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The Dragon In My Garage is a chapter in Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, which presents an analogy by which claims for the existence of God are equated with a hypothetical person's insistence that there is a dragon living in their garage. This is similar to Russell's Teapot, in that the both are repeatedly redefined in such a way that renders them unfalsifiable.

Contents

Overview of the analogy

Sagan outlined the analogy 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.[1]

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.[2]

There are some simple steps to follow if one wishes to defend an unsubstantiated belief:

  1. Express a belief
  2. Someone proposes a way in which the belief can be tested
  3. Add or change an attribute of the belief to render the proposed test invalid

Examples

Christianity

The invention of limbo is a classic example of theists postulating a characteristic in order to answer an apparent flaw in their theology. Traditional Catholic doctrine states that baptism is a necessary prerequisite for entry in to Heaven. The notion of newborn babies burning in hell alongside Hitler and Richard Dawkins is quite unpleasant, so limbo was postulated as a less unpleasant destination for unbaptized people. Limbo has no scriptural support, and indeed was never part of official Catholic doctrine, but was widely believed until in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI ruled it to be non-existent.

The problem of evil highlights the contradictions inherent in an all-loving god who would tolerate suffering. When asked to explain why the world appears to be full of random and unjust suffering, it's common to argue that this is due to the fall of man, or that ending suffering would remove our free-will. It may also be argued that this veil of tears is insignificant when compared to the eternity of bliss to be experienced in the afterlife.

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.[3] Sylvia claimed that the audience were 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.

See also

Footnotes

  1. Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark Ballantine: New York, 1996.
  2. 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.
  3. Stop Sylvia Browne describes Sylvia's failure in greater detail
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