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: