53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
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Anywhere in the world, if you are in a group of people chatting, you will find yourself or find someone else talking in a way to attempt to produce laughter in those listening. It seems to be hardwired behavior for us, because it happens in every society we know. Not only do amateur humorists aim to bring laughter to others, professionals can get paid to do so, and the payment comes from people who buy tickets because they so value the laughter experience. Why do we laugh, and why is it so important for us to do so? There have been lots of explanations for this interesting, enjoyable, and universal behavior over the millennia (of course Aristotle had a crack at it), and they are all reviewed in _Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind_ (The MIT Press) which grew out of a dissertation by Matthew M. Hurley, who is joined here by co-authors Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams. The authors propose their new theory of humor, which encompasses what they say are the partial explanations that have gone before. It is a persuasive theory, and the book is successful for a number of reasons. It quite properly examines the evolutionary role of laughter; anything that universal must be promoting our fitness somehow. It is a serious work; the authors invite researchers to take it seriously and to start up the brain scans and other research to confirm or expand their theory. And though it is serious, and the writing is academic and not jocular, the topic is fun. The authors obviously enjoy jokes and enjoy them better for getting some understanding of how they operate. They quote E. B. White, who made a joke about examining jokes too closely: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Explaining a particular joke to someone who hasn't gotten it is never fun or funny, but a general examination of how humor works can only increase our appreciation for one of evolution's blessings.
There are so many things that can make us laugh that it is hard to say that any particular characteristic of laughable things is the foundation of humor, so it is not useful to look at all laughable things to find what is the common denominator for the humor within them. We are more likely to understand humor from the inside, from what it does to and for our brains. The authors explain that our brains, which are geniuses at making models and predictions, take pleasure in making corrections as the models and predictions are found wanting and have to be modified. Humor takes advantage of this hardwired internal brain behavior, and gives the pleasure of self-correction of mental spaces. Just as the pleasures of pornography ride upon but do not directly satisfy our sexual urges, or as the pleasures of sweetening from aspartame take over our energy-seeking appetites without having intrinsic nutritional value, the pleasures of jokes and humor represent a benevolent hijacking of the system for correcting our mental spaces. A joke (at least in many forms) sets up a premise, a mental space, and then the hearer gets rewarded by the pleasure of correcting that mental space. In jokes, this is all for fun, but the fun is dependent on a deeply important internal mechanism of assumption, prediction, and correction, a mechanism without which we could not make our way in the world. The better we can generate mental spaces and correct them (disregarding their role in humor), the better we can interact with everything around us. A good intelligence encompasses good modeling of mental spaces and the capacity to correct the assumptions therein. It is no coincidence that "wit" and "intelligence" can be synonymous.
This is a book filled with jokes; there are cartoons here, too, and various ambiguous drawings, so that if the theorizing ever seems dry, there is always a joke coming up soon. Many of them are explicitly pulled apart here, and the exercise is not as morbid as E. B. White might have guessed. The jokes show the many previous explanations of humor, like surprise or the feeling of superiority or incongruity or the release theory of Freud, and the overall theory within the book shows how such previous explanations are merely partial, like the blind men perceiving different parts of the elephant. The theory here encompasses the previous ones, and shows humor to be part of the brain's essential mechanisms of emotion and learning. _Inside Jokes_ is an enjoyable tour of the forbidden, deep, dark recesses we all carry about in our crania.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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O'Connell was late for a meeting and in a panic as he looked for a parking spot. Turning his face to the sky, he said, "Lord help me. If you give me a parking spot, I will go to church every Sunday...!" Just then, out of nowhere, a parking spot appeared in front of him. O'Connell looked up again and said, "Never mind, I found one." -- Sharon Begley, April Fools' Day
A good laugh refreshes a sense of perspective about ourselves and our inability to justify ourselves. Such humor helps us see the futility of our efforts of self-justification, relying on a bountiful source which is God's grace. While touring the nave of St. Steven Cathedral, Vienna, Austria, my sons noticed engraved characters, mockingly posing on the side of the pulpit rotunda, which I was delighted to examine. The reformers, utilized humor to discredit the Roman curia, and its malpractice. Zwingli,'the peoples preacher,' controversially walked around in Zurich eating wurst, during the Catholic fasts. So whether you are a believer or an atheist, a good laugh is always welcomed, it will revive your hope, or refresh your atheism.
The philosophical study of humor has been centered around establishing a definition of humor, treated until recently as roughly commensurate with laughter. Psychologists' main task is to develop an adequate theory of just what humor is. A variety of biological, communicational, and other social classes of humor-related phenomena are described and explained in terms of the humor theory. According to the standard analysis, humor theories can be classified into three clearly identifiable groups: incongruity, superiority, and relief theories. Incongruity theory is the most favored approach and includes philosophers and religious figures such as Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, with its probable origins in Aristotle's comments in the Rhetoric.
The conclusion spelled out in the fun-reading book, "Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind," expounding the most complete theory of humor in centuries, since scientists started their efforts trying to explain why we crack up. Written with eminent philosopher Daniel Dennett, of Tufts University and Pennsylvania State psychologist Reginald Adams arguing that the feeling we experience encountering humor emanates with the brain culminates that it has been fooled to a definitely twisted conclusion through a smart trickery. A humor inviting brain actively provides expectations for what will happen next. "Feeling mirth is the brain's way of telling us that we committed too soon to one interpretation of reality or to one assumption about the future," argue the authors, as it creates legions of possibilities, about weird present situations in a situation of incomplete information. Humor is what we perceive when we make a mistaken assumption and discover it, making mirth pleasurable. The informed authors argue that, "evolution has sculpted a mechanism that bribes us to continue generating such assumptions and filling in details in ambiguous situations, without which we could not function in the world."
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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There are only four or five theories of humor acknowledged as notable, and none of them is valid. That is to say, if the problem has actually been solved, the true theory is being censored. At Colby College in April, 2013 where one author of this book (Dennett) was in attendance a much better view than his was presented to which no supposed expert in the field has responded. If such experts believed they could defend their theories they would attempt to do so today.
This book's theory of humor fails completely. The theory is right to identify error as the framework but it contains no further insight. It does not tell us that the theme of humor is always a kind of motivated error, rather than accidental. And the authors don't understand that the humor in jokes is allusive, that is, an allusion to selfish self-deception. It is not created by the very fact of fooling the audience (though tension and release repeat the allusion).
Take, for example, Hurley-Dennett-Adams' example joke about the man and woman as strangers on the train.
A man and a woman who have never met before find themselves in the same sleeping carriage of a train.
After the initial embarrassment they both go to sleep, the woman on the top bunk, the man on the lower.
In the middle of the night the woman leans over, wakes the man and says, "I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm awfully cold and I was wondering if you could possibly get me another blanket."
The man leans out and, with a glint in his eye, says, "I've got a better idea... just for tonight, let's pretend we're married."
The woman thinks for a moment. "Why not," she giggles.
"Great," he replies, "Get your own damn blanket!"
On the Hurley-Dennett-Adams theory, we are to suppose that what is funny here is that one moment both the woman and the audience think the man really wants to keep the woman warm by sharing his bunk with her, and then both she and we discover that his intentions are different. But what's wrong about this reading is that, first, this particular false assumption is not funny in the audience. There's no humor at all in the idea that our belief on this point is corrected. It is slightly funny in the woman character, and it's only a small portion of the humor. It's not the main part. What we actually find funny about the joke is neither of these belief revisions but the way the man uses the word "married." It's only the way the meaning of that word changes that produces a significant amount of humor in this and other jokes. Hurley-Dennett-Adams is plain wrong.
Inside Jokes only improves on the classic theories by suggesting that mistakes in general are an important element. That approach, however, is mishandled and ruined. All of the 100 analyses of jokes are incorrect and some blatantly so. The latter portion of this review addresses more of those examples. The book attempts to show that jokes amuse by inviting false assumptions and then correcting them by the punch line, mainly. But very few jokes fit this scheme, and it is never a very funny idea. Inside Jokes thus takes a minor aspect or narrow type of joke and makes that the main theory. The authors present their theory as open to objection while remaining overconfident. Yet they are right that there had never been a valid global theory when they wrote this book.
The authors try to apply their theory of "covertly entered belief" to the way jokes thinly conceal what is going on, but also to the audience's awareness of some clear false belief (not of its falsehood, but that it is believed). These are two different things which this book does not well distinguish. The former topic is relevant with respect to how jokes either succeed or are spoiled. But this does not explain jokes, and what the book mainly presents is the latter (viewer's false assumptions). It is always possible to consciously fall into the error involved in a joke. And it is absurd that an entire book is written about jokes advancing a theory that does not even apply to them. Not only is covertly entered belief irrelevant to jokes, it is not a main source of humor elsewhere.
If anything, note this difference. Audience false assumptions are important to jokes, rarely -- covertly entered belief is never important to jokes.
Many reviews of Inside Jokes focus on the evolutionary notion that "sugar is sweet because we like it," though what decides the success or failure of the book is the theory of covertly entered belief. Inside Jokes uses this theory of sweetness to argue that humor has become a super-normal stimulus (like dessert, for example). Thus the idea here is that a more extreme stimulus contributes to the illusion that the stimulus is an entirely objective quality. But these issues of extreme stimulus and of objectivity, though interesting, are irrelevant. Contrary to Hurley-Dennett-Adams, humor is an objective quality. Though there is often only a mild humor found accidentally in everyday experience, that difference of accidental and contrived humor does not always hold. And besides, the main part of the theory is false.
And incidentally, the trendy scientific adage that sugar is sweet because we like it is a type of fallacy known as a half truth. It is true that the experiential sweetness of sugar follows causally from its caloric or energy-producing power. However, the attraction to sugar per se is not evolved in the sense that the consciousness of sweetness is. And since consciousness evolved independently of the attractiveness of sources of energy, the sweetness of sugar, for us, is not a direct byproduct of its attractiveness to organisms generally. "Sugar is sweet because we like it" is a trivial and misleading observation.
Regardless of that question of half truth concerning sweetness, in humor the covertly entered belief theory would be false. The authors hold that when the correction of a committed belief is funny it is because the believer lacked a certain degree of awareness of the belief. The awareness that they have in mind is as much as would be necessary for direct consideration of the belief. And they hold that when such correction is not funny, the believer was more conscious of the belief and could at least consider it directly. These assertions look very doubtful, since many conscious mistakes are funny and many non-conscious ones are not, and there is further evidence against the covert entry theory. But the reference to commitment is equivocal, as one kind of commitment requires awareness and another does not.
One must do more than disprove the claim about covertly entered belief. The way to use it and to disprove the entire theory is by a modus tollens argument. Though they clearly maintain the "covert entry" thesis the authors sometimes omit it. That inconsistency alone almost makes the book completely unintelligible. Yet the idea of covertly entered belief appears throughout the book and is meant to apply to every example, without exception.
But the theory that humor is covertly entered belief must be true if the main theory of this book is true, and here is why. The theory requires that the false beliefs causing humor are initially untested and free of doubt and that humor evolved from such beliefs. The authors claim that humor happens if and only if "an assumption is epistemically committed to in a mental space, and then discovered to have been a mistake." Now on this theory the original object of humor was the grammatical first person or observer himself. Yet while there is no evidence for that thesis and it is almost certainly false, it is not crucial. Whether the origin or primary object was the first or third person--or neither, as is most likely--the bottom line is what kind of error is most important.
The quoted claim implies the related covert entry theory. The quotation does not refer to what one might call reasoned beliefs, and yet the "discovery of a mistake" rules out the irrational. It makes no difference whether jokes are included, or if jokes sometimes fool the audience. Most importantly, "committed" normally implies a conscious attitude. But that meaning is quite impossible here. Assumptions, unless they are justifiable, can hardly be consciously committed. If a false assumption may be described as a belief, but the truth is well within immediate reach, it is almost impossible for the assumption to be conscious. Yet the authors of this book ignore that, and they waffle between the ideas of covertly entered and conscious conviction. One might stop there and dismiss their argument as incoherent or a fallacy. Yet the said beliefs would have to be "covertly entered," if and only if they had to be free from doubt. Such freedom from doubt is the only condition that satisfies the above quotation.
But the authors are dishonest where they arbitrarily designate this sort of casual assumption as committed or not (see p. 199-200). It is not "commitment" that they truly have in mind (which is ruled out for careless assumptions by definition) but rather a confidence expressed merely by not thinking about one's belief. Not only is the theory a sophism, but the author defended it at a conference by freely judging whether a belief was committed. His theory is thus plagued by equivocation or a lack of clarity, which contrasts with its scientific platform or overall methodology.
The quoted statement refers to assumptions that are not doubted, and yet easily corrected, even by the one who errs. They cannot, for example, be very powerful deceptions. And thus they are assumptions that do not rely on strong evidence or justification. That raises the question how they can be held. There are only two ways this kind of false belief can actually be called a belief. It is possible by being inaccessible to doubt, or else refusing doubt altogether or being dogmatic. It seems undisputed that a belief inaccessible to doubt is "covertly entered." On this theory, then, humorous errors are typically very small, and can often be described as accidental. But the authors appear to have confused committed belief with belief inaccessible to doubt. Besides that implied idea of inaccessibility, they offer no explanation of what committed belief is.
The covert entry thesis, (that only covertly entered belief is funny), is false, and it follows by modus tollens that the overall theory is false. A conscious false belief may not be funny when corrected. But if it is not funny, the reason is that it is not selfish or entirely unjustified. And conscious beliefs have those properties. Any irrational belief can be conscious, though deliberations cannot enter covertly. This book has thus completely overlooked or denied irrationality as a source of error, a kind of error which falls within humor. That is a fatal flaw for the theory, surely, but it is also ironic coming from an author who is a famous critic of religious belief. How is it that Dan Dennett, who regards religion as irrational and comical, here forgets that description and reduces humor to blind and insignificant errors, only a small aspect of something much larger? Along with the theory itself, also destroyed is the authors' attempt to bring into humor beliefs of an indifferent quality, rather than those that are more motivated or require more thought to correct. That brings us to the next problem.
Jokes may correct false beliefs in the hearer or reader, but that is not their main effect. The effort to understand jokes in that way will never succeed. Rather, jokes show error and delusion in the third person and allusively, which affects us directly and intuitively.
It is true that a punch line may correct a number of beliefs. Yet in this book, beliefs are selected which are beside the point. And it treats belief revision as a mere fact, whereas the humor in mistakes is based on the desire that something be true (or the fear of it). The type of joke being studied involves an ambiguous phrase or word. In some cases, the authors of Inside Jokes miss that ambiguity entirely. This book is mediocre in the explanation of jokes. The commentaries fail because they keep looking for indifferent or covertly entered beliefs, occasionally even giving up when it becomes obvious that these are not the elements of jokes at all. Double meaning can be the main source of a mistake, but in humor it also may supplement another error, with a further element of folly. Inside Jokes does not inform the reader of those things. Other claims of the book are wrong, including that the original source of humor is discovery rather than error, and the notion that humor could be needed as a force driving evolution of perception and thought, or be a byproduct of such evolution. It could not be necessary as such a force; therefore it cannot be such a reward or byproduct.
While this theory focuses on unimportant beliefs in jokes, in the case of any kind of error it is wrong about what exactly humor is. So even if it were to find the right false belief, it would be unable to explain the humor. The authors claim that the relevant false belief has to be a "covertly entered" thought, held with conviction. That is, it must be mentally covert, in the one hearing the joke or in one of its characters. Now there is a kind of humor in which a fact has been forgotten, and is recovered by a subtle reminder. But that is not covertly entered belief, but the simple act of forgetting.
Imagine a human or other animal who covertly assumes that it has encountered a large stone (such as in crossing a river), thus without assuming explicitly. But the stone turns out to be a dangerous predator. Probably, if the individual had thought about what this thing really is and then chose wrongly, the discovery would not be funny. But this is not merely because the belief was not covertly entered. Humor would be lacking because non-covert entry allowed consideration of the contrary possibility -- that the stone might be a living predator. The false belief would not be a hasty assumption, and if it is an assumption at all, it is a fair judgment. The covert entry theory, then, is false. Many consciously held false beliefs are funny even from the first-person point of view, when corrected. The vast majority of covertly entered beliefs, when corrected, are not funny, all things being equal. Note how ineffectively the authors respond to these same objections (p. 199-200). And note the relevance here of Daniel Dennett's own recent analysis of the word "rather."
In the joke about a patient and hospital administrator, the humor does not require any covertness in the beliefs, "the nurse is talking to the patient" or even "the doctor is competent." Now there certainly is something funny about the sudden discovery that the doctor is incompetent and dangerous. But that discovery itself is not the Inside Jokes interpretation. The authors have chosen the topic of who is being spoken to, while they also mean to focus on the discovery that the doctor is unsafe. They do not notice a double meaning.
Inside Jokes claims that there is humor in the discovery that occurs in the punch line. But the humor is not in the discovery itself as a revelation of the very fact stated (that is, who was speaking to whom). The humor is in the now disclosed double meaning of what the nurse had said. At the conference Of Mind and Mirth at Colby College, Dennett insisted that his interpretation of the joke was the right one. The amount of humor in Dennett's interpretation of this joke, as of any other joke, is absolutely 0.
And if we consciously assume that "the nurse was talking to the patient," the joke does not die. The humor remains, and the same is true of many other examples in the book. It does not seem important whether the false belief is "the nurse is not talking to the surgeon," which seems like an arbitrary attribution anyway.
The book first mentions covert entry as an isolated first-person perspective, such that it means not vocal entry, but mental (Hurley, 121). This theory is supported by the argument that explicitly revealing any best concealed feature of humor would "telegraph the punch line" (Hurley, 118, 134, 230). The argument is confused, since the theory had been presented as one of the awareness of beliefs, rather than of other factors or entities. To transpose the theory in this way just looks like a sneaky (or simply foolish) sophism.
(63) Do you mind telling me why you ran away from the operating room?" the hospital administrator asked the patient. "Because the nurse said, `Don't be afraid! An appendectomy is quite simple.'" "So..." "So?" exclaimed the man, "She was talking to the surgeon!" (Hurley, 168)
The book's commentary is this: We and the administrator make the same mistake, but it is our mistake that creates the humor: we infer--without noticing--from the content of the patient's speech act, that the nurse was talking to the patient. (We tacitly go back and insert "to me" after "the nurse said," but only because of the content that follows....) (Hurley, 168)
The idea that the doctor is incompetent or dangerous is not quite enough for a joke. That is why we have the phrase, "An appendectomy is quite simple." No belief about who is addressed matters, when this phrase can be treated as ambiguous. It is revealed that "X is simple" can mean "It is easy to perform this operation," and also, a meaning that fits no better or worse, "it is safe to receive this operation."
This book does not explain why an ambiguity is funny, such as in puns. It claims without good evidence that through all past belief revisions we have evolved a reward which can be identified as the experience of humor or amusement. That thesis requires that we take all errors, trivial or not, as having equal humorous potential, which they do not have. The authors write as though we did not often recognize puns at first glance, which is counterintuitive.