The Natural History of the Incorporeal Garage Dragon

dragonSkeptics, 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.

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  • Thad McKraken

    Here’s the problem, while you can’t prove mysticism, you can prove that mystical states influence behavior, which is a physical and measurable thing. Mainstream science refuses to do this, which is why they really have no leg to stand on in arguments such as these.

    If someone has a near death experience, do they come back behaving like a different person? Again, easy to study. So science can just go on saying “we can’t prove these things because they’re internal”. Yeah, you also can’t prove that my thoughts are happening which are guiding my hands to write this comment. So? You can see the comment. Did say, Whitley Strieber get abducted by aliens? Well, he was a successful horror writer who all of a sudden started obsessively writing books on the topic. His behavior went from one thing to another. John Mack pointed that out in regards to the abductees he was studying. They’re not crazy, so what is it that changed their behavior so drastically? In astronomy, people see the laws of physics not behaving in a manner consistent with our corner of the galaxy, so they theorize that invisible forces are controlling them (dark matter/dark energy). This is seen as totally okay. When consciousness gets involved, no dice.

    • Haystack

      It seems to me that scientists and believers more or less agree upon effects; it’s causes they dispute. Does the NDE have a separate reality from what is physically happening to the brain at the time it occurs? Is it the physical trauma, or is it the divine that producing the change in behavior? Can we ever know if there is a distinction between the two?

    • The Well Dressed Man

      The burden of proof is on the theist, the mystic and the dragon-keeper. Space and time are inscrutably mysterious, and could very well contain all manner of the above. We can use our reason to discern the elemental nature of matter at it’s most infinitesimal. Mendeleev came up with the periodic table in the 19th century, long before we could “see” molecules and atoms. Standing on the shoulders of giants, we simply ask for theories to be backed up with experimental data before seriously entertaining them.

  • emperorreagan

    Excellent essay.

    I think the last point, about how the deepest answers we seek are simply unknowable, is a big one. Most people have a fairly high need for closure. If one could bet on the future results of psychological constructs, I would put money on that need for closure accelerating with constant access to things like smart phones.

    I think that need for closure is why as one paradigm begins to fade away, you see a new entrenchment in a different dogmatic position. And of course, that in turn feeds the conflict and need to validate the structure one is operating on.

  • BuzzCoastin

    > It is possible that one day scientific evidence
    may be produced which confirms the existence of psi, or of ghosts

    “science” is not open to those possibilities
    and cannot & will not confirm anything outside its belief system
    besides
    who cares what scientists think
    create your own experiments and find your own truths

    • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

      Science TRIES to go outside its “belief system.” That’s the whole point of science. Scientists are constantly arguing with each other as to what is and isn’t true. They love proving each other wrong.

      Science is open to any possibility so long as it is testable. So make your tests, prove science wrong about something at the moment, advance scientific knowledge further then collect your nobel prize.

      • BuzzCoastin

        it’s really not my intent to offend the adherents of science
        because they’re even less tolerant than Fundy Christians
        butt
        the empirical method itself is flawed
        a vision of reality truncated by a literary (visual) bias
        which gives science its present warped outlook
        a lot of these things mentioned in this article
        I have already tested & verified their existence
        I don’t need science for that

        and to those who somehow think
        a computer is the product of science
        it’s not
        it’s the product of electricity
        which harnessed humans as it’s servants
        in the late 1700′s

        • The Well Dressed Man

          The scientific method is a path, not a belief system.
          At the local level, classical mechanics seems very reliable.
          At the microcosm and macrocosm, we understand the rules are different. Observer bias is also something we consider.

          Are you making a value judgement on electromagnetism?

          • BuzzCoastin

            it’s entirely a belief system
            similar to any belief system
            it has dogma & laws
            and even adjudicates & punishes it’s heretics
            ask Rupert Sheldranke

            if you want to understand electricity’s effect upon you
            try living without it for a day
            I’ve tried
            and it’s hardly possible

          • The Well Dressed Man

            Which is more rigid: The scientific method, or your belief that “science” is wrong?

            Electromagnetism is at work in our nervous systems, and countless other natural phenomena. Are you seriously asking us to imagine existence without it?

          • BuzzCoastin

            I don’t believe science is wrong
            but I know enough to know it’s not absolutely right
            especially in areas
            where it’s own belief system excludes exploration

            and don’t confuse natural phenomenon with science
            once this thing called “science” is gone
            natural systems will still remain
            they are not dependent on a belief system for existence

          • The Well Dressed Man

            “but I know enough to know it’s not absolutely right
            especially in areas where it’s own belief system excludes exploration”
            - Sounds perfectly scientific!

          • BuzzCoastin

            only to a believer does it sound scientific

          • The Well Dressed Man

            Does the believer question, or judge?

          • BuzzCoastin

            the role of a believer is to believe
            questioning usually gets you excommunicated

          • The Well Dressed Man

            Communication channels still open.

          • The Well Dressed Man

            Let me know if you have more to add to your case against electromagnetism.

          • BuzzCoastin

            science is not electromagnetism
            and
            electromagnetism is not science

            Maxwell’s equations are
            a partial description of electromagnetic phenomenon
            that’s science
            a partial explanation of a physical phenomenon

          • The Well Dressed Man

            I agree 100%, which is why I’m curious about your insinuation that we were enslaved by electricity in the 18th century.

          • BuzzCoastin

            everything modern is based on electricity
            without electricity there is no modernity
            if you try to live without electricity
            as I have
            you soon discover this

        • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

          The Theory of Computation has nothing to do with electricity, actually.

          • BuzzCoastin

            spoken like a true human
            totally ignorant of electricity’s hold on you
            try living without it for a day
            without electricity
            your computations would be done on a Babbage Engine

          • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

            I’ve spent weeks without electricity before so piss off ya weirdo.

          • BuzzCoastin

            sher ya have
            must be how you got the Singe soubriquet
            reading science by candlelight
            through a glass darkly

          • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

            It’s a little thing called “camping”. Maybe you’ve never tried it before? No computers no laptops no cell phones no GPS no dishwashers no clothes dryers, no sparkplugs no electric lighting, not even flashlights. No electricity for days on end.

          • BuzzCoastin

            did ya have a flashlight?
            and btw
            everything you used to camp with was made with electricity
            and transported by electricity
            no motor runs without electricity

          • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

            I just told you no flashlights.

          • BuzzCoastin

            bullshit
            I’ve “camped” for months at a time
            I never knew anyone to camp without one
            but I do believe you stumble around in the dark a lot

          • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

            What’s wrong with gas lanterns, eh? Sorry if you don’t like being wrong.

          • BuzzCoastin

            yeah, you lugged a gas can
            did you bring bricks to set the lamp on
            instead of bringing a much lighter alternative
            where did you camp
            a Walmart parking lot?

            I can see you now
            hair singed
            walking through the woods with a lantern

          • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

            Seriously you’ve never camped before? You can use the same fuel for cooking as you do for lanterns. Bricks are not needed to set the lantern on. I camped in several places. Usually in Yosemite or Henry Coe. A couple times at Point Reyes. Few times on Catalina island. Other places too.

            Anyway, I accept your apology.

          • BuzzCoastin

            dude, I’ve lived in the woods for months at a time
            I’ve hiked some of the toughest trails
            and only tourists lug heavy shit like gas canisters
            just for a couple o’daze in the woods

            try living for 6 months straight without electricity
            can’t be easily
            and certainly not conveniently done
            you’ll run out of gas pretty quickly
            (unless you drive to the store)
            batteries are lighter and last longer

            the entire “camping” experience is a consumer created event
            and everything used for it
            was made & shipped by processes
            that require electricity

    • The Well Dressed Man

      BC, we were discussing Science vs. science not long ago.
      I understand you have some issues with the current orthodoxy.

      My question is: where did we “go wrong?”
      At what point did the application of reason to problem solving become this “Science” that you seem to oppose?

      • BuzzCoastin

        “science” is a creation of the literate West
        created by the empirical thoughts of Bacon
        prior to that people didn’t have “science”
        they had learning
        and
        no one seems to have thought
        to test the empirical method scientifically
        hence, you get lots of strange results
        and lots of bad thinking
        that usually leads to atomic bombs & GMO seeds
        monkeys playing with god’s tools

        the “science” of old has this redeeming quality
        it was benign and rarely killed off large numbers of humans

        • The Well Dressed Man

          “monkeys playing with god’s tools”-
          Now we’re getting somewhere. Are you suggesting that such matters are above our heads? We’re unworthy of answers? This implies that some superior is privy to these details. Whom?

          • BuzzCoastin

            the way humans casually play with gods tools
            shows they’re not ready to play with god’s tools
            Lao Tzu mentions this about 2500 years ago
            and I don’t think human intelligence
            has evolved much beyond that point
            in fact
            I think it has devolved since then

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