Monday, June 16, 2014

could a monkey be a playwright?

About six years ago I asked myself if a monkey (we’ll call him ‘Albert’) could compose The Complete Works of Shakespeare if: (a) Albert has an infinite amount of time; (b) Albert’s locked in a room; (c) Albert’s immortal; and (d) Albert’s typewriter never breaks down and neither runs out of paper nor runs low on ink.  When I first considered this question I knew that my grasp of the relevant issues was such that it would be foolish of me to even take a stab at what might be the correct answer.  Now I’m either wiser or even more foolish.  Either way I’m taking a stab.
Could Albert (under condition (a)-(d) above) compose Shakespeare’s The Complete Works?
Our question turns on the meaning of ‘compose’? If by ‘compose’ we mean something like ‘presses buttons on a type-writer’, I think the answer is ‘yes’.  Though the likelihood is infinitesimally low, I think Albert could press buttons on a typewriter in such a way that he produces a word-for-word duplicate of Shakespeare’s The Complete Works. 
But now if by ‘compose’ we mean it in the exact same way as we do when we ask, ‘Could Shakespeare compose his Complete Works?’, my answer is ‘no’.  Here’s why: When Shakespeare composed his plays, his act of composition had at least two constituent elements:  an intention to write a play, which itself required Shakespeare’s conceptual grasp of what a play is, as well as his conceptual grasp of the content of the play.  But Albert has neither of these, nor could he.  A monkey isn’t the kind of thing that can intend to write plays, nor is a monkey the kind of thing that has the cognitive/conceptual ability to succeed even if he wanted to.  Since these two conditions are necessary for composing a play in the same way Shakespeare composed his plays, it follows that even under the above conditions, Albert could not compose Shakespeare’s The Complete Works.
Case closed.  


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