Monday, 30 December 2013

Santa Claus: As likely true as not

[Eds' note: We are pleased to present the annual Social Interface Christmas post by Colin B. Picker. We look forward to hosting more vibrant discussions and debates around the social implications of technology in 2014; in the meantime, wishing you all happy holidays and a great new year.]

Colin B. Picker

This post will, using logic and relying on the current inadequacy of science and technology, show that it may be legitimate for a free-thinking person to believe in Santa Claus.  

Were that not enough, this post may also allay concerns that person may have about mortality.

The route to permitting a free-thinking person to legitimately believe in Santa Claus will start with a rather fundamental concern – mortality.  Mortality can be considered in the context of the three fundamental views of existence, which can be simply stated as three possibilities:
  1. I do not exist
  2. I exist but everyone else is an illusion
  3. I and everyone else exists.
If option one is true then there is no meaning to death, for if I do not exist now then my cessation to exist later, my mortality, is simply not possible.

If option two is true then without me there is no existence, so my non-existence is not possible or makes no sense.

If option three is true it means that others like ourselves exist, which means they too think and have a consciousness.

Here is where science and technology enter the discussion.  At the moment, science and technology cannot explain consciousness other than describing some correlated physical activities within the brain (e.g. neurons shooting off here and there).  The truth is that, despite great advances in medical science and technology, we are no closer to scientifically understanding consciousness than prehistoric humans were to understanding the television.  We really have no idea from a scientific perspective what happens to consciousness when a person dies.  Certainly, we know that the associated neural and other currently understood physical activity ceases with death, but the scientific connection of neural activity to consciousness, thinking and existing, is rudimentary at best.

Science may at some point in the future unravel the connections between consciousness and how the body, specifically the brain, works.  But until then, at a fundamental level science and technology remain almost completely out of the picture in understanding what happens to our consciousness when we die.

As such, all sorts of possibilities remain.  The conventional, non-mystical/spiritual/religious view is that consciousness ceases when we die.  But given the lack of any real understanding of what makes up consciousness, it seems that logically other possibilities may exist.  True, proof for those other possibilities is essentially non-existent, but then there is equally no proof of the expiration of consciousness at death.  

The idea of a soul, a non-corporeal embodiment of our identity, is logically not an invalid option.  So too, heaven, Valhalla, reincarnation or anything that our imagination can conjure up.  All of those possibilities are not ruled out by our current scientific and technological understandings.

So, an agnostic or atheist need not assume that the only alternative option to non-existence at death are those presented by religions.  Scientific understandings today do not require an atheist to accept non-existence at death.  That is but one of the many possibilities opened up by our uncertainty, and arguably it may make as much sense to choose to believe a scenario that is most comforting and most allays one’s concerns about mortality.  The interface with science and technology here is thus through the absence of science and technology.

So, how can this be related to Santa Claus – whose existence is for many a more fundamental question at this time of year?  The answer lies, as it did for our concerns about mortality, in considering the three possibilities that explain our existence.

Under scenario one above - that we do not exist - then presumably too Santa would not exist.  But then we would not care for we too would not exist.  Under scenario two in which I (or you the reader) exist alone, Santa could not then exist (as he is not me or you, the reader).  But then no one else would exist, in which case concern about Santa’s existence would pale by comparison for one’s concern about the non-existence of loved ones.

Rather, it is with the third option - that we all exist - that the likelihood or potential for Santa’s existence is revealed.  As noted above, given the fact that we have no clue about what happens to our consciousness on death, we can then just as plausibly argue that our consciousness does indeed wing its way up to heaven, or to Valhalla or be reincarnated – with all the gods and bible stories and other beliefs that go along with those views.  With the freedom to believe any of these scenarios, it is but a short leap to assume that, as with the afterlife, there may be other fantastic things in the universe that interact with our life even before death.  And among those fantastic things that we are permitted to accept as not unlikely may be an elderly red-suited jolly gentleman, riding a sleigh through the sky, pulled by magical reindeers, delivering presents to children throughout the world.

Image by Kevin Dooley, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

1 comment:

  1. What is existence? What is consciousness? What is "I"? This post has as many interpretations as there are answers to these questions.