Skeptics, believers. Lay down your shotguns and knives. Take a moment to bandage and reload, and I will explain to you why an incorporeal garage dragon means that you should not be fighting. As much.
This strange beast, and its fantastical properties, are described in The Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan.
“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage,” he begins, “…Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself.”
You do, but you can’t. The dragon is invisible. You could spread flour on the floor to capture its footprints, but, alas, it also floats. You offer to fetch your infrared camera, but, sadly, its fire is heatless. Perhaps a can of spray paint, then, to make the dragon visible? Oh, right. Incorporeal.
You see where he’s going: “Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless,” he writes, “the only sensible approach is to tentatively reject the dragon hypothesis, [but] to be open to future data…”
The garage dragon is a straightforward parable about the scientific value of a non-falsifiable hypothesis, but it contains an important nuance. While rejecting the hypothesis, Sagan still leaves open the possibility that, after all, the dragon might still be real. “Immune to disproof,” after all, isn’t the same as “wrong.”
This may seem like splitting hairs until you consider that within the narrow philosophical gap between “immune to disproof” and “wrong” there lies the entire universe of mystical experience, the wellspring of religion and spirituality. The dragon we’re discussing here is not a cute, intellectual abstraction; it’s a powerful, visionary experience you had of the divine manifesting to you in the form of a winged serpent—and so what if it didn’t leave footprints? Yes, with all that supernatural stuffed into such a tiny crack, it seems that we ought to take a closer look at our epistemology.
In scientific positivism, objectivity is the measure of truth. The observation must be shared, the experiment replicated. To the extent that everyone can achieve the same result, witness the same phenomenon, the scales of evidence tilt that way; but if objectivity is the measure of truth, then, by extension, it is also what delineates the scope of inquiry.
Where materialists overreach is in equating the scope of scientific inquiry with the scope of reality; that is to say, they confuse the map for the territory. The objectively observable universe may well represent the whole extent of reality, but if it were not, then how would we know? For example, what are the laws which decide that a biochemical mechanism called the brain should be inhabited by an awareness capable of sensing the redness of red and the sourness of sour, but that an apple tree capable of blossoming in the spring and bending itself in the direction of the sun should not likewise experience the light and temperature that stimulate its own behavior? Or does it, perhaps? What of a thermostat, the operating system of a factory arm, or the neural network studying your browsing behavior? What is the deciding factor?
We lack an outside frame of reference that permits us to answer questions like these. We are able to gather sensory information from the world, but we can’t “go meta” and find out whether your chocolate tastes like my vanilla. We are constrained in what we can know, given the sort of beings that we are. How constrained, you ask? Well, that’s one of the things that we are constrained from knowing. The material model might not be far off, but it’s also possible that the qualitative universe—the “inner-space,” if you will—is actually a lot bigger, and a lot stranger, than we could ever imagine. You can’t hear it, but the lawn you just mowed—is screaming!
Does this mean that the incorporeal dragon who visits you in your garage is real? No; it means that we have no way of knowing. You are entitled to treat it as real, if you so choose. Your visions of a winged serpent delivering wisdom from on high may be so tangible to you that your belief simply does not require physical confirmation. Perhaps a brain tumor, or a dose of DMT, is merely the device by which magic dragons manifest on the material plane. It could be so.
The hypothesis cannot be disproven, but, by that same token, neither it is provable. You may be able to convince others upon the strength of your sincerity—found your own religion, even—but you cannot look to science to validate your belief.
This is where believers tend to overreach. While generally criticizing science and materialism, on one hand, they are nonetheless quick to seize upon scientific findings that can be superficially interpreted to support a magical worldview. Deepak Chopra, I’m looking at you.
It is possible that one day scientific evidence may be produced which confirms the existence of psi, or of ghosts, but were this to happen, it would not overthrow the materialist paradigm, it would expand it. If the existence of telepathy, for instance, were to be confirmed by science, then it would not be a supernatural phenomenon, like your dragon; it would just be another mundane aspect of the physical world that had not been previously demonstrated. You can’t use the lens of materialism to debunk materialism any more than you can use a black and white camera to demonstrate color.
The conclusion we reach is that science cannot disprove mysticism, because mysticism is without evidence to debunk. The two worldviews are, as Stephen Jay Gould put it, “non-overlapping magisteria,” and this is what defines their boundaries. If only scientists did not seek to debunk mysticism, and believers did not invoke science to validate their experiences, then we could spare ourselves countless hours of frustrating, circular argument.
Nonetheless, the temptation is there. Each paradigm is left with a small, annoying, but ultimately impenetrable hole in its worldview. Scientific positivists can’t know what makes the redness of red—only its correlates in the observable universe—and so they try to equate the two. Mystics perceive themselves as having direct experience of the divine, but have no proof, no way to be sure, and so they defile the sacred by attempting to justify faith with the language of pseudoscience.
It is deeply unsatisfying, for most people, to accept that the deepest answers we can seek are simply unknowable, but for my part, I take comfort in the fact that, regardless of my chosen paradigm, I will still find a mystery at the center of existence. An unanswerable question, after all, yields infinite possibility.