Monday, September 30, 2013

Accounting for the truth of 'Santa Claus does not exist'

To: Emelie G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Accounting for the truth of 'Santa Claus does not exist'
Date: 30th November 2010 14:42

Dear Emelie,

Thank you for your email of 20 November, with your essay for the University of London Logic module, in response to the question, 'Is there a satisfactory account of the truth of the sentence 'Santa Claus does not exist'?'

This is not a bad answer to the question. The main elements of a response are there. Treating 'exists' as a Fregean second-order concept which applies to first-order concepts (or what Russell terms a 'propositional function') enables us to rephrase the proposition, 'Santa Claus does not exist' more perspicuously as a negative existential statement. E.g:

A. not-((Ex)(x lives at the North Pole and x gives presents to children at Christmas))

In this simple translation I have ignored the implication that there is one and only one Santa Claus. So if you wanted to be more precise, the translation would be:

B. not-((Ex)(x lives at the North Pole and x gives presents to children at Christmas) and (y)(y lives at the North Pole and y gives presents to children at Christmas -> x=y)))

This negative existential statement is false if and only if there IS one and ONLY one object which satisfies the first-order predicate, '...lives at the North Pole and ... gives presents to children at Christmas' -- i.e. Bertrand Russell's analysis of definite descriptions.

OK, so what's wrong with that? Why isn't the problem solved?

For two reasons, which you, in effect, cover in your essay, although in both cases there is more work to be done.

As you state, as a matter of historical fact, we know that it is possible or even likely that the character 'Santa Claus' was an actual person, about whom various stories and legends arose. In which case, notwithstanding the fact that there is no-one who lives at the North Pole and gives presents to children at Christmas, Santa Claus does exist (or did). So B is not correct as a translation of 'Santa Claus does not exist'. It is possible that B is true, even though 'Santa Claus' is the name of a real historical person.

How to deal with this? I would argue that statements of the form, 'X exists' or 'X does not exist' can be vague and potentially misleading. It all depends on what you mean by 'Santa Claus'. This is an endemic problem with any attempt to 'define' a name in terms of a set of descriptions. Which descriptions do you use? My answer would be that it depends on the context. Given a suitable context, there's no problem. Misunderstandings don't arise, provided that you are prepared to state exactly what you take to be necessary and sufficient for the 'existence of Santa Claus'.

In addition to this, there is dispute amongst philosophers of language concerning the correct account of proper names. The fact that the name 'Santa Claus' traces back to an existing individual would be taken by Kripke (in 'Naming and Necessity') as sufficient for the falsity of 'Santa Claus does not exist', even if, as seems to be the case, all our beliefs about the entity in question are false. However, even Kripke would accept that there are putative names which do not trace back to any existing entity through a 'chain of communication', and so the only way to account for the truth of negative existential statements in these cases is in Fregean terms, as in B, above.

The second problem arises in relation to fictional discourse. Although Santa Claus is not considered to a character of fiction, you could have made the point that we make statements 'about' Santa Claus which are considered true and not false:

'Santa Claus wears a red costume'

'Santa Claus has a white beard'

'Santa Claus drives a sleigh drawn by reindeer'

and so on.

Strictly, on a Russellian analysis, all these statements are false, not true. The question is how we can emend the analysis to allow for what Evans terms, 'pretence'. Within the 'talking about Santa Claus' game, various statements about Santa Claus are true or false. Outside the game, they are all false, because he does not exist. So we can say, for example, 'Santa Claus has a white beard, but it is not really true that Santa Claus has a white beard.'

However, it wasn't clear from what you said, what you take to be Sainsbury's objection to Evans. It looks to me that the problem is the one I highlighted above, viz. that in the absence of additional information to provide a context, one don't know what exactly someone means to deny when they assert that, e.g. Santa Claus does not (really) exist.

I was very lucky to be able to attend Evans' lectures on reference when I was a graduate student at Oxford. He was a dynamo. The lectures were one of my most memorable experiences of my time there.

All the best,