Sunday, September 28, 2008


Gee, Dawkins, What About Santa?

In the course of a review of Stuart A. Kauffman's new book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion, Henry Gee, a senior editor of the journal Nature, presents an amusing answer to scientific reductionists:

In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins boasted that he once told a child that Santa Claus didn't exist. The argument was that Santa couldn't possibly visit all the world's deserving homes in a single night, quite apart from the physical difficulties of flying reindeer, narrow chimney stacks, and so on.

As well as illustrating the intellectual level of Dawkinsian discourse, this anecdote betrays a lack of knowledge of contemporary physics. Santa could do what he does quite handily, you see, if you consider him as a macroscopic quantum object - something that behaves according to the weird world of quantum physics but is large enough to be visible.

In such a guise, Santa could appear in as many places as he wanted to, simultaneously, without having to negotiate chimneys, provided nobody was watching. If he were caught in the act, his wavefunction - the probability that he might be everywhere at once - would collapse and he'd be revealed as your grandpa, after all.

And quantum effects are manifested at the macro scale only in extremely cold conditions, which explains why one routinely addresses one's Christmas list to Lapland or the North Pole, rather than, say, Brazil or Equatorial Guinea.

My Quantum Santa Hypothesis (QSH) works better than Dawkins' classical one because it explains the taboo about watching Santa at work, as well as his traditional location in cold climates - aspects Dawkins fails to tackle. The QSH explains more of the evidence in a single theoretical scheme than his does.

The reaction to the QSH, when it was first advanced in the Guardian on December 14, 2000 was sadly predictable:

Anyone who challenged Dawkins' view on this question was obviously a believer, and therefore not to be trusted.

This simplistic, with-us-or-against-us worldview is as deficient in subtlety as it is in humor. We know what we know because of science, it says. Science explains everything. So anything that falls outside that explanatory system must be false, illusory, even evil.

Gee feels such reasoning is "a dreadful misuse of the scientific method," though he doesn't really expand on that thought beyond discussing the difficulty reductionism has explaining emergent properties in nature. There is the danger that Gee is also setting up his own with-us-or-against-us divide but the recommendation of more humor, humility and respect for the person, if not the ideas, of others can't be bad.

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