I believed in Father Christmas for longer than I believed in God. This is mostly surprising because it is unusual. There was both more evidence for Father Christmas, and more motivation to propel cognition.
I stopped ‘believing’ in Father Christmas in grade seven, when my drama teacher cavalierly mentioned his unreality. It wasn’t shocking—more a feeling of something I knew somewhere in my heart being made official. It was a bit embarrassing.
How could I neglect to explicitly infer the lack of a Father Christmas until then?
I don’t think my epistemic failures here were embarrassing for a human, given the proliferation of supernatural objects of belief, and the fact that Father Christmas alone among them actually leaves concrete stuff that you wish for.
My guess is that most people do better, not by noticing their confusion, but by interacting more with other children. Noticing confusion would also alert people to the implausibility of other supernatural things (unless perhaps it is the very evidence for Father Christmas which makes him confusing). And contact with subject matter experts is known to be a good prophylactic against being wrong.
But what if I wanted to instruct my past self on how to independently notice that Father Christmas was implausible? What should have been clues, to someone fairly ignorant about the world?
Father Christmas purportedly travels very fast, and delivers more presents than might fit in a sleigh. Also his sleigh can fly. From a child’s perspective though, many things travel very fast. Especially ones that fly. Not usually ones that are propelled by reindeer, but it wouldn’t be shocking if the reindeer were not the main engine, or if the illustrations portrayed the vehicle somewhat whimsically. Having a lot of presents could also be explained by being able to move things fast. Father Christmas himself would also have to move very fast, compared to a human. Though it also shouldn’t be surprising if much of his effort were outsourced; we also say that Steve Jobs made the iPhone. Nonetheless, one could notice that these speeds were suspiciously high.
This would require some understanding of contemporary technology, since such speeds are not obviously inconceivable for any technology. This is complicated by the world being big and varied. For instance, these days I sometimes hear that people elsewhere in the world are doing things well beyond the technological capability of people and companies I usually interact with. For instance, creating exotic physical particles or going to Mars. Yet I don’t usually suspect it at all. Should I? For better or worse, I believe other groups have technology that is much better than that in commercial use, and am not very surprised by it.
Perhaps I should have noticed that there was a more plausible explanation? The real explanation, as it turns out, is that there is a global conspiracy by one demographic group against another. The ‘very large scale conspiracy’ hypothesis is perhaps best known for its role as a reductio against theories that requires its truth. So I’m not sure that this alternative should have jumped out at me. Maybe I should give such theories more credence, given Father Christmas. My guess is mostly not, but that global conspiracies can grow from smaller conspiracies which become tradition and then spread.
Father Christmas has other surprising purported characteristics, such as an abundant appetite and access to all buildings. But presumably he doesn’t eat all the cookies at the time, and we used to leave the door open for him.
I’m not actually convinced that I should have done better, as an ignorant child independently assessing Father Christmas. Had I looked into the technology purportedly being used, then I should have done better. However I’m not sure Father Christmas should have stood out as the most worthy target of deeper investigation, even if I had been sensible enough to investigate the most worthy targets of deeper investigation. So, if I made mistakes, probably I’m still making them! Do you have better hints for cheaply being appropriately confused?