Epistemic Inconsistency and Lying About Santa

santa lieIf we accept the goal of epistemology, then we’re concerned with finding the conditions that describe when we should accept some beliefs over others. We look for principles of justification. In this way, epistemology is normative and descriptive; it gives us a thick analysis of beliefs.

One principle I think useful is called Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor stipulates that we should not posit entities in explanation needlessly. When the simpler explanation is possible, we should go with the simpler one over the more complicated one. During medieval times, there was a debate about whether or not the planets were pushed by angels or if God is so powerful, he could create planets that moved under their own power. Ockham’s razor would stipulate we should accept the latter over the former.

Now think about Christmas. On Facebook, I am waking up to family and friends all claiming that Santa came, yet some of these people are also philosophers and scientists with whom I would think find Ockham’s razor useful—if not true. These philosophers and scientists are placing gifts under the tree and then telling their children that Santa came.

For these philosophers and scientists, there’s a bit of inconsistency between the roles of parent and philosopher-scientist. If they ultimately thought that their children should be forming true beliefs about the world based on evidence, then philosophy/science-parents should teach their children about Ockham’s razor. When they do, children are faced with two competing interpretations of Christmas morning. Either Santa brought those gifts or parents bought them and placed them there. Accordingly, we know what we should believe since as adults we’re all in on the joke.

There’s a real problem in the United States with a lack of scientific knowledge informing policy and opinion. A National Science Foundation survey in 2014 found that of those 2200 Americans surveyed, 1 in 4 believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. More than that, we all participate in the collective lie about Santa. There’s no real benefit to lying to our kids other than the jealously we all have about their innocence. At that point, we might as well tell them that Frodo is real, being a Jedi is possible, and that their cousin is Kryptonian. These lies would at least be entertaining, yet what makes this type of lying wrong (and lying about Santa) is that these lies violate Ockham’s razor. I am not on rapport with reality if I think that Santa is real or that being a Jedi is possible. In effect, philosophy-science parents this morning are in tension and contradiction with what they find valuable (if they accept Ockham’s razor) on some practical or epistemological grounds and parenting.

Next, consider the ethics of lying. Is it right to lie collectively to children about non-entities that don’t exist? Without straying too much into religion, I will only focus on Santa’s existence. Generally, lying is at least prima facie wrong. As a deontological principle, the thought is we betray the rationality and autonomy of another when we lie to them. Under a consequentialist ethic, lying is more complicated because we could justify some white lies because no damage really results from them, and lying about Santa tends to fall in this category. Yet what if the harm is in not teaching children the truth about the world?

Consider again the NSF survey from above. Some Americans believe the Earth is flat, or any number of weirdly false claims about the world. They are false because those beliefs are not in rapport with what’s real, and one way to describe what’s real reliably is through teaching our children what’s scientifically accurate and in accordance with Ockham’s razor. It’s immoral then to lie about Santa Claus.


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