Is Santa Claus real? That’s a question I had to deal with directly this year. I guess it’s something of a right of passage for parents who celebrate Christmas. I had a bit of a hard time answering it because the answer depends on some deep philosophical problems that I haven’t been able to satisfactorily work out yet. Don’t expect any definitive answers here. I’m just trying to figure out where I’m at.
From one perspective, and this is probably the more common perspective, Santa is obviously not real. There is no one who flies a sleigh, goes down chimneys, and puts presents under trees. Parents buy the presents and put them under the tree. Mostly everyone over the age of ten knows this.
The other perspective is, basically, if Santa is not real, what am I even writing about right now. If something doesn’t exist, it can’t be talked about. There’s no describing nothing. It’s nothing. So, if we’re talking about Santa, there must be something that is Santa. Santa must be real.
To take it a step further, people can be right or wrong when they talk about Santa. It is true that Santa has a beard. It is false that Santa hates kids. These are facts. How can there be facts about something that isn’t real?* It seems that the first perspective must be wrong. Santa must be real in some sense.
The question then becomes, in what sense is Santa real? This is where it gets tricky. There are some obvious contenders, but none of them are really satisfying. One is what is usually called social reality. This is the idea that society can make something real through collective agreement. Money is a common example. Money really does have value, but there is no value in little pieces of paper. Money is valuable because we all agree that it has value. The agreement is what confers the value (This is part of why the Libertarian insistence on a gold standard is so ridiculous.), and we really can buy things with our money. I believe in social reality, it is really real, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s happening with Santa. I mentioned before that most people over the age of ten don’t believe in Santa, so how can there be a collective agreement about Santa that makes him real? Plus, he doesn’t seem to be the same type of thing as money. His reality must be in some other sense.
A second contender is some kind of Platonism. Platonism can get pretty complicated, but the simplest way I can explain it is that there is a world (or plane or dimension or something) of ideas (also known as forms). These ideas are what is really real. The things that we experience are physical manifestations of the ideas. It seems easy to scoff at, but a lot of very smart people take Platonism seriously, especially Mathematical Platonism. And there’s a definite appeal of this view. It easily explains Santa’s realness. There’s an idea of Santa. (It’s off topic, but I really like the idea that there are noncorporeal entities that correspond to unicorns and dragons and such.) And it explains how there can be facts about Santa. Ultimately, I can’t buy it, though. I don’t see how we can experience or learn about the world of ideas. Plato tried to get there, but he had to introduce so much baggage to do so, I can’t follow him. Platonism becomes like the Many Worlds Theory. It’s fun to speculate about, but if it’s impossible to experience it, there’s no point to believing it.
My favorite contender is Karl Popper’s Three Worlds Theory. Popper said that there are three levels of reality called World 1, World 2, and World 3. World 1 is the physical world and events in the physical world. World 2 is the world of mental processes. And World 3 is the products of World 2 that feed back and have an effect on Worlds 1 and 2. World 3 is everything from scientific theories to Hamlet. Like Platonism, this easily accounts for Santa being real and for facts about Santa. But, better than Platonism, our interaction with World 3 entities is obvious, we create them by thinking about them. Honestly, I really like this theory. I wish I could accept it as the definitive answer. But, I have a problem with the three part division. When, and how, does a mental process become a World 3 entity? How is Hamlet any different than the mental process that created Hamlet? You can say that Hamlet has been written down and shared with others, but the writing and sharing are World 1 objects. Those World 1 objects can cause World 2 objects in other people. World 3 almost seems extra. And then it starts falling into the same traps as Platonism.
So, where does that leave us? It seems that Santa Claus is real, in some sense, but I can’t give any satisfactory description of what that sense is. Maybe Santa is a mental process, or maybe he’s the result of a mental process. That’s as far as I can get. I hope this goes some way towards explaining how a 45 year old man still believes in Santa Claus. I’m sure I’ll keep thinking about it. Maybe I can give a better answer next Christmas.
*I just wanted to share this story. A while ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who was complaining about the Twilight books. I’ve never read them, vampires were never really my thing, but my friend was complaining that the vampires in the books glow when they’re in sunlight, and that’s not how real vampires work. I played devil’s advocate and defended Twilight. It’s Stephanie Meyer’s fictional world, so she can have vampires do anything she wants. But, I completely understand what my friend was trying to say.