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.


Desmond Ravenstone said...

Besides, the "blind men" are only examining one elephant. What if they had examined a male African elephant, and are next presented a female Asian elephant (smaller, with no tusks and smaller ears)? And if they examined the same elephant twice, several years apart?

Reality is more complex than any one perspective can interpret, precisely because it is multifaceted and ever-changing. We need to take that into account just as much as our own cultural and psychological limitations.

Steve Caldwell said...

Desmond wrote:
"Besides, the 'blind men' are only examining one elephant."


Well ... the implied viewpoint in most uses of this story in religious education is that God is too big and too complex for any one person to understand. Even with the influx of Pagan and Earth-based spirituality, there's a lot of talk about the unity of God in Unitarian Universalism. Must be related to the denominational name.


You're right that polytheism is another viewpoint that is dismissed in most tellings of the story.

Of course, we have no evidence that an elephant is there at all ... the various manifestations of the "elephant" that are being reported by the blind men could be other things or they could be imaginary inventions ... an example of us seeing a "pattern" where no pattern exists.

Then Desmond wrote:
"Reality is more complex than any one perspective can interpret, precisely because it is multifaceted and ever-changing. We need to take that into account just as much as our own cultural and psychological limitations."

Since lots of theologies are not grounded in empirical observations (aka "reality"), I'm not sure if theology should be our first choice to explore reality.

We do have a collection of methods we have used for the past few centuries that have proven themselves very successful. These methods have been so successful that it explains more and more about the world -- disease, earthquakes, weather, diversity of life, etc. These are things that religion used to try explaining but are now explained by this newer collection of methods.

These methods are collaborative and allow the sharing of information with everyone. These methods also acknowledge that reality may change over time and information from the past is important.

These methods are so successful that you and I take them for granted as we type on our computers, navigating from home to church using our GPS, taking our antibiotics when we have strep throat, etc.

All of these things were created using the knowledge gained from this successful collection of methods.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Steve: To me, the question is not whether the elephant exists, but what do we call it. Yes, some folks refer to it as "God"; I prefer to think of the elephant as reality.

The thing is, reality (and our perceptions of it) can change. Some elements may be relatively constant, but we also need to remember those pesky complexities and details which can cause us to quibble over the original question.

Yes, science has and continues to improve our understanding of reality. But we can still be shortsighted or even arrogant in how we use it. Take the example you gave of taking antibiotics for strep throat; we've now found that these bacteria are developing a resistance, so now doctors are being more cautious in their use.

Last -- and IMHO most relevant to the question of religion -- there is still a role for myth, poetry and metaphor to help us focus our understanding of our changing and complex universe. No, they're not precise like science, but sometimes you don't need to know all the details of horticulture, fermentation, maturation and the like to fully appreciate a glass of wine.

Ralph said...

Something to consider when people bring out this story (as I myself have in a curriculum I wrote) and that is the fact that we rarely conider the story in anything close to an original context. Popular in the U.S. since shortly before the turn of the century (that would be the 19th to the 20th) it had been not only told but oopted by cultures long before that. We think of it as a Buddhist story though I believe it has its earliest associations with early Jain story so possibly as far back as the 9th century B.C.E. Accodring to Mark Heim (professor of mission at Andoer Newton who has done pioneering work around how we aproach pluralism) the story would have been understood to mean that the Jain is like the king and aware of a unifying truth and able to identify the ways those of other faiths and philosophies are incorrectly explaining parts of what realy is true but wholy incorrect as they have come to believe and teach what they are encountering of such truth.
As Buddhists took up the story the meaning seems to be similar though perhaps lending a bit more to to an understanding that inspiers ome sort of collective effort amoung the religious groups.

The ancient polotheistic society first telling the story did so in order to valorize a given faith and illustrate the sort of metanarrative at the disposal of their group, one that equiped them to correctly understand other faiths better than could be done by the faith group's own adherents.

Ironically in the west while the story has been told and used in a way that seems to at least follow the aim of promoting respect amoung arious groups and faiths by offering an illustration of finite knowledge and understanding as a universal condition of individuals and cultures. And furthermore how a sort of transcendance of that limitation is made possible upon our recognition both that we are ourselves are likely to be misrepresenting the truth we seek to ensconce in our own tradition and teachings and also there is a comprable situation with other groups meaning they are not simply different and wrong but possibly describing something siilarly true to what we wish to ourselves. I say this is ironic because while I think Christian and Jewish parables have disposed us to cast God as the king on our stories and so see the king as representing (with the elepheant) the divine being and the Good's eye perspective we might seek for ourseles we ultimately find ourselves presuming our own priviledged role since the one who tells this story and promotes its lesson can hardly suffer wholly from the blindness of culturally and historically bound traditions plagued by the bias of their own unexamined subjectivity.

fausto said...

There's also the knotty question of the reciprocal interdependence of perception and reality. As Bishop Berkeley's famous paradox frames it: "If a tree falls in the middle of a forest, but there is no ear there to hear it, does it make a sound?" In other words, too what extent is reality determined by our perception of it?

In the parable, of course, the blind men represent the empirical method. The rope is really a rope to the blind man, and it suffices his purposes perfectly well for it to continue to exist in his perception as such -- unless and until it sucks up some water from a puddle one day and sprays him in the face. Moreover, the same "understanding suffices until demonstrated otherwise" premise applies to the existence of the elephant, regardless of whether it represents a theistic deity, a polytheistic pantheon, or materialistic natural law.

If the parable stands for the proposition that empirical observation cannot confirm or deny what it does not observe, or that it can draw misleading conclusions from what it does observe, there is no "begging the question"; it is a valid illustration of a genuine weakness in the empirical method. Only if it stands for the proposition that the empirical method is always untrustworthy would it be begging the question.

fausto said...

Further to my previous post: Would the parable still be "begging the question" if the blind men represented Newton and the elephant represented Einstein?