Thursday, November 18, 2010

Skinner and Hamlet II

This attempt to bring two unlike minds into harmonious - or anyway not rancorous - relation will necessarily proceed slowly and piecemeal. One of the minds is, after all, fictional, though that may be the least of the challenges I face.** As a gnatty little amateur in the realm of Big Ideas, I am bound to get ahead of myself and run down a dozen or more dead ends before I find a viable path. My arm is strong and my hatchet is sturdy, but it doesn't have the keenest of blades, so I hope, gentle reader, that you'll forgive the rough work I make of this.

Who, me? Stalling? OK. I've already said that I don't think any of us (paramecium, porcupine, person) arrives tabula rasa in the world. Some native and individual proclivity for order springs into being at the moment of our inception, hungry for the world as it makes itself known to us through our various and varied senses. However, the world feeds our hunger so immediately, generously, and unremittingly that it may be impossible ever to say what any of us is in isolation from the world as we know it at any given moment.

When stated so broadly, this seems obvious, but I could say instead, "Oh, of course you're a different person with your friend than you are with your mother, and I've no idea whatsoever how you might act if your life were on the line. No more than I have about how I would act. There's nothing solid in your character or mine - we are creatures of circumstance." Or I could point you to a recent article in Discover detailing the possibility that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and MS could be caused by a retrovirus embedded 60 million years ago in the ancestral DNA of every monkey and primate, a virus that fortunately only becomes active in special environmental circumstances. Perhaps it is only in these extreme cases that "foreign" matter speaks to us so intimately and shapes our lives so dramatically, but I'm not willing to bet on it. 

If Catholic cosmology reigns, the Ghost who speaks to Hamlet may indeed be honest, but there's no purgatory in the Protestant universe, so he needs be a demon. Freudians hear the voice of the superego, and evolutionary biologists the mischievous mutterings of a rogue amino acid sequence. Behaviorists? Good question. Maybe they'd say (in their best Jesse Jackson imitation): The Ghost is moot!

**I still love the line from Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo, wherein a depressive in the Depression played by Mia Farrow falls in love with a movie archaeologist (Jeff Daniels): "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional, but you can't have everything."