Satoshi Kanazawa

The Scientific Fundamentalist

Is Aaron Sorkin better than Shakespeare?

Is Aaron Sorkin better than Shakespeare?

Posted Mar 02, 2009

In his tome Human Accomplishment:  The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (2003), Charles Murray at one point defines artistic excellence as that which elicits the reaction “How can a human being have done that?” (pp. 144-147).  When I ponder the question “How can a human being have done that?” I often think of Aaron Sorkin and his critically acclaimed but short-lived TV series Sports Night.

But first, an evolutionary psychological detour.  Every developmentally normal human being (without autism or Asperger’s syndrome) possesses functioning theory of mind.  (Trust me, this connects.)  We are capable of inferring the mental states of others and understanding that such mental states of others may be different from our own; we are capable of understanding that other people may possess knowledge different from ours.  In addition, we also possess the capacity for higher-order theory of mind.  Nor only do I know what you think (first-order theory of mind), I also know what you think he thinks (second-order theory of mind) and what you think he thinks she thinks (third-order theory of mind).

However, there is a limit to the human capacity for higher-order theory of mind.  According to studies conducted by the Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin I. M. Dunbar, most humans are limited to fourth-order theory of mind or what Dunbar calls fifth-order intentionality, including the intentionality of the focal actor (I know that you know that Casey knows that Dan knows that Natalie knows it), and not higher.  Dunbar further argues that good writers like Shakespeare are rare, because complex dramas like Othello often require the writer to possess a fifth-order theory of mind (or sixth-order intentionality), which is beyond the cognitive capacity of most humans.  For example, Shakespeare as the writer must intend that the audience believes that Iago intends that Othello supposes that Desdemona loves Cassio, who in fact loves Bianca.  Coming up with this plot, Dunbar contends, is beyond the cognitive capacity of most humans, which is why, when faced with Shakespearean plays, many of us have the natural reaction “How can a human being have written that?”

I feel the same way about Aaron Sorkin.  I am a fan of Sorkin, despite the fact that I have not seen a single episode of The West Wing (because I hate politics).  I have only seen Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (and the movies Malice and The American President, despite the latter being partly about politics).  Sorkin’s true genius shines through at the end of the first season of Sports Night, with a plot involving how Dana and Gordon break off their engagement.  (I normally hate spoilers, and do my best not to reveal the ending of any plot.  But since it’s been nearly a decade since the show went off the air, I assume that, if you haven’t seen it already, you probably never will.  If, on the other hand, you are looking forward to catching Sports Night on a rerun or on a DVD, then please stop reading now.)

Dana is currently dating and is now engaged to Gordon, even though she’s secretly in love with Casey.  Casey, even though he is secretly in love with Dana, is carrying on a clandestine affair with Dana’s rival Sally.  Nobody knows about Casey and Sally.  One day Casey discovers that Gordon slept with Sally.  How does he discover it?  One night Casey leaves his shirt behind in Sally’s apartment, and later catches Gordon wearing his shirt by mistake.  If Casey tells Dana that Gordon slept with Sally, she might break off her engagement to him, which Casey would want, but he doesn’t want to tell Dana, because, in order to do so, he would have to admit that he is sleeping with Sally.

So, instead, Casey tells his best friend Dan but swears him to secrecy.  Dan nonetheless tells Dana’s best friend Natalie, and Natalie tells Dana.  Dana confronts Gordon, who then admits to his affair with Sally.  Dana quickly forgives Gordon, but then gets very upset when she learns that Casey found out about Gordon’s affair with Sally because Casey himself is sleeping with Sally.  Gordon subsequently breaks off the engagement to Dana, because she was more upset that Casey slept with Sally than that Gordon slept with Sally.  We later learn that it was all Casey’s plan.  He told Dan, knowing that he would be compelled to tell Natalie and Natalie would tell Dana.  This way, he could break up Dana’s engagement to Gordon without him having to do anything himself.

When I think of this whole plot, I think “How can a human being have written that?”  There are many examples of higher-order theory of mind here, but here’s one example:  Sorkin intends that the audience believes that Casey intends that Dan is compelled to tell Natalie, who in turn is compelled to tell Dana, who now knows that Gordon kept a secret about sleeping with Sally.  That’s sixth-order theory of mind or seventh-order intentionality, far beyond the cognitive capacity of most humans, and even beyond the complexity of the plot of Shakespeare’s Othello!  The plot of Sorkin’s movie Malice is also equally complex.

Is Aaron Sorkin better than Shakespeare?  I don’t know.  But Sorkin does appear to possess a higher-order theory of mind which escapes most mortals.


On a personal note, this is my 100th planned post on this blog.  This landmark follows closely on the heels of two other important landmarks in the past month:  the one-year anniversary of The Scientific Fundamentalist blog, and its one millionth page view.  Thanks to all of you who have read and quietly supported this blog over the past year.