Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Omniscience and humor

Consider this argument:

  1. Finding something funny always involves being surprised.
  2. An omniscient being is never surprised.
  3. So, an omniscient being finds nothing funny.
One might further conclude from this that the funny is not an absolute and objective category. But in fact premise (1) seems false and it is not clear that premise (2) is true.

Premise (1) seems false: Consider the phenomenon of the person who is bad at telling jokes, because the closer he gets to the punchline, the harder it is for him to keep from laughing (that's me!). Such an annoying person obviously finds the joke funny, even if he's told it many times and it appears is not at all surprised.

Some sort of thwarting of prima facie reasonable expectations may be an essential feature of finding something funny, but such thwarting can happen without surprise, and could well happen eternally and unchangingly.

As for premise (2), I am not sure. First of all, suppose that x became omniscient at time t1. Then he could well be surprised at t1—for instance, surprised by becoming omniscient! But we should charitably understand "omniscient" in the argument as "eternally omniscient" (either omnitemporally eternally or timelessly eternally). Even so, it is not obvious to me that someone couldn't be eternally surprised at something. (One might think that being always surprised at, say, the beauty of the world or the possibility of evildoing is a good feature of a human being.)

Interestingly, I don't know if I get to beat up on both premises (1) and (2). For if there is such a possibility as eternal surprise, then maybe the person who can't stop laughing while telling a joke is simply always surprised by it. Hence, it may be that one of (1) and (2) is true. But at most one, and the argument needs both.

There may be other arguments why an omniscient being couldn't find anything funny. But the one I started with fails.


Anonymous said...

Professor Pruss, what was the original source of this argument, and what was the purpose for its proposal/creation?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I made it up because I thought the question whether anything is objectively funny is interesting.

Sami said...

Is there a good argument you know of to show that mathematical entities, qualia, or information in general are non-reductive?

Anonymous said...

I laughed at this argument because it was brilliant. However, I think I laughed at this argument for the same reason musicians laugh when they observe musicians do something which is musically really 'good'.

An interesting thought: Peter Kreeft has argued that humor exists more intimately between people who are more intimately related, such that the kind of joke you can tell and share with an old friend isn't quite the same as the kind of 'joke' you can share with your spouse without words, simply by looking into each others eyes. Likewise he argues that the intimate joke between an individual person and God may just be their whole life. The joke is more intimate, and it becomes difficult to see a distinction between true joy and intimate humor. I only say this because the question of whether anything is objectively funny is a curious one, and it is perhaps more difficult for Christian theology than is realized, since classically Christian theology has tended to look down on risibility as a feature of the human being which belongs to the nature of the body, and is never a "properly human" act in Aquinas' sense. However, if something is 'objectively funny' then God knows that it is funny, and this seems impossible for God to know without it being the case that God has some 'sense' of humor. If God does have some sense of humor then it is an essential property of divinity, and is reflected in the world. Ergo, perhaps the Trinity is literally funny. This implies also that the beatific vision is that than which nothing funnier could be conceived.

IM2L844 said...

Premise (1) is false. Finding something funny always involves the recognition of irony rather than the element of surprise. That's why you and I still laugh at the punch line, before we get to it, when telling the same old joke. I always laugh when I think about God pretending to look for Adam in the Garden of Eden. God had to know how ironic I would find that.He has a sense of humor.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Recognition of irony seems better than surprise here. But I am not sure. Think of mean humor. You sit down, the chair is pulled out, and you fall. Where's the irony? But maybe we should also ask: Where's the humor? I.e., someone might laugh, but that doesn't mean it's funny. So maybe irony can be defended as an ingredient.

Heath White said...

FWIW, one recent theory of humor is that it necessarily involves "boundary crossing" (basically, something happening contrary to what would ordinarily be expected) in a way that is non-threatening.

So you don't actually need surprise (defeated expectation) you just need, as it were, ideal surprise--defeat of what would be ordinary expectation. That's how we can laugh at old jokes.

Also, what's non-threatening to me may very well not be non-threatening to you: thus pulling the chair out is funny when it's not you falling down, and you don't empathize/identify with them sufficiently.

Nothing is threatening to God, so that's no obstacle. But does "ordinary expectations" have any application to the divine mind? (Something like: does God have any use for ceteris paribus generalizations?) God can certainly know what other people will have for ordinary expectations, so he will know what they will find funny. I don't know whether he finds it funny or not.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, ordinary expectations are, perhaps, our approximation to ceteris paribus laws or at least non-gerrymandered regularities. And God will know all these.

IM2L844 said...

>"Where's the irony?"

The irony is in the incongruity between the perfectly rational expectation and what actually occurred.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think incongruity is sufficient for irony, though.

James Bejon said...

Though perhaps incongruity is necessary for humour?

Incidentally, the concept of objective incongruity doesn't seem an easy one to accommodate on naturalism, for it seems inevitably to entails the concept of objective ends or purposes or proper functions or something along those lines. Perhaps, then, a naturalist would have to deny the objectivity of humour? If so, this would seem odd, since it seems obvious that some jokes really are funnier than others.