Sunday, 17 January 2016

Santa Claus: The truth! (And the usefulness)

It's a nice feeling to get a paper accepted.  Then comes the crunch moment when you realize that you said something silly and it's now preserved in print.

In 2014, I had a paper published in J.Doc about the evolution of information.  In it I argued that:
"the beliefs of any culture lead to practices that can be fitted into one of three categories. There will be some that are useful for all people for all time; some that were useful for some people at some time; and some that were never useful for anyone at any time."

I was being cautious.  Originally I had meant to write that beliefs were true for all time, for some time or for no time, but was daunted by the philosophical baggage associated with the word truth so I chose instead, to refer to usefulness.  That was a big mistake.  Last month's discussion was an example of why.

The topic was: "When did you stop believing in Santa?  Why?  If you still believe in Santa, please come prepared to present evidence.  If your  culture is a Santa-free zone, who or what is the equivalent in your culture?"

Not surprisingly, none of those who attended believed in Santa.  Sadly, we didn't have anyone from another culture who was prepared to nominate a Santa equivalent.  What emerged from discussion though, was the fact that Santa Claus is a very creepy individual.  An old man who spends 364 days of the year monitoring the behaviour of children and who is capable of sneaking unseen into their bedrooms at night would, in most other circumstances, be an object of fear rather than affection.  As it turned out, we weren't the first people to have that thought, and Santa Claus has featured in at least one horror film.

However, Santa Claus is an example of where utility and truth diverge.  His myth is, I'm fairly certain, one that few adults have ever believed.  However, like many myths without truth, it is useful. A point that was made by more than one person at the discussion was the role that Santa Claus plays in coercing excitable children to go to bed quietly on Christmas Eve.  He is a metaphysical protection racket: Behave - Or else!

Santa Claus is an example of why, in all probability, there have been no beliefs that have been useful for nobody at any time.  Even ones that are clearly and demonstrably untrue can be put to use by someone.

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