Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Santa's Existence Studied, Revealed

Eric Kaplan, one of the writers for television show The Big Bang Theory, has planned a playdate between his son, Ari, and his son's classmate, Schuyler. At the last second, Schuyler's mother cancels. The issue? It is near Christmas and Ari doesn't believe in Santa Claus while Schuyler does. Schuyler's mother, Tammi, does not want her son's belief in Santa Claus threatened by Ari's non-belief, so the playdate is off.

This gets Kaplan thinking. What does it mean to "believe" in Santa Claus? Does Tammi believe in Santa Claus? If she doesn't then is she just lying to her son? Does she both believe and not believe? Is that possible? If someone believes in something that obviously doesn't exist, wouldn't that make them, well, insane? What does it mean to exist anyway? Is there some sense in which Santa Clause really does exist? Kaplan realizes he doesn't really know, and sets about trying to figure it out. The result is Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation.

This is a nice holiday book. It makes references to a lot of your favorite Christmas stories. It has--spoiler alert--a feel good ending. It's also very funny, though not quiet as funny as the movie Elf, the funniest Christmas tale of all time.

That said, it is probably unlike any other holiday book you'll ever read. Does Santa Exist truly is a work of philosophy above all else. Kaplan takes the task of determining Santa's existence very seriously and dives into some pretty deep stuff. He makes it all easy to follow, but beware that your mind might get bent in some funny directions all the same.

Here are some of Kaplan's possible answers to the question does Santa exist:
1. No. Don't be ridiculous.
2. Yes, of course.
3. Yes and no.
4. Neither yes nor no.
5. What a funny question!
6. It's complicated, but . . .

Kaplan begins by approaching the problem with logic. Logic, you might expect would yield a simple answer: no, Santa does not exist. After all, there's no real evidence for his existence, no elves, no real way he could fit down a chimney especially when most homes don't even have chimneys, reindeer don't fly, etc. But Kaplan reminds us that logic and science, though related, are not the same thing. Science is concerned with evidence, logic demands that all the terms get defined. And once you start defining terms, any terms, things get messy. It turns out that no matter how hard you try to get out of it, logic fails because it always contradicts itself. Consider the sentence "This sentence is a lie." Logic has no way to resolve the problem it poses: that the sentence is true if it's false and false if it's true. This might seem like a small problem, but it's actually huge. It breaks the whole system of logic.

So if logic contradicts itself it can't help us resolve the contradiction that is Santa Clause, a being whose existence is in perpetual question.

Kaplan then proposes several approaches to dealing with this contraction and contradiction in general. We can't resolve it, so why not embrace it? Mystics, practitioners of Buddhism and Hinduism in particular invite the contradiction, see it as revealing that all of reality is an illusion. Kaplan entertains this for a while, but finds it unsatisfying and ultimately dangerous. It's fine, he figures, to consider your own life an illusion, but mysticism insists that everything is an illusion and this can leave you detached and distant, or even dangerously sociopathic. Not ideal. And it leads to the answer "Santa, like everything else, is an illusion. And even the illusion of Santa is an illusion." Hm.

A better approach to contradiction, Kaplan suggests, is comedy. Comedy allows us to embrace contradictions and paradoxes in ways that are healthy and even uplifting. (Not all comedy, he concedes. Comedy can be cruel, such as when a bully hits you in the face with your own hands and asks "Why are you hitting yourself?") Good comedy offers a way out of the conundrum and a way of confronting embarrassing, uncomfortable or downright scary subjects. Kaplan cites a Robert Schimmel joke: "My son got cancer and I thought that was really bad. But then I got cancer." Kaplan takes this joke and a number of other jokes apart to see how they work on us. That's not as much fun as just laughing at jokes, but it is instructive.

As heady as all this philosophy sounds, for Kaplan it is an intensely personal journey. He shares a great deal of his own difficult childhood, personal development and growth, humorously addressing readers as if we're sitting in the room hashing this stuff out with him. With these revelations he suggests that all this thinking really is a way out (though not the only way) of stress, difficulty, and crisis. I won't reveal exactly what he decides about Santa's existence, but as I've indicated, Kaplan's story has a happy ending. And, he suggests, yours can too.

Happy Holidays and all that.

The publisher provided me with time-limited eBook galley for this review.

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Billy Kravitz said...

We believed in PaPa Mattathias, called PAPA MATTI, the Priest of Modin (Hanukah Story) who lives far beyond miraculous River Sambation and flies from CASTLE MODIN in his SILVER CHARIOT pulled by matching white steeds ( THEBES & MEGGIDO) descended from Solomon's own stables, with THE CHEST OF GOLD filled with presents made by THE CHERUBS of JERUSALEM for all good and reverent children on FIRST NIGHT of THE FEAST OF THE REDEDICATION (Hanukah). He wears a long, white. ermine trimmed hooded robe (Liberace had one just like it)but PAPA MATTI'S is nicer..And when dreydls and foil wrapped chocolate coins dance and spin by themselves we know he's near....You NEVER heard of PAPA MATTI?

mr chompchomp said...

I never have. But wow!