In Inkling of an Unembarrassing Postmodern Religion, I suggest that a certain sense of humour is needed to sustain a naturalistic spiritual perspective, one that’s viable despite modern science’s disenchantment of the world. But what is comedy and how is it relevant to existential cosmicism? I’ll address these questions in order.
What is Comedy?
There are several types of comedy, but the relevant one has been explained as an instinctive response to the perception of cognitive incongruity. When a concept is used to make sense of some real situation, but the concept doesn’t fit, there’s pleasure in recognizing and rectifying the disharmony by supplying the appropriate concept. This is the basis of irony, for example. Irony is a discrepancy between intended and literal meaning. For example, suppose a dog owner is worried that his dog will bite people, so he muzzles the dog when walking him, but then during the walk the dog owner is mugged and the dog is rendered useless for defense. The owner intends to protect bystanders and ultimately himself from the repercussions were his dog to harm someone, since he would be responsible. But what the owner effectively does is harm himself, by preventing his dog from attacking someone who should be attacked. (This example is derived from a Sergio Aragones cartoon.) So the owner’s thought about walking his dog, that he’s being a responsible owner for protecting public safety, doesn’t fit the facts of the situation he finds himself in. This sort of story is amusing, because in recognizing the incongruity we see both the mistake and the correct way of thinking about what happens: we recognize the dog owner’s faulty, doomed conception of what he’s doing, and we add the correct conception, which is that by muzzling his dog the owner unknowingly exerts much effort in sabotaging his welfare.
In his book, On the Problem of the Comic, Peter Marteinson develops the Incongruity Theory, explaining that laughter restores the anthropomorphic hallucination of the world, by distracting us from situations that demonstrate the world’s impersonality. Normally, he says, we project social categories onto nature, personifying the world so that we feel comfortable in it, treating the wilderness as society’s mere backyard, as it were. (See Existential Cosmicism and Technology.) The alternative is to worry about whether a horrible mistake has been made in some cosmic boardroom, when creatures like us evolve who are predisposed to seek the comfort of social belonging but who are intelligent enough to discover that they’re surrounded on all sides by alien territories that stretch to infinity, by the entire natural universe outside of our artificial dwellings. (See Curse of Reason and Lovecraftian Horror.)