Project Reason is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. The foundation draws on the talents of prominent and creative thinkers in a wide range of disciplines to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.

Donate to Project Reason

Join the Mailing List

Sign up to receive email updates from Project Reason.

Log in

 
not a member? Join here.
Forgot your password?

The Scripture Project

Browse the Bible, Qur’an or Book of Mormon for scriptural criticism, insights and careful annotation.

Most Recently Updated Passages

Archive

The Dragon In My Garage

By Carl Sagan
Posted: June 16, 2011.

Print: Godless Geeks

“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.

Comments (11)

Brilliant smile

posted on June 17, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

What a great analogy.  Fantastic.  But it still won’t crack the “that’s why they call it faith” reply.  Theists will just say that nonbelievers are misguided by looking for proof in this area, won’t they?

posted on June 18, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

True eyelevel, but then one can ask what makes their faith more special than any others.  And isn’t faith just an excuse to believe in whatever you want.

This usually ends up with blank looks and some mumbling regarding Pascal’s Wager with a quick exit to the conversation.  They just aren’t capable of critically analyzing their faith.

posted on June 18, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

4. CardinalSmurf

Most religions ensure their constituents are afraid to analyze their faith and the world around them.  Nothing so effective as a product with thousands of years of R&D behind it.

posted on June 20, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

5. Steve DeHaven

It’s equally fascinating to look at this line of reasoning from the other direction.  There is a mountain of evidence from multiple sciences proving the validity of the Theory of Evolution.  Yet no matter how much evidence is produced, the religious manage to ignore it as a point of “faith.” 

To assert the existence of something for which there is no evidence, while denying the reality of something for which there is abundant evidence, surely must serve as a thumbnail definition of mental illness.  Perhaps that’s the most important thing to remember when talking to believers:  you’re not on equal footing, because they cannot or will not accept reality.  Therefore, any attempt at rational discussion with them is likely to end in frustration.

posted on July 15, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

Actually when you think at it, the leaders could have made up something that is totally illogical and unprovable and sidestepped the whole Evolution debate altogether.  “God works in mysterious ways.”, “Of course evolution exists, God is made up of DNA and so are humans so there is no contradiction.”  Or some other story.  The fact that they chose to fight Evolution hints at some other, deeper agenda.

posted on July 27, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

I’ve been browsing on-line greater than 3 hours lately, but I by no means discovered any fascinating article like yours. It is beautiful value enough for me. In my opinion, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you probably did, the net will be a lot more helpful than ever before.

posted on August 26, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

8. Love Quotes

This is very exciting article with a dragon in your garage and it is so funny but it seems the dragon is invisible and I think its your only imagination cos dragon doesnt exist nowadays.


Love Quotes

posted on August 31, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

I’ve also seen a movie about dragon myths, from how they fly to why there are dragons that has no wings (like dragons in china). Your article is really moving, great work, piece of art.


Lisa

posted on August 31, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

10. your name

The dragon is the mess you have in the garage, if you clean it, you will know the ways to to do to get pregnant for sure.  The male also need a dragon or he will soon to vapor.

posted on October 28, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.

Very good, made me laugh - I don’t know if all the religious would view their faith as blind, or evidence that is so subjectively implausible…?

still made me laugh

posted on November 9, 2011
report this as inappropriate

You don't have permission to flag this entry.