Naga in a Temple in Thailand

A Naga, a water snake with supernatural power. Seen in a temple in Chiang Khong, north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

Naga in Thailand

Another one of this kind. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

Angel in Hongsa, Laos

An angel in Hongsa, Laos. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

A Daemon Temple Guard

A Daemon temple guard in north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

Buddha Footprint

A Buddha footprint. It's some 70 centimeters long and preserved in concrete and put in a shrine where regularly people come and worship it. Image by Asienreisender in Sukothai, Thailand, 2013

A Javanese daemon mask in Solo, Java. Image: Asienreisender, 2012

The Dragon in my Garage

Quotation of the first part of chapter 10 in
'The Demon Haunted World' by Carl Sagan.


'The Dragon in my Garage' by Carl Sagan

"Magic, it must be remembered, is an art which demands collaboration between the artist and his public."

E.M. Butler, The Myth of the Magus (1948)

'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, except she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick.'

An 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.

The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerges you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative, merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of 'not proved'.

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how sceptical you might have been about the existence of dragons - to say nothing about invisible ones - you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

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 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 burned 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.

Demon Mask at Dieng Plateau, Java, Indonesia

A demon, protecting a temple entrance at Dieng Plateau, Java, Indonesia. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Magic requires tacit cooperation of the audience with the magician - an abandonment of scepticism, or what is sometimes described as the willing suspension of disbelief. It immediately follows that to penetrate the magic, to expose the trick, we must cease collaborating.

Dragon in Wat Luang, Chiang Khong

A dragon in Wat Luang, Chiang Khong, north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

Asienreisender Asienreisender - Back to the Top

Published on January 13th, 2013