Thinking About Thinking

On The Blind Men And An Elephant

Posted in Philosophy by larrycheng on January 23, 2010

Perhaps my favorite online video series is the Authors @ Google series where they bring the best and the brightest to Google to talk about their area of expertise.  Tonight I was watching the video of Tim Keller (below), founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  He was speaking at Google about his book – The Reason for God.

There’s an interesting part of his talk where he brings up the famous story of the blind men and an elephant - and the response of Scottish missionary, Lesslie Newbigin.

As Wikipedia summarizes: In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn they are in complete disagreement.

In John Godfrey Saxe’s version (1816–1887), one man falls against the side of the elephant and proclaims the elephant is a wall.  Another leans on the tusk and proclaims an elephant is a spear.  Another touches the trunk and proclaims the elephant is a snake.  Another touches the knee and proclaims the elephant is a tree.  Another touches the ear and proclaims the elephant is a fan.  And the last one grabs the tail and proclaims the elephant is a rope.

The point of the story is that while each blind man is proclaiming what they believe to be is an absolute truth, in fact all of their truths are just relative based on their experience of the elephant.  No one has the Truth, in its entirety.  This story is often used to critique those who proclaim some knowledge of absolute truth – most commonly those with a monotheistic religious world view.  It is intended to teach us how knowledge and truth is in fact relative.

Here is Lesslie Newbigin’s response:

In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant… the real point of the story is constantly overlooked.  The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it.  The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth.  But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite.  If the king were also blind, there would be no story.  What this means then is that there is an appearance of humility and a protestation that the truth is much greater than anyone of us can grasp.  But if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth, it is in fact an arrogant claim with the kind of knowledge which is superior that you have just said, no religion has.

As Tim Keller further clarifies in his talk:

To say, I don’t know which religion is true is an act of humility.  To say, none of the religions have truth, no one can be sure there’s a god is actually to assume you have the kind of knowledge, you just said no other person, no other religion has.  How dare you?  See, it’s a kind of arrogant thing to say nobody can know the truth because it’s a universal truth claim.  To say, ‘Nobody can make universal truth claims.’  That is a universal truth claim.  ‘Nobody can see the whole truth.’  You couldn’t know that unless you think you see the whole truth.  And, therefore, you’re doing the very thing you say religious people shouldn’t do.

I think Newbigin and Keller make a valid and compelling point.  Here’s the rest of the @ Google talk if you’re interested:



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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Larry Cheng, robgo and DealHorizon.com, Michael Langhout. Michael Langhout said: RT @dealhorizon: #Venture Blogs: Larry Cheng published On The Blind Men And An Elephant @ http://larrycheng.com/2010/01/23/on-the-blind- … [...]

  2. the slinster said, on January 27, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    To avoid the conundrum the elephant parable implies, try using the well worn “there are many paths to the top of the mountain”-

    It conveys the same meaning, but not all the baggage!

    • Matty said, on October 1, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      You’re missing the point. The point isn’t that the metephor was bad, the point is that to make a claim such as “none of the religions can have the truth”, you are claiming knowledge that you just said no religion can have. In order for one to say that none of them can have the truth, you are saying that you do, in fact, have the truth. Which, of course, according to the logic of the argument, one can’t have. So it’s a self-defeating argument. A person cannot claim that no religion can know the whole truth without infering that they DO know the whole truth, which by that very argument you just said is impossible to know. Get it?

  3. foresightyourctpsychic said, on April 27, 2011 at 9:44 am

    The basic problem with Tim Keller’s premise is that he assumes that if you say that noone fully knows the truth, you do it from a point of arrogance because you believe you know the complete truth.

    And that’s not necessarily true…

    You can equally make that statement from the standpoint of knowing that you don’t know everything about God, and that that is true of others as well. That most spirituality is, in part, a way of fitting an Infinite Being into a finite mind – necessary for what we all have to work with, but still limited and far from ideal.

    Catherine
    Foresight

  4. Christopher Smith said, on May 10, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Foresight is correct. See my blog post below for clarification on how most pluralists understand the elephant metaphor:

    http://chriscarrollsmith.blogspot.com/2008/09/blind-men-elephant-and-arrogant-king.html

    • foresightyourctpsychic said, on May 11, 2011 at 12:00 am

      Thank you kindly, Christopher. When I think of the blind men and the elephant, I tend to think that I can see what’s happening with them, but it only serves to remind me that there’s a bigger picture that I am equally blind to…

      Catherine
      Foresight

      • Lfrazee said, on February 17, 2013 at 3:12 pm

        How do you know that there is a bigger picture?

  5. Many ideas; One Truth? « jimyeaw said, on March 27, 2012 at 12:45 am

    [...] Here is another viewpoint on the Blind men and the elephant, based on a talk by Tim Keller: Go There http://larrycheng.com/2010/01/23/on-the-blind-men-and-an-elephant/ [...]

  6. David CG said, on August 27, 2013 at 3:36 am

    We don’t know everything… And perhaps we never will.

    The version of the story that was meant to provide insight into human belief, perception and understanding of the universe is as follows.

    There is an Elephant. And this Elephant is larger than any living thing in the universe. This Elephant is so large that no human could ever physically see it in it’s entirety. This Elephant represents the Truth about not just human existence, or the world as we know it – but the universe and beyond.

    5 human beings, considered devout, highly respected and scholarly followers of their respective religion set out on a journey to find…. Truth.

    The Muslim human finds the trunk, and is convinced he has found the Truth. The Christian human finds the stomach, and is convinced she has found the Truth. The Jewish human finds the tusks and believes he has found the Truth. The Buddhist human finds the tail, and is convinced she has found the Truth. The Hindu human finds the legs of the Elephant and believes this is the Truth.

    They are all touching a part of the same energy. The same force. The same Elephant.

    All of them are right. Yet not one of them see the entire Truth.

    These 5 explorers would only find the Truth when they engaged with each other and discussed what they had discovered.

    We are but humans in a world larger than ourselves. Anything beyond this fact is merely human perception, interpretation, speculation or indoctrination.

    We are all human. To respect ourselves and discover the truth we must respect and communicate with each other.

    • Dave M said, on September 15, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      I’ve heard it explained that each culture has been given its own messenger (path), and that each messenger is representing the same ultimate message (mountain). A cursory study of the messages makes it pretty obvious that this is impossible.

      Get your 5 explorers in the same room, and if they’re honest about what they believe, they will find that their beliefs are irreconcilable.

      And your 6th explorer, the one who has found the Ultimate truth, represents but one more religious philosophy, with its own affirmations, denials, dogmas, and missionary force (you).


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