Does Santa Exist?

There’s a claim out there — one that is about 95% true, as it turns out — that if you pick a Wikipedia article at random, then click on the first (non-trivial) link, and keep clicking on the first link of each subsequent article, you will end up at Philosophy. More specifically, you will end up at a loop that runs through Reality, Existence, Awareness, Consciousness, and Quality (philosophy), as well as Philosophy itself. It’s not hard to see why. These are the Big Issues, concerning the fundamental nature of the universe at a deep level. Almost any inquiry, when pressed to ever-greater levels of precision and abstraction, will get you there.

Does Santa Exist? Take, for example, the straightforward-sounding question “Does Santa Exist?” You might be tempted to say “No” and move on. (Or you might be tempted to say “Yes” and move on, I don’t know — a wide spectrum of folks seem to frequent this blog.) But even to give such a common-sensical answer is to presume some kind of theory of existence (ontology), not to mention a theory of knowledge (epistemology). So we’re allowed to ask “How do you know?” and “What do you really mean by exist?”

These are the questions that underlie an entertaining and thought-provoking new book by Eric Kaplan, called Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation. Eric has a resume to be proud of: he is a writer on The Big Bang Theory, and has previously written for Futurama and other shows, but he is also a philosopher, currently finishing his Ph.D. from Berkeley. In the new book, he uses the Santa question as a launching point for a rewarding tour through some knotty philosophical issues. He considers not only a traditional attack on the question, using Logic and the beloved principles of reason, but sideways approaches based on Mysticism as well. (“The Buddha ought to be able to answer our questions about the universe for like ten minutes, and then tell us how to be free of suffering.”) His favorite, though, is the approach based on Comedy, which is able to embrace contradiction in a way that other approaches can’t quite bring themselves to do.

Most people tend to have a pre-existing take on the Santa question. Hence, the book trailer for Does Santa Exist? employs a uniquely appropriate method: Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. Watch and interact, and you will find the answers you seek.

  1. Another question, if Santa exists and he gave me everything I could possibly want, I would be extremely happy wouldn’t I.

  2. You can also go from any Wikipedia article to Hitler’s page within a few clicks if you jump around a bit.

  3. The most beatiful answer to the question, dear professor:

    We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
    Dear Editor—
    I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
    Sean Carroll
    Sean, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Sean, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
    Yes, Sean, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Seans. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.
    We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
    Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
    You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Sean, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
    No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Sean, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
    “Is There a Santa Claus?” reprinted from the September 21, 1897, number of The New York Sun.

  4. A most insightful exposition on mythical beings and humanity’s propensity for imagination and belief is physicist, Daniel Kennefick’s “A Few Beasts Hissed: Buzz Lightyear and the Refusal to Believe”:

    One of the points therein is that, for children, belief is a passing phase; it is a fun exercise in imagination. Whereas for adults belief becomes very serious.

    This is as true for physicists as it is for everyone else.

    With regard to the chubby North Polandic bearer of gifts (and perhaps also for physics) Chico Marx perhaps said it best:

    “There ain’t no sanity clause!”

  5. Pingback: Review in “Preposterous Universe” | Eric Linus Kaplan

  6. “Do parallel universes exist?”

    In the words of one Douglas Adams: “The first thing to realize about parallel universes, the Guide says, is that they are not parallel.”

    Best, 🙂

  7. Hi Sean,

    I wonder if Kaplan mentions that this is an example of an easily demonstrated fact from dynamical systems theory: suppose you have a discrete system with a finite number N of states with a deterministic evolution rule. Start with any state and follow the sequence the evolution rule generates and you will end up caught in a limit cycle. This is easy to prove, so I’ll leave that to the reader and simply comment that the surprising result is that Philosophy is part of a limit cycle with by far the largest basin of attraction containing most of the states (wikipedia pages.) It would be interesting to know what the other limit cycles are. For a random such system the number of limit cycles is known to scale as square root of N, so there are likely many more in wikipedia.



    ps This example can be used to argue that sometimes an irreversible dynamical system evolves to a phase where it appears to be governed by a reversible law, but I’ll save this for the next time we argue about the origin of time asymmetry in nature.

  8. “More specifically, you will end up at a loop that runs through Reality, Existence, Awareness, Consciousness, and Quality (philosophy), as well as Philosophy itself. It’s not hard to see why. ”

    Before people noticed it and Wikipedia editors kicked in with their care, the loop was significantly longer and contained – among others – Dementia. But in just a few days since somebody noticed that “everything on Wikipedia ends with Philosophy” and people started playing with it, Dementia and all other “unsuitable topics” were carefully removed from the loop. Topics for the loop were carefully selected by small group of Wikipedia editors, that’s why.

  9. Hi Lee,

    OT. I think this idea of yours was very promising. I wonder what has become of it.

    The Plebanski action extended to a unification of gravity and Yang-Mills theory

    says this

    “The proposal of matter as the ends of long distance links needs more development.”

  10. Dear QSA, I don’t want to impose too much off topic, but yes, both ideas (extended PLebanski and fermions from topology) are still promising. You might look at the following papers: gr-qc/9404010, arXiv:hep-th/0603022, arXiv:0804.0037, arXiv:1004.4866,arXiv:1212.5246.


  11. There really is a historical figure behind the Santa Claus stories. He was Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who lived in the 4th century, who was canonized by the Orthodox church (before it became Roman Catholic), and who is the most likely person around whom the legends of Santa Claus, who delivers gifts at Christmas time, arose.

    His tomb is in the town of Demre, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. I have been there. Here’s a website:

    In my opinion, the cool thing is not to ask whether there exists a Santa Claus, but the knowledge that Santa Claus is Turkish.

  12. It seems like from reading about the many worlds interpretation and the possibility that other worlds can have different laws of physics, Santa would exist. He could exist in an infinite number of alternate worlds. In some of these worlds, people could be sitting around chatting in blogs about how he really doesn’t.