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Miracle on 34th Street: The Value of Empiricism

Yes, you get a Christmas post! Atheists don’t take the day off just because people think a mythological savior-god was born on this date thousands of years ago.

So my wife and I were watching Miracle on 34th Street last night (the original, not the remake). In spite of everything I’m about to say, it’s still one of the better holiday movies.* As Greg Olear points out on Salon, it’s remarkably egalitarian, secular and anti-consumerist even by modern standards, much less by the standards of the era when it was made.

But I have a problem with the plot, which is this: Why does no one apply empirical tests to the question of whether Kris Kringle is Santa Claus?

The climax of the film hinges on a trial to determine whether the jolly old man who calls himself Kris Kringle is really Santa Claus, as he claims, or whether he’s insane and should be committed to a mental hospital. This seems like it should be an easy question to answer. If he’s really Santa Claus, shouldn’t he be able to show everyone his flying reindeer, or demonstrate supernatural knowledge of what any child in the world has been doing (he sees them when they’re sleeping!), or prove that he can magically fit a planet’s worth of presents into a sack?

Alternatively, even without asking for a courtroom demonstration of magical powers, the Kringle-is-not-Santa-Claus hypothesis predicts that there should exist evidence proving that he had an ordinary human life lived over an ordinary human lifespan, which the prosecution could have tried to dig up. For example, at the beginning of the film, Kringle was living in a retirement home in Great Neck; shouldn’t they have tried researching his personal history to see where he was before that? Does he have a birth certificate or a Social Security number? Can he provide proof of American citizenship, and if not, doesn’t that mean he isn’t legally entitled to work at Macy’s as a department-store Santa?

No one, prosecution or defense, even thinks of asking these questions, which means this is clearly a case of Writer On Board. Instead, the trial is settled entirely by the question of dueling testimonials, of who has the “authority” to declare whether or not Kris Kringle is really Santa Claus, which the defense wins by persuading the Post Office to deliver all the children’s letters to Santa to him. This is reminiscent of religious reasoning in which a person’s individual testimony is treated as sufficient evidence for a wide variety of complex empirical hypotheses about the universe.

This just goes to show the importance of being a skeptic, at Christmas no less than at any other time of the year. If you swallow extraordinary claims on merely ordinary evidence, you’re sure to come to grief.

* In fact, it’s really the only one I like. It’s a Wonderful Life is too cliched and too insipidly religious, A Christmas Story is unbearably cloying, and White Christmas has no real plot.


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