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Book Review: “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan

Demon Haunted WorldA tremendous work of daring intellect that should be on the world’s permanent best seller list. This is the closest thing to a bible a secular mind could ever have. Sagan was a true master of science popularization who paved the way for the great advocates of today like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is a triumphant treatise on critical thinking that presents its case with examples so elegantly simple that virtually anyone can grasp them.

It is a wonder to me that Sagan is so globally renowned for SETI and Cosmos, yet very few people who could instantly tell you what SETI stands for have even heard of this book. If there is any question or doubt in your mind about any religious or superstitious claim, there is no better place to start your inquiry than this book.

Sagan begins with a captivating account of a chance meeting with a stranger that revealed to him the depth to which people ignore or resist learning about the astonishing new revelations of modern science. To Sagan, the details of cosmology, biology, evolution, and mathematics were far more miraculous and gratifying than any of the ancient myths that people so often cling to. He presents a relentlessly optimistic and joyful vision of our universe, and does so by exposing the silliness and blatant falsehood of mysticism.

Sagan points out with brazen clarity that humans have been imagining monsters and gods in the dark for as long as there has been imagination.  History is so saturated with such claims, most of which are so obviously not true, that it is simply absurd to accept any claim that can’t be tested or verified. Humans are able to instantly see the silliness in a claim of the unseen that originated from outside their culture, but are comically unable to recognize equivalent claims in their own beliefs.

He champions logic, reason, and science on the obvious basis that anything seemingly supernatural which is actually real can be confirmed with the scientific method.

In one immortal chapter, Sagan lays out a singularly delightful and damning evisceration of mystical thinking: The Dragon In My Garage. So good is this passage that it defies summary and I am compelled to quote it in full:

“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.  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.

I am of the opinion that every school child should read that passage every year throughout their time in public education. How many people do you know who insist on believing in Invisible Dragons? I’ll wager the answer is more than one, and nothing could be more illustrative in these troubling times of our desperate need to escape from ignorance.

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