. I made this point during our conversation by imagining an art studio filled with clay sculptures. A person who claimed that everything about the sculptures could be explained by the properties of clay would be insane. The clay merely provides a malleable substance for the shaping influence of the artists, who could implement their ideas with a variety of other physical substances. Likewise, to the extent that the physical basis of life results in heritable variation, it becomes a kind of malleable clay that is shaped by environmental forces that result in differential survival and reproduction. The result of this shaping process (ultimate causation) cannot be explained by the physical basis of life (proximate causation) any more than a sculpture can be explained by the properties of clay.

Thinking of the mind in terms of ultimate causation allows for explanations that have nothing to do with physical processes without denying that everything about the mind also has a physical basis. Intrigued, I emailed my philosopher friend Elliott Sober (who also traveled to England and met with Tom) and asked him if anyone had tried to think of the mind/body problem in philosophy in terms of the ultimate/proximate distinction in evolutionary theory. Elliott replied that no one had to his knowledge. There might be enough water to turn the desert green for anyone who wants to dig in that area!

Tom was not entirely happy with my sculpture metaphor because the shapes of the sculptures only have meaning in the mind of the human observer, which has no counterpart for natural selection. Hold that thought….

Cultural evolution is a promising place to dig for Tom’s third hard problem concerning conscious motivation. It’s not surprising that Tom associates evolution primarily with genetic evolution because that’s how almost everyone else thinks about it, including most evolutionary scientists. Nevertheless, evolution requires variation, selection, and heritability, not genes per se. Genes provide one mechanism of heredity, but there are others, including human meaning systems. An expansion of evolutionary theory to include other mechanisms of inheritance is in progress that could provide more fertile ground for solving Tom’s third problem than genetic evolution alone. Cultural evolution can also help to address the first two problems, by explaining what we mean by conscious motivation and symbolic systems that give meaning to such things as clay sculptures.

This is not the place to elaborate on these prospects. I am merely pointing in their direction. I am decidedly uncertain about what will be found and will eagerly follow the adventures of anyone who decides to explore the mind/body problem on the other side of the wall of methodological naturalism. In the meantime, reflecting with Tom on his three hard problems was a peak experience and he has a standing invitation to consult with me again.


Join the discussion


  1. John Jacob Lyons says:

    With regard to the hard problem of consciousness; I want to suggest that the concept of ’emergence’ will be at the heart of our eventual understanding of this phenomenon. Emergence is a process whereby – for larger entities – patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. A simple example that illustrates this is the ‘wetness’ of water. The properties of neither hydrogen nor oxygen atoms can account for this property of water.
    Consciousness emerges from the integration of neural activity from our senses. Explain ’emergence’ and the solution to the hard problem may well be revealed.

  2. JoseAngel says:

    I concur with J.J. Lyons, and together with emergence comes complexity. The hard problem is a pseudo-problem (as D. Dennett tries to show) in at least one respect: why a complex of sensations, perceptions and reactions interacting in a unique and unprecedented way at a unique moment in the flow of experience should not be reducible to one or another of the components, abstracted and isolated, well, that’s only to be expected. It will never be, because it’s a different take on a different section of experience.

  3. Troy Earl Camplin says:

    I was going to leave a comment suggesting emergence, but I see I was beaten by two others.

    A living cell is what is emergent from the underlying network of biochemical cycles. Similarly, the mind is what is emergent from the underlying network of (inter)acting neurons and astrocytes/glial cells/etc. in the embodied brain. With that emergence comes such things as free will. Equally, the emergent patterns affect the underlying structures, meaning there is a kind of bipolar feedback. The underlying structures give rise to the emergent patterns, which in turn affect the underlying structures.

  4. R.W. Schwab says:

    I’m not even close to being a scientist. But I suggest a dose of logic here–won’t solve the problem of free will vs. bound decisions but will throw up odds heavily on the side of free will, thanks to the principles of evolution. If a human decision is merely the calculable sum of certain parts within the organism (to include real-time sensory stimuli coming from outside) the organism at that certain point in time would be able to make an instantaneous decision. Pretty much the same as a reflexive instinct. A great proportion of what we call decisions, especially important ones affecting the well-being of the organism, are not reached immediately. Of what conceivable survival value, then, is a universal habit of delay when in reaching its decision the mechanism delivering it is simply going to react to an arbitrary stasis an hour or a week from now, when it could have reached one based on an equally arbitrary stasis immediately? That evolution has seen fit to preserve that delay means that there is a benefit to it–that decisions reached that way do result in better choices. And that could not possibly occur if instantaneous and deliberative decisions were both results of arbitrary ‘settings.’ If there no selective advantage in deliberation, it would have been bred out of us long ago.

  5. Mike Newman says:

    I was disappointed with Stoppard’s play. I’ve seen most of his earlier work, and was expecting more. There are many points I’d like to make, but for this discussion I’d like to point out how ludicrously self-regarding we are when we discuss these ideas.

    Presumably brains evolved because, despite the energy costs, they’re useful to the organism – even at the high energy consumption rate of the human brain. The brain’s ability to model its environment, so that the organism can try out potentially dangerous actions without actually committing to them, must be very useful. So why wouldn’t other creatures than humans have such brains? In fact they seem to be common in social mammals. We might consider our versions to be superior to all others, but are they? How could we possibly discuss this with a whale, since our experiences are so different? If you allow that other creatures are self-aware (we really should define our terms before beginning a debate like this!), then you should expect them to experience feelings like love and sorrow and to evolve ‘moral’ behaviour within their groups – and to exhibit altruism.

    When I go into my garden I’m astonished at the teeming profligacy of organic life. On this planet at least, it’s cheap. Why do we think we’re special? From the perspective of other species, we’re special in only one respect – the power of our tools.

  6. milesnl says:

    > A position called metaphysical naturalism claims that supernatural causes do not exist. The position of methodological naturalism makes a more humble claim that supernatural causes might exist but will not be invoked to explain the phenomena at hand. Most scientists and scholars subscribe to methodological naturalism

    Thank you for this very helpful distinction. I believe that a high percentage of all the popularizers of science go to great pains to argue that metaphysical naturalism is the only tenable position. I am surprised and delighted to hear that that is not the position held by most scientists.

  7. Graeme Lindenmayer says:

    The issues here seem to be:
    What actions or intentions are to be classified as altruistic or good?
    Are emergent properties always just material or do they (sometimes) evoke some non-material entity?
    How much freedom or autonomy is needed for an act of will to be free will?
    These are all tricky issues. What is goodness or altruism depends on how we justify a particular moral code.
    Reductionism requires that all emergent properties be explicable in terms of all the characteristics of all the contributing elements. If there seems to be a missing element, is appropriate to propose a non-material entity to complete the explanation? If so, should the characteristics of such an entity be defined to make the explanation credible?
    I have explored these matters, in my on-line book at

  8. harderwijk says:

    Who among you would not help a little old lady across the street? [Whether the old bag really had any intention of crossing or not.]

    “Does altruism really exist?” Of course. You brought it up. Does “freedom” exist? What is “the pursuit of happiness”? What else can it mean, “to exist”, but that it’s listed in the lexicon?

    In a very real sense, a thing can only be said to exist in the words we use. And we so like to use adjectives as nouns. As if the descriptor could not only identify, but actually clearly delineate the object. As if any old “American” really were a definite article, a known quantity, or a “done deal”. As in, “only criminals commit crimes”. As if an “altruistic deed” somehow makes the perpetrator a lifelong, fully paid up disciple of the revered doctrine of “altruism”.

    We keep assuming [there is no alternative] that the words we use actually “refer to” something else, something that is supposed to somehow live outside the text, independent of our socio-culturally predicated discernment. Like, all I gotta do is open my eyes to see exactly what you see. All the same, no question. [Support peace, or I shoot.]

    I suspect the question is something of a red herring. A rhetorical device to distract from the main chance. Namely, what is altruism? How is such a notoriously ambiguous term to be understood exactly? In which precise context? According to whose particular [political] agenda? My advice: beware all such lurking, seemingly plausible, logical fallacies.

    Such instruments only lead to a vale of tears paved with good intentions. And false conclusions. Commonly used in law exams to distract students from reaching a correct conclusion on a legal question, the red herring is supposed to test comprehension of underlying principles. As well as the ability to distinguish inadmissible irrelevancies from the material facts.

    Hypothesis 1. Fred frantically breaks free from all sensible constraints to run headlong into the burning building and, having heroically saved the life of another, subsequently dies of his own horrific injuries. Was it altruism that drove him? Perhaps.

    Unless. 1. Fred is the type of guy who knows, if he obediently stands by, screaming advice, as another burns to death, he could not live with himself. Alternatively. 2. Fred, burdened by the loss of his job, insurmountable debts and a messy divorce, was seriously contemplating suicide anyway.

    Hypothesis 2. Israelis organise a raffle to help rebuild war-torn Gaza. Or Hamas collects funds for the maintenance of a Jewish military cemetery. Or the Vatican pronounces Martin Luther a saint. And Judas Iscariot. [No crucifixion, no salvation, right? And no cigar.] Are these examples of true altruism? Perhaps.

    Unless. Showing kindness toward your perceived enemies could work nicely in your favour. Like, take the wind out of their sails. As in, “No, I really don’t want you to scratch my back.” [Subtext: I’m only scratching yours, so my creditors will understand I’m on the right side of the law.]

    Altruism is not a State of the Union that you can visit any time soon. And get the T-shirt before you leave. Altruism is a word, that’s all. A convenient rhetorical device. With which any politically adept speaker can create a momentary illusion that, if we so please, we can then call “reality”. Bearing all the while no discernible relationship whatever to lived experience.

  9. Jan Sand says:

    There are a couple of points that may be worthwhile to consider.

    On altruism, one should consider the thought processes involved in an act considered altruistic. In the case mentioned as one rushing into a burning building to save one in danger, is it likely the rescuer sincerely thinks about personal suffering? An experienced fireman is habitually accepting personal danger with the understanding that he has full knowledge of how to avoid personal sacrifice in these situations and has been trained to overcome the dangers. Even someone else risking danger to save someone most likely feels he or she is competent to be successful in a bad situation so is that altruism or miscalculation? We all enter chancy situations and frequency over rate our abilities to be successful. A sky diver or a motor car racer frequently takes terrible risks counting on experience and skill to come out of it OK but this is not generally indicated as nobility. It can be mere foolishness.

    Insofar as free will is concerned, we each make decisions regarding assumed future outcomes. It would be perfectly free not to consider outcomes but also extremely stupid. To delay a decision merely means to consider other possibilities but the evaluation of those possibilities always controls a situation. Freedom never enters into the decision process.

  10. […] | Tom Stoppard’s hard problemsEvolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson recounts discussions about altruism with Tom Stoppard. […]

  11. […] | Tom Stoppard’s hard problemsEvolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson recounts discussions about altruism with Tom Stoppard. […]