Can science answer life's most important questions?

by Walter Bilderback, Dramaturg

In The Hard Problem, Tom Stoppard questions whether science can answer some of life’s most important questions. This is a subject that has pre-occupied him throughout his career, at least since his play Jumpers in 1972. He’s not the only one. Here’s a quote from a noted scientist of the 19th century: 

"The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable as a result of mechanics. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action of the brain, occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution to the problem, “How are these physical processes connected to the facts of consciousness?” The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. Let the consciousness for love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, the motion is in the other; but the WHY?” would remain as unanswerable as before."

-John Tyndall, the physicist who discovered why the sky is blue and that water vapor and carbon dioxide are the two biggest heat-trapping greenhouse gases, writing in 1868.

Illustration of John Tyndall (1820-1893)


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