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The Dragon in My Garage
| This might be|
|But we're not sure|
"The Dragon in My Garage" is a chapter in Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, which presents an analogy where the existence of God is equated with a hypothetical insistence that there is a dragon living in someone's garage. This is similar to Russell's Teapot in the way it forms an apt analogy for the concepts of the burden of proof and falsifiability. The main thrust of how Sagan develops the garage-dwelling dragon example is that the proponent employs increasingly ad hoc reasoning to describe their belief in the face of further questions. Eventually, the goalposts are moved in such a way as to render the initial assertion practically unfalsifiable. In a more general sense, this part may be done during the initial definition of the belief, or as when replying to critical examination of the belief in question.
Dragon-style arguments originate in what Daniel Dennett terms "belief in belief": rather than actually holding a belief, you think you should hold the belief—or "fake it till you make it". The post hoc justifications come from dissonance between what the believers think they should believe and how these beliefs would actually manifest in practical terms. While such justifications need to be made quickly on an ad hoc basis, someone declining all these tests must, somewhere in their head, have a model that makes them not expect to see this sort of evidence at all. This is tantamount to not really holding the belief (since you'd expect to see something if you really did believe), but just thinking that they do, hence "belief in belief". This is often rationalised away in much the same manner that the metaphorical dragon is, by changing the rules to say that the dragon doesn't really need to have a real effect on our lives to have a real effect on our lives. What? Exactly.
In the case of the dragon, we expect footprints and flames, in the case of miracles and prayer we expect the ability to test them—and proponents subsequently attempt to hide these things from experimental scrutiny.
Overview of the analogy
Sagan described the discussion as follows:
"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.
How do I do this?
The process is comparable to the God of the gaps argument. In this argument, gods are claimed to be responsible for the creation or day-to-day running of aspects of the universe. As scientific knowledge expands, the gods are not found where theists expect them to be. For example, none of our observations of the sun have revealed the presence of Apollo and his chariot.[note 1] Because of this, believers in Apollo's purported role would either have to abandon the belief that he tows the sun around, or redefine parameters of the belief. For example, one could claim that Apollo is invisible to our eyes and instruments.
It's easy to create your own unfalsifiable belief. Just follow these steps:
- Express a belief
- Someone proposes a way in which the belief can be tested
- Add or change an attribute of the belief to render the proposed test invalid, and simply reiterate step 1
Similarly, early Christians including Paul, identified heaven with other planets. However, now that we know that other planets are uninhabitable - and do not have angels, demons and God - heaven has moved to an invisible dimension.
Catholicism traditionally postulates a just and all-loving God, but this is not consistent with a God who would send unbaptized babies to Hell. Some Catholics employ ad hoc reasoning to invent a less nasty place, named Limbo, although this has never been part of official doctrine, and has no scriptural support. With Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 renouncement of Limbo, Catholics have to either accept that babies burn in Hell, or employ yet more ad hoc reasoning to save babies from damnation without causing baptism to be unnecessary for salvation. It would seem a terrible world in which people can make their own peace with God, thus bypassing the clergy and their collection bowls - the latter perhaps being the greater loss.
Stephen J. Gould's concept of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", which separates the world into a material realm that can be explained by science and a non-material realm that can be explained by religion, effectively turns the entire concept of religion into one big garage-dwelling Dragon. While in practice NOMA is used by apologists to ignore scientific evidence when they want to and to claim that "alternative interpretations" of evidence are still valid, a literal application of NOMA removes religion from having any observable qualities - as observable qualities must be material. Sagan's dragon analogy becomes apt here as strict adherents to NOMA would have to ensure that their religious beliefs make no predictions, make no observable effects on the world and produce no substantial effect on our lives, much like a man who opens his garage door and can quickly come up with a thousand excuses why his friend can't detect the magic dragon, because he doesn't actually expect to see a dragon in there.
This strict view of NOMA throws out much of the use religion might have; divine revelations can be tested against fact, miracles can be observed to violate physical laws (though some would suggest these simply constitute new physical laws), and prayer can be tested if you expect it to have a particular effect. It's perhaps because of this that apologists never really take the strict NOMA view and follow it through consistently. (Or, more cynically, one might say they follow NOMA only when it suits their needs by avoiding having to provide evidence for their beliefs.)
Prayer has been the subject of several controlled trials. One would expect — given that individuals have well-formed beliefs and a rational approach to them — that the empirical demonstration of prayer to have no effect would alter their opinion of its empirical effect. Not so. As Bob Barth of Silent Unity explains in response to one trial funded by the Templeton Foundation:
“”...but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started.
Of course, this is straight-up cognitive dissonance — rejecting the results, or putting off accepting their conclusions in order to twist reality to fit an existing view. However, other theological positions have been to reject the concept that prayer can even be tested at all, perhaps going so far as to reject that direct petitions to God and intercessory prayer are what prayer is actually for. The Catholic Church, for instance, focuses on "acts of reparation" to address individual sin, and this cannot, by definition, be tested empirically because there is no possible control.
Psychics and mediums
In a 1989 TV show Exploring Psychic Powers Live!, self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne failed miserably in her attempts to demonstrate psychic abilities. Rather than consider the possibility that she, like the rest of us, is bound by the physical laws of our universe, she chose to redefine her abilities and the variables in the test. Sylvia claimed that the audience was German, when in fact only one member of the audience was German, and he spoke fluent English, and during the show she expressed no concerns while speaking to the German audience member.
- In Greek mythology, the sun god Apollo was said to ride his chariot across the sky with the sun, towing it in the way a car may have a trailer hitched-up to it.
- The folly of pretence (Daniel Dennett, Guardian, 2009-07-16); detailed further in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
- Less Wrong - Belief in belief
- Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark Ballantine: New York, 1996.
- Franklin, Richard L. (1994). "Overcoming The Myth of Self-Worth: Reason and Fallacy in What You Say to Yourself". ISBN 0963938703
- The Straight Dope - Have studies proven that prayer can help heal the sick?
- New York Times - Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer
- Catholic Encyclopedia - Reparations
- Stop Sylvia Browne describes Sylvia's failure in greater detail