Jokes About Metaphysics

Funnies that illustrate metaphysical ideas

Chicken with egg. FR Creative/Getty Images

Critique of naive realism

            The famous astronomer finishes his lecture and asks if anyone has any questions.  A little boy puts his hand up.  "I sort of understand how you astronomers can work out how far away the stars are, how big they, how hot they are, and all those kinds of things," he says.  But I still don't see how they find out what their names are."

     [Metaphysical realism holds that our representation of the world—particularly the scientific model of how things are—reflects the way the world is independent of our experience of it.  Our best models are said to “carve nature at the joints.”  Anti-realist critics of this view argue that it fails to recognize the extent to which any description of the world is colored by our distinctively human forms of cognition.  These anti-realists see the realists as like the child in the story who assume that a product of human convention (the names of the stars) is intrinsic to nature.]

The realist comeback

 Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have once asked one of his aides:

     "If you count its tail as a leg, how many legs does a donkey have?" 

     "Five," replied the aide. 

     "No," said Lincoln.  "Simply calling the tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

[This well-known anecdote illustrates what all realists regard as the basic flaw in any form of idealism, which, they would say, includes fancy modern versions of anti-realism.  We can say and think what we please; but hard, objective reality imposes severe constraints on what we can plausibly claim.]

Why the universe?

     "There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.  There is another theory which states that this has already happened." (Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

           " In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our universe is simply one of those things that happen from time to time."  (Edward Tryon)

Getting to the bottom of things

            Bertrand Russell was once confronted with a woman who accepted the Hindu myth that the world rested on the back of a giant elephant.  He politely enquired what supported the elephant, and was told that it rested on the back of a giant turtle.  Patiently, Russell then asked what supported the turtle.

            “Oh no, Professor”, smiled the woman knowingly.  “You won’t catch me out that way.  It’s turtles all the way down!”

The being of nothingness

            In a smoky Parisian café, the existentialist philosopher  Jean Paul Sartre orders a coffee with sugar but without cream.  A minute later the waiter returns looking apologetic. “I’m sorry Monsieur Sartre”, he says, “we’re out of cream.  Would you like your coffee without milk instead?”

     [Some logical positivists ridiculed continental philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre for reifying nothingness (treating it like a thing), and talking about “the Nothing” as if it were something.  They had their reasons, but there is, nevertheless, something odd about their way of speaking.]


‘           Solipsism is the doctrine that nothing in the universe exists except my self and my own subjective states: the world is contained entirely inside my mind.  It is not a widely held view for obvious reasons.  There have been several attempts to organize conventions for solipsists, but never with much success—only one person ever shows up.

            Bertrand Russell claimed to have once received a letter from someone that ran:  “Dear Professor Russell,  I’m a solipsist.  Why doesn’t everyone think like me?

            But like just about any philosophical doctrine, solipsism has its champions, and its advantages.  Luke, a philosophy graduate at Princeton, was working very hard on a dissertation defending solipsism, and the mental strain of months of intensive study was beginning to show.  So his fellow graduate students passed round the hat and raised enough money to pay for him to take a three-week vacation in the Caribbean.  A professor hearing about the scheme in class one day commended the students for their altruism. 

            “Well,” said one off them, “it’s not all that altruistic really. If Luke goes, everybody goes.”