28 May 2011

Six Blind Men and the Elephant Revisited

I was thinking this morning about the "Six Blind Men and the Elephant" story that is commonly used in Unitarian Universalist religious education and other theological discussions as a metaphor for the wide range of diversity of theological views and views of god in our world.

Atheist blogger Greta Christina describes the use of the elephant metaphor on her blog:
You've probably heard this fable before. There are different versions, but the basics are these: Six blind men are standing around an elephant, touching it to figure out what an elephant is. The one touching the trunk decides that an elephant is a big snake; the one touching its leg decides an elephant is a tree; the one touching its tail decides an elephant is a rope; etc. It's supposed to show the limitations of individual perception, and the importance of not being narrow-minded, and how people with different beliefs can all be right. Or all be wrong. You get the gist.

It was recently suggested in this blog that this fable makes a good metaphor for religion. God is too large (it was suggested), too complex, too multi-faceted, for any one person to perceive correctly. Therefore, Reason #2 in my Top Ten Reasons I Don't Believe In God -- the inconsistency of world religions -- isn't a fair critique. The fact that Muslims see God one way and Catholics another, and Hindus yet another, and Jews, and Neo-Pagans, and Taoists, and Rastafarians, and Episcopalians, and so on -- in ways that are radically different, even contradictory -- it's just different people perceiving different parts of the elephant.
Many interpretations of this story are examples of the "begging the question" logical fallacy (a type of logical fallacy in which the proposition to be proven is assumed implicitly or explicitly in the premise).

The elephant represents some central and complete unifying divine reality and the six blind men represent different theological points of view that are perceiving the "divine reality" elephant partially and incompletely.

We -- the omniscient reader -- "know" there is a "unifying reality" because we know about the elephant in the story.

However, we may not be the "omniscient reader" in the world we live in.

It's entirely possible that the six blind men who are "experiencing" the pillar, rope, tree branch, leaf, wall, and spear are really experiencing differences in psychology and culture. The metaphor doesn't even acknowledge this possibility.

To assume that a unifying "elephant" is there to explain the widely different theological perspectives in our world is simply begging the question.