Well, all this is interesting to me, anyway, and that's what matters here. The Internet is a terrible thing for someone like me, who finds almost everything interesting.
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
No, Virginia, there isn't a Santa Claus
I like this better than the original reply to Virginia O'Hanlon, though I guess that taught her not to believe everything she read in the newspaper, huh? After all, once you start asking questions, you're not going to believe for long.
But the thing is, most Americans want to believe in Santa Claus. When they get a little older, they can't, because Santa is supposed to do real things, specific things, in the real world. Well, I suppose they could believe that they're just no longer good enough to get Christmas presents from Santa, but who wants to believe that? :)
But they can believe in a god, if they don't ask questions, because God doesn't give you your gift until after you die. Therefore, no one is ever disappointed, and no one can ever point out that it doesn't actually happen.
You can pray for something in this life, of course, but if you don't get it, "God works in mysterious ways." Well, these are defense mechanisms for people who really, really want to believe what there's no good reason to believe.
The original editorial was popular because Americans wanted to believe in their own Santa Claus. All minds are "little minds," therefore why use them? And even if Santa Claus doesn't exist, life would be "dreary" without him (i.e. he has to exist, just because we so very much want him to exist). Besides, just because you don't see Santa Claus, that's not proof he doesn't exist, right?
Well, our minds may be "little," but they're the only minds we've got. We use our minds, as best we can, for most things, so why not for this? After all, we might be wrong if we use our minds, but we're almost guaranteed to be wrong if we don't.
And my little mind tells me that wanting something to be true isn't a good reason for thinking that it is true. In fact, it's a good reason to look skeptically - especially skeptically - at the question, because it's all too easy for us human beings to believe what we really, really want to believe, even when we have no good reason to believe it.
And finally, no one has to prove that Santa Claus doesn't exist, because the burden of proof is always on the person making a claim. Do you believe in leprechauns, just because no one has shown you proof that they don't exist? Do you believe in werewolves, unicorns, fairies, gremlins, fire-breathing dragons, or talking snakes? Have you actually seen proof that they don't exist?
I don't like to talk about "proof" anyway, since what can you really prove, beyond any possibility that you could be wrong? Maybe nothing really exists except you, and you're just hallucinating all this. No, I like to talk about evidence. And it's the person making a claim who needs to demonstrate that his claim is true.
Now, if you tell me that it's snowing outside on Christmas Day - here in Nebraska, at least - I probably won't require especially good evidence before I'll believe you. After all, there was a good chance of snow in the forecast. But if you tell me there's a man who delivers toys to every child in the world in one night - using flying reindeer, no less - I'm going to need pretty good evidence before I'll believe that.
Of course, I did believe that when I was a child. There did seem to be evidence for Santa Claus. Someone, after all, brought me presents with his name on them. And there was a lot of eyewitness testimony, there really was. As it turned out, that wasn't good evidence. Furthermore, I hadn't learned that a lot of poor evidence doesn't add up to even one speck of good evidence. That's not how it works.
Virginia O'Hanlon was starting to ask questions, and they lied to her. They lied, not because they believed in Santa Claus themselves and not because she wasn't going to discover the truth soon enough anyway, but because the truth would demonstrate that their own beliefs had no more validity than her belief in flying reindeer. That's why the editorial became so popular, I suspect.
Well, I have no problem will telling children stories about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and I have no problem with parents who tell them the truth, either. Either way is fine with me. Personally, I don't see any problem with children enjoying fantasy, and I certainly have no problem with children enjoying Christmas.
Indeed, I hope they always enjoy Christmas (or whatever holiday your family celebrates). I do. But when we grow up, we put childish beliefs behind us. We still enjoy our holidays, but we don't have to believe in magic to do that.
It's not so bad growing up, it really isn't. And while childish beliefs might be appropriate for children, they're not appropriate for adults. Faith-based thinking causes a lot of problems in our world. So, Virginia, when you get old enough to start asking questions, you should be told the truth.
And the truth is that people often lie, even to themselves - maybe even especially to themselves. The truth is that you can't always believe what you're told, that you often must overcome your own wishful-thinking to discover uncomfortable truths, and that you can never stop asking questions.
The truth is that Christmas can be good, that life can be good, even when you know that magic isn't real. Merry Christmas, Virginia!
PS. Here's where I got the picture of me in holiday garb. :)
I'm a skeptic. I think it makes sense to have reasons for what I believe, so I apportion my belief to the evidence. You're welcome to disagree. Please, tell me I'm wrong. I probably don't agree with anyone about everything. Why should disagreement be a problem? Check the Pages section below for series posts and links to book reviews and game posts, as well as contact info. I have varied interests, so there's a little bit of everything here. I encourage you to look around. - Bill
We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true. - Robert Wilensky
It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong - Richard Feynman
The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other. - Sir Francis Bacon
When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Speculation is perfectly all right, but if you stay there you've only founded a superstition. If you test it, you've started a science. - Hal Clement
No matter how many times a theory meets its tests successfully, there can be no certainty that it will not be overthrown by the next observation. This, then, is a cornerstone of modern natural philosophy. It makes no claim of attaining ultimate truth. In fact, the phrase "ultimate truth" becomes meaningless, because there is no way in which enough observations can be made to make truth certain and, therefore, "ultimate". - Isaac Asimov
The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion. - Treaty of Tripoli, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams (1797)
I don't doubt the sincerity of dowsers, but even after we've demonstrated that they can't produce results that are any better than chance they'll still go away believing in their abilities... It is like the mother whose son is caught shoplifting on tape. She wonders why someone would want to frame her child by producing a fake video. - James Randi
During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church ... imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. - Mark Twain
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths. - Bertrand Russell
A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. - Friedrich Nietzsche
I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends... that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them. - Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.
This is not about proof. Science does not use proof. We favor evidence, and the work consists largely of the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable. - PZ Myers
No, people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. - President Barack Obama
The formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat. - Shekhar Gupta
We are prodding, challenging, seeking contradictions or small, persistent residual errors, proposing alternative explanations, encouraging heresy. We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs. - Carl Sagan
We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. - Richard Dawkins
120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. - Sam Harris
To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man. - Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in 1553
Democracy is not about majority rule; it is about minority rights. If there is no culture of not simply tolerating minorities, but actually treating them with equal rights, real democracy can't take root. - Thomas L. Friedman
We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason. - Thomas Macauley, 1830
It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason if we dig deep into our history and remember we are not descended from fearful men. - Edward R. Murrow
The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence. Science is simply common sense at its best - that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic. - Thomas Huxley
There is no absurdity so obvious that it cannot be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to impose it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity. - Arthur Schopenhauer
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To be elected in America, no matter from what party, the candidates have no choice but to year after year pledge to lower taxes further and further. We have become the nation of Ken and Barbie, looking good but very poor at the math. - Rack Jite
Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can't see them. - Steve Eley
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