Is the statement, “There is a Santa Claus” true?

This should be easy enough: Define truth and see if the statement fits the definition.

It is widely held that a statement is true if and only if there is a one-to-one correspondence between the statement and reality. “The cat is on the mat” is a true statement if you can show that there exists a felis catus that is currently supported by a piece of coarse fabric.

Under many common circumstances, however, this kind of truth may not exist. For example, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot asked a deceptively simple question: how long is the coast of Britain? The answer depends on how you measure it. You get a much shorter distance if you fly from one end to the other than if you drive a road that follows the island’s contours. The road gives a shorter answer than if you walk the edge of the coast. An inchworm that worked its way around every rock on every beach would travel yet a longer distance. In short, as your measuring rod becomes shorter, the coastline becomes longer and there can be no truthful answer to the question: how long is the coast of Britain?

This observation suggests that people’s intuitive definition of truth may not necessarily take them where they want to go. That is, an idea may be true but useless, or untrue and useful. Five examples show how this can be the case:

1. Whose love has had a greater effect on the world—the true love of some real but obscure farmers married for fifty years or Romeo and Juliet’s fictional love? Whose love has inspired more love? Mea¬sured by the effect on others, whose love is more real, the real love or the fictional love?

2. A broken clock is accurate twice a day, as when the clock says it is 1:05 and it is, in fact, 1:05. Although at 1:05 when this clock is true (in that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the broken clock and everybody else’s clocks), this clock is use¬less. On the other hand, a clock that is reliably fast or slow—by minutes or hours—is useful. All you have to do is know how much to add or subtract to what’s on the clock to get the correct time.

3. Some of the most important statements in life have an ambiguous relationship with truth. Searle pointed out that there are statements called per¬formatives, such as, “With this ring I thee wed,” or “I give you this,” that weren’t true before you say them, but become true by virtue of your having said them. The use of language in such a case is not to describe an event, but to make it happen.

4. There are nontruths with remarkable character¬istics. These statements aren’t true when they are said, but become true by virtue of having been said and acted upon. Searle argued, “One of the most remarkable capacities of the human mind is its ability to construct an objective reality of entities that in some sense exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking of such things as money, property, marriage, governments, and above all, language.”

5. A related category of statements aren’t true when said for the first time, but become true in time. The most striking of these include Newton’s laws of motion that ignore friction, and the Declaration of Independence’s, “We hold these truths to be self evident....” Friction is a dominant feature of matter, and it was anything but self-evident that people have inalienable rights. But today, when people have gone to frictionless outer space and have built nations on such unobvious self-evident truths, these untruths show their truth-value.

This observation is why playwright Eugène-Marin Labiche concluded, “There are times when lying is the most sacred of duties.” How so? Goethe believed, “For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him, he must re¬gard himself as greater than he is.” The truth is that you may not be up to a difficult task, unless you lie to yourself and convince yourself that you are, in fact, capable of it. Step one is lie to yourself, “I can do this.” Step two is to constitute the lie to turn it into a truth.

These stories we tell ourselves (I think I can, I think I can) may not have a one-to-one correspondence with reality (because you wouldn’t say it if you really thought you could). Truth, however, has two other definitions: that which independent observers agree upon and that which has a measurable effect. Because many people agree on what he does, and because he has a measurable effect on the world, this means that, yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus, not in the ontological sense (the way bricks exist) but in the functional sense (the way numbers exist). It also means that some fictional figures have had more influence on real people than many real people have and therefore the fictional figures have greater functional existence.

Mandelbrot, B. 1967. “How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension.” Science. Vol. 156, No. 3775. pp. 636–638.
Searle, J. 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.

Excerpted from Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work by Tad Waddington. To find out more, go to

Author's Bio: 

Tad Waddington says he achieved literacy while getting his MA from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School where he focused on the history of Chinese religions. He achieved numeracy while getting his PhD from the University of Chicago in measurement, evaluation and statistical analysis and as a research director for the Gallup Organization. He achieved efficacy as Director of Performance Measurement for Accenture. As for achieving a legacy, well, that is a work in progress, but his book, Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work, has won five prestigious awards so he’s off to a good start.