Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation

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9780525954392: Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation

A humorous philosophical investigation into the existence of Santa—from a co-executive producer of The Big Bang Theory

Metaphysics isn’t ordinarily much of a laughing matter. But in the hands of acclaimed comedy writer and scholar Eric Kaplan, a search for the truth about old St. Nick becomes a deeply insightful, laugh-out-loud discussion of the way some things exist but may not really be there. Just like Santa and his reindeer.

Even after we outgrow the jolly fellow, the essential paradox persists: There are some things we dearly believe in that are not universally acknowledged as real. In Does Santa Exist? Kaplan shows how philosophy giants Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein strove to smooth over this uncomfortable meeting of the real and unreal—and failed. From there he turns to mysticism’s attempts to resolve such paradoxes, surveying Buddhism, Taoism, early Christianity, Theosophy, and even the philosophers at UC Berkeley under whom he studied. Finally, this brilliant comic writer alights on—surprise—comedy as the ultimate resolution of the fundamental paradoxes of life, using examples from The Big Bang Theory, Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch, and many other pop-culture sources.

Finally Kaplan delves deeper into what this means, from how our physical brains work to his own personal confrontations with life’s biggest questions: If we’re all going to die, what’s the point of anything? What is a perfect moment? What can you say about God? Or Santa?

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About the Author:

ERIC KAPLAN is a co-executive producer of (and writer for) the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Previously he wrote for the Late Show with David LettermanFuturama (for which he won an Emmy Award), and Flight of the Conchords. Kaplan graduated from Harvard and is currently completing his PhD dissertation in philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


This book has three titles designed by the writer to appeal to three different audiences, but as luck would have it, all three look the same in contemporary written English, viz.: Does Santa Exist?

The first title, Does Santa Exist?, with the words stressed more or less equally, is for readers who would like to consider whether or not the kindly, bearded gift giver exists.

The second title, Does Santa Exist?, should be read with a rising stress on the final word, sort of like this: “Does Santa Exist?” This title is a lure for readers who would like to know whether, if Santa does do anything in the ontological line, that thing he does qualifies as existing. Their interest, in other words, lies less in Santa and more in the concept of existence.

The third title, Does Santa Exist?, should be read as the conclusion of the following very short little dialogue on the relationship between science and faith:

A: Just because something is not part of scientific discourse doesn’t mean it can’t still exist.

B: Really? Does Santa Exist?!

For readers drawn to this title, the question “Does Santa Exist?” should be pronounced as if it is a reductio ad absurdum argument against the claim that things exist that are beyond the ken of science. Their chief interest in this book, presuming they have any, is as a consideration of whether or not that reductio argument is valid.



My Son, His Friend’s Mother, and Two Explanations

The ontology of Santa Claus didn’t impinge on my life until my son, Ari, was in kindergarten. Ari did not believe in Santa Claus. He was supposed to go to the zoo in early December with his friend Schuyler, and Schuyler’s mother, Tammi, called me up and said she didn’t want her son to go because there were reindeer there, and reindeer, she felt, would lead to a discussion of Santa Claus. Tammi’s son, Schuyler, did believe in Santa Claus: He was still firmly a sweet child and not yet in sour and rebellious teenager territory, and she wanted him, at least for a while, to stay that way. So Tammi wanted to cancel the playdate to ensure that Ari would not tell her son, “There is no Santa—he’s just your parents,” and shake his belief.

I found this a troubling interaction because I thought Tammi was sacrificing her son’s friendship with Ari, who was real, in order to preserve his relationship with Santa Claus, who was not.

Why was I so sure he didn’t exist? Not because I’ve never seen him—I’ve never seen Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli and she exists, or at least did as of this writing. And not because if I went to the North Pole, I wouldn’t see him and his elves—just a lot of snow and ice and so forth—because there are any number of explanations that would square with that. Santa might emit a field from his beard that makes people miss him, the elves might have a machine that causes light to bend, or I could have met him and then been convinced by Mrs. Claus to undergo brain surgery that erased my memory. No, the real reason, I’m sure, is that nobody had ever told me he did, and belief in Santa Claus did not fit in with a number of other things I knew to be true—e.g., reindeer don’t fly, toys come from the store, etc.

I told this story to my daughter and she said, “I believe in Santa Claus.” I also asked her if she believed in the Easter bunny and she said, “Yes. I’m a kid, so I believe in everything.”

I told this story to my wife, who is a psychologist raised in Communist Romania, and she said something along the lines of “American parents lie to their children about this stupidity, and then the children grow up and find out their parents lied to them. No wonder American children are screwed up.”

I remained puzzled by Tammi’s behavior. I could think of two possible solutions:


For some reason back in the past, American children were taught to believe in Santa Claus—probably because their parents thought it was a good way to scare them into being good. When the children grew up and stopped believing in Santa Claus, they decided it would be a good idea to trick their children into believing. So society is basically divided into two groups of people—the liars and the lied to. The liars have motivations ranging from the benevolent (parents presumably) to the self-interested (the sellers of Christmas merchandise, American politicians who want a national myth that will unite a nation of immigrants). Let’s be blunt and call this the LIAR story.

I’ve observed evidence that the LIAR story is true. I work in Hollywood, which pumps a lot of images and stories out into the consciousness of the globe. When we were writing an episode of a television show called The Big Bang Theory, in which the character Sheldon kills Santa Claus in a Dungeons and Dragons game, one of the writers wanted to be sure that our story left the existence of Santa Claus open, because his kids were going to watch the show and they believed in Santa Claus. Of course, since he was a writer for a U.S. sitcom that is supported by commercials, his benevolent motivations for lying meshed with the less benevolent motivators of our advertisers.


Another solution to the puzzle was that something in Tammi’s mind is divided or dissociated. So, according to this theory, it’s possible that a part of Tammi’s mind does believe in Santa Claus. She doesn’t talk about it when she talks to other adults, but when alone with her child, she believes. The part of Tammi that believes in Santa might not even be a part that has access to her mouth. So she might never say, “I believe in Santa Claus,” but she is disposed to have dreams, fantasies, and feelings related to Saint Nick. As a consequence, she is uncomfortable with having her son lose faith in Santa Claus because some system in her brain believes too.

How can one person believe and not believe in Santa Claus? If you are a strong proponent of the conspiracy story, you may not believe this is the case—you might think that if she ever does confess to Santa belief, she is just lying. After all, she buys toys at the store—how can she honestly maintain they come down the chimney?

But people believe different things at different times and in different contexts. Let’s imagine Tammi goes home and goes to bed. As she drifts off to sleep, she hears a voice in her head, one that sounds like her own. It says, “Santa does exist. I remember waiting for him to come. How do I know he didn’t? Yes, part of me thinks he didn’t come and never will, but why should I listen to that part?”

Tammi has a couple of different Tammis inside her. She has the Tammi who once believed in Santa but now buys toys from the store, and she has the Tammi who still does believe in Santa. This Tammi feels good when she thinks about Santa and angry when she thinks about Eric not believing in Santa. This Tammi can effortlessly respond to Santa images and Santa television shows and songs about Santa.

Tammi’s self could be divided; she could be more than one of her Tammis at the same time—that is, she could have one voice in her head that says, “Of course Santa Claus does not exist,” and another voice that says, “I hope he brings me something good!” Or her self could be divided across time. That is, she could make fun of Santa Claus all year long until Christmas season and then talk during Christmas as if she does believe in the jolly old saint.

Since it invokes voices in the head, let us call this, uncharitably, the CRAZY explanation.

The LIAR and the CRAZY explanations are similar on a deep level because while LIAR appeals to dissociation on the interpersonal level, CRAZY appeals to dissociation on the intrapersonal level. Societies run by conspiracies built on lies are schizophrenic; crazy people lie to themselves.

In the CRAZY explanation, there is some kind of disunity within Tammi—there is a part of her that believes and a part that doesn’t believe. In the LIAR explanation, there is a disunity in America—there is part that believes and part that doesn’t believe. And in both, there is something sort of screwed up about the relationship among these parts. You can even switch the explanations. You can say that Tammi is lying to herself, or that America is a little crazy on the subject of Santa Claus.

Is the LIAR or the CRAZY explanation correct?

Versions of both of them are found throughout rationalist critiques of religion and scientific accounts of human behavior in general. For example:

   · Marxism—Liar. Priests lie to people to keep the powerful in power: “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.”
   · Psychoanalysis—Crazy. People’s minds create irrational beliefs to defend against all the psychic pressure they’re under, what with death and wanting to sleep with their mothers and so on.
   · Neurobiology—Crazy. People have evolved modules in their brains that perceive humans as existing because it was evolutionarily important to know if somebody was in your cave with you. When we think Santa exists, it’s because that chunk of nerve tissue is firing when we don’t need it to, just as hay fever comes when our sneeze reflex is triggered by some antigen that’s not really sneeze-worthy.
   · Meme Theory—Liar because crazy. Memes are programs of cultural DNA; they replicate if and only if they force us to believe them and spread them.

In discussions like this, we are usually ready to have our beliefs challenged and to hear the experts lay down some science. However, one thing science can’t do is tell us what stand to take on science as an approach to reality and the rest of our lives. Some scientists and philosophers of science will deny this and say that of course science tells us how we should approach our lives and the rest of reality. Obviously, science tells us we should do it scientifically. But when they’re saying that, they’re not doing science—they’re doing science journalism, or maybe science advocacy.

Science doesn’t tell us what we should think about science. To see how this is so, all you have to do is take any of those explanations above—Marxist, psychoanalytical, neurobiological, or meme—and apply it to itself. Thus, Marxists believe in Marxism only because it’s in their class interests to do so; psychoanalysts believe in psychoanalysis only as a defense against anxiety; neuroscientists believe in neuroscience only because their brains have evolved to see causation; and meme theorists believe in memes only because the meme complex called meme theory has hijacked their brains and made them replicate it. These theories all explain themselves just as much as they explain Santa Claus. So it can’t be the case that just because something has a supposedly scientific explanation, we should stop believing in it, or we would stop believing in scientific explanations. These theories explain themselves and they explain Santa Claus. How to go on vis-à-vis the theories or vis-à-vis Santa Claus once we realize that isn’t a scientific question anymore.

You can compare the role of an intellectual theory to the role of money. A textbook in economics or finance may tell you how to go on if you want to make a lot of money, but it won’t tell you how to decide how important money should be in our lives. That’s a question we can debate and consider positions, all the way from making all our choices based on the financial upside to ignoring money and wandering America as hippies; or we can stake out an intermediate position. Similarly with science, we can embrace it totally, ignore it, or live our lives somewhere in between.

You might think it’s obvious that if Tammi says she believes in Santa, she is crazy or lying, and back up your argument by the correct points that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy, and liars usually lie about whether they’re lying. But there are two intertwined problems with this approach—one is ethical and the other is epistemological.

First Problem (Ethical): It is obnoxious and rude to go around accusing the parents of our kids’ friends and other people of being crazy and liars. Tammi doesn’t seem to be lying—she has her son’s best interests at heart or at least seems to.

Second Problem (Epistemological): This is summed up in the old joke in which one Anglican priest explains the meaning of orthodoxy to another one—“My doxy is orthodoxy, your doxy is heterodoxy” (“doxy” is an old word for a prostitute).

The point of the joke is that “sane” and “truthful” need to be defined in such a way that we can tell who is crazy and lying without smuggling in our own other beliefs. Otherwise, saying “you’re crazy to believe in Santa Claus” is just like saying “Santa Claus does not exist!” in a louder, more hectoring tone of voice. It’s a personal attack masquerading as a psychological explanation.

If we assume that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, we might be able to argue that Tammi is crazy, but we can’t use the fact that she’s crazy to prove Santa doesn’t exist. Maybe though there is a more direct route to proving Santa doesn’t exist. If we want to know if Santa Claus exists, couldn’t we just look out there and see if there is an object in the world that corresponds to my belief? But what does it mean for a belief to “correspond” to a thing? Is it a clear idea or just a fuzzy metaphor that’s too murky to illuminate what exists and what doesn’t? Consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine a field so big we can play the biggest game of red rover in history in it. Imagine we could open up our skull and have all the beliefs get out and stand on one side of the field, holding arms. On the other side of the field stand all the things. One by one, the beliefs call out what they are about. When the belief in Africa calls out his name, “I’m a belief in Africa!” the actual object—Africa—raises its hand, and they go off to a side field labeled TRUE BELIEFS. “Bees! I’m a belief in bees!” “Great! We are bees!” And they go off together. “I’m a belief in the planet Neptune!” “I am the planet Neptune! Let’s get a drink!” And off they would go paired up. At the end of the day, a few beliefs would be left standing on their side of the field. They raise their hands: “I’m a belief in the lost continent of Atlantis!” And nothing answers on the other side. There is no lost continent of Atlantis. “I’m a belief in pixies!” No answer. There are no pixies. “I’m a belief in Santa Claus!” No answer because there is no Santa Claus. The belief in Santa Claus is wrong because there is no Santa Claus to correspond to it.

The first problem is that our beliefs don’t separate themselves into little bits. How would we count beliefs? Is my belief that Africa exists a superbelief made up of beliefs in all the people, countries, and animals that I believe are in Africa? Or is it part of a larger belief that the world is divided into landmasses? Or a still larger belief that there are such things as physical objects of which Africa is an instance? All and none. My beliefs form a web or, better yet, a world. If anything corresponds to anything, it is the whole assemblage of beliefs, all linking arm...

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Eric Kaplan
Verlag: Dutton (2014)
ISBN 10: 0525954392 ISBN 13: 9780525954392
Gebraucht Anzahl: 1
(Bergisch Gladbach, Deutschland)

Buchbeschreibung Dutton, 2014. Gebundene Ausgabe. Buchzustand: Gebraucht. Gebraucht - Gut - 288 pp. Englisch. Artikel-Nr. INF3002400417

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