As Goes Santa Claus…

Says the philosopher Michael Scriven:

 “Why do adults not believe in Santa Claus? Simply because they can now explain the phenomena for which Santa Claus’s existence is invoked without any need for invoking a novel entity….As we grow up, no one comes forward to prove that [Santa Claus] does not exist. We just come to see that there is not the least reason to believe he does exist….Santa Claus is in the same position as fairy godmothers, wicked witches, the devil, and the ether….the proper alternative when there is no evidence is not mere suspension of belief [in Santa Claus], it is disbelief.” (Scriven, Primary Philosophy, p.103)

 

Scriven – and many others (Anthony Flew and Bertrand Russell come especially to mind) – have utilized the above line of thought, not just with regards to the “Santa Claus Hypothesis”, but with regard to the “God Hypothesis” — and they have done so by linking the two hypothesis together as analogs. As goes Santa Claus, so goes God. Just as disbelief is the proper attitude towards Santa – on account of our lacking evidence for his existence -, so also is disbelief the proper attitude towards the existence of God – likewise on account of the absence of positive evidence.

 

Yesterday I suggested that many an atheist has made the move from:

 

(1) There is no reason (or I have no reason) to believe that God exists,

 

To:

 

(2) Thus, the proper attitude to take towards the claim that God exists is one of disbelief, doubt, skepticism — i.e. one should find the existence of God (highly) improbable.

 

We noted that some sort of “filling” or “hidden premise” is needed to make this move legitimate. Notice now that the Santa-style analogical arguments offered by folks like Scriven are attempts at just this sort of filling. Formalized, the Santa-style arguments look something like this:

 

(A) There is no reason to believe that Santa Claus exists.

(B) The proper attitude to take towards the claim that Santa exists is one of disbelief, doubt, skepticism — i.e. one should find the existence of Santa (highly) improbable.

(1) Similarly, there is no reason to believe that God exists.

(C) Further, there is no relevant difference between the case of Santa and the case of God.

(2) Thus, the proper attitude to take towards the claim that God exists is one of disbelief, doubt, skepticism — i.e. one should find the existence of God (highly) improbable.

 

The link is made from (1) to (2) in the above argument by demonstrating (i) that the proper attitude towards Santa is one of disbelief, (ii) that there is an important similarity between the case of Santa and the case of God (the absence of evidence), and (iii) that there are no relevant differences between the case of Santa and the case of God. Thus, says the argument, there is good reason to think that Santa and God are analogs of one another in this respect; and, therefore, since disbelief is the proper attitude towards Santa, so too is disbelief the proper attitude towards (the analog) God.

 

The argument, as it stands, strikes me as a bit muddled and unhelpful, mainly due to Santa being a poor choice of analog. For one thing, it is a matter of fact that most children do not disbelieve in Santa because they realize an absence of evidence for Santa’s existence; rather, most disbelieve in Santa because they find themselves in possession of strong evidence against Santa’s existence. To mention some such evidence: the confession of parents, the testimony of an older sibling, the recognition that Santa Claus – who belongs to the physical realm – seems to violate an untold many of the laws of physics every Christmas.

 

These defects of the analog are liable to screw with our intuitions; that is why I find it a poor and untrustworthy candidate. But perhaps we can save the gist argument by changing the candidate; after all, these defects seem purely an accident of the particularities of old Saint Nick. One alternative (and I think, much clearer) candidate to give us “atheism-by-analog” has been offered by Bertrand Russell:

 

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”

 

Let us run the same argument as before, except filling in Russell’s china teapot for Santa Claus (a move which I think respects Russell’s own argument):

(A) There is no reason to believe that a tiny china teapot is orbiting the sun.

(B) The proper attitude to take towards the claim that this teapot is orbiting the sun is one of disbelief, doubt, skepticism — i.e. one should find the existence of this teapot (highly) improbable.

(1) Similarly, there is no reason to believe that God exists.

(C) Further, there is no relevant difference between the case of the teapot and the case of God.

(2) Thus, the proper attitude to take towards the claim that God exists is one of disbelief, doubt, skepticism — i.e. one should find the existence of God (highly) improbable.

 

This argument on the whole seems a valid one — that is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion logically follows. So the real question is whether the premises are, in fact, true. (A) and (B) seem quite obviously correct. (1) I have already conceded for the sake of argument (since the whole point of the post is to see if one can make a legitimate move from (1) to (2)). That leaves us with (C) — which claims that there is no relevant difference between the case of the teapot and the case of God. Is this true?

 

I have no idea how one would begin to list out all the possible ways in which the “God Hypothesis” might be relevantly different from the “Teapot Hypothesis”, but there does seem to be one striking difference, and I want to suggest that this striking difference is exceedingly relevant. The best way to get to this difference is to point out that (B) does not simply follow from (A); there is a hidden premise between (A) and (B); actually, there are two hidden premises between (A) and (B). What are they? Here’s the first:

 

  • * If there is an absence of evidence regarding such-and-such, and the prior/initial probability of such-and-such is X, then the proper attitude towards such-and-such is to believe such-and-such to be probable to degree X.

 

Yesterday I mentioned that the absence of evidence as to whether my next coin flip will land heads was not reason for me to disbelieve that my coin would land heads; rather, it was reason for me to suspend judgment. I could have been more precise. I could have said that the proper attitude – in light of the absence of evidence both for and against my coin landing heads – was to ascribe a probability of a straight up 50/50. Why? Because I know that the prior probability (prior to my acquiring any evidence) of my coin landing heads is .5 (1 in 2; 50/50; however you want to label the quantification…).

 

Return to the orbiting, china teapot. I have no evidence that there is a teapot out there, and I have no evidence that there is not a teapot out there (I haven’t yet gotten hold of a space teapot scanning device). Says Russell (and I agree!), the proper attitude for me to take towards the existence of this teapot is one of disbelief; I should doubt that the thing exists; I should ascribe a very low probability to its being out there. But why? The reason can only be that, not only do I lack evidence for the existence of this teapot, but the prior probability of such a teapot orbiting the sun is very, very low. Indeed, this must be the second hidden premise:

 

* The prior/initial probability of there presently existing a china teapot orbiting the sun is very, very low.

 

Teapots, after all, are not the sort of thing that one finds in space. They do not form on the surface of meteorites, and it is highly unlikely that any astronaut let his afternoon tea get away from him.

 

If the case of God is different from the case of the teapot in this respect — in the respect of “prior probability” —, then this is, without a doubt, a relevant difference. In short, we need the prior probability of God to be very, very low if the case of the teapot and the case of God are to serve as analogs. And here is where I think all of these Santa-style analogical arguments fail. The prior probability of all the usual candidates — Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Giant Haunting Pumpkins, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, orbiting, china teapots — is very, very low. The prior probability of God? I haven’t the foggiest idea. In fact, I haven’t the foggiest idea how anyone could have the foggiest idea. Whatever the case, I (and you) have no reason to think that the prior probability of God is like the prior probability of the china teapot – very, very low. And thus, we have no reason to accept premise (C) of the Santa/Teapot argument. And thus, no reason to accept the conclusion of the Santa/Teapot argument.

 

Now of course this leaves open the possibility that one might get to (2) by way of combining (1) with a pile of evidence which counts against the existence of God. But this would be to abandon the idea of a “Presumption of Atheism” — the idea that the burden of proof is on the theist (and even the agnostic), and that (2) could be gotten from (1) simply on account of some principle or other. The road to atheism cannot be so hasty.

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