Archives December 2007

Yes, Virginia, You Can Rationalize Santa Claus

I thought I was being satirical when I wrote this post, justifying belief in Santa Claus in the same way that, as I see it, sophisticated believers justify belief in God. But then I realized that my post was already written 110 years ago, in the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the editorial’s reply to Virginia. Try substituting “God” for “Santa Claus”, and count how many arguments still make sense, and how many are routinely used

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

I admit that I’ve been Poed. I don’t see any significant difference between my parody and this apparently sincere bit of Santapologetics.

A Mystery Solved

Felix Leiter has appeared in 9 of the 20-some Bond movies. But he always looks different (except for Live and Let Die and License to Kill). He’s usually white, but was once black. Not only that, but in License to Kill, one of his legs was bitten off by a shark, but it was whole again in Casino Royale.

There is only one possible explanation: clearly the man is a Time Lord.

Christmas Hermeneutics

Over at External Delivery the Future, Lacie Cuskin is pushing an idea called “External Delivery”, that Christmas presents are delivered by an intelligent agent of some sort. Although ED proponents are careful never to name the agent in question, it should be obvious to the meanest intellect that ED is merely Santa Clausism in a business suit, to make it seem sensible and avoid playground teasing.

Yet radical asantaists who deny the existence of Santa Claus in such vitriolic screeds as The Santa Claus Fantasy, Unwrapping the Gift, and Santa Claus Is Not Jolly, also miss the boat, by addressing a naïve conception of Santa Claus.

Yes, parentism appears to be true as far as it goes. The evidence, from analysis of gift tags to wrapping stations at shopping malls, is too overwhelming. If we could place a video camera by the tree on Christmas Eve, it would not record anything, and certainly not an overweight man with a bag of toys. Satellite photography shows no signs of a workshop at the north pole, and NORAD’s Santa Tracking Station is a known fraud. There is no literal Grinch and no coal in anyone’s stocking. But reflective santaists believe that such a caricature of Christmas tradition is ontologically unsupportable, and it is unfair to lump all those who believe in Santa in with the first-graders.

According to the wealth of dense, scholarly, and unpopular literature on the subject, the true nature of Santa Claus is not something as crude as a jolly old elf, nor even as an entity separate from one’s parents. It would be more accurate to say that Santa Claus is the spirit of giving, who reveals himself most clearly in acts of gift-giving around the northern winter solstice.

Militant asantaists may object that there is no evidence that Santa gives gifts to parents to deliver to children. This is the Santaist Parentist (SP) position, and while we cannot exclude such an interpretation a priori, it is not necessary to a proper appreciation of Santa.

It is as good or better to give than to receive, and such generosity is in itself a gift. Thus Santa is at once the gift given, the gift received, and the spirit of giving. These three parts are distinct, yet inseparable from each other, sharing a common essence. Those who clamor for “evidence” for Santa Claus are on a fool’s quest, for Santa is not a material being, and no such evidence can exist which would satisfy the hard-core asantaist. There is no point pointing at studies showing that letters to Santa are answered at a rate no better than chance. When I write a letter to Santa, it is not a request for a particular gift—though it may take that form—but rather communion with the spirit of giving, and gifts, and Christmas.

A proper understanding of the true nature of Santa leads to a deeper and richer understanding of Christmas stories such as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and classic TV specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. No one seriously believes that these stories are anything but Santa-inspired multi-layered allegories told in a manner understandable by children. And when I give someone a gift, the experience is much more rewarding with the understanding that while I was the one who picked, bought, and wrapped the gift, I was nonetheless moved by the spirit of Santa Claus in accordance with his wishes for his grand Christmas design.

(Update, Dec. 29, 2007: Turns out I wasn’t kidding.)

Doing the IDers’ Research for Them

In Pinker’s How the Mind Works, there’s a brief passage on artifacts (pp. 327-329 in my copy) that caught my eye because of its connection with creationism.

Artifacts come with being human. We make tools, and as we evolved our tools made us. One-year-old babies are fascinated by what objects can do for them. They tinker obsessively with sticks for pushing, cloth and strings for pulling, and supports for holding things up. As soon as they can be tested on tool use, around eighteen months, children show an understanding that tools have to contact their material and that a tool’s rigidity and shape are more important than its color or ornamentation. Some patients with brain damage cannot name natural objects but can name artifacts, or vice versa, suggesting that artifacts and natural kinds might even be stored in different ways in the brain.


  • Brown, A.L. 1990. Domain-specific-principles affect learning and transfer in children. Cognitive Science, 14, 107-133.
  • Hillis, A.E., & Caramazza, A. 1991. Category-specific naming and comprehension impairment: A double dissociation. Brain, 114, 2081-2094.
  • Farah, M.J., 1990. Visual agnosia. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

(Emphasis added, and list of references expanded from endnotes and

This seems to me to have a direct bearing on creationist arguments like William Dembski’s Mount Rushmore example:

Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. Proponents of intelligent design, known as design theorists, purport to study such signs formally, rigorously, and scientifically. Intelligent design may therefore be defined as the science that studies signs of intelligence.

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Who’s Waging the War on Christmas?

It’s December, which means it’s time for the annual War on Christmas™, in which the latest volley was fired by Albert Mohler in a column about a comment of Richard Dawkins’s in which he said that he intends to celebrate Christmas like any normal Englishman who happens to like decorated trees and getting together with friends and family.

We can only wonder which Christmas carols are Richard Dawkins’ favorites. The sight of an avowed atheist joining in the Christmas chorus is a bit hard to imagine. At the same time, there is something comforting about the idea that even the world’s most famous atheist will move his lips to the songs that celebrate Christ’s birth.

Mohler’s obviously limited imagination must be challenged all the time by people mouthing words that they know to be untrue or impossible, like carolers singing Frosty the Snowman, performers in Wagnerian operas full of Germanic gods, or Dana Perino defending Dubya’s latest blunder.

But let’s take a look at what Christmas is today, and how it got to be that way.

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Further Thoughts on Musical Evo-Devo

I keep thinking off and on about writing a program to apply evo-devo to musical composition (part 2 ). There are tons of problems to solve, of course, but I may have made some progress.

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Religion and Sex

Evangelicals like to tell us that sex should take place within the confines of marriage, and only for purposes of procreation. But in fact, the situation is much more complex. In his book Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (1987), James A. Brundage compiled a list of various restrictions on sex from religious sources, and put them together in this handy flowchart (click to embiggen):

(Thanks to for the pointer.)


Well, it finally happened: the diocese of San Joaqin has split off from the Episcopal church, over a question of whether women and gays are human enough to hold high rank in the church.

It does raise the question, though, of why they didn’t just ask God what he thinks.

The Golden Compass

I just saw the Golden Compass movie. I agree with PZ when he says that you’re going to be seeing the word “disappointing” in a lot of reviews.

Mild spoilers after the jump.

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Atheism-Friendly Editorial in the Post

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s speech, the Washington Post has an editorial that makes some of the same points that I did.

Where Mr. Romney most fell short, though, was in his failure to recognize that America is composed of citizens not only of different faiths but of no faith at all and that the genius of America is to treat them all with equal dignity. “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom,” Mr. Romney said. But societies can be both secular and free. The magnificent cathedrals of Europe may be empty, as Mr. Romney said, but the democracies of Europe are thriving.