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200 shopping days till Christmas! - Sally's Journal
June 8th, 2007
04:49 pm

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200 shopping days till Christmas!

You are a small child. You are a blank slate when it comes to Christmas. You write a letter to Santa and give it to your mum to give to Santa. On Christmas day, the exact thing you asked for in your letter turns up with "from Santa" stuck on it. You...

have some evidence Santa exists
10(15.4%)
have no evidence Santa exists
0(0.0%)
have some evidence Santa doesn't exist
0(0.0%)
have no evidence Santa doesn't exist
1(1.5%)
Think that Santa exists
5(7.7%)
Think that Santa doesn't exist
0(0.0%)

Next year, the same thing happens. Also, you leave a mince pie for Santa, and it gets eaten. But, you catch your mum wrapping a present of exactly the same thing you asked for in the same wrapping paper that your present from Santa turns up in! You...

have some evidence Santa exists
4(6.2%)
have no evidence Santa exists
1(1.5%)
have some evidence Santa doesn't exist
9(13.8%)
have no evidence Santa doesn't exist
0(0.0%)
Think that Santa exists
2(3.1%)
Think that Santa doesn't exist
0(0.0%)

You're 18. No matter how slow you were, you've sussed the whole thing now. It was your parents all along. Still, you still leave out mince pies for Santa, because that's what you do. They get eaten, too. You...

have some evidence Santa exists
2(3.0%)
have no evidence Santa exists
2(3.0%)
have some evidence Santa doesn't exist
0(0.0%)
have no evidence Santa doesn't exist
1(1.5%)
Think that Santa exists
2(3.0%)
Think that Santa doesn't exist
7(10.6%)

(56 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
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From:ixwin
Date:June 8th, 2007 03:56 pm (UTC)
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They get eaten in a house with a load of people = no evidence of anything. They get eaten in a locked house where you're the only one around and you don't remember eating them (despite not being drunk etc.) = evidence of something odd happening, even if it's not Santa.
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From:robert_jones
Date:June 9th, 2007 09:07 am (UTC)
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They get eaten in a house with a load of people = no evidence of anything.

I'm not sure about that. I assume that they are in some way identified as being mince pies for Santa. People don't usually eat other people's food. Therefore, all other things being equal, if they have been eaten there is evidence that Santa has come and eaten them. After all, if they had been marked "for ixwin, and they had gone, one would conclude that you had probably eaten them. It is only because we have prior knowledge that Santa doesn't exist and therefore hasn't eaten them that we don't reach that conclusion.
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From:lnr
Date:June 8th, 2007 04:10 pm (UTC)
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I hvae *never* caught my mum with the Santa wrapping paper. She's that good at it :-)

This year I had to drink the tot left for santa myself, because no-one else would, and it was whisky not sherry cos we'd run out. But it was still left.
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From:naath
Date:June 8th, 2007 04:13 pm (UTC)
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I don't think the "evidence that santa exists" goes *away*, but rather that you find a better reason for its existence. Of course you could still say that it is evidence for Santa.
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From:robert_jones
Date:June 9th, 2007 09:09 am (UTC)
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Well quite. If you had evidence when you were five, then you still have evidence when you're twenty-five, it's just outweighed by contrary evidence.
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From:simont
Date:June 8th, 2007 04:26 pm (UTC)
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My interpretation of this entire poll is that it's got very little at all to do with Santa, and is mostly asking "what does it mean to have evidence for something?". (Let me know whether that was accurate or not :-)

I would find it much easier to answer if all the questions had talked about "evidence to suggest Santa exists / doesn't exist", because that's much better defined: it means that the evidence tells you that a certain hypothesis, if you had previously not had it under test, might be worth considering. On that basis, sending a letter to someone your trusted parent tells you is Santa and having it apparently answered certainly does tell you that the hypothesis of Santa's existence is worth at least some consideration. And seeing your mum wrapping what looks like your present certainly does tell you that the hypothesis of Santa's non-existence is worth consideration as well. And these are not contradictory, because it's perfectly sensible for two opposed hypotheses to both be possible explanations for the currently observed facts.

I also think one could reasonably argue that the apparent answering of a letter constituted evidence supporting Santa's existence, in that the more times such letters do get answered, and the more unrelated circumstances they get answered in (for example, if you visit your aunt one Christmas and give her your letter to Santa, and it gets answered just the same), the more you are reasonably justified in considering the hypothesis of Santa's existence to be looking more plausible. Because the effect of that supporting evidence is to change your options from "either Santa exists or Mummy had a joke on me last month" to "either Santa exists or Mummy and Aunt Enid are collaborating over the course of years in an ongoing and deliberate attempt to fool me", and clearly the alternative hypothesis is less credible in the latter case than in the former; and if you then talk to your friends at school and they talk about how their letters to Santa were answered as well, the required level of conspiracy escalates still further. It would be entirely reasonable for a small child presented with lots of this sort of supporting evidence to become more and more convinced of Santa's existence the more effort and collusion is required of the community of adults by the alternative hypothesis. But of course, we know the answer is that there is a dedicated and widespread conspiracy to convince small children that Santa exists, which is bad luck for all those scientifically rigorous kids.

But while I'm happy to say that the answering of my letter to Santa constitutes evidence suggesting Santa's existence, and to some extent also evidence supporting Santa's existence, I don't feel comfortable characterising the same event as "evidence that Santa exists", because when it's phrased like that it feels a little too much like "knowledge that", and by definition you can't have knowledge of a false thing (otherwise it wouldn't be knowledge, merely incorrect belief). Perhaps this interpretation of "evidence that" comes from its use in court cases, where it tends to be spun by the prosecution and defence as being basically equivalent to "proof that": not something which increases your current certainty of a hypothesis in a non-absolute and Bayesian manner, but something by which you are logically forced to believe in the statement it supports unless you can produce a specific reason why the evidence is flawed.

So, regrettably, I was unable to fill in the poll owing to linguistic confusion :-)
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From:cartesiandaemon
Date:June 8th, 2007 05:13 pm (UTC)
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Yeah.
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From:rmc28
Date:June 8th, 2007 04:36 pm (UTC)
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I am inclined against teaching Charles about Santa.
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From:beckyc
Date:June 8th, 2007 05:22 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure what I would do. As you and atreic know, my religous tendencies are such that a)not lying and b)not celebrating arbitrary dates for religious festivals are the most correct and morally consistent course of action for me.

But it's (by and large) a nice conspiracy, and one that everyone needs to keep in order for it to work, so I'd also think that it was a shame if I didn't.

I wasn't ever brought up with the Easter Bunny though, and I don't recall ever upsetting anyone by telling them that it didn't exist. I actually don't remember when I twigged about Santa. I do recall that I was smart enough that I never let on (rather unusual for me - I was very learned, but never canny as a child), even after I was old enough that I was the one doing the Father Christmas shopping for my siblings (who I'm sure must also have cottoned on).
From:ex_robhu
Date:June 8th, 2007 05:01 pm (UTC)
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I hope this isn't about the argument we had on my blog. I hope not because it's a misrepresentation of what I said which was about what a specific phrase meant.

It would be much better to ask "If someone were to say: There is no evidence Santa exists to me I would"
* Say nothing, there is no evidence
* Look shocked, of course there is evidence, what about all the mince pies that get eaten!

The way you've posed the question implies a progression, and also doesn't take into account the fact that the child does not realise that there is no evidence which has stood up to scrutiny. The 'stood up to scrutiny' part is normally left out in the common use of the phrase "There is no evidence Santa exists".

Also we intentionally mislead children about Santa in a way that we don't (I hope) about God (which is what this question was about), so again it's misleading.
From:ex_robhu
Date:June 8th, 2007 05:49 pm (UTC)
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I thought about this in the car on the way back. A better poll to address the question in my blog would be:

"When someone says 'There is no evidence for the existence of Santa' do you understand them to mean 'There is no compelling evidence that has stood up to objective analysis for the existence of Santa'?" [Y/N]
[User Picture]
From:ptc24
Date:June 8th, 2007 05:29 pm (UTC)
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Multiple points;

1) It all depends on what your concept of Santa is. In Scenario 1, it's clear that a classic concept of Santa as "the guy that eats the presents and delivers the mince pies"[1]. Scenario 2 shows you that the hypothesis that you formed in Scenario 1 is wrong, and you need a replacement? But what replacement? Throw the theory out entirely, replacing it with a radical new hypothesis (it was Mum all along) or perhaps only a slightly modified version (Mum adds some presents 'cause Santa isn't always reliable at getting the right thing and she wouldn't want you to miss out on this special present). Well, if you've only got that one datum on top of what you knew from last year, then you might just get away with the slightly-modified hypothesis. After all, you're Mum's generally trustworthy, and so is more likely to tell a little lie (saying all of the presents are from Santa, when only most of them are) than a big like (saying they're from Santa when he doesn't exist). But add more and more data, not just from observations at Christmas, but also general knowledge about the way people and the world work, and before too long you've got enough evidence to shift over to the no-Santa paradigm.

But there's never enough evidence to be 100%, mathmo-grade conclusive. You could still have a Santa concept that carries a bunch of provisos that says he doesn't deliver if Mum's doing all the hard work, or if he isn't a part of the culture, or if... In short, you can still cook up a concept that's consistent with all of the directly relevant evidence, and as for implausibility; well, highly-intelligent people are known to believe in far stranger things. Occam's Razor says you should go for the no-Santa paradigm, but Occam's Razor is a kludge, if a rather good one.

So what of the disappearing mince pie? One datum. You could switch back to the with-Santa paradigm, with all of the crazy modifications. Or you could add an only slightly freaky modification to the no-Santa paradigm; your world now perhaps contains someone who's trying to mess with your head, or maybe you're just losing it and should see a shrink - these weren't previously part of your worldview, you had no evidence for such propositions, but you do now.

2) If you subscribe to an essentially Bayesian notion of knowledge, then all kinds of stuff ends up being countable as evidence - just very weak evidence. Spending too much time playing with machine learning techniques (like Naive Bayes) will do that to your worldview...

3) I'd have to spend far too long defining my terms before answering the poll, so I won't.

[1] Actually, vice versa, but it was amusing so I left the mistake in.
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From:arnhem
Date:June 8th, 2007 05:37 pm (UTC)
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At 18, if you choose to believe that Santa exists, they do. They're your parent and they're Santa, and it really doesn't matter, because you're indulging in the belief (and indeed, indulging the belief).

The thing is, there's nothing about the Santa myth that says that's bad or inappropriate. Indeed the process of migration from one belief state to another could be argued to be part of the point of Santa (or at least an intrinsic and unavoidable part of the experience).

I don't think any of this works for belief in a god (for any of the instances of religions involving a god that I'm aware of).
[User Picture]
From:vyvyan
Date:June 8th, 2007 05:42 pm (UTC)
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Actually, I can't ever remember a time when I believed in Father Christmas, even though my parents did try to make a stocking of presents "appear" at the end of my bed overnight. I guess I wasn't a blank slate where Christmas was concerned.

Re evidence, I think the "evidence Santa exists" turns into non-evidence between stages 2 and 3 because I reinterpret it as evidence for something else i.e. my mother reading the letters and eating the mince pies instead. A thing isn't "evidence" from some intrinsic property it has - until someone interprets it in some way, it's just a thing. At stage 1, the thing is "appearance of desired present after sending a relevant letter". The only hypothesis available is "Santa did it", so the "thing" becomes "evidence" for that. At stage 2, a new competing hypothesis arises: "my mum did it". Until I decide which hypothesis to favour, I have "evidence" for both. Once I decide (if I decide) that I favour the mum hypothesis, the "thing" becomes "evidence" for that hypothesis instead.

I think it's like words: a word doesn't have a "true, correct" intrinsic meaning - it's just a collection of sounds (or written symbols, hand gestures etc.) until some people place an interpretation on it. Then it "means" that...until people choose to interpret it a different way, at which point it "means" that other thing. It's pointless to say "but infer doesn't really mean that!" if the people using it are interpreting it that way.
From:mtbc100
Date:June 8th, 2007 06:07 pm (UTC)

200 days

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Huh, you're correct!
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From:atreic
Date:June 9th, 2007 10:02 am (UTC)

Re: 200 days

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I'm always right :-) It's called the Power of Google.
(Deleted comment)
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From:neoanjou
Date:June 8th, 2007 07:03 pm (UTC)
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Whats this with Santa - I thought we called him 'Father Christmas' in the U.K.

(In a less jestful mode I realise that individual family traditions are important and precious, and if her was called Santa in the ateric household I have no right to mock or criticise that.)
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From:atreic
Date:June 9th, 2007 10:47 am (UTC)
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I wonder if Santa is a north/south thing, or a class thing? Of course, I could say horribly wrong and sweeping things like "ah, it's the lower classes who pick up crass american-isms", so I should probably stop now.

Mainly, Santa is 5 characters, and Father Christmas is 16, maiking it over 3 times the effort to type on a Friday afternoon :-)
From:emarkienna
Date:June 8th, 2007 09:39 pm (UTC)
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I seem to be in the minority for 1.

I'd say that I have evidence that someone who is identifying themselves as "Santa" exists, but I have no evidence that this is a being that we usually mean by Santa (e.g., a being that gives presents to every single child, well, unless they've been naughty), as opposed to someone else. There's nothing in that observation to distinguish between the possibilities.
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From:emperor
Date:June 9th, 2007 10:47 am (UTC)
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Wow, you were a pedantic small child :-)
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From:ashfae
Date:June 8th, 2007 10:30 pm (UTC)
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It's all a state of mind.
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From:uisgebeatha
Date:June 8th, 2007 11:55 pm (UTC)
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I had my suspicions when I was 5 and found a future present in the cupboard under the stairs, but never saw my parents wrapping it, or eating the mince pie or drinking the sherry. In fact, I still insist on the whole leaving stuff out for Santa ritual. I see no harm in it. ^_^

I remember some scientists disproving Santa by saying things like if he went fast enough to deliver a present to every house, he and the reindeer would spontaneously combust. Boo, nasty scientists... :p
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From:robert_jones
Date:June 9th, 2007 09:25 am (UTC)
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It stills seems to leave open the possibility that Santa exists, but doesn't deliver a present to every child. Maybe he delivers presents to children who don't have loving parents to do it for him, or to those within a sleigh-ride of where he lives.
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From:keirf
Date:June 10th, 2007 07:20 am (UTC)
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When I grew up there was no Santa - just a chap called Sinterklaas who came over from Spain on a steamboat on 5 December. It was covered on the television each year, so I knew it was true.
From:tifferrobinson
Date:June 11th, 2007 10:40 am (UTC)
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Certainly if your parents are very against you lying and doing practical jokes, and you have no experience of them giving you deliberate falsehoods but only being very honest I would believe them for a lot longer than otherwise. It does appear to be one of the main ways parents lie to their children (including telling them there is no God - what an irrational belief!) and although it is culturally acceptable, even amongst Christians, it can be quite upsetting for children who find out early.
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