07 September 2005

If You Have to Explain a Joke...

Courtesy of a friend:

Q: Why is one side of a flying "V" of geese always longer than the other?
A: Because there are more geese on that side.

To some, it's obvious why this is funny. If not, here's an explanation: According to Aristotle, our natural tendency is to look for the cause. When we see that something exists, we inquire into its cause. Now apply this to the joke. Presumably, anyone hearing the joke would have experience of the phenomenon, but it's very unlikely that the reason would be known. So when the question is posed, the hearer naturally awaits the reason. This sets up the laughably unsatisfying answer.

According to Aristotle, there are four causes in nature: the formal, material, agent, and final. Take for example a sculptor sculpting: the causes of the statue would be the idea the sculptor intends (formal cause), the marble block (material cause), the sculptor himself (efficient cause), and the finished product(final cause). In this case the equivalent of the joke would be to explain the finished statue by saying that the marble is in the cause of the statue, without even a reference to the sculptor. But that clearly doesn't say why there statue is there, or how, only what it is.
And then Milesian philosophy becomes a handbook of humor, e.g.:

Q. What is the reason for the universe?
A. Water.

Very funny.

And yet I think that my friend analyzes the joke incorrectly. We laugh because we see that it must be the case that, in a V formation, one side is longer than another: even in a balanced V, the side that includes the lead goose is longer than the other. That is--if we must use Aristotelian language here--we take the question to be looking for an 'efficient' or 'final' cause, and an obvious 'formal' cause is given instead.