Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Dragon in my Garage

While I was surfing reddit looking for something to write about for this week’s blog I found a quite interesting story-essay from the Atheists of Silicon Valley called The Dragon in my Garage by Carl Sagan. If you want to understand the rest of this blog and indeed read something both very well written and thought provoking, I suggest you read it now.

For the slow ones the invisible, floating, heatless, incorporeal dragon is a metaphor for God. To begin with Sagan seems to imply that not believing in the God-dragon is reasonable; as indeed it would be were the dragon completely undetectable. However at the end of his first scenario he proposes a case where, while the dragon is not directly visible, a number of alternative ways of detecting it seems to strongly suggest that it exists. As he correctly says

you must now acknowledge that there is something here.
It seems to me that Sagan is implying that there are enough pieces of evidence of God’s presence to mean that it would be reasonable to believe in him despite not being able to directly experience him.

However by listing a series of ways in which a dragon is someone’s garage may be detected, he assumes that the evidence for God is as convincing without ever explaining why. By using the mysterious dragon as a metaphor he allows himself to invent proof for the dragon and then transcribe those proofs onto God without ever making it explicit. It is up to the reader to make the connection, but in essence what Sagan has done is played a clever little word trick. He never tell us what the corresponding evidence which god leaves us is, he simply implies that it is there.

His second scenario muddies the waters further because he seems to disagree with the conclucions of his first scenario. In this case he says that

the only sensible approach is to tenatively reject the dragon hypothesis 
on the basis that there is some evidence, but it is not compelling. In this scenario Sagan widens the perspective of the metaphor to include multiple dragons inhabiting the garages of multiple people. This would seem to widen the base of evidence, but he now seems to reduce the amount of evidence we are getting from each individual dragon, making the essay seem a little confused. But who am I to criticise the writing of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century?

Anyway, to cut through the dragon bullshit because it is getting rather tiresome, Sagan is essentially saying that there is some rather unconvincing evidence for the existence of God which leads seemingly sane people to believe in him. What he neglects to account for is the fact that much of the evidence is mutually excusive; you cannot have a god which exactly fits the profiles created by both Muslims and Christians. While we may be able to pick out certain key themes between theses two faiths, it is hard to see how evidence which is so far from these key themes and so contradictory in the specifics can point towards the same God.

Further research (read Wikipedia) tells me that Sagan was an agnostic and the conclusions of his essay point to this. It would be interesting to know exactly what Sagan understood by the term ‘agnostic’ because for me the term is almost meaningless; it literally means ‘without knowledge’ and it would defy intellectual honesty for anyone to claim that they ‘knew’ god did or did not exist. It seems to me then that we are all ‘without knowledge’ one way or another about god, so are we not all agnostic? If we are all agnostic then the term is meaningless as a distinguisher; both the theist and the atheist will be agnostic by virtue of the fact that they cannot know that they are right. It seems to me from his essay that Sagan does not believe in God, but is open to the possibility that He does exist. As yet the evidence is inconclusive, but that, as always, is subject to change. By my understanding that makes Sagan an atheist, maybe not as convince an atheist as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, but an atheist nonetheless.

Atheism literally means ‘without belief in god’. It seems to me that this is a default position; everyone who is not a theist is an atheist by virtue of the fact that they do not believe in god. Atheism is often touted as an opposite and equal faith position to theism but this assumes that there is some positive statement about the nature of the universe inherent in atheism; there is not. It is simply a rejection of the statement made by theists that the universe somehow depends on a metaphysically being which we cannot directly experience; a dragon living in the universe’s garage. People often ask me to prove that god does not exist, but I content that this is impossible; you cannot prove that there is not a dragon living in my garage, this does not meant that it is any more reasonable to believe in the dragon that not to. It need not be proven that there is no dragon living in my garage for me to believe that anyone who thinks there is one is batshit-bonkers.

So, to return to the original topic, Sagan builds up a picture of an elusive dragon (or collection of dragons), living in a garage, leaving the odd piece of inconclusive evidence. Because of this barely palatable evidence, which he neglects to say is somewhat contradictory, he seems to imply that it is reasonable to reserve judgment on the existence of the dragon, refusing to even concede the default position of disbelieve until proven; innocent until proven guilty. While it is an incredibly perceptive and thought provoking essay, it is not a complete picture. Nonetheless it provided an interesting platform for something that I’ve wanted to write about for a while, but never been able to find a good way of getting into to.


  1. I didnt read all of it, but you should have used the definitions of atheism we have used in class, rather than your own ones.

    Or to put it differently,I would argue that neagtive atheism/agnosticism is a meaningful stance to take.

  2. any reason? or just an assertion based upon you swallowing what you are taught without thinking about it?

  3. I think about what we're taught! I simply feel that by saying that agnostic is as basic is 'without knowledge' is wrong, because we know that it is the only reasonable stance to take without faith, so agnosticism is the default stance, not atheism.

  4. 'because we know that it is the only reasonable stance to take without faith'

    would you like to rationalise that rather than, making a vague assertion?

    I reject the implication that atheism is a faith statement; there is nothing being asserted by atheism. Atheists reject the god hypothesis, but they do not replace it with an opposite faith statement. Atheism is a negative stance. to call someone an atheist in the first place is misleading; it would be better to identify people by what they actually do believe in, rather than identifying them by what they don't. For example you would say that a humanist is a humanist, but you would not identify a non-humanist simply as a non-humanist, you would instead say what they do believe in.

    the problem here is that people identify themselves as an atheist, which says what they do not believe in, rather than saying what they do believe in.

  5. Ok, not all atheists are empiricists, not all atheists are humanists...I'm stuggling to think of a group that all atheists fit into which is what they believe rather than what they dont believe.

  6. because there isn't one.