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5 philosophy jokes that will actually teach you something

Jokes so cheesy even French philosophers will love them.

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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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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