Unconscious in the Sistine Chapel: not conscious of science

Brilliant use of technology to create the Sistine Chapel in the play. http://www.ace-net.ca/event/big-data-sistine-chapel/ You go to s...

Brilliant use of technology to create
the Sistine Chapel in the play.
http://www.ace-net.ca/event/big-data-sistine-chapel/
You go to see a play, and you really enjoy it, until you stop to think about how weak the science in it was.

I hate it when that happens.

Unconscious in the Sistine Chapel is a very entertaining play that I saw in June 2016 at the Paul O’Regan Hall (Halifax Central Library). It tells the story of a hypothetical meeting between Minna Bernays and Nora Barnacle at the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Who? you say.

Minna and Nora were the (alleged in Minna's case) significant others of Sigmund Freud and James Joyce. And while the men were in their own ways deeply involved with studying the human mind, I think the story is mostly about the women - which made the play much more interesting. They provided an external contemporary view of those famous men, rather than just focusing on the tired old problems that Joyce and Freud had. Minna and Nora were in many ways shaped by their SO’s, but also were integral in shaping them too. True examples of closed loop systems, they were.

On top of this plot, however, is laid another, parallel plot involving a Silicon Valley genius who is on the verge of a breakthrough in AI, and a cutthroat entrepreneur looking for the Next Big Thing. Together, these two argue about the nature of history and how it informs - indeed, creates - the present.

There’s quite a delightful twist at the end - that I won’t spoil here - that makes one question everything one saw, but in a good way. Which of course just provides a vivid example of the staggering fluidity and vagueness of history that the AI sub-plot was on about. Another closed loop.

Altogether, it was a really enjoyable play, and I would recommend it highly.

But there were two things that bothered me about it.

Thing One. While the action of the play closes out nicely, there’s so very much about its themes that are left unexplored. I can’t get into it without spoiling the ending, but the play poses many questions that it rather just pitches out there like kibble for a well-behaved dog. It’s one thing to leave matters open-ended, things that each audience member is expected to ponder on their own; it’s quite another to lob philosophical grenades into one’s mind and not have the good grace to at least give one a proper heads-up. Basically, in this regard, the play left me with intellectual blue balls. Just when things were getting good, the curtain goes down.

Thing two. And this is a big, big thing. A thing I’ve written about before, and that I’m sure I’ll write about it again: the science was oh-so weak! This play hinges on certain facts and theories about consciousness and cognition. Unfortunately, there is so much more cognitive science out there that could have contributed meaningfully to the structure and plot of the play; I’m just a mechanical engineer, and even I know this! As technology becomes ever more ubiquitous as the means by which we experience reality and push the bounds of our understanding, so too does science and technology become ever more deeply rooted as a vehicle for playwrights and other artists to create their works. It seems, however, that only writers of science fiction have a true grasp of what it takes to embed science and technology properly into a work of art. I see more than a half-dozen plays a year, and not one - not a single one! - has done an adequate job of using science and technology correctly.

This is a huge problem for me because (a) while science and technology are absolutely fundamental to our continued wellbeing, progress, and success as a global society, (b) many theatre-goers are leaving shows with an absolutely mistaken notion of what the societal issues really are that emerge from science and technology. Their misunderstanding is subtle, but it will show up when they’re polled, and when they vote. And, eventually, it will lead to more serious problems for society.

And what really burns my toast is that while science fiction has done its damnedest to represent science and technology as accurately as possible for at least a century, these playwrights seem to dismiss all that accumulated story-telling knowledge entirely.

So yes, by all means, go see Unconscious in the Sistine Chapel. You’ll enjoy it. But then go read some books about real cognitive science and vaccinate yourself against the scientific naivety of the play.

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The Trouble with Normal...: Unconscious in the Sistine Chapel: not conscious of science
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The Trouble with Normal...
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