Sagan’s Dragon in the Garage and Undetectable Aliens among Us
A while back, I was having a chat on Twitter with my exceedingly cool friend Linda, @LLStarlight, and we discussed a hypothetical alien species living among us, completely hidden from standard means of detection. I thought at once of the famous example the late Carl Sagan gave in his book, The Demon-Haunted World of an invisible dragon allegedly living in someone’s garage. The dragon was not only invisible in ordinary light, but intangible, invisible to infrared, etc, in short, impervious to any test of the claim that would actually reveal it, immune from obvious disproof.
The alien we discussed was similar, at least in being undetectable to current audio-visual sensors, though perhaps room was left for the possibility of using less conventional means of revealing its presence. Had the alien been totally undetectable, by any means conceivable now or in the future, could we even know it was there?
I’m a rational empiricist in terms of my approach to epistemology. I view genuine knowledge as being primarily gained by some sort of input, such as firsthand and secondhand experience of the world, whether gained directly from the senses or through instrumentation, and processed by various means of reasoning, deductive and inductive depending on what sort of conclusions I’m trying to draw.
Of course, I recognize that there are limits to how accurately this process of input/processing/inference can make any picture of the world. My brain, for example, is highly error-prone, and at best construes the world according to my biases, expectations, prior beliefs and knowledge, cognitive and perceptual shortcuts and my own extremely limited sensory equipment (that’s why we use instruments to augment them, to see and hear what we cannot perceive directly.). In short, I get an attenuated picture of reality that my brain creates from one instant to the next, which contributes to my illusory sense of having an existence as a single, continuous “self.”
Back to the alien…
My view is that if such an alien species actually did live among us, undetectable by any means we could possibly devise, then there’s no way we could be aware of it, and no means to know of it.
We could of course, make a guess, we could suspect its existence if only from sheer supposition, but short of some sort of testable input like indirect clues, or artifacts, to confirm that suspicion, we could never truly know of it. A guess, of course, or mere supposition, is just that, unless we have some way of confirming it, remaining just a lucky guess. The history of science shows that trying to know the universe through reason alone, especially necessary reason, is a poor and sterile route to knowledge.
We cannot truly know merely by navel-gazing sans data-collection of some sort. We humans depend on some form of experience, however flawed, for most of what we learn — intuitions, revelations and mystical truths all have their rivals as claims to knowledge, with no objectively agreed-upon means of telling true ones from false ones…
…and they cannot all be true, for taken together, they are all mutually inconsistent, and the vast majority turn out to be mistaken when investigated.
But intuitive and imaginative means of conceiving new hypotheses are the raw material of science, though we use experiment or observation of some sort, always with error-bars involved, to sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff, the good and useful ideas from the worthless ones.
We let experiment show which ideas add to our understanding, and which to discard, not decide ourselves.
Through this testing, only a very few pay out and yield real knowledge, but it’s knowledge that improves with each step forward, the justification of a hypothesis, the 99% hard work of science apart from the other 1% of inspiration used in its creation.
Which brings me to this:
Special pleading, or at least the reasoning it uses, can be perfectly acceptable in formulating an idea to be tested. It only becomes a fallacy when it’s used to insulate an idea being tested from all possible disproof, to dismiss negative evidence for an idea or legitimate criticisms of it when these are offered.
So thinking of invisible dragons or undetectable aliens is fascinating, amusing, and perfectly fine as long as it spurs our imaginations for new and interesting ways to test an idea beyond the readily apparent, so long as we don’t go too far and use it as an excuse for an unwarranted assumption of facts not in evidence, much less claims against evidence.
Posted on Monday, 0:07, June 4, 2012, in Logic/Philosophy and tagged Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World, Experience, Extraterrestrial life, Logic, Philosophy, Reason, Special Pleading, Twitter. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.