Hamlet's Binary Circumstance

This is the first chapter of my book, Reality and the Taboo Against Truth

Published on Binary Circumstance blog January 27, 2004 

Hamlet’s Binary Circumstance 

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play involving murder, ghosts, insanity and a change of government. At the heart of the play is Hamlet’s famous soliloquy where he ponders questions of existence, values and action: 


To be or not to be: that is the question: 
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer 
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, 
And by opposing end them? 


As the play begins, Hamlet returns to Denmark on the news that his father, the King, has died. His mother, Gertrude, has married his uncle, Claudius, making him the new King. Hamlet suspects his uncle’s involvement in his father’s death. Later on, Hamlet sees his father’s ghost who tells him that Claudius had indeed murdered him. Hoping to trick Claudius into a confession, Hamlet connives with a band of actors to put on a play recreating the circumstances of his father’s death to test Claudius’ response. There is no confession, but Claudius’ violent reaction satisfies Hamlet that his uncle is the killer. 

Throughout the play, Hamlet’s rage and his quest for the truth make him appear mad to others. More than once, Claudius plots to have his nephew killed. 

Hamlet is not only dealing with questions about the value and meaning of his own existence, he is testing for truth. He wants knowledge and facts in order to make sense of his environment. He designs the play as an experiment to determine whether his beliefs about Claudius’ guilt are true or false. His goal is to determine whether Claudius is a murderer or not; whether his uncle’s guilt for the crime exists or not. 

Hamlet, like all human beings, is caught in a web of binary circumstances. A binary circumstance is a situation that has only two possible states. It is an either/or dichotomy between two mutually exclusive possibilities. Hamlet knows that there are only two possibilities for existence in this world, being and not being. At times he is torn between action and inaction, sanity and insanity. In an effort to make sense of the events of his life, he struggles to know what exists and what does not exist, what is true and what is false. At the root of all his conflicts and the conflicts of the other characters is the question of what is real and what is not. These dichotomies are all binary circumstances. 

In one scene, Hamlet goes to his mother’s bedroom and accuses her of complicity in his father’s murder. The implication is that he wants to know if an accomplice existed in his father’s murder and if his mother was the accomplice. Again he is looking for facts about existence to determine what is true. Either the accomplice existed or not, either the mother was the accomplice or not. Those questions are both binary circumstances. 

In another scene, when he hears a sound from behind a curtain Hamlet stabs through the fabric thinking it is Claudius, only to discover that he has killed Polonius, the father of Ophelia, whom he loves. He acts on an emotional impulse and stabs at the curtain without first determining who was behind it. But Hamlet’s idea of who was behind the curtain did not change the identity of the person who was actually there; who existed behind the curtain was beyond the control of his consciousness. 

When the dead King’s ghost appears to Hamlet again but not to Gertrude; she believes he has gone insane as she watches him carry on a conversation with something she cannot see. Although Hamlet and his mother are in the same room, each sees a different reality. A ghost exists for Hamlet that does not exist for his mother. 

After Claudius watches the play based on information provided by the ghost, he runs to be in private. Hamlet has an opportunity to kill the king as he kneels in prayer but fears that murdering his uncle might send him straight to heaven. Hamlet obviously believed in the possibility of a heaven; therefore, it is difficult to understand why he was so tormented about being or not being. Being in heaven where he could be free from his troubled life with all its conflicts, power struggles, murders and grief would be more desirable than not being in heaven. He considers suicide, but is tormented by indecision, unable to know what consequences he might face after death. He has no knowledge of what heaven is or who gets admitted. This lack of knowledge is at the root of his torment. 

The other characters in the play experience similar conflicts attempting to judge whether Hamlet is sane or insane. They wonder if he should be killed or allowed to live. Hamlet is the story of individual, unique minds trying to survive by making sense of the world they share. Whether they will continue to be or not to be depends on whether they can successfully distinguish between what exists and what does not exist, between what is true and what is not true. Hamlet and all the characters who share his drama live in a labyrinth of binary circumstances where they struggle to distinguish between existence and nonexistence. 

For Hamlet and for all other humans, the relationship between existence and non-existence is the most fundamental binary circumstance. It is the ultimate either/or situation. Whether things exist or not is the primary question that serves as the starting point for all other questions. If something exists, we can learn more about it. If it doesn’t exist, there is nothing to learn about it. 

Most individuals are familiar with counting in the decimal system, base 10, which is characterized by the use of 10 possible digits, 0-9. The binary system of counting is called base 2 and has only two digits, 0 and 1. All computers are based on binary mathematics because computers are made of billions of switches and circuits. The switches are either on or off creating circuits that are either open or closed. Every circuit or memory location in a computer is a binary circumstance where a current or charge is either on or off. 

When a computer programmer writes a program it must be translated so that the computer can understand it. The only language that a computer can understand is “machine code” which is a binary code with only two digits, 0 and 1. The huge number of circuits and memory locations in a computer make the possible combinations of those two digits virtually unlimited. It is the billions of different combinations of binary circumstances, 0’s or 1’s that allow computers to perform so many complex functions. 

At any given moment, the state of a computer’s memory and storage devices can be described in binary terms by knowing which circuits are on and which are off. Similarly, the universe can be described in binary terms by knowing what exists and what does not. 

Consciousness is existence that has become aware of itself. The existence of consciousness implies something to be conscious of. As far as we know, Man is the most sophisticated consciousness in the universe and Hamlet like all humans was a man with a unique consciousness attempting to comprehend his universe and his role in it. His primary struggle was the struggle that all men face: to be or not to be, to exist or not to exist. Consciousness of existence implies an ability to separate existence from nonexistence, the real from the unreal. 

Before anything can be known about something, it must be determined whether the entity that we want to understand exists. If it does not exist then it cannot be realistically described, discussed, or explored. If it exists it will have properties and characteristics; it can be described. It will have an identity. Once we know that something exists, we can then start to answer questions about what properties exist in the object and how it relates to other objects. But in order to identify something and test for particular properties and relationships it must first exist, and we must be conscious of its existence. 

Reality is the totality of everything that exists. If we can know what exists and all the properties of things that exist and all the relationships between things that exist then we would understand the universe and our place in it. We would have all the knowledge that it is possible to have. 

On the contrary, there is no reality to things that do not exist. If they existed, they would be part of reality; they would have identity and properties. Things that do not exist cannot be described. They have no attributes or characteristics; they occupy no point in space and time. 

Nonexistence is impossible to think about rationally because it isn’t there; there is no evidence to use as the raw material of concept formation and thought. Even theories about the unknown must start from what exists, in order to be rational. 

The fact that it is impossible to know anything about things that don’t exist doesn’t stop people from believing that it can be done. Yet any concepts, thoughts or words used to discuss nonexistent entities must inevitably project reality onto the void of nonexistence creating a delusion that something exists where there is nothing. Since nonexistence can’t be described, any attributes that are used to describe must be borrowed from things that exist. 

For example, when people talk about aliens from outer space, they imagine beings that have human characteristics like eyes, hands, and intelligence. This process is called personification. Humans project attributes borrowed from human existence onto the void of nonexistence in an attempt to make something out of nothing. They attach familiar qualities to nonexistence to make it seem familiar and understandable. 

When people talk about God they engage in the same process, assigning human characteristics to their ideal of a Supreme Being; taking what they know and projecting it onto the unknown. Therefore God becomes a being that is intelligent, capable of conversations, thought, actions and emotions. The unknowable instantly seems knowable. It makes no difference that no sane person has ever seen or scientifically validated the existence of a Supreme Being with those characteristics or any other characteristics for that matter. 

Material objects, energy, actions and the relationships between them either exist or they don’t. Things are either real or they’re not real. These are the only two possibilities. There is no in-between state that allows for something to exist and not exist at the same time. To be inside the frame of existence precludes being outside the frame of existence and vice-versa. 

Quantum physics suggests that things do exist and not exist in a state called superposition. The thing caught in this in-between state of existence is forced be on thing or the other when it is measured or observed. But superposition either exists or it doesn't, so we can't escape the binary nature of existence. 

Things that exist have their own characteristics and properties; there is no reason to personify them by projecting human characteristics onto them. They have their own identity that can be independently validated. On the other hand, outside of existence there is no identity and no properties. Belief in such things can never be more than a delusion. 

Hamlet’s torment is fueled by his inability to distinguish existence from nonexistence, and his resulting attempts to comprehend and describe nonexistence. This is an impossible task since there is no evidence of properties or characteristics from which to build a rational description. 
When there is no evidence of the existence of something, there is no basis for assuming it exists. Even new theories and discoveries are based on a reinterpretation of existing evidence or the discovery of new evidence. 
The concept of the binary circumstance must be distinguished from the process of bifurcation, which is the creation of a false binary circumstance. Bifurcation is an attempt to limit choices by creating a false either/or dichotomy, only allowing two choices when many more exist. 

In the United States, people tend to think of political affiliation in terms of either conservative or liberal, or as Republican or Democrat. An attempt to fit every person into one of those two boxes is a bifurcation because there are other political parties. There are Democrats who on some issues think more like Republicans and vice-versa. Bifurcation fuels tension by creating polar opposites where more than two options exist. It forces people to be more loyal to a party than to facts just to win elections and gain power. 

Whether an individual exists at a specific point in space and time is a binary circumstance; he’s either there or he’s not. To say that there are only two possible locations in space and time where an individual can exist, however, is a bifurcation. There are many places on the planet where a person could possibly be so that is not a binary circumstance. At any given point in time he either exists in a particular place or he doesn’t; that is a binary circumstance. 

The universe is full of binary circumstances that can be reduced to the primary binary circumstance--existence or nonexistence. An entity either has consciousness or it does not. Evidence tells us that consciousness exists in humans but it does not exist in rocks. 

No two physical objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Whether an individual object exists in a particular space at a particular time is a binary circumstance. It either exists in that space or it does not. If it is not in one space, it can be found in another as long as it still exists in the universe. The same rule applies to human beings; each individual occupies a unique place in the universe at any given time and has a unique consciousness of the universe. To paraphrase Hamlet: To be or not to be in a particular location in space and time; that is the question. 

Some things exist in the universe as universal reality and other things exist as unique realities. Universal reality is what exists in the universe; unique realities exist only in an individual consciousness. 

Characteristics of entities can also be universal or unique. All snowflakes are white, crystallized water, but every snowflake has a unique shape. Any characteristic that is universal cannot be unique; and whatever is unique cannot be universal. Not all characteristics are either universal or unique, some are shared by a subgroup but not all entities in the group; but it is true that universality excludes uniqueness and uniqueness excludes universality. 
It is the characteristics that are unique to an entity that give it an identity apart from other entities. Every human being has a unique consciousness which is dependent upon his existence; that consciousness ceases to exist when he ceases to exist. The universe is not dependent upon the existence of individual consciousnesses for its existence. In other words, universal reality is a uniform, objective reality than can be experienced, independently validated and understood by any individual, unique, subjective consciousness. 

The facts of the Hamlet story are universal: the story takes place in Denmark. Hamlet’s father has been murdered. Claudius has married Hamlet’s mother and Hamlet has returned home. The drama of the story stems from the fact that each character has a unique perception and relationship to those facts and a unique response. Each individual has a unique perception of the universal reality of the play and each individual is trying to protect and preserve his unique view as the ultimate truth, the universal reality. 

No character can change the facts that already exist as the universal reality of the story. What exists is what exists and what is true is the truth regardless of how each unique consciousness perceives the situation. Claudius is the murderer or he is not. The ghost of Hamlet’s father exists or he does not. Each character has his own unique view of the universe in the play, but no unique view tells us if Claudius was the murderer or if the ghost really exists. These facts are universal--a function of the universe; not dependent upon any unique consciousness for their existence. 

Like the universe in general, the universe of Hamlet is constantly changing. As the story unfolds, new emotions, perceptions, suspicions and actions come into existence as a function of each character’s relationship to reality. As in life, it is the relationship of each unique consciousness to universal reality that creates the tension and conflict in Hamlet. 

As part of the process of distinguishing existence from nonexistence, the mind must distinguish between what aspects of an existent are unique to individual experience and which aspects can be universally experienced and understood by all. It is essential to distinguish between a unique experience like an emotion and something like the universal reality of the law of gravity. Your emotions can push you around, but gravity pushes us all around. It is essential to learn the difference between beliefs and emotions that are a function of unique consciousness, and objective facts that can be scientifically validated as universal reality. 

It is an objective, universal reality that each individual is genetically unique with the exception of identical twins or clones. In addition, each person has unique experiences and occupies a unique point in the universe. This creates a unique relationship with universal reality for each individual consciousness. It is not possible for two individuals to see the universe in precisely the same way. If their perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and resulting actions were identical and occurred at the same point in time and space; they would be the same person because they would have the same characteristics and location. 

The existence of so many unique consciousnesses is a function of the process of evolution that has created all species of life including the human race. The human race has accomplished so much because of the evolution of consciousness and intelligence. We have an unprecedented, organic capacity to perceive and analyze the physical world so that we can use it to our advantage. Humans created science, to search for facts that can be seen by anyone who does the same experiment under the same conditions. 

Man is made from the same elements as the earth; his existence grew out of the earth and it is inextricably linked to the earth and the universe. All the evidence suggests that Man does not exist outside the physical environment of the earth. As his environment changes over time, man must also change by evolving. It is each individual’s uniqueness that allows the species to survive. 

Evolution is possible because of genetic diversity--the uniqueness of each individual. Genetic diversity gives a species the ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment; as the environment changes the species has more options for how to respond to that change. Organisms that can’t adapt die off while those that can adapt produce new generations of offspring that are better suited for the new environment. If all organisms in a species are identical they can be easily wiped out by a single disease or any other force that threatens the survival of the species. What kills one will kill all because they are identical. 

So what does all this have to do with Hamlet? 

Hamlet, like all men, was unique. How he dealt with his dilemma, to be or not to be, was dependent upon his unique consciousness of existence. Being is the reward of those who think; not being is the cost of not thinking. Being requires a consciousness that knows the facts of universal reality which are the “arms against a sea of troubles. Not being will be the consequence of rejecting those facts and choosing “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. 

Whether we choose to accept or reject universal reality is a binary circumstance. We attempt to know it or we don’t; we either succeed or we don’t. There is no guarantee that we will succeed even if we try; there is only a guarantee that we won’t survive if we reject the nature of our existence in the universe. 

We can devote our minds and our lives to understanding what exists. Hamlet was trying to do this, but his failure to understand the binary nature of existence caused him to put what he could not know on an equal or better footing than what he did know. He, like so many others, wanted to believe that the blank slate of death “’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. Hamlet’s confusion left him feeling powerless and depressed. 

To die, to sleep-- 
No more--and by a sleep to say we end 
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation 
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep-- 
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub, 
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, 
Must give us pause. 


Pause indeed, dear Hamlet. Take a long pause. It either exists or it does not. Ay, there’s the rub.

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