ARUN RATH, HOST:
It is mid-October. And the highly organized among us have already started Christmas shopping. Christmas is awesome. Plenty of non-Christians like me love it. But it poses a philosophical problem, at least for one guy. Eric Kaplan is a TV writer and producer with a long resume in comedy - "The Simpsons," "Letterman," "The Big Bang Theory." And he's recently written a new book called "Does Santa Exist?"
I should mention at this point that if there are younger listeners you want to shield from that debate, come back in about five minutes. For Kaplan, the question of Santa's existence quickly becomes complicated and turns into a philosophical inquiry. It was all inspired by a play date that didn't happen. Kaplan's son didn't believe in Santa. And his friend's mom didn't want her child's Christmas wonder to be spoiled. So she canceled a planned trip to the zoo.
ERIC KAPLAN: I come at it from a position of Santa skepticism, which is I say, like, well, Santa obviously does not exist and my son obviously does exist. But then in a more temperate mood I start to think how do you know Santa Claus doesn't exist? You say well, I've never seen him. Well, but OK, you've never seen Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli, but she exists. OK, but if I went to the North Pole, I wouldn't see him. But there's lots of things that you don't see in that sense, like the injustice of an unjust society. It's like well, I went there. And I took photos of everybody and I came back. I don't have any pictures of the injustice, so I guess it's not unjust.
So how exactly are we going to cash out this idea that there's something wrong with believing in Santa Claus but there's something good in believing in justice or things that are just? And logic is an attempt to make sure that nothing we believe contradicts anything else that we believe. What's bad about it is that there may be certain things that you just cannot evaluate as true or false. And a famous example of this is the liar paradox. This sentence is false. Like, if you tell us - a robot in "Star Trek" this sentence is false, as you know, as I don't need to tell this audience, it explodes.
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KAPLAN: But if you tell that to us, we don't explode. So clearly we have some kind of way of dealing with things, even if they're logically undecidable or logically self-contradictory.
RATH: Which leads you to mysticism.
KAPLAN: It leads me to mysticism. And so mysticism is this very attractive idea that language is a feeble instrument and the mind is a feeble instrument and the world is inherently impossible to say anything true about or everything is true. Anything you can possibly say about it is true.
But I do think a problem with it is that if everything is true, then for something to be true almost doesn't mean anything anymore. And you say yes, I believe democracy is great and I also believe dictatorship is great. Those are all equally great. And then you start to say well, mystic, you really are just not saying anything really. And sometimes mysticism has a tendency to be the kind of sneaky buddy of authoritarianism because you're just like, why do we have to listen to that guy? Oh, you'll never be able to understand. It's very mystical.
So even though mysticism is beautiful, sometimes when people offer a mystical explanation that something cannot be understood by human thought, you should subtly put a hand on your wallet and see it's still in your pocket.
RATH: Maybe it's not surprising because you're a comedy writer, but you also put forward a third way because, you know, logic ends up being unsatisfying. Mysticism embraces contradiction so much that it gets a little bit goofy. So you suggest comedy.
KAPLAN: Yeah. I think there's something interesting about comedy, which is - in one sense, it takes the good stuff of logic, which is the ability to criticize accepted views, and it takes the good stuff of mysticism, a certain conceptual forgiveness about the fact that life has many sides, and it puts them together.
This is a joke that I get into in the book by Robert Schimmel, a standup comedian who had cancer. And he says I thought it was pretty bad when my son had cancer, which he did. I thought it was pretty bad when my son had cancer. But then I got cancer. And I think that's really funny. And I think the reason it's funny is that there's a certain right way you're supposed to approach misfortune. You're sorry if it happens to somebody else and you're OK if it happens to you. And then there's another sort of actual way that we approach misfortune, which is that you're kind of OK if it happens to somebody else but you really don't want to have it happen to you. It's pretty paradoxical to put them together.
RATH: So humor takes a joy in those contradictions.
KAPLAN: Yeah, it takes a join of contradictions. And I think it gives us the opportunity to forgive ourselves for not quite getting it all together. We're like somebody who's carrying the laundry and instead of folding it all nicely, it's all in a big pile and you're - it's falling out of your arms in all kind of different directions. And you're just barely managing to keep the socks from falling and your jeans from falling. And I feel that that is sort of our epistemic situation, that we're valiantly struggling to keep it all together and failing. And I find that funny. And I think humor is funny because it deals with situations like that.
RATH: Eric Kaplan, esteemed comedy writer currently co-executive producer of "The Big Bang Theory. His new book is "Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation." Thanks so much. It's been fun talking with you.
KAPLAN: Oh, it's been a pleasure finally getting to visit NPR. Thank you.
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