Philosophy of Mind Jokes: Funnies About the Self and Cognition

Silhouette of man looking out window with flare
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Philosophy of mind is a rich field for jokes since quite a lot of humor is about the strangeness of being human and the difference between knowing something from the outside and knowing it from the inside (i.e. from a subjective perspective). Here are a few choice items.

The Silent Parrot

A man sees a parrot in a pet shop and asks how much it costs.

“Well, he’s a good talker, says the owner, “so I can’t let him go for less than $100.”         

“Hmm,” says the man, “that ‘s a bit steep. How about that miniature turkey over there?"

“Oh, I’m afraid he’d stretch your budget even more”, answers the owner. “That turkey sells for $500.”

“What!” exclaims the customer. “How come the turkey’s five times the price of the parrot when the parrot can talk and the turkey can’t?"

“Ah, well, “says the store owner. “It’s true the parrot can talk and the turkey can’t. But that turkey is a remarkable phenomenon. He’s a philosopher.  He may not talk, but he thinks!

The joke here, of course, is that the claim about the turkey’s ability to think is unverifiable since it doesn’t manifest itself in any way that is publicly observable. Empiricism in all its forms tends to be skeptical of any such claims. In the philosophy of mind, one robust form of empiricism is behaviorism. Behaviorists hold that all talk of “private”, “inner” mental events, should be translatable into statements about observable behavior (which includes linguistic behavior). If this can’t be done, then the claims about inner mental states are unverifiable and hence meaningless, or at least unscientific.


Q: How does a behaviorist greet another behaviorist?

A: "You're feeling fine. How am I?"

The point here is that behaviorists reduce all mental concepts to descriptions of how people behave. They do this because of behavior, unlike a person’s inner thought and feelings, is publicly observable. Part of the motivation for doing this is to make psychology more scientific–or at least more the “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry which consist entirely of descriptions of objective phenomena. The problem, though, at least as far as the critics of behaviorism are concerned, is that we all know perfectly well that we aren’t just a lump of nature exhibiting patterns of behavior. We have consciousness, subjectivity, what has been called an “inscape.” To deny this, or to deny that our private access to it can be a source of knowledge (e.g. about how we are feeling) is absurd. And it leads to the sort of absurdity captured in the above exchange.

Knowledge of Other Minds

A four-year-old girl comes running to her father bawling loudly and holding her head.

“What’s wrong, honey?” asks the concerned parent.

Between sobs, the girl explains that she’d been playing with her nine-month-old baby brother when the baby had suddenly grabbed her hair and pulled hard.

“Oh well”, says her father, these things are bound to happen sometimes. You see, the baby doesn’t know that when he pulls your hair he’s hurting you.

Comforted, the girl goes back to the nursery. But a minute later there’s another outburst of sobbing and screaming. The father goes to see what the problem is now and finds that this time it’s the baby who’s in tears.

“What’s the matter with him?” he asks his daughter.

“Oh, nothing much, she says. “Only now he knows.”

A classic problem of modern philosophy is whether I can justify my belief that other people have subjective experiences similar to mine. The joke illustrates the significant fact that this is a belief we acquire very early in life. The girl has no doubt that the baby feels pain similar to her own. It may also tell us something about how we arrive at this belief. Interestingly, what the girl says at the end is quite possibly false. The baby may only know that his sister did something to his head which hurt. That might be enough to stop him pulling her hair in future. But it won’t be too long before he goes beyond mere pragmatic avoidance of hair pulling and accepts the standard explanation of why he should he eschew it.

The Unconscious

A hunter is stalking through the forest when he is suddenly charged by a bear. HE shoots but misses.  In seconds, the bear is upon him. It grabs his gun and breaks it in two. It then proceeds to sodomize the hunter.

The hunter is, of course, furious. Two days later he returns to the forest with a brand new high-powered rifle. All day he hunts for the bear, and towards dusk comes across it. As he aims the bear charges.  Again the shot goes wide. Again the bear grabs the gun, smashes it to bits and then sodomizes the hunter.

Beside himself with rage, the hunter returns the next day with an AK 47. After another long search he finds the bear, but this time the carriage jams as he tries to shoot the charging animal. Once again the bear breaks apart the weapon and throws it away. But this time, instead of taking the usual liberties, he puts his paws on the man’s shoulders and says, gently: “Let’s be honest with each other. This isn’t really about hunting, is it?”

This is a pretty funny joke. One thing interesting about it, though, is that it relies on the listener understanding that the bear’s words refer to unconscious motivations and desires. Since Freud, the existence of these is widely accepted. But at the time of Descartes, the notion that you could have thoughts, beliefs, wishes, and motives that you were not aware of would have been considered absurd by many people. The mind was thought to be transparent; anything “in” it could be readily identified and examined through introspection. So back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this joke would probably have fallen flat.

Descartes's Death

The great French philosopher Rene Descartes is most famous for his statement, “I think, therefore I am.” He made this certainty the starting point of his entire philosophy. What is less known is that he died in rather unusual circumstances. He was sitting in a café one day when a waiter approached him, coffee pot in hand.

“Would you like more coffee, monsieur?” asked the waiter.

“I think not,” Descartes replied---and poof! . . . he disappeared.