Belief, Truth, Perception and the Santa Claus

With the onset of December, my life has spiraled into the nebula known as Chrismasville (or HoHoHo-44554). My desktop wallpaper has been changed, my apartment is garland with lights and green/red novelties, and Christmas yarns and feel-good holiday classics have replaced my usual movie regimen. The most recent addition to this years run being the Santa Clause (1994) {which the MNI will be showing here Dec. 18th FYI}. This movie, along with other recent choices such as Elf (2003) and Prancer (1989) are about Christmas spirit or more specifically, the lack of it.

These movies philosophize about children’s innocence and like the Tabula Rosa John Locke once wrote about, this includes a child’s ability to believe in something without empirical proof. This, to an industry based in the North Pole that is powered almost entirely by magic and belief, is quite an important subject. They stress the importance of maintaining a belief in magic throughout our lives, using phrases like ‘believing is seeing’ and children simply know Santa exists. In Elf, belief is the actual energy substrate fueling Santa’s sleigh, provoking the image that a cranky non-believer could actually cause our favorite jolly, apple cheeked gift giver to plummet to earth in a gruesome toy-smothered death.     As an empiricist and an academic, it is my duty to ruin children’s entertainment for my family and friends, as I have with Spongebob, Pixar movies and anything involving the amazing abilities of evolution to create flamboyant, nonsensical superpowers overnight. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these shows and movies and look forward to deluding my children as much as anyone, however I still believe it’s important to point out the obvious irrationalism within this genre.

In the Santa Clause, no one over the age of around 10 believes in Santa, magic or anything at all really from the hyperbolic bleakness these stories try to convey. We are all a bunch of staunch, white-collar realists whose innocence died long ago. Only by the end do the adults come to ‘believe’ as Santa abandons his Navy seal recon tactics and reveals himself to be a genuine person, capable of actual magical abilities such as flying, telekinetic house reconstruction and the ability to conjure matter in any form from a large, cashmere bag. Elf follows similar premises, whereby Santa can only escape a crash in central park once people sing (which doesn’t necessarily imply a belief in magic but one thing at a time). This culminates with his final ability to slip the surly bonds of earth as he cascades the nightline to the amazement of people watching and again, ‘believing’.

Now you might see where I am going with this and why as a scientist this tends to prevent me from allowing those I love to enjoy a movie by climbing upon my soapbox. By revealing himself to the masses, as he typically does by the end, Santa has opened Schrodinger’s box and revealed a truth, that he is REAL. Belief is no longer a factor. If I saunter into St. Catherine Street illegally (which I NEVER do!), my belief of cars is irrelevant; I am going to be struck if my timing is off. George Berkeley aside, perception is NOT reality. Anthropomorphism dictates that we humans must assume every phenomena is like a giant Truman show device, meant to somehow affect our lives and thinking in some way, but there are galaxy’s out there, where it rains iron, where the air is made of lethal gases and the gravity would crush us into small pebbles. This is reality. As scientists, we are merely attempting to understand the rules of a game we’ve been thrust into with no prior instruction. As Richard Feynman put it, ‘the rules of the game are fundamental physics.’ A scientific fact is nothing more than an agreed upon rule we think might exist in governing this reality we live in. This Santa/belief agenda by the creators of Christmas movie’s tramples all over this idea by disregarding the complete paradigm shift Santa is creating by revealing himself and some of his abilities, thus changing fundamental physics.

I am sorry, Christmas elf, but believing is most definitely not seeing.


Merry existentialist Christmas!

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