The Secrets of Santa Claus and the Unknowable
Serious question: Do you believe an ant can understand astrophysics?
No. Of course not. You could lecture to him for his entire life, draw him diagrams, lay out ant pheromones in fancy patterns that illustrate the orbit of planets. It wouldn’t help.
To an ant, the knowledge of astrophysics is unknowable.
That’s not a hard statement to swallow. Yet so much in the life of a human is unknowable, and we struggle mightily with that fact.
I’m not talking about knowable unknowns. There are things that are currently mysteries that we could theoretically know the answer to one day. Science is full of knowable unknowns:
- What is dark matter?
- Why do we sleep?
- Can we cure cancer?
- Are we alone in the universe?
- Why can you not stop after you pop?
These are questions that could have answers. If aliens land in spaceships tomorrow, we will definitely know we are not alone. If someone cures cancer, there will be an answer. If nobody cures cancer, we might not know the answer for a long while, but it is a “knowable” question.
How many scientific and pseudo-scientific questions, though, are beyond our capability as human beings to know? These class of questions are different than the knowable unknowns. Different even than the “unknown unknowns.” These are the unknowable unknowns.
Unknown unknowns can be known. Even though we don’t know them yet, they could be discovered one day.
Unknowable unknowns are like an ant understanding astrophysics.
Not going to happen. Beyond the capacity to understand. It’s not their fault. It’s not your fault. You simply can’t by the nature of what you are. Just like you can’t physically jump to the moon no matter how much you trained for it.
At first, unknowables sound vague and strange, but they are not. In fact, many “scientific” questions are actually unknowables.
- What happens after we die?
- Where did the universe come from?
- What is time?
- What is consciousness?
- What, if anything, is a soul?
- Does God exist?
I can hear your objections starting now: but science one day might discover what happens after we die.
Science is about direct observation and repeatability of objective facts. Therefore, to know with certainty what happens after we die, we must be able to test the hypothesis and be able to reliably reproduce the finding.
So we must die, experience first hand what happens after we die, come back to life and report what happened, then have anybody else be able to reliably reproduce our findings.
And by definition, dead is defined as the dead that happens when you can’t come back. Yes, there are examples where people have been resuscitated after minutes or even hours. People frozen to death can be thawed and brought back to life. But that’s more akin to a form of sleep or hibernation than to death.
The death we really care about at the end of the day is not what happens to us after being resuscitated. The death we really care about is what happens to us after we’ve been cremated or buried. When we’re gone gone.
We are usually scared of the unknown, but the unknowable often frightens us far more. We comfort ourselves from these extreme fears with other things. Fables. Beliefs. Faith. We can’t know the answers to these questions, so we seek our answers in stories. Stories that point vaguely to an answer that’s otherwise frustratingly out of reach.
Although we can’t know the unknowable, we can study this class of knowledge in it’s generic form.
Specifically we can study our relationship with the class of things that are unknowable. Let’s take God, for example.
People argue endlessly about God. Even otherwise really smart people claim they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God doesn’t exist. I often wonder how anyone sane can make such a claim in good faith. Have they personally visited every corner of the universe in order to check that God isn’t hanging out there, just waiting for us to find him? Cosmic hide and seek. Of course you would probably have to check every corner of the universe at the same time, since God could probably just snap his fingers and jump to another planet at will.
Absence of evidence ≠ Evidence of absence.
I’m serious though, think about it. If we are like ants, if there is intrinsic limit on the knowledge to which we can never have first hand access, how can you know with complete certainty that there’s no God of any kind? That there’s no supernatural beings anywhere. How can you prove it beyond any doubt if it is unknowable in the same way that an ant can’t ever know astrophysics?
That’s not, by the way, a proof that God exists. There’s no proof either way. At the end of the day, atheism is just as much about blind faith as theism. Faith. Belief. That thing we fall back to when we can’t know. Unknowable.
It might sound like I’m heading towards an argument for agnosticism. However agnosticism makes no sense to me either.
Agnosticism is actually the weirdest response to God that I can possibly think of.
To explain this statement, let’s disarm the discussion a tad by talking about another favorite supernatural being of mine: Santa Claus.
Very few adult human beings on this planet actually believe that there is a real fat man in a red suit and white beard who lives in the north pole and comes down once a year to hand out gifts.
And yet, a lot of us act as if he exists every single year like clockwork. And we have no problem with this discrepancy. We know Santa doesn’t exist and yet we act like he does exist. And ironically, by our acting, in a way, he does exist. At the very least for those children still in their single digits.
And what is Santa but not a lesser God? Sits in judgement of our personal wrongs and rights. Doles out gifts and punishments. People send him their prayers every year in the sacred form of lists of toys. He has endless books written about him. Traditions. Candles. Dead trees dressed up like tacky prom dates. Santa is God with training wheels.
And the best part is that nobody gets mad at me if my Santa is different than your Santa. In Argentina when my mom was growing up, they believed in a little mouse that dropped presents off in shoes (not dancing trees) at midnight. In Judaism, it’s lighting a menorah, no supernatural metaphors even required to hang out with family and exchange presents.
Nobody’s ever waged a war in Santa’s name. Why not?
Because in Santa, we have a healthy relationship with metaphor. Santa is a metaphor. You don’t believe in metaphors. Nor do you deny their existence.
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.
Nobody fights about who these Jack and Jill really were. When did they fetch their pail? On what hill? Certainly it was my hill that the water was fetched. Exactly how long after that water was fetched did this story get written?
Nobody is agnostic to the existence of Santa. Nobody withholds their belief in the existence of Santa until further facts surface, one way or another.
I believe in the spirit of Santa Claus. I do. Why? Because I want to. What does it matter to you? I like to do it. I like the celebration. I like believing in Santa. I like the ritual. I especially like the dancing trees. I know he’s not literally sitting up there in a red suit. I know he’s a metaphor. It doesn’t bother me at all that he’s a metaphor.
It’s only when we as human beings mistake metaphors for the literal truth that problems arise. When you decide to kill me/discriminate against me/otherwise hurt me because I don’t believe in your metaphors, that’s a problem.
If God is unknowable, which he pretty clearly is (even the most devout religious focus on their faith and belief in God, not their proof of God), then our discussions of God becomes a discussion of metaphors. General principles by which we believe we should live our lives.
To say that God does exist is like saying Santa does really exist. It completely and entirely misses the point of Santa.
To say that God doesn’t exist is like saying Santa doesn’t really exist. It completely and entirely misses the point of Santa.
To say that you don’t know if God exists is like saying you don’t know if Santa really exists. It completely and entirely misses the point of Santa.
The point of Santa is not his existence. Santa is a metaphor, he points towards something: peace and goodwill for mankind. Communion with friends and family. Arguing about whether Santa is real or not makes no sense.
The point of God is not his existence. God is a metaphor. Arguing about whether God is real or not makes no sense.
The supernatural is a metaphor for the unknowable.
Let’s change gears for a moment to poke at another one of my personal pet peeves. Intellectuals love to make fun of superstitions. It’s one of their favorite past times. They even dedicate various magazines to debunking mysticism and anything supernatural.
But what is the supernatural but another word for the unknowable?
The problem with the unknowable is when you start taking it literally and forget that it’s all just metaphor. Debunking supernatural events is like debunking Santa Claus, but only when you’re taking it literally.
Let’s get something clear, though. So called “Psychic Mediums” who take money for psychic readings or cleaning your aura are also taking it literally. They are claiming their powers are literally real and that is dishonest and wrong. Debunking fraudulent activities of human beings is a always a valuable activity.
But I have the same problem with debunking the supernatural as I do with people who “don’t believe” in UFOs.
What’s a UFO? An unidentified flying object. Something that is flying that doesn’t exactly look like a plane. How can you not believe in that?
Furthermore, if you were not there, close enough to see exactly what it was, how can you possibly completely rule out the possibility that it could have been alien life? Highly unlikely, sure. Impossible? How could you know?
The moment you claim it’s an alien vessel, it is no longer fully unidentified, therefore by definition can’t be a UFO. People who believe UFOs are alien vessels are misunderstanding the fundamental definition of the term UFO. Unidentified.
The moment you claim it’s is NOT an alien vessel, it is no longer fully unidentified, therefore by definition can’t be a UFO. People who believe UFOs are NOT aliens are misunderstanding the fundamental definition of the term UFO. Ironically, this group also tends to understand the Drake equation easily enough.
Both types of people are grasping for straws of certainty when there is none to be had. Unknowable. Like Nassim Taleb likes to say, Thanksgiving is only a black swan for the turkey, not the butcher. If you weren’t there, feet or inches from the UFO, it’s unknowable, at least to you.
The Tarot as metaphor.
As soon as you throw out mysticism as honkey doohicky, you’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. But what if you embraced metaphor as metaphor for just a moment?
Let’s do a gedankenexperiment: You sit down with a psychic and they give you a Tarot reading. They tell you your cousin Steve is sleeping with your aunt Georgia and that you need to leave your job because it is making you miserable. You can take the advice in one of two ways:
- The literal truth handed down to you through a crystal ball.
- A metaphorical perspective on life events that you may or may not have considered yet.
Nobody is forcing you to pick #1, just as nobody forces you to believe in Santa Claus.
If I sat with three different psychics and had three different Tarot readings, I might have three different perspectives on a problem.
If I sat down with three different close friends and had three different one-on-one conversations, I might have three different perspectives on a problem.
Which is better: A) a close friend’s perspective who knows you, cares about you, is concerned with your feelings, possibly to a fault (yes you look fat in those jeans, yes you were a total douche to your wife, yes your boss was right to fire you, that’s what I would have done too).
Or B) a stranger’s perspective who knows nothing about you, cares nothing about you, and is concerned with interpreting random numbers and cards in a way that may or may not give you fresh perspective.
The honest answer is C) none of the above and D) all of the above.
Sometimes you need a close friend and sometimes you need fresh perspective that a close friend can’t give you. And you never know a-priori when you will need which kind of advice.
You don’t have to pay a psychic charlatan for fresh perspective, either. You can learn numerology for yourself and throw a pair of dice. Costs you nothing and gives you a fresh unbiased perspective based on randomness and fate that you can’t always get from those close to you.
My point is that it can be just as shortsighted to believe in mysticism as it is to discard it out of hand.
Why Tarot and numerology instead of reading tea leaves and Chinese fortune sticks? Why Santa instead of little mice or a set of candles? The metaphor doesn’t matter. Pick the one that you like best. There’s no need to justify your enjoyment of Jack and Jill over Hansel and Gretel.
We are stuck in these bodies.
Moving on once again, I can’t prove to you that I am conscious because you can’t leave your consciousness behind and check that I have one in a repeatable way. That’s just not what it is to be human. We’re stuck. So all that’s left is belief. The unknowable.
It’s become fashionable with recent advances in virtual reality and artificial intelligence to talk about whether we all live in a big computer simulation, but any philosophy student can tell you that from a philosophical point of view, that question has been definitively answered long ago: it’s unknowable, so might as well act as if it’s not a simulation since we’ll never know.
What’s a soul? Unknowable. By definition, it is something not made of matter. Therefore any discussion of it lives in the realm of metaphor and belief. And all metaphor is on-limits as long as you remember not to take it too literally.
Why believe in any metaphor?
To me, that question is the problem.
You can’t believe in metaphors. You don’t look at a finger that points at a lake and say to yourself: “Huh, that finger literally is a lake.”
Nor can you NOT believe in metaphors. You can’t say: “That finger doesn’t exist.”
(Well you can. After all, all language is metaphor. But don’t take that too literally.)
The sin is focusing on the literal interpretation of metaphors and not at what the metaphors point to. Death isn’t about death. It points to the unknowable. God isn’t about God. It points to the unknowable. Time isn’t about time. Tomorrow is unknowable. Yesterday is effectively unknowable. So much of yesterday is yet to be discovered and far far more about it will never be known.
We are surrounded by the unknowable. We bathe in it. We sleep with it. We cope with it.
But even otherwise really smart people get squeamishly uncomfortable around the unknowable and instantly start debating as if they knew something about the unknowable simply by debating the factualness of the finger. They argue endlessly about the finger’s existence or non-existence.
“I’m pro the existence of God.” “I’m against the existence of God.”
No debate at all on what the metaphor of God stands for. No no no, that’s religion and religion doesn’t matter if God doesn’t exist, does it?
The existence of the pointing finger doesn’t matter.
Its existence is self-evident. Jack and Jill, the story, clearly exists. Santa, the metaphor, clearly exists. Does he point to a literal bearded hermit? How does that really matter? He represents something, and we’re all okay with that. Even if we don’t celebrate Christmas, we get it. It’s all good. Many of us still act as if he does exist every single year.
But God just representing something? Somehow that’s not cool, because isn’t it more important whether someone believes that a literal long-haired bearded man is looking down at us from the clouds? That makes no sense. Neither does it make any sense to say that he does not exist. How can a metaphor we all know not exist? The finger points. The Dude abides.
Well, I’ve got a lot more to say on the subject, but I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.