Mr. Hard Problem: An Interview with Philosopher David Chalmers

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell 

Think of any modern philosophical theory about the mind, and Australian philosopher David Chalmers has probably had his hands on it. He is famous for coining the phrase “the hard problem” to describe the as-yet unanswered question of how a physical brain can create consciousness. 

Philosopher David Chalmers. Photo courtesy of TED.
Some aspects of consciousness are easy to explain. If you put your finger into the flame of a candle, your brain interprets that as pain, and you pull your finger away. But what about emotional pain, like sorrow, despair, and loneliness? What creates that?

So far, scientists agree that consciousness exists, because we all experience it. But no one has been able to figure out where consciousness comes from. Is consciousness some kind of stuff that you could theoretically hold or see, coming from actual things happening in the body (like neurons firing)? Or is consciousness something else, something separate from the body entirely?

Here are some of Chalmers’s thoughts on Tom Stoppard’s play—running through November 13 at The Geary Theater—which shares the same name as the conundrum that skyrocketed Chalmers to philosophical fame.

Why is the hard problem exciting?

Because consciousness is the thing in the world that we know the best and understand the least. The hard problem is really about how objective reality relates to subjective reality in the world of science. That’s a problem at the heart of our very existence.

When did you become interested in the hard problem?

I’ve been interested in consciousness for as long as I can remember. I wondered about how processes in the brain could produce the subjective experience of seeing colors and hearing music. Later on I became so obsessed with the problem that I switched from mathematics to philosophy so that I could think about it properly. I first called the problem “the hard problem” in a talk to the first major interdisciplinary conference on consciousness in 1994. It caught on more than I ever could have expected.

How accurately does Tom Stoppard portray the debate around consciousness in The Hard Problem?

Tom understands the hard problem very broadly, probably more broadly than I do. In a discussion we had last year, it came out that he really sees the central problem as the problem of value—how can there be values in a godless physical world? Whereas for me the problem is really about subjective experience, rather than about value (or about God)—how can there be subjective experience in an objective physical world?

When do you think the hard problem will be solved, if you think it will be solved at all?

It probably won’t be solved any time soon! I’d be happy if we have a good theory of consciousness within 100 years. It wouldn’t surprise me if it takes longer.

The Hard Problem runs at The Geary Theater through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. For more on David Chalmers, the hard problem, and Stoppard’s thoughts on consciousness, purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

A.C.T. in Sarajevo

Friday, October 21, 2016

By Nick Gabriel

In the second week of October, A.C.T. sent me to present at the European Theatre Convention (ETC) and to attend the International Theatre Festival MESS in Sarajevo.

The Bosniak Institute and ETC venue in Sarajevo. Photo By Nick Gabriel.
ETC is a yearly gathering of European theaters of all sizes, with a variety of aesthetic values. Comparable to America’s TCG conference—which hosts hundred of American theaters every year—the ETC convention is a place for member theaters to dialogue about challenges and to develop strategies for future success.

A.C.T. was commissioned by the Goethe–Institut, a German cultural institute with an international reach, to produce a ten-minute play exploring the theme of digital privacy. Philip Kan Gotanda was selected to write our play and I was selected to direct it. Because A.C.T. has an M.F.A. Program that is central to its artistic mission, we’re particularly curious about how our students are complicit in the exchange of sensitive personal data when using social media platforms.

While several other American and European theaters were also commissioned for this project, A.C.T. was the only American theater invited to ETC to discuss what drew us to the project, and to describe potential iterations of the project at theaters that weren’t initially commissioned.

After all of the scripts are written, a compilation of the plays will be published in English and German and available for use throughout the world. Why German? Because German-speaking theater is so prevalent in Europe, affording a greater number of theaters the opportunity to produce their own performances of these unique short plays.

My presentation about The Plurality of Privacy Project in Five-Minute Plays (P3M5) went well. Much informal conversation ensued about A.C.T. and about Americans' relationship to privacy. I discussed A.C.T.’s diverse aesthetic in great detail; the ways in which our productions reflect our immediate community’s artistic values, how we strive to challenge our audiences, and how our work incorporates a wide variety of global perspectives. I also discovered that many of the countries represented at the conference were already in some way trying to theatricalize their concerns related to digital privacy with projects of their own.

Sarajevo's Old Town. Photo by Nick Gabriel.
Attending the International Theatre Festival MESS was transformative for me. The city of Sarajevo is often described as the place where Eastern and Western Europe converge. That cultural confluence can be perceived throughout the city—particularly in the architecture, but also in the food, languages, dress, and perhaps most of all, the theater. My initial impression of Balkan Theatre was that neither Bosnians nor Serbians make theater primarily intended to entertain audiences. Rather, most performances interrogated the audience’s tacit acceptance of genocide. I felt personally implicated for atrocities perpetrated against minority groups in the Balkans.

In most of the performances I saw, the actors were living war onstage; there was little distance from the subject matter and virtually no metaphor. The guns they shot had real blanks and bullet casings flew everywhere. I wondered, at times, if this approach to theater-making was somewhat exploitative or superfluously sensationalistic until I realized on my plane ride home that the actors were working through trauma in the one place where they’re most protected: onstage. For these actors, performing was authentically cathartic. And dramatizing these particular narratives brings a level of awareness to circumstances that should be known more intimately to wider audiences.

These actors ultimately taught me about my own indifference toward important issues in this region. I didn’t find this approach to theater-making alienating in any way. It was occasionally difficult to witness, but in general I felt privileged to commune with the actors, whose courage was inspiring. There was one performance by the Croatian National Theatre that was reminiscent of Tracy Letts’s domestic melodrama August: Osage County that I thought might actually play well to an American audience. It was a distinct production because it was entertaining—the audience laughed heartily and cheered enthusiastically—but the subject matter was intensely political and trenchantly portrayed.

Spooked at The Strand

With Halloween’s ghosts and ghouls just around the corner, A.C.T. is getting ready for Spooked at The Strand, its fabulous, fundraising, costume party in aid of M.F.A. Program scholarships. As A.C.T.’s costume shop swings into action to outfit Spooked attendees and student actors alike with show-stopping outfits, we snuck behind the scenes to talk with Conservatory Director Melissa Smith and find out what surprises guests have in store throughout the evening.

What inspired A.C.T. to start this fantastic charity event?

In the spring of 2015, the M.F.A. Board of Directors was looking for a new take on our annual fundraiser for the M.F.A. Program. Previously, we had held formal, sit-down luncheons. In a Board Meeting discussion, members talked about how inspiring the new Strand space is and how crucial it would be to the M.F.A. Program. We talked about the desire to attract new people to the M.F.A. Program, how to get the word out about this top-ranked actor training program, and how to have an event that reflected the energy of the program itself. We knew our event would be in October and we knew the Strand was the place to do it and as I recall a board member then said, “What about a Halloween party?” And we all got excited at once!

What sets Spooked apart from A.C.T.’s other events and performances?

The event itself is a really great costume party, often featuring costumes from A.C.T.’s extensive collection—and with so many people transformed by clothing, masks, and makeup, you might not recognize a friend or colleague, which adds to the high energy of the event! Spooked features M.F.A. actors in performance—both a formal performance and in surprise pop-ups—and the proceeds go only to the M.F.A. It’s a really fun evening and because people are not seated at tables but partying together, it’s a chance for guests, donors, M.F.A. actors, and faculty to all meet one another.

Spooked at The Strand 2015. Photo by Drew Altizer Photography.
Who selects the songs and acts that the students perform?

The show’s director, Domenique Lozano, and I invite all students in the program to audition with material early in September. We view all that material, as well as considering material that has been performed in the past year, and then discuss our options. The final selection is something we both sign off on.

Can you tell us a little more about The Strand itself?

The Strand was formerly a film theater and in its heyday in the mid 20th century was a Market Street destination. Today, with the award-winning restoration by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, The Strand is once again a destination perfect for special events and parties like Spooked.

“Spooked is a fantastic opportunity for the M.F.A. students to get to interact with the donors. We learn about their lives, where they come from, and why they support A.C.T. It is an opportunity to create a bridge between the program and those who help our program thrive.”—Peter Fanone, A.C.T. M.F.A. Student

“Spooked has a real sense of wonder, energy, and excitement. The pop-up performances during the cocktails come as a big surprise and keep guests on their toes. You never know when the costumed person next to you might turn out to be an M.F.A. actor who breaks into song or performance.”—Holly & Chris Hollenbeck, Co-Chairs

“Spooked is the best costume party I’ve ever been to! The costume shop designed my Ice Queen costume and it blew me away. Spooked is not only a fundraiser, but a moment for our community to come together and just have fun!”—Diana Gonzalez-Morett, A.C.T. M.F.A. Student

For more information and ticketing, please visit the Spooked page on our website.

If you’re interested in renting costumes from A.C.T.’s costume shop, visit their rental page.
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