October 16, 2014


Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation. By Eric Kaplan. Dutton. $20.

     Eric Kaplan has definitively solved the problem of what one does with a degree in philosophy: one makes TV shows. Kaplan, who is in the midst of the Ph.D. program in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, is writer and co-executive producer of a show called The Big Bang Theory, a philosophical and largely incoherent scene from which he quotes in Does Santa Exist? But wait – there’s more! The TV show’s promotion is not central to the thesis here – it is only incidental to a highly unusual mixture of absolutely serious discussions of complex philosophical arguments and hysterically funny looks at the implications of those arguments.

     The book’s title gives Kaplan a point of reference to which he repeatedly returns as he considers various philosophical thinkers and their thought systems, often accompanying his analysis with wonderfully apt illustrations, such as one showing a follower of Ludwig Wittgenstein having climbed a ladder beyond the Earth to a far-away vantage point, then pushing the ladder away, as Wittgenstein says is metaphorically necessary – this being intended to go with Kaplan’s remark that “Wittgenstein was very, very smart, but this statement is very, very stupid, as anyone would know who has ever used a ladder to climb up somewhere.” Kaplan’s intent is not, however, to ridicule Wittgenstein, or not only Wittgenstein. He cites numerous philosophers, quotes from a variety of Buddhist teachings, even throws in a complete Wordsworth sonnet and the famous Monty Python cheese-shop sketch, all for the purpose of explaining the way we cope in everyday life with the numerous inherent paradoxes of living. The book sounds, when described this way, considerably more complex than it really is. Kaplan is actually pretty forthright about encapsulating his concept, although you do have to search a bit to find out what he is up to. It is in the footnote at the bottom of page 135: “…It’s basically a pretty boneheaded thesis – life is hard to understand so you should laugh at it – but it’s dressed up with a lot of stuff about [Bertrand] Russell and mysticism so you can brag to your friends about enjoying it.”

     So now that we have that out of the way, what is left? Well, the presentation of the “boneheaded thesis” is the big attraction here. In discussing the philosophical proposition that “everything exists,” for example, Kaplan says that if this is true, then in addition to Santa Claus, there must be “Manta Claus – just like Santa but a manta ray,” and “Mantis Claus – just like Santa but with a praying mantis head,” and “Mylanta Claus – just like Santa but instead of toys, he brings Mylanta to good little boys and girls with acid reflux,” and “Hantavirus Claus who comes on Christmas Eve bearing sacks of infectious rodent excrement,” and others. And yes, there is an illustration. There is not, thankfully, an illustration of the following: “Bill Clinton uses one hand to explore Monica Lewinsky with a cigar and the other to reform welfare as we know it. We reach for moral condemnation to anæsthetize ourselves, but that’s just human life; the president liked his tobacco sex and he also liked welfare reform.” Kaplan’s point, which he repeats frequently but, thanks to his humor, not quite ad nauseam, is that life is full of things that do not go together logically but that nevertheless coexist, and it is worth exploring, philosophically, the way we make sense of matters that on their face are mutually contradictory or otherwise senseless.

     Does Santa Exist? is entertaining and at times even enlightening. It is also irritating, partly because Kaplan tosses out names and concepts with freewheeling abandon, apparently intending to show just how knowledgeable he is (this could be a run-through for his coming Ph.D. dissertation); and partly because, for all his professed erudition, he has trouble keeping his grammar straight. Page 26: “…you are allowed to take an adjective from the box of adjectives that describes [sic; should be “describe”] objects, and NOT an adjective from the box of adjectives that describes [sic] words.” Page 30: “…people were understandably on [sic; should be “in”] the market for radical solutions.” Page 63: “If we assume that what I have said about the limitations of rational choice are [sic; should be “is”] correct…” Page 163: “…quantum fields don’t need to know what exist [sic; should be “exists”]…” And so forth.

     There is also an honest-to-goodness philosophical flaw in Kaplan’s book. His basic discussion of the duality of intellect vs. emotion is sensible enough: “The intellect wants to understand, so its rupture falls between what we understand and what we don’t understand, what we believe and what we can’t believe. In our emotional lives, on the other hand, the paradox we need to overcome is that between safety and danger. We need to be safe, but we know we aren’t, and the fundamental task we are faced with is to achieve a point of view that says we are safe enough to explore the environment but that takes into account the real dangers.” This is fine, so far as it goes, even if Kaplan’s argument that the “solution” to logic vs. mysticism is neither more nor less than humor – as illustrated by (among other things) an eagle stapled to a shark – is rather weak. But Kaplan’s selectivity in propounding his viewpoint is a case of ignoratio elenchi, a sort of straw-man argument in which Kaplan makes a logical case that does not necessarily address the issue he claims to be addressing. For example: “The two expressions ‘Raising kids is hard’ and ‘Raising kids is fun’ are contradictory and paradoxical only if we turn them into written expressions.” No, they are neither contradictory nor paradoxical – not even when written down. They simply refer to component parts of a larger whole (the experience of “raising kids”) and can therefore coexist quite comfortably both verbally and in writing.

     Kaplan has clearly learned his how-to-argue-philosophical-points lessons, often raising an idea and then, to show its truth, saying to assume it is not true – which he demonstrates to be incorrect or even absurd. That is fine, but it is not particularly helpful, certainly not when considering whether Santa (or, for that matter, Odin or God) exists. It is probably most apt, from a philosophical rather than gift-giving point of view, to state that Santa both does and does not exist in the same sense of superposition in which Schrödinger's theoretical cat is both dead and alive in its theoretical box. But that is a matter for quantum theory, which only slightly and not very usefully impinges on Kaplan’s thinking in Does Santa Exist? For most of us, a touch of age-appropriate magic will be far less thought-provoking than is the Santa question for Kaplan. Probably far less angst-laden, too. But does angst exist?

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