Santa may not be real, but does it matter?
I’m not religious or into superstitions, yet I find such things valuable anyway. At 2:30 AM this Christmas day, my wife and I woke up to place the presents under the tree.
Our kids understand that Santa doesn’t exist; maybe in the local shopping mall way but not in the magical North Pole way. It doesn’t matter. They found value in waking up to presents under the tree that weren’t there when they went to bed last night.
I think there exists a difference between accuracy and meaningfulness, and that greater accuracy doesn’t necessarily mean greater meaningfulness.
SOMETIMES IT HARMS TO KNOWINGLY ENTERTAIN INACCURACY
I remember watching a recording of a televangelist seemingly cure an audience member from cancer or other serious medical condition. You might have seen something similar.
Sometimes, people experience spontaneous remissions or cures. Placebo or miracle, doesn’t really matter to the family; although, I think most of us would rather run to a doctor than run to a televangelist
The harm lies in the moments when sometimes the televangelist doesn’t cure. For the believer receiving a cure in front of a giant audience of other believers, she feels compelled to play the role of someone cured.
Why? Because true believers get cured, she’s a true believer, and therefore she must’ve gotten cured. Furthermore, as someone cured, why bother seeking further medical treatment? Seeking medically treatment would mean that God didn’t really cure, and that maybe she wasn’t worthy of God in the first place.
MAYBE EVEN TRUTH ITSELF HAS A COST-BENEFIT IN ITS PURSUIT
Violence represents a kind of zero-sum exchange. If you were American, British or Canadian during WWII, would you have allowed Hitler to know the truth about the 156,000 soldiers landing at Normandy on 6 June 1944?
Or would you have employed Operation Fortitude to make sure the Axis powers believed something else? Is it still lying when it’s lying to the enemy? Or just counterintelligence?
MEANING OVER TIME
Our ancestors believed many things that today we label inaccurate, like the shape of our planet or the origin of our species. They also didn’t fully understand why some things worked, like why moldy bread reduced infection. Did there lack of present-day understanding make their lives any less meaningful?
What about today? We hold views about the world that we expect future reason and evidence to update, perhaps refute entirely. If we never see those updates, would that make our lives any less meaningful now?
AND WHAT ABOUT INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE?
I think that I read the following example in The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. Imagine a plank of wood on the ground. Could you easily walk it from end to end?
Now imagine placing that same plank of wood 1,000′ in the air between two buildings, no wind, no distractions, and well-secured placement of the plank of wood. Do you imagine walking it as easily? What changed? Well, clearly the cost of falling has dramatically increased.
But you and the plank of wood remain the same. Your attitude changed. Fear, and anticipation of the thing feared, seem to increase the probability of bringing about the thing feared. The belief, whether accurate about the world or not, affects performance. Just think too of public speaking and all those great tips about what to believe about one’s self or the audience.
BELIEF (CONFIDENCE) VS. BELIEF (ACCEPTANCE)
I’m an atheist. Yet, I do have a favorite Bible verse. In Matthew 9:27-31, two blind men approach Jesus. Jesus says, “Believe you that I can do this?” The two men say, yes. Jesus says, “According to your faith, be it done to you.” The two men see again. Then he said, “Now see that no one knows it.” Jesus didn’t say, “I’m healing you”; he said, according to what you believe. Belief itself produces certain results, such as with placebos and clinical trials.
Before a drug goes on the market, it undergoes testing – in particular, double-blind testing. Test participants receive either the drug or a placebo. Neither the persons administering nor the participants know who gets the drug or placebo. If the drug does better than the placebo, then it works; if not, then it’s probably harmful.
Sometime ago I did research for a school paper on Rogaine, the hair growth pill. It grew hair in about 80% of people receiving it. But… in people receiving the placebo, 40%. 40% from thinking positively. Hence, “According to your faith, be it done to you.” When they got word that it just was a placebo, their hair fell out. And hence, “See that no one knows it.”
Of course, in the above, I’m probably equivocating the meaning of belief. Just as the word truth can mean accuracy or honesty, the word belief can mean acceptance or confidence. In discussing meaningfulness and accuracy, it helps to point out the difference.
BACK TO SANTA CLAUS
There seems no question to my kids about whether Santa Claus exists. I think the better question is, can we find meaning in fiction? Does the fact that a piece of work is fiction make it any less meaningful?