December 02, 2005

The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant: Does it Work?

Whenever I dialog with religious pluralists, like Wiccans and liberal Christians, the parable of the blind men and the elephant is almost sure to come up. Its intent is to illustrate that each religion (or denomination) may actually contain truth, but perhaps it is merely an incomplete and vague understanding of the whole. It is a clever and even compelling analogy, but it ultimately fails on several counts.

First, if we are all stuck with only our piece of the truth due to our "blindness," then who is it that has managed to see the whole elephant to know that we each only have a piece? The author of this parable seems to think he has seen the big picture, but that everyone else is bound to their provincial views. But if one can escape their own "blindness," then so can we all. And if no one can, then neither can he, and he is merely speculating that the true and complete thing is an elephant. Those who offer up this parable are usually reacting to the supposed arrogance of persons who claim to have a "monopoly on the truth." Unfortunately, they themselves are exhibiting arrogance in the implication of this parable, which is that they know the elephant to be something more than what those narrow, dogmatic religionists believe it to be.

Second, the parable works only within its own context, but not as a true analogy of what is actually going on in the world of religious claims. It is true that each blind man had a piece of the truth, and that piece was true in isolation, e.g., the tail really was like a rope. However, in the case of religious claims, the various parties are making diverse observations about the same part of the elephant. Some are saying the tail is like a rope and others that it is like a cantaloupe, and therein lies the problem. For example, some are saying that when you die there is no judgment, others that when you die there is a judgment, and yet others that when you die you are reincarnated. Any one may be wrong, but it's not simply a matter of each seeing a different part of the whole. The analogy of the elephant parable could only hope to succeed if each religion were making unique, non-overlapping claims about spiritual matters, but that is not the case.

Third, Christians believe that the "elephant" has actually spoken and thus has allowed us to get past the shortcomings that our "blindness" might impose. If God has indeed spoken, then this settles the matter and we can consequently reject any alternative impressions or speculations to the contrary. Of course, it is true that several religions have their own speaking "elephant," but this doesn't help to salvage the parable. It only means that the real point is to determine which of the contradictory revelations, if any, is more consistent with the beast we find ourselves groping at (this would consist of the natural world, history, philosophy, and human nature). I propose that the Christian Scriptures succeed in doing so and stand head-and-shoulders above all other contenders.

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10 Comments:

At 12/05/2005 5:02 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

What strikes me immediately is that the epistomological agnostics use this parable to further their idea that no one has grasped the whole truth (except them) while I take the parable to teach that there are objective truths.

Not only are there objective truths, but man on his own (the blind guys) cannot know all of it, but only a part of it (call this natural revelation).

So we need a 'wise man' or whoever in the parable has the entire view of the elephant to tell us what we cannot discover on our own from our limited perspective. This is exactly what God has done for us through special revelation.

So this parable underlines the need for us to have a supernatural book to reveal the whole picture to us because it's not apprehendable through other means. This, then destroys the parable's value to the relativist because it actually points out the pointlessness of their subjectiveness and shows the need for Scripture in teaching us Truth.

 
At 12/05/2005 5:15 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...

Thanks for that post, Great insight!

Doug

 
At 12/05/2005 5:15 PM, Blogger Paul said...

They might agree that we would need a revelation from God to sort it out, but they seldom believe in the kind of personal God who would offer such an unequivocal revelation (too hard-edged and authoritative for them), and they also don't think that God has offered a revelation. Generally, they have an allergy to "organized religion," which means people who have dogmatic knowledge about God. For this reason, they think we are just stuck in the hinterlands of theological ignorance, and so we must just be open-minded and tolerant to those with diverse feelings or spiritual insights about "god."

 
At 12/05/2005 5:17 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Doug. BTW, I like your profile's "About Me" comment.

 
At 11/14/2007 2:26 PM, Blogger Paul said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8/24/2008 10:53 PM, Anonymous jason said...

Thanks for your thoughts. They make alot of sense. I never thought about the 3rd point in regards to the "elephant speaking to us". God really has spoken to us from His Word. This video also points out just what you are saying visually:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JseHDbrm6Lc

 
At 8/25/2008 8:03 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks for that link, Jason, and welcome to the Blogosphere .

 
At 4/02/2009 7:41 AM, Blogger m.j. grueso said...

I have always thought that this was a parable on how each man view or interpret the universe. We have creationism, we have darwinism, and recently talks about history of creation by ancient sumerians, ancient mayans.. etc.

I basically just compare this to the view of creationism vs. darwinism.

What if both were correct. That only by integrating one to the other could the missing links be supplied.

 
At 6/17/2009 9:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you have misinterpreted this parable, or at least why agnostics find it so useful.

a) Agnostics on the whole believe god is unknowable. They do not believe they are the only ones who have grasped the "truth". They do not claim to see the "elephant". No. In fact, that is counter to their whole belief system. A more accurate analogy (in agnostics' eyes) might be of the "Blind men and the million-limbed invisible creature whose true nature eludes everyone".

b) Going on from the "Blind men and the million-limbed invisible creature whose true nature eludes everyone" analogy, you will see agnostics believe multiple truths are possible, even if they are overlapping or clashing truths. Eg, just say the million-limbed creature has two mouths -- one that licks and kisses, the other that chomps and kills. Therefore, one man can (legitimately) believe god is kind and benevolent while another can (legitimately) believe god is malicious and spiteful.

In other words, MJ Grueso has a point when he says: "I basically just compare this to the view of creationism vs. darwinism. What if both were correct."

Sure, there are limitations to the elephant analogy, but these are irrelevant to agnostics, who interpret it in a very different light to yourself. I think one fundamental psychological difference between agnosticism and other religions is that agnostics seem to embrace relativisitic beliefs while other religions seem to simply not compute when the possibility of multiple truths is raised. I think what's so appealing to many (not all) religious believers is that their faith lays down non-negotiable rules about life and beyond to the exclusion of all other rules. It scares them to think everything is mutable, whereas agnostics thrive on this idea.

In other words, the elephant analogy makes so much sense to agnostics because it does *not* deny the legitimacy of any religion, that is, within its individual context.

That is, religious believers should not find the elephant analogy so threatening; agnostics use it to say each religion has its place.

 
At 6/18/2009 8:07 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Anon,

It seems to me as though you are using the term "agnostic" in a unique sense. For most, the word "agnostic," in a religious context, means someone who not only is unsure of their theological views, but does not even know if God exists.

I would consider your position to be more "postmodern" or reflective of "religious pluralism." And I think you are reading your own philosophy into the parable itself. You might find another parable that more accurately captures your own perspective (like people trying to guess what's in a closed box), but the parable presumes that each person has their hands upon a real piece of knowledge about the elephant.

The parable seems meant to reconcile the opposing beliefs that people/religions have by affirming each as containing some real truth. And this is exactly how those who throw it at me make use of it. It is this idea that my blog post addressed.

You say: [I] believe multiple truths are possible, even if they are overlapping or clashing truths.

If you truly believe this, then we have nothing over which to debate. That is because, by the ground rules of your philosophy, both you and I can be right in how we view this parable and in how we think religious truth claims should be evaluated. However, my suspicion is that you think I'm wrong in some way. I can live with that, because I believe that logic is a legitimate rational tool and that the law of non-contradiction applies not only to how I conduct myself at stoplights, but how I think about my theology.

You say: MJ Grueso has a point when [she] says: "I basically just compare this to the view of creationism vs. darwinism. What if both were correct."

This is not a good example to demonstrate the idea that two contradictory ideas can both apply. That is because you could define the words "creationism" and "Darwinism" in ways that would allow room for both to apply. For example, "creationism" could simply mean that "god" (insert your own definition here) guided or setup a system to bring life about, and that "Darwinism" only means "change over time." However, if you mean by creationism that God created all organisms exactly as they are, by fiat, and that Darwinism means a random, purposeless process of mutation and natural selection, then we might have a problem on our hands.

You say: I think what's so appealing to many (not all) religious believers is that their faith lays down non-negotiable rules about life and beyond to the exclusion of all other rules. It scares them to think everything is mutable, whereas agnostics thrive on this idea.

Thanks for sharing your preferences about spiritual reality, but how we would prefer God to work has no bearing on the truth of the matter. To be honest, I'd like truth to be a bit more malleable so that my own faults and desires could somehow turn out to be "good." Unfortunately, since I am not the Deity, it doesn't seem reasonable to think that I have any say in the matter, and a sensible definition of God would suggest that He (she/it for the pluralists) is probably not wishy-washy in matters of truth.

 

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