Friday, April 04, 2008

Carl Sagan - The Dragon in My Garage

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage"

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick." And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons -- to say nothing about invisible ones -- you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it's not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages -- but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I'd rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they're never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.


Written by Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World (page 160)


CyberKitten said...

I guess *someone* had to do it - but Dr Sagan is stating the patentently obvious here.

Of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence but without *any* (credible) evidence what conclusions do we draw? What we can say is that there is no evidence to support the belief in the existence of dragons (either within or without garages). Does this disprove the Dragon Hypothesis - No. But it is not necessary for the skeptic to disprove the existence of dragons - or anything else for that matter. It is for the believers in dragons to *show* that they exist.

As much as I would like dragons to exist (I mean how cool would *that* be) I'm afraid that I do not believe in such fantasical beings. No credible evidence = no belief in my book.

Duke said...

The time has come, the harvest is ripe.

The Faithful Witness

CyberKitten said...

duke said: The time has come, the harvest is ripe.

Would that be broad beans or sunflower seeds? I understand that they are both harvested at this time of year........

wunelle said...

I found you via cyberkitten's blog.

I read Sagan years ago, but forgot how nicely he presents some things. This was an excellent re-introduction.

P.J. said...

Sagan is sorely missed.
He was a beacon of sanity in an insane world.

Red said...

Well, there IS evidence, it just depends on how you read it and what you consider credible. The primary evidence that an apologist would cite is that we use creation as evidence of the existence of God.

To boil this down to invisible dragons doesn't do the subject justice or even encompass the meat of the topic.
1) The FIRST, most important question is: "How did we get here?" This is before we even argue which religion is historical, mythical, reasonable or fact. "Is there a God?" or "Are we here by chance?" If you can't prove this to a religious person, your arguments are invalid. Evolution does not disprove the existence of God. In some instances, I believe it will only fortify a creationist. Evolution can't hold water in coincidence simulations. The odds are stacked against it. I won't bother citing the numbers. Look up the Shakespeare statistics. Look up some intelligent design arguments. Some of those arguments do suck. I'm an engineer. I've taken biomechanics and I can point out that your body is more like a machine than you might like to admit.

Next, you can address the smaller questions:
2) The second question is: If there is a creator, does he/she/they care about our affairs?
3) Is it possible to know that being(s)is? If you have a being or beings that meddle in the affairs of man, naturally they'd make themselves known? Or are we deluding ourselves into thinking that he/she/it/they cares?
4) Where do we fit in? What is expected of me? (If anything)
5) What does this do for me?

The religious person does not want the answer to number 2 or 3 first. they will invariably use any Shallow argument and go back to question 1. Science does not offer us a meaty enough response to the patterns we see in life. You have to go back to the origin of it all and see exactly why people believe that there is something more? People usually have rational reasons to their beliefs (even if you don't believe in it).

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Red

Thank you for your comment. The primary problem of using creation (birds, trees, stars, etc) for the existence of a creator is that you are assuming something that you haven't demonstrated: that these things were in fact created. So I would like to ask you: what is it about birds, trees and stars that convince you that they were created?

Secondly, your criticism of evolution is based on a misunderstanding of how evolution (but more importantly, natural selection) actually works. As Richard Dawkins argues in Climbing Mount Improbable, the odds are not that great at all when you consider small selected changes over time. And 'selected' is the key word here.

Keep well.