Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is Santa Claus Real? You said you can prove that he is.

Coming to terms with the truth about Santa Claus.

About my junior year of college I became obsessed with the philosophical question of truth and absolutes. It is still something that is quite important to me and something on which I've spent a great deal of time thinking and writing and one of the side effects has been coming to the startling conclusion that Santa Claus is, indeed, true.

I didn't really reach that stage until I well into my graduate studies. I remember it well. I was in the second year of my doctoral program, reading a couple books that had nothing to do with Santa Claus and suddenly it all coalesced in my mind: if this stuff is right, then Santa Claus is true! I hadn't really believed in Santa Claus for more than 20 years at that point, so one can see the intensity of such an epiphany. Hopefully, as you read this post you can come to understand, also, that Santa Claus is real.

Positional Truth

First of all, we have to understand that there are a number of ways that something can be true. This was driven home to me on a recent visit to a mechanic's shop. The mechanic at that shop gave me a list of things wrong with my car and the price to fix them, which was quite astronomical. I made a few phone calls to friends who were more mechanically inclined and ultimately came to the conclusions that not everything on that list really needed to be fixed. For several days I moped around. It wasn't just the cost of the repairs that had upset me, it was that I felt that the mechanic had been "dishonest" with me. He is a member of my church, so it hurt. Once the shock wore off, I realized that from another point of view, he hadn't been "dishonest." Everything he'd said about the car was factual. Were I in a different financial position, I'd probably want everything fixed. It was only dishonest when speaking to someone trying to get by on the cheap.

This kind of truth is called positional, or contextual, truth, or truth from a point of view. From the mechanic's point of view, he was being honest. In fact, I bet he'd say it was dishonest not to insist on fixing everything wrong with a car if one is going to fix any of it. From my point of view, that seems like an unnecessary expense that benefits him. So, you see from one point of view it is true that my car must have all those repairs done. From another point of view, that is not the case.

It is not a stretch to believe in Santa Claus from a positional vantage. It is also almost cynical. When a child comes down the stairs and sees the toy for which she'd been waiting, the child knows that these toys came from Santa Claus. If she tells you that she got her new toy from "Santa," she is not lying to you, even if her father tells you how much it cost. When a child later shifts positions, and no longer sees Santa the same way, it can be troubling. Still, from that early vantage, Santa was true.

Some postmodernists will argue that all truth is positional and contextual. They argue that everything is logically built on propositions that are all really suppositions that are only true within a context. Others, including myself, disagree. We argue that while our personal experiences all indicate a particular perspective which is true for us, that those experiences are experiences of something wholly greater than the mere perspective that we enjoy. Were this not the case, learning itself would be an irrational activity because one already has a perspective, and they are all equal. No, to argue that Santa Claus is real from a contextual argument is really saying nothing at all, but does provide us the first insight that we need in order to move toward an understanding of Santa Claus: that there are different kinds of truth.

Truths that do not arrive at Santa Claus

There are also other kinds of truth from which we cannot derive Santa Claus. One kind of truth is mathematical truth. Mathematical truths are realities at which we derive from things which are true simply by definition. One does not get far into geometry before one begins to see that all mathematical truths are simply true because we say so. A triangle has three sides and three corners because that's how we define a triangle. If we define a triangle differently, or define something else as being a triangle it will have the properties of a triangle. We can define a right triangle as one that has one that has a 90° angle on one corner. To a sensible student, this raises the question of what is a degree. A degree is 1/360th of a circle. Why are there 360 degrees and not some other number? Because that is how we define a degree because that is how we define a circle. There is no better reason than that. On this right triangle, we will find that the square of the longest line is equal to the square of the other two sides. So if we have a right triangle with sides which we measure 1" by 1", the longer line will be √2which is known as an irrational number because it clearly exists as a mathematical concept, but you can't exactly "count to it," even using fractions. Here's the thing though, it exists by definition only, if we define our 1" as another set of units, we will call them "monkeys" and say that the very same triangle is 2 monkeys long on its short sides, then the long side is 4 monkeys long, plain and simple, a number to which one can count. So you see, the difficulties in mathematical truths all come down to definition. So, mathematically, if I define Santa a particular way, I can prove he exists, but only based on my definitions. I've never been impressed with mathematical truth, because you could always define things differently and arrive at different conclusions.

Another kind of truth what we call "scientific" truth. In my discipline of Communication Studies and in other humanities it is called "intersubjective" truth. In the sciences, it is called "objective" truth. This is the idea, that while we all see things differently, there are some things that we see as the same. If I pour half a cup of milk into my measuring cup and ask multiple people to look at it and see if they think it is half a cup, and they agree that it is, I probably actually do have half a cup. When one's perceptions are verifiable in this way, repeatable by multiple parties and yields predictable results that are also verifiable and predictable, we say that it is "scientifically," "intersubjectively," or "objectively" true. Scientific truth is really useful but has one major flaw when using it to design one's life. That is that things can be objectively true, but nothing can be objectively untrue. We can say something lacks scientific truth because it hasn't been widely observed, or there were large discrepancies between observations, but we can never say that something is scientifically untrue. Generally, when children find out that Santa Claus is "not real" what they are really learning is that he lacks scientific proof, which is not the same as saying it is not true, just that it can't be proved objectively.

Mathematically and scientifically, we cannot prove that Santa Claus is real. Mathematically, Santa Claus's existence or lack thereof is a matter of definition. Scientifically, the existence of Santa Claus is not objectively verifiable or repeatable. So, because of this failure to prove Santa Claus's existence, many (including myself for nearly 20 years) believed that Santa Claus is false. A great deal of that came from a misunderstanding of how both mathematics and science arrive at truth. I hope that I have corrected that here and we can move on to other forms of arriving at truth.

Truth as Social Construction

One of the ways in which truth can be understood is as a social construction. There have been a number of detractors who attack a social construction method of understanding truth. Most of those detractors, I'd argue, do not really understand the theory and seem to think that it stands opposed to concepts of mathematical truth, scientific proof and proof as a form, which we'll discuss next. Far from being opposed to these, it is the source of the first, the means of seeing the second and one way of processing the third.

Although we can get very complicated as to this means truth finding, and indeed, multiple books have been written on the subject it comes down to this: many things, if not almost everything exists or does not because in communication as a society we say it does or does not. On the surface, that sounds sort of ridiculous, but lets take some examples and you will see that this is actuallytruth.

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became President of the United States of America. It wasn't the voting that made him President. The voting had occurred two months earlier and showed that the majority of the American people would agree with the idea that he should be President. No, what made him President was taking the oath and accepting the position. How did he get to become President? Well, that's complicated. There is a long history, but it all comes down to a few white men sitting in a smokey room in Philadelphia using their imaginations and imagining a person with certain powers who would be able to do certain things and writing it down on a piece of parchment. We call that parchment the Constitution and it doesn't physically do a darned thing. From a scientific standpoint, it is a piece of goat skin and ink. From a mathematics standpoint, well, I guess you could measure the area of it or the volume of ink used in its construction or something like that.

Still, while mathematically and scientifically the Constitution doesn't do anything, most Americans are very much aware (and often wrong) about all the things it does do. It doesn't do any of this by any kind of mathematical or scientific method. It does it by acting socially, to construct us. The Constitution of the United States would be completely powerless except for the fact that we generally agree that it is not. That is how the social construction of reality works. We create truth by agreeing, generally, that something is true. We agree that Obama is President, so he is.

It is the social construction of reality which creates, among other things, Presidents. Obama is not President because of anything mathematical or scientific we could measure about his body. No, he's President because we generally believe that he is because we generally accept the Constitution. There are people who do not believe that he is, and they are wrong. Why are they wrong? They are wrong simply for the reason that most people disagree.

Once you see that the President is socially constructed, you can move on to other things. Even physical things are socially constructed. You are reading this on a computer that exists because someone had an idea, wrote it down, other people interpreted that idea and tried different things to make that idea work better and wrote down other ideas and tried them out until a computer appeared on your desk (or wherever).

"Sure," you might say, "but not everything is socially constructed." And I agree with you but you might say, "what about the trees!" Do you mean the trees growing within the borders of the National Forest, the ones planted by landscapers in your yard or the ones growing between the cracks of the sidewalk someone designed? Surely you can see that these are only here because of the direct decisions of certain people.

"Yes, well, what about the sun, the moon, the stars."

You're right of course. No human being constructed these things. Still, the naming of the stars, the differentiation between the sun and other stars, calling the moon at one time "full" and at other times "new" these are all social constructions. There is almost nothing that we can experience that is not in some way socially constructed. When the moon is full, it is full because that's what we agree to call it. If you don't call it that, you are wrong. The reason you are wrong is because we all say so, simple as that.

Within this concept, Santa Claus certainly exists as a social construction. It would be ridiculous to say he does not. I've read books about him. I've gotten gifts from him. I even saw him at the mall a few times. Perhaps you think what I saw at the mall was just a man dressed up as Santa, not really Santa. Well, let's apply that logic to other social constructions. Is Obama really President, or is he just a guy that lives in the White House and gets on TV and acts like the President? I know some people who think that while he is President, that he does not act like one, and he should. I tell you, he is the President and the man at the mall is Santa and when that guy at the mall goes home, he won't be Santa anymore and when Barrack Obama ends his tenure as President, he will not be President anymore. Santa Claus is real as a social construction, every bit as real as the President of the United States.

Still, if this were the only way in which Santa were real, it would be kind of sad. There is at least one way that Santa is real than just this.

Truth as Form

Socrates and Plato are generally credited with positing a method of truth finding as being something external to the concrete experience of day to day life. It is probably fair to say that they codified it better than anyone before, but multiple religions and philosophical systems assumed it previous to Socrates. This was not true of all religions. Many placed their deities and powers withing the physical realms, but certainly Hebrew and Hindu teachings assume an externality that imposes itself on our perceptions and which is, in fact the source of truth.

Forms are ideas, or rather ideals. They are perfect concepts of things to which we, using language, compare them. For Plato, if we see a chair, even if it is quite unlike any chair we've seen before, we recognize it as a chair because our minds compare it to all the possible ideals and come to the conclusion that what this comes closest to is the concept of "chairness." We experience frustration with our experience not living up to the ideal. For instance, when I am not an "ideal" husband. I've never met an ideal husband and would argue that in our physical reality, such a man has probably never existed. Nonetheless I have a concept of that ideal, and that concept is the truth to which I compare experiences. Sometimes I have peak experiences; perhaps I meet a man who in this moment at this time seems to be behaving as a perfect husband. In those moments I see a type of the form to which I can aspire.

The concept of the form has been a great way to understand what is going on in our lives and even when trying to find application of other's stories to our own. Following the concept of the form, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians (a Greek people, quite familiar with Plato) about using the Platonic forms to understand Old Testament scripture, referring to the rituals of the Old Testament as "Shadows," a direct allusion to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," one of the places where Plato explained forms. Following Paul and Plato, Carl Jung developed a way of understanding the forms in places outside scripture which Jung called "archetypes."

Human understanding of truth as form, wherever it has been posited, assumes some sort of revelation. There is some means by which the human mind apprehends the forms and makes use of comparisons. Whether by some pre-incarnate experience, a connection to the Holy Spirit or a tie of our conscious mind to the collective unconscious or some combination of all three we become aware of the forms and use them as comparison.

To me, Santa Claus as a true form is the most consequential proof of Santa Claus. This semester, like all semesters, I asked my students to engage in a service learning process. As is normal in the fall semester, many students chose to work with some organization preparing in some way for Christmas. There were a number of such charities helped. Literally thousands of dollars were raised for charities such as "Toys for Tots," "Shop with a Cop," the school backpack program, local food pantries and specific groups gathering food for Christmas dinners for those who can't afford it. The students worked mostly anonymously to gather goods and money, most donated anonymously. All presented for the joy of others that they will never see and from whom they can never hear a "thank you."

And in this moment, I have one of those peak experiences that Jung and Plato discussed. I see a shadow of Santa Claus, even if I don't hear him "ho-ho-ho." This person who comes and gives generously in the night, not waiting for or wanting a "thank you." This person who ties his generosity in time of year to the ultimate act of generosity, the giving of God's son. This person whose red suit is bright in the dark of the year and warm in the cold of the year. We don't see Santa Claus, but we see his shadow, as he becomes the face for our own anonymous generosity. Those ways in which we reach out and disappear neither waiting for nor even wanting gratitude.

This shadow of Santa Claus is the surest evidence of his existence, even greater than his social construction. Certainly, mathematically and scientifically, the truth of Santa Claus is very difficult to find. Still that doesn't mean he isn't real. It just means that he is too generous to wait for a thank-you. If you still do not believe in Santa, I really think you're missing something important. You are probably missing a part of yourself. I really feel sorry for you.

Monday, December 5, 2011

I love Christmas

I love it all:

I love the fruitcake, the eggnog, the gingerbread, the multiple dinners at every organization of which I'm a part and right now, I am not going to worry about the diet.

I love the trees, the tinsel, the holly the mistletoe and the brightly wrapped gifts, and no, I do not think I am worshiping Odin if I kiss my wife beneath those poisoned berries.

I love the cheesy specials on TV and the campy songs in every store and I am well aware that they are cheesy and campy but they are wonderful.

I love that it lasts from Halloween to New Years and that Thanksgiving gets caught up in it because you'd have to have the worst kind of obsessive compulsive disorder to want “one holiday at a time.”

I like shopping for gifts for friends, family, the less fortunate and the most fortunate.

I love Santa Clause and can prove that he's real and that while he may not be the “reason for the season” he is part of the celebration.

I love the giving and receiving, and don't worry if it is too “materialistic.”

I love candle-light church services, where the wax burns the hand and I am not concerned about the fire danger.

I love pine needles on the floor and the cat in the tree and yes, it is a mess, and no, I don't care.

I love dashing through the snow, driving across the country during the worst weather of the year, the one time of year when it is the most foolish to travel and if I die on the road, I die with a carol in my heart.

I love the baby in the manger and don't care that we don't know, historically, when his birthday might have been.

I like little girls dressed up as angels and don't care that all the angels mentioned in the Bible are masculine.

I love the shepherds and the wisemen and I don't care if they weren't there on the same day, and the wise men came later, once Mary and Joseph had found a house; they're all in the barn with the little drummer boy for me and Mary is HAPPY to have some kid banging on a drum in front of her newborn.

I love Christmas and I celebrate extravagantly because the Nativity is something worth celebrating extravagantly and if you don't like it, I'll take your share, and you can go lock yourself up in your house and develop seasonal affective disorder, but don't try to foist your negativity on those of us who are having fun.