It’s still the Christmas season, and so it remains the season to lie to children. On September 21 1897 an editorial was published in the New York Sun that we’ve all heard of. “Yes Virgina, there is a Santa Claus ” is the title, a response in the affirmative to an 8 year old girl asking about the existence of Santa. Here is young Virginia’s question, coming after a short preamble:
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Clause?
A simple, direct, and sincere question. A child’s question. The polite and pleading ‘please’ is what gets to me. Like all children Virginia is curious, and like all children she wants the truth. And if you actually read the reply in the editorial you will see that she gets anything but.
According to Wikipedia, the response to Virginia’s question was written by one of the Sun’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church. It has become part of Christmas folklore and is the most reprinted editorial ever to appear in an English language newspaper. It is also, if you actually read it, a heaping pile of bullshit.
I had an idea to write my own response to Virgina, one more honest, yet sensitive to the feelings of an eight year old girl. I was having some trouble figuring out exactly what to say when I realized that this idea was probably far from original. It was with some relief that a bit of googling quickly came up with a great reply, which you can read it here. It uses the same structure and tone of Church’s reply, but essentially inverts what he says.
With that burden lifted, I still wanted to write a few words about how the “arguments” that Chruch puts forward in defense of the existence of Santa Clause are the same that are often put forward for the existence of god.
Argument From Personal Incredulity
Church’s first justification for believing in Santa goes like this:
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.
This is the fallacy of the argument from incredulity or lack of imagination. It’s often proffered for the existing of god, going something like “I can’t imagine a world in which god didn’t exist!” or “The world would be such a cold and horrible place if god didn’t exist!”.
Argument From Ignorance
Then Church brings out another fallacy:
Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.
The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as it were. “You can’t prove god doesn’t exist!”. This type of argumentation was most famously refuted by Bertrand Rusell’s teapot. Russell posited the existence of a celestial teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between the Earth and Mars, pointing out the absurdity of claims that the onus is on skeptics to disprove the existence of the teapot, rather than his to provide evidence that it exists.
And that’s about it, other than some maudlin and obscurantist connective tissue. Those two logical fallacies are the heart of Church’s proof of Santa. But where’s the harm you may ask, he’s just providing comfort to a little girl. Well where is the benefit? Virginia was going to learn the truth eventually, and probably sooner rather than later. If she learned anything, she learned that adults lie. If she learned anything useful, she learned not to trust newspaper editors. Read that article, No Virginia, that was mentioned above…would she really have been harmed by being told the truth?
Perhaps this is taking a century old response to a child too seriously. But, while I think Virginia wasn’t fairly treated, I think the editorial can be beneficial in responding to fallacious arguments for the existence of god. If someone uses either of the fallacies that Church did to justify belief in the existence of god, you can respond that those same arguments were used to prove the existence of Santa Claus….to an eight year old girl. More effective that naming the logical fallacies, I think.