Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Carl Sagan's Invisible Dragon-Why Your Word Isn't Enough

This piece begins with a selection from chapter ten of Carl Sagan’s book "The Demon-Haunted World" It is followed by some personal thoughts of my own.

Sagan writes,
“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, except 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 things 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 emerges 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 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 Europeans 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." 

When examining religious issues such as the existence of God, revelation, visions, miracles and biblical interpretation it is amazing to see how much they have in common with issues such as alien abductions, witchcraft, psychics, channeling past lives and magic. For while the specific claims surrounding these issues vary greatly the believers’ justifications for supporting such odd ideas are all fairly similar. Scientific tests become suspect, contradictions are explained away, questions are side-stepped, logic is bent or disregarded, lack of evidence is ignored and the skeptic’s inability to disprove what the believers themselves have intentionally made irrefutable becomes undeniable proof to the believers of the validity of their insubstantial ideas. And in spite of the skeptic’s reasonable and vigilant approach in examining everyone’s claims in the same fashion it is the skeptic that is viewed as hard headed, arrogant and somehow shallow.

It amazes me how much confidence people place in their own personal experiences while they so quickly reject the experiences of others, unless of course those people’s experiences validates their own perceptions. The evidence the normal person demands when facing wild or odd claims all but disappears once one’s own feelings and pre-existing beliefs become involved. The reality of human fallacy should not count simply against those one already disagrees with it must also be turned inward. Sagan speaks of the large number of women who have reported being impregnated by aliens. These women all had explanations for why they had no alien babies to show or other proof to offer. Many explained that the aliens had come and taken the babies away or that the babies just looked like normal human babies and we couldn’t tell the difference. Presented with these stories most Christians would laugh a little and hardy give them a second thought despite the amazing similarities these stories have to a different story where a woman made odd claims about being impregnated incorporeally, which they believe without question. The same proofs that can be offered for believing in the immaculate conception (personal experiences and a written account) can be offered for believing in these women’s extraterrestrial conception yet one is believed without question and one is quickly rejected for lack of proof. Funny how that works.

Yet despite the scientific failings of all of these groups (alien abductees, psychics, Christians, faith healers, witch doctors, magicians, etc) to prove their assertions it is only the skeptics who remain open to listening to and examining the claims they all make and who are then ready to change their minds if valid evidence presents itself. Most in these groups have made up their minds as to what beliefs to accept without question and what beliefs to reject out of hand but the skeptic does neither. Instead the skeptic conditionally accepts as true that for which the best evidence exists while remaining open to new ideas refusing to reject any without proper examination. 

So do I believe in aliens, magic, witches or God? No because as of yet there's no reason to. As Sagan said about his dragon, "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 things 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." So I must ask is God truly anything more than an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon? Well only based on your say-so, which without further proof is as good as saying no he’s not. 


  1. Z - interesting post. Aside from the usual reminder that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," I'd like to point out my opposition to this oft-used and under-examined parable.
    What this (and all similar stories) completely - and wrongly - ignores is that the dragon (or whatever the metaphor may be) can exist as a psychological manifestation, which is utterly real even if not physically apparent. So you can't see, smell, hear, touch, or taste my dragon. Can you see, smell, hear, touch or taste someone else's dreams or emotions or other psychological phenomena? Nope. Does that mean that dreams and emotions and such are not real? Not a chance.
    Sure, we've tried "testing" for the existence of the dragon by putting flour on the floor or setting up IR sensors, with no success. But this assumes that all that exists is only that which exists physically. Isn't the fact that I say I've encountered a dragon in my garage "proof" of its reality, in the same way that my description of a dream I had last night is "proof" of the dream's reality? In the latter case, you set up an experiment not to test for physical manifestations of the dream itself, but for its effect on me - you hook me up to an EKG or stick me in a CAT scan and measure my brain's activity when I speak of the dream. Why can't this also be the case for the dragon? Why does one have to prove the dragon's existence by looking for it outside, instead of inside, the person who experienced it?
    To quote Sir James George Frazer, father of modern anthropology: "The danger, however, is no less real because it is imaginary; imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid."

  2. Kelly,

    First I have to say I love having you back and to have you disagreeing with me, or at least trying to keep me honest.

    While I understand and like your statement, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," I ultimately disagree. The absence of evidence for any proposition by no means disproves that proposition but it does in fact count as evidence against that proposition, it makes it less likely to be true. It does not close the book on that issue, in fact the search must continue but the lack of proof that something is true is quite important when determining how to act. Yes your dragon may exist despite the lack of evidence and yes I can’t disprove the existence of your dragon, especially sense you’ve made that impossible, but should I then live as if it is real?

    I by no means doubt the power of the mind but I would say that there is a big difference between accepting the reality of a person’s dreams, hallucinations or imagination along with the effect they have on those people and accepting those things as “real,” in the sense of how I should live my life. This is especially true once we are talking about God because the fact is while I cannot deny the experiences of those who have seen or felt God I can deny the applications of those experiences especially once they are placed directly upon me. You can have your invisible dragon, just like you can have your dreams and your imagination but once your dragon is thrust upon me as my moral authority, commanding me how to act and how to structure society (and of course only the person whose “sees” the dragon actually knows what it is commanding) then yes the deference between a physical reality and a mental one becomes quite important and worthy of distinction. The fact is that your say-so is not enough once your mental reality wants to control my physical reality.

    I love and completely affirm the Sir James George Frazer quote. The fact is that while I do not believe God exists I cannot deny his power because history demonstrates what people have done and will do based upon belief in him. God truly is the most influential and powerful being that has ever not existed.

  3. "God truly is the most influential and powerful being that has ever not existed." Fantastic thought!
    I agree with you, that simply because the dragon exists or doesn't exist in the recesses of my psyche doesn't grant me the dragon's moral authority. Here's where I differ from most "religious" people, I suppose - while I wish with all my heart that anyone and everyone could experience Truth, I know that it is a personal experience, and thus proselytizing is useless. I can tell you about my dragon, but I can't force you to believe in it. In the same way one describes one's dreams in the hopes of sharing the experience through common language, experiences of God are inadequately, if earnestly, described through common media. But what results is not God or an experience of God, but a picture of an experience of God. And that, as you aptly point out, carries no moral authority. My argument, I guess, is simply to say that the experiences should not be blithely dismissed in kind, even if they cannot be empirically verified (in the sense of dragon tracks in the flour).

  4. As is often the case I think you and I agree on more things then we disagree. I think we just tend to criticize different extremes of the spectrum, me of the religious side and you of the scientific side, not always but often. I just love talking with you because even when we disagree it doesn’t feel like we’re arguing rather we’re just exchanging ideas.

    I guess one of the weird things for me when talking about individual experiences with God is that I’ve had them. God spoke to me, warmed my heart and generally made me a better person. But eventually those inner experiences of God (what I now believe was myself) became less and less important and less and less valid because of my outer experiences with other people. The social implications of my inner God could just no longer be ignored and at the end of the day I grew tired of believing (even subconsciously) that I was more important then other people, in the sense that I had some special experience with God that others were not privileged to. That’s obviously not the fully story but just a piece that seems relevant to this conversation.

    As always thanks for the comments.

  5. I'm sorry but I guess I'm a couple of years late but I just came across this post looking up the Magic Dragon idea. I'm curious if you've seen any recent studies on consciousness or global consciousness and that science is leaving the here and now crossing into all that which was once considered the other. Consciousness is quantified and that the possibilities of these findings indicate that consciousness would continue even though it is no longer contained in the physical brain- truly mind blowing. As well as string-theories becoming mathematically possible and the idea of there being other realities or dimensions are now valid. My favorite thing is that the whole understanding of quantum mechanics is that it is completely random but already completely determined, brings in parallels of free will and yet that everything is already determined, a concept that was once used to disprove the bible because it was considered so contradictory, but now it is possible for the two to be true and is now mathematically explained. Two things that totally go against each other but are completely bound together and work together. The idea that numbers break down into infinity in black holes because of singularities, physics and numbers no longer apply in our universe. Suddenly it is possible to step out of space time and the cutting edge of science is proving that these ideas that were thought to be foolishness are not so.