Mistakes I’ve made, part 2: Father Christmas

I believed in Father Christmas for longer than I believed in God. This is mostly surprising because it is unusual. There was both more evidence for Father Christmas, and more motivation to propel cognition.

I stopped ‘believing’ in Father Christmas in grade seven, when my drama teacher cavalierly mentioned his unreality. It wasn’t shocking—more a feeling of something I knew somewhere in my heart being made official. It was a bit embarrassing.

How could I neglect to explicitly infer the lack of a Father Christmas until then?

I don’t think my epistemic failures here were embarrassing for a human, given the proliferation of supernatural objects of belief, and the fact that Father Christmas alone among them actually leaves concrete stuff that you wish for.

My guess is that most people do better, not by noticing their confusion, but by interacting more with other children. Noticing confusion would also alert people to the implausibility of other supernatural things (unless perhaps it is the very evidence for Father Christmas which makes him confusing). And contact with subject matter experts is known to be a good prophylactic against being wrong.

But what if I wanted to instruct my past self on how to independently notice that Father Christmas was implausible? What should have been clues, to someone fairly ignorant about the world?

Father Christmas purportedly travels very fast, and delivers more presents than might fit in a sleigh. Also his sleigh can fly. From a child’s perspective though, many things travel very fast. Especially ones that fly. Not usually ones that are propelled by reindeer, but it wouldn’t be shocking if the reindeer were not the main engine, or if the illustrations portrayed the vehicle somewhat whimsically. Having a lot of presents could also be explained by being able to move things fast. Father Christmas himself would also have to move very fast, compared to a human. Though it also shouldn’t be surprising if much of his effort were outsourced; we also say that Steve Jobs made the iPhone. Nonetheless, one could notice that these speeds were suspiciously high.

This would require some understanding of contemporary technology, since such speeds are not obviously inconceivable for any technology. This is complicated by the world being big and varied. For instance, these days I sometimes hear that people elsewhere in the world are doing things well beyond the technological capability of people and companies I usually interact with. For instance, creating exotic physical particles or going to Mars. Yet I don’t usually suspect it at all. Should I? For better or worse, I believe other groups have technology that is much better than that in commercial use, and am not very surprised by it.

Perhaps I should have noticed that there was a more plausible explanation? The real explanation, as it turns out, is that there is a global conspiracy by one demographic group against another. The ‘very large scale conspiracy’ hypothesis is perhaps best known for its role as a reductio against theories that requires its truth. So I’m not sure that this alternative should have jumped out at me. Maybe I should give such theories more credence, given Father Christmas. My guess is mostly not, but that global conspiracies can grow from smaller conspiracies which become tradition and then spread.

Father Christmas has other surprising purported characteristics, such as an abundant appetite and access to all buildings. But presumably he doesn’t eat all the cookies at the time, and we used to leave the door open for him.

I’m not actually convinced that I should have done better, as an ignorant child independently assessing Father Christmas. Had I looked into the technology purportedly being used, then I should have done better. However I’m not sure Father Christmas should have stood out as the most worthy target of deeper investigation, even if I had been sensible enough to investigate the most worthy targets of deeper investigation. So, if I made mistakes, probably I’m still making them! Do you have better hints for cheaply being appropriately confused?

7 responses to “Mistakes I’ve made, part 2: Father Christmas

  1. Arguably, you failed to search for conclusive evidence. There are plenty of books in the world that mention the nonexistence of Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny, etc). You also could probably have found an adult willing to tell you the truth if you’d pushed hard on the issue or asked a truthful stranger somehow. And, as you mention, there were other children who’d known the truth before you.

    Evidence about Santa’s nonexistence is common enough that you ran into it on accident. So if you had actively looked for such evidence, you would probably have found it sooner.

  2. Some mistakes aren’t worth the opportunity cost of the resources needed to correct them; I think this was one of them (and that there are lots of them in general). I mean, it’s not like you were making any major decisions where your belief in Santa would have been a major factor.

    But a general idea you could have picked up that might have helped in this and other related cases is to think about parents as having systematically different incentives from their children, which causes them to lie to them in various ways (e.g. as discussed in this Paul Graham essay). Once you have this idea, it’s grounds for questioning a bunch of things you were told as a kid, including but not limited to Santa, religion, the value of hard work, the value of listening to authority, etc. But the idea that various institutions have systematically different incentives from the people they’re supposed to serve is even broader than that, and can be applied to e.g. the media, schools, corporations…

  3. I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly, but I remember figuring this out in the 2nd or 3rd grade because the world is *really big*. There are *a lot of homes*.

  4. I actually remember this as being one of the first times I successfully noticed I was confused. People told me there was a Santa Claus, but I saw enough TV shows where people questioned that belief to know that his existence was in doubt. I also read all the newspaper comic strips as a child, even those aimed at adults, and noticed that many of them treated Santa’s nonexistence as an undisputed fact. I sought out more evidence like this, until I eventually realized that Santa was a myth.

    Like cservaas, realizing how big the world was also factored in. I think the book “How Much is a Million” really helped me understand how big numbers were.

  5. Pingback: Mistakes #4: breaking Chesterton’s fence in the presence of bull | Meteuphoric

  6. Pingback: Mistakes #5: Blinded by winning | Meteuphoric

  7. Pingback: Mistakes #6: Identifying reality slowly | Meteuphoric

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