Curt Jaimungal: Humor and Free Will

10My apologies in advance for writing about humor in an unfunny way. Someone wrote once that in a certain prolonged analysis of humor (Freud?) there was not a single joke or amusing anecdote, but perhaps that is like complaining that there is no food in a cookbook, albeit jokes being easier to produce in a text than steaming hot meals.

No one is an actual determinist in the sense of living his doctrine. Determinists even admit that it is impossible to live that way. Certainly, a consistently determinist society would be unworkable. The logical implications are hard to calculate. Perhaps, it would mean never getting out of bed or off the couch since determinism implies complete passivity. Consciousness as an invisible spiritual effect-producing phenomenon would be removed. Agency, coextensive with a consciousness that is not merely a passive, inept, unreliable perceptual recording device, means being a center of decision making. Acting. It is not possible to “act” if there is no conscious “you” deciding or doing anything. A marionette manipulated by its strings is not acting; merely moving. We simply pretend it is acting when it is involved in some human-derived, thus conscious, drama – just as we pretend things about flickering images on a screen.

Yet, bizarrely, many hundreds of thousands (millions?) declare themselves to be determinists.  They feel themselves to be in good company, so remain unaware of the absurdities of determinism with its denial of consciousness, to the extent that they often want to put the burden of proof on those who believe in free will – even though nothing about his life or the functioning of society could survive more than five12 minutes were determinism to be regarded as really true – as something you could actually live.

In the engineering mindset, to understand something is to build a model of it that functions, reproducing the phenomenon. Thus, to understand the mind would mean to build a computer program that simulates it. People have commented that a simulation of a mind would be coextensive with the real thing. It would be a thinking, feeling entity. Since consciousness cannot in fact be reduced to its physical correlates, artificial general intelligence will not in fact be possible. Only God can produce a soul.

Curt Jaimungal comments that though most members of “the public” claim to believe in free will, when pressed, they quickly get lost and are unable to explain what freedom means in this context. They are incapable of building a working model of freedom that functions – not even conceptually. For some, though not for Jaimungal, the hidden assumption is that for something to exist, or to have a chance of existing, it must be explainable. Rigor, clarity, and logic demand an explanation and a definition, otherwise, one is just handwaving and dealing in something akin to necromancy or alchemy. Those random members of the public would likewise be unable to explain knowledge, beauty, or humor without generating skepticism about at least two of those on the part of the determinist.

Thus, the determinist is that person trapped in the rules of the left hemisphere; facts, the known, the light of day. He fails to recognize that there are right hemisphere experiences that cannot be known, or explained, and that to do so kills them. Humor is just such a phenomenon. Humor permeates our lives. Like beauty, which shares many of its characteristics, humor makes life tolerable and it generally brings people together. Comedians comment that watching a live comedy show and laughing with other people is completely different from viewing comedy on a screen. They have a financial interest in having people turn up to live events of course, but it seems that they are telling the truth regardless. And people will come from all over the world to look at beautiful paintings and architecture, sharing in joint aesthetic experience. Beauty cannot be defined, and neither can knowledge – and knowledge in particular is the bread and butter of scientists. If the determinist who required an explanation of free will were consistent, and of course he is not, he would be as skeptical of knowledge as he is of free will. If we were to ask him to define knowledge he could not. By the rules of his own game, he would need to assert that knowledge does not exist.

Humor has the additional well-known property that it is immune to analysis. It is real. It has a social 13function. If the burden of proof were merely to point to the existence of funny things, then, assuming one’s interlocutor was not totally autistic, this ostensive method would work. Likewise, if asked to point to an instance of freedom, I could say that I started to read a book, but then decided to write this instead. If the universe decided I would write this, then I am not an agent, and nobody is writing it. The universe is.

Beauty can probably survive a doomed effort to define it, or explain it. So too with knowledge. But, humor cannot. As everyone knows, an explained joke is no longer funny. Some things are destroyed by left hemisphere analysis. Freedom shares this characteristic. Freedom is the precondition of creativity. Scientific and artistic ideas come from we know not where and then they must be developed following the tastes, interests, and abilities of the person. The ideas themselves bear the hallmark of their discoverer or inventor in many instances. Were creativity to be explained it would also cease to exist. There is no creativity without mystery and this mystery must be spiritual. Determinism, indicated by the false metaphysics of materialism, denies consciousness and the creativity that emerges from it.

It is not true that something that cannot be explained is thereby not real. Life cannot be explained but many scientists and philosophers have done their level best to dispel any sense of mystery concerning it. But, again, life might survive finding its origins. Humor cannot.

Nikolai Berdyaev’s writings are almost all of them one long meditation on freedom, its nature, and its role14 in human life. Berdyaev can do that because he is a philosopher of the right hemisphere; of the intuitive and spiritual. The Meaning of the Creative Act is an excellent discussion of freedom and creativity, but Freedom and Spirit, or Slavery and Freedom name their topic in the title.

If determinism is true, then the determinist is not even asking a question. He is not pushing the burden of proof where it does not belong. Only the universe is asking the question. When the universe asks a question, only a conscious being of a human-level of intelligence or beyond, can answer it. But of course, the nonconscious, the nonsentient neither ask questions nor answer them.

16 thoughts on “Curt Jaimungal: Humor and Free Will

  1. What I want to know is how a determinist answers the trolly problem. I suppose he just watches the trolly crash into the school bus and then strangles the fat man for no reason at all.

  2. My position nowdays is that anyone who says there is no free will is telling the truth about themselves, in that that person indeed has no more free will beacuse they already sold their soul to Satan. So I don’t have to argue with them that they have free will; rather I can juat agree that they don’t have any free will but of course I do.

  3. “Curt Jaimungal, a mathematical physicist, is a self-declared determinist.” Where did I say that I’m a determinist? I’m decidedly not.

    • My apologies for misrepresenting your position. I have completely revised the article to remove any suggestion that you are a determinist. I hope there are no hard feelings. It was an honest mistake.

  4. Pingback: Sunday Morning Coffee 03/19/2022 – A Mari Usque Ad Mare

  5. “Curt Jaimungal comments that though most members of “the public” claim to believe in free will, when pressed, they quickly get lost and are unable to explain what freedom means in this context. They are incapable of building a working model of freedom that functions – not even conceptually.”

    Yes, I think that is one of the central issues about free will. No one knows how to *model* free will.

    And more generally, no one knows how to model the common sense belief that multiple events could happen, but only one does. The two attempts: determinism and the multiverse both sidestep the issue. Determinism says that even though it seems like multiple things could happen, only one actually does. While the multiverse theory says that even though it seems like only one thing happens, actually the universe splits and everything happens.

    But the question is, if what we think is true is in fact true (that multiple events are possible but only one event occurs), then how does that happen? And if we can’t model it, so what.

    Have you heard about the mathematician John Conway and the physicist Simon Kochen’s Free Will Theorem? There is a series of six lectures where Conway talks about it ( The whole thing is nearly six hours, so I can’t really recommend it, but there is some good stuff in there. If any reader of this comment only wants to watch one video, watch #6 and if only two, watch #1 as well.

    In summary, Conway argues that quantum randomness observed in elementary particles are instances of free will. But in the last lecture, he has a good insight. He says that free will is an ineluctable concept, that it can’t be broken down into other concepts. We have to take it as a starting point.

  6. I’ve come to broadly regard the ‘blogosphere’ surrounding this site as the home of the freethinking/ logical Christians for lack of a better term, and it does feel severely lacking but i digress. It’s thrilling to see Curt referenced since he is playing an important role in keeping meaningful discussions public in a time rife with confusion and incoherence, so two worlds coming together in a sense although they were probably never apart, alas.

    Since this particular lifetime is not enough to read all the things, be aware of all the states of affairs or even categories, my latest auto-didactic session brought me back to philosophy and further to ontology. I’m going to start cutting some galaxy-sized corners from here as to what the last couple days of have fermented into, on the shaky grounds tens of thousands of hours of (fairly chaotic) observation.. (i should have started using notebooks 15 years ago).

    The way that we order the world at large follows from (a) ontology, but the discussions around this fundamental already suffer from semantic issues. Apparently it is difficult to agree upon a specific framework to use to describe reality itself! Of course philosophy therefore ties into linguistics and mathematics, as well as a host of other things albeit more loosely. These themes have in common a method of description, language, or perhaps more accurately a means of information transmission. At the base level we have natural and formal language, and the ‘recent’ historical majority agreement turned out that mathematics must be leading to avoid ambiguity. One of the core consequences of the ‘enlightenment’ and all that you might argue.

    A byproduct of this was an almost full-spectrum shift from empiricism (in its loosest definition) to model-based working methods in science. The argument being that both human perception and its measuring instruments are potentially flawed, while mathematics are not. However, science took a strange turn when it started refuting experience because of the models, and in some cases outright refused to acknowledge that any observation or experience could possibly -be outside of the current models-. It only occurred to few people that there could be an issue of data incompleteness, or translation error.

    Telegraph, code and enigma, binary systems, computing at large all paid tribute to formal language into modeling as the most accurate description of reality, except for the issue of ‘information loss’. Countless hours have been spent on solving this problem, lossless music formats grace our computers now. But what definition of ‘loss’ are we speaking of here? Once again a purely mathematical one; the data the recording consists of, the frequencies translated.

    Shannon most famously introduced the idea of noise in the signal of even the most ‘pure’ exchanges of information, but once again, most ideas building on this concept have been mathematical. The method of transmission, the inherent quality of the medium and message itself, and to which extent it can accurately be translated by mathematics are rarely considered.

    We now have ‘lossless’ audio gracing computers worldwide, still something got lost. The ‘noise’ lost in the signal might just be the divine shaking up things. The spark we carry within. There is no math for humor and creativity, nor will there ever be.

    • That was very nice. Thank you, Lea. If you haven’t read “We” by Zamyatin, you might like it. It’s short and the father of all great dystopian novels.

    • I love great audio. As you say, digital recording always involves loss. I can live with WAV but will never claim it is superior to analog.

    • Autodidacticism is the method for the intellectually serious after a certain point. You seem both high IQ and right! (Even better).

  7. If you believe there is no free will, then – because you believe you don’t act in any way, such as believing – you believe that you don’t believe there is no free will. Reciprocally, if you believe determinism is true, you believe that you don’t believe determinism is true. In both cases, you are trying and failing to enact a contradiction. It is then impossible to believe in determinism coherently; it is therefore impossible to believe in determinism honestly; that act of belief in determinism cannot really be performed, but rather only pretended.

    Freedom being then a logical forecondition of action, and action being the sine qua non of being, freedom is a logical forecondition of being. It is basic and axiomatic. That does not mean it cannot possibly be defined, but it does mean that it cannot be demonstrated; for, demonstration per se hangs upon it, and not vice versa.


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