Plato and a Platypus
Walk into a Bar . . .

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
(Penguin Books)
I know a young person, a fairly precocious young girl of eight years, who learned that, once upon a time, there were people called philosophers, people who spent their days philosophizing, that is sitting around thinking deep thoughts about the nature of things. That sounded right up her alley. So she asked her parents, "Is there still such a thing as philosophers, because I think I want to be one."

That simple declaration dilemma-ized her parents big time. Because, after all, they are good people who want to tell their children the truth. But they also want to guide their children, pointing them towards a life path that is some combination of rewarding, satisfying and remunerative. And somehow the life of a philosopher failed one or more of these, they didn't say which. Or maybe the life of a card-carrying philosopher is just out of step, an atavism from some earlier world that doesn't have a purchase in the on-line, chatter-filled world of 140-character tweets. Shoot, any philosopher worth her orotund salt can't even define the problem in 140 characters. Or words, for that matter.

The parents didn't say what their objection was. They didn't think they had to explain given its obvious ridiculousness. And they didn't say, either, what they told their daughter, except to intimate that a mumbled half-truth finessed the whole thing into the soon-forgotten world of other temporary childhood aspirations.

The point being that philosophers have a bad name. Useless, archaic and worst of all, not basically fun. Maybe mostly the latterest. And besides, when was the last time you ran into one? So the authors of Plato and a Platypus have a plan: it's called Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. Which aims to put the fun back into philosophy.

Nobody likes a pedant, and there's no buzz-kill like explaining a joke, so here are some examples:

    If you are getting on a commercial airline, for safety's sake, take a bomb with you . . . . because the overwhelming odds are there won't be two guys on the same plane with a bomb.

That is an example of the Monte Carlo Strategy, a famous logical fallacy that many people don't recognize as a fallacy and many more don't recognize even that it is incorrect, since on the surface, it makes sense. A roulette wheel, explain the authors, has half red and half black slots. If the ball drops in a black slot six times in a row, the odds favor the next ball will land in red. Right? Nope. A perfectly balanced wheel has an exactly even chance of dropping in a red or a black each time the spinning wheel is spun. There is no bias towards even-ing things out on the next throw, though the balance should work out if you take enough turns. Which you will find out only if you have enough money.

In terms of philosophical profundity, that's small potatoes. Though the joke is OK. And, as is true for all of these, it's easier to see the joke as a reflection of the philosophical principle than the philosophy in the joke. So there isn't much teaching going on, but if you want to be generous (and why not?) you could allow as how there is a modest amount of reinforcing in the frivolity.

Or how about this one:

    There is a town in which the sole barber --- a man, by the way --- shaves all the townsmen, and only those townsmen, who do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself? If he does, he doesn't. If he doesn't, he does.

That's a mind bender the first eleven times. But there are easier versions of the same conundrum, which the authors contend, most men have seen written on bathroom walls somewhere during their lives (they don't know what happens in the next room over). So, they ask, where were you when your first read this:

    True or false: 'This sentence is false.'


    If a man tries to fail and succeeds, which did he do?

The problem here, which was first pointed out by Bertrand Russell, an eminent philosopher and the dissertation director of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the man who may have ruined philosophy for all time, is the difficulty between words that refer to themselves and those that don't. Autological and heterological are the correct terms, if you are looking to make an impression at a cocktail party, though the authors decline to explain the exact mechanism of the problem, which may be just as well. The joke, however, is too good to pass up, apparently.

And then there is my own personal favorite:

    A sadist is a masochist who follows the golden rule.

This, say the authors, is a perfect example of a mashup between the Supreme Categorical Imperative, a Kantian concept that most of us know as the more familiar golden rule, and individual proclivities, which if sufficiently perverse, can render the Golden Rule useless as a system of morality for all of us. But what is perverse? Another conundrum and something that may be outside of philosophy and into something that considers itself practical, like psychology.

So apparently, Plato never walks into a bar with a Platypus, but maybe you weren't looking for answers to profoundly cosmological questions. Only a couple of laughs. And maybe the problem with philosophy isn't that it isn't funny, but maybe that it's the joke. Is that why young girls shouldn't go into it? Or put differently, representing the meta in meta-philosophy, the authors offer the meta-joke: a joke that makes fun of its own jokiness:

    A blind man, a Lesbian and frog walk into a bar. The barkeep looks at them and says, 'What is this --- a joke?'

--- Richard Daverman
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