Nice post Frost. Since you mentioned dragons, it just so happens that I am reading AC Grayling’s new book. Grayling includes Carl Sagan’s ‘The Dragon in My Garage’ story, which I believe is from Demon Haunted World. Anyway, here it is, with one apparent minor edit from Grayling:
‘A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.’
Suppose 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 dragaon?’ 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 fo invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to dispproof 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…
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 sceptic 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.