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5 philosophy jokes that will actually teach you something

Jokes so cheesy even French philosophers will love them.

Democritus
Wikimedia Commons
  • Philosophy can be difficult to understand, but humor can be a great way to approach it.
  • Each of these jokes includes an explanation, so you can learn what they mean if you don't quite get them.
  • Side effects of these jokes may include a sense of humor so dry it disproves Thales.

Philosophy can be hard to learn. It's dry, often dull, and can be hard to get into if you don't already have some background in it.

We're here to help. Today, we have five philosophy jokes that will require some explanation. By the time you've read all of them, you'll have had both a few laughs and a better understanding of philosophy and why it's important.

What is reality made of?

Thales walks into a coffee shop and orders a cup. He takes a sip and immediately spits it out in disgust, he looks up at the barista and shouts, "What is this, water?"

Thales is commonly referred to as "The First Philosopher" because he is the earliest philosopher whose name we know. He was much more than a philosopher though; he also dabbled in business, engineering, astronomy, meteorology, and public policy.

His best-known idea is his metaphysics; he argued that water was the basis of all other substances. No matter how unaquatic something might seem to be (think of dry dust or fire) Thales argued that as it comes from water, and it remains water at the most fundamental level despite its changing traits.

Aristotle tells us this marked the first time any thinker tried to explain the world and how it worked in terms of natural laws. To this day, all science and philosophy that seeks to discover what reality is at its most fundamental level carrying on Thales' work, though they have long since rejected his proposal.

How can I know anything?

Descartes takes his date, Jeanne, to a restaurant for her birthday. The sommelier hands them the wine list, and Jeanne asks to order the most expensive Burgundy on the list. "I think not!" exclaims an indignant Descartes, and he disappears.

Descartes was a French philosopher who tried to find the basis to his knowledge, solve the mind-body problem, and invented modern philosophy along the way. He also created that coordinate system you used so much in high school geometry.

His most famous quote, "I think; therefore, I am," is from his book Meditations on First Philosophy. In this book, he tries to systemically doubt everything he thinks he knows until he finds the one thing he cannot doubt. As it turns out, that one thing is his own existence. Even if he doubts the accuracy of everything he sees, thinks, and believes in, he still has to exist to doubt it. He then used pretty weak arguments to get back to being able to believe in everything again, but that's another story.

Descartes was carrying on a long line of philosophy that asked not only what exists but also how we could know. While he settled on the idea that we can trust our senses, others argue that we can't or that there isn't a real world for our senses to even detect.

What is the right thing to do?

Jeremy Bentham goes up to the counter at a coffee house, holding a $50 bill. "What's the cheapest drink you have?" he asks. "That would be our decaf roast, for only $1.99," says the barista. "Good," says Bentham and hands her the $50. "I'll buy those for the next twenty-five people who show up."

Jeremy Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy and ethical theory that argues that the one good is happiness and the right thing to do is to maximize it. He was also quite the eccentric, a social reformer, and the mentor of a few brilliant English thinkers.

Utilitarianism treats everybody's happiness as equal. Therefore, the in-joke Bentham knows he can create more happiness by buying coffee for everybody that comes in after him rather than spending the money on himself. The idea that we should be charitable is still a big part of utilitarianism and a core part of philosopher Peter Singer's career.

Other important ethical theories of Bentham's include deontology, which is based on following universal laws, and virtue ethics, which argues for building a strong character. While all three of these systems agree on a lot of things, their minor differences can lead to some pretty big disagreements.

What is the right way to organize society?

Pierre Proudhon goes up to the counter and orders a Tazo Green Tea with toffee nut syrup, two espresso shots, and pumpkin spice mixed in. The barista warns him that this will taste terrible. "Pah!" scoffs Proudhon. "Proper tea is theft!"

Pierre Proudhon was a French anarchist philosopher and the first to use the term "anarchist." His political philosophy is the basis for modern anarchist thought and has influenced many other thinkers. In a rare turn for a political philosopher and more so for an anarchist, he once served as a legislator in the French government.

One of his more famous quotes is "Property is theft." By "property," he doesn't mean your shirt or your toothbrush, but rather things like land or factories. To own, but not to personally use, such things typically means you're hiring out other people to work for you and keeping part of their work for your profit. Proudhon saw this as unjust. His ideal society would feature cooperatives, communes, and mutual aid societies which would allow workers to keep the fruits of their labor for themselves.

Other thinkers have argued for very different ways of organizing society. Robert Nozick argued that private ownership was fine and taxation was tyranny. John Rawls argued that social democracy was the pinnacle of justice. Hegel thought constitutional monarchy was the last good idea in political philosophy anybody would have.

Even if they can't agree, these philosophers ask essential questions about how the world works and how we might make it better.

Why these problems are important

Morty comes home to see his wife and his best friend, Lou, naked together in bed. Just as Morty is about to open his mouth, Lou jumps out of bed and says, "Before you say anything, old pal, what are you going to believe, me or your eyes?"

This joke is lovingly borrowed from Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar... .: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, a book by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein that helps explain the history of philosophy through jokes.

As we saw with Descartes, the problem of what information we should believe and how we know it to be true is an important one. While sensory information may be acceptable in this case, Morty will now have to move on to thinkers like Aristotle, Bentham, and Kant to decide what to do next.

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Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
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  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

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Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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