Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things


Is there a good reason that different religious believers disagree so much about God? Could it just be that God is very large and complex and difficult to perceive, so naturally different people don’t all perceive him the same way?

BlindCould religion be like the fable of the blind men and the elephant — where everyone’s perceiving a different part of God, but they’re all still perceiving the same real thing?

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.

Religious symbols
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.

But I don’t actually think this fable makes a good metaphor for religion.

It does, however, make an excellent metaphor for science.

Or rather, it could.

Blind_men_and_elephant4
Here’s the thing. In some versions of the elephant fable, the blind men groping the elephant just fall to hopeless arguing with no resolution. In other versions, a wise man explains to them what’s really going on. And that does make it a good metaphor for religion. Either people trust what someone else tells them is true, or they squabble endlessly and even fall to blows, with no means of resolving their disagreements.

But here’s the interesting thing:

I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is. I have never seen a version where the blind men say, “Hey, come over here! Follow my voice, and check this out — this is why I think it’s a snake!” (Or a tree trunk, or a rope, or whatever.)

And yet, that’s exactly how science works.

Yes, of course, if God existed, he would be immense and complex and difficult to perceive and understand.

And what — the physical universe isn’t?

Galaxies
The physical universe is both far, far larger and far, far weirder than we had any conception of 500 years ago, or indeed 100. Billions upon billions of galaxies all rushing apart from each other at blinding speed; everything made up of atoms that are mostly empty space; space that curves; continents that drift… I could go on and on. It’s way too big, way too complex, way too multi-faceted, for any one person to accurately comprehend.

And yet, the blind men are coming to a fair understanding of what an elephant is.

Every century, every decade, every year, the blind men are getting a better and better picture of an elephant.

And here’s how.

Scientific_method
For hundreds of years now, thousands even, the blind men have been saying to each other, “Over here! Check this out! This is why I think it’s a snake!” And the other blind men come over and check out the snake, and one of them says, “I agree, this part has a lot in common with a snake, but it also has these differences… and interestingly, the surface feels very much like the tree trunk I was feeling yesterday.” And they each form departments to study the different parts of the elephant… and they compare notes and rigorously critique one another’s findings about the different elephant parts… and they come up with theories to explain what an elephant is, some of which make better or worse predictions about what they’ll find in between the snake-like thing and the tree-like thing… and then they embark on their Top Of The Elephant exploration program, and send probes and explorers and the Voyager Ladder to the top of the elephant and discover these amazing Ear things that they’d never imagined…

Indian_elephant_(PSF)
… and as each year and decade and century passes, we get a clearer picture of what an elephant is. It’s not perfect — there are big holes in the picture, and almost certainly mistakes as well. But we have theories about elephant-ness that make astonishingly accurate predictions about how the elephant will act and what we’ll find next on our continuing elephant explorations. And we have better and better forms of elephant perception all the time: both better techniques for exploring the elephant, and better methods for testing that our theories and data about the elephant are good. Our understanding of an elephant is better now than it was a century ago, and in another century it’ll be better still.

Why does this work?

Because the elephant is really there.

Because there is actually something out there that we can compare notes on. Because when two blind men feel an elephant’s trunk, they’re feeling the same real thing.

Now.

As I said in The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God (and about 63 other places on this blog):

Compare, please, to religion.

Argue
In religion, we have no such consensus. The Snakians and the Treeists and the Ropafarians are still squabbling, still dividing up into sects, still coming up with no better argument for their beliefs than “Other people say it” and “I feel it in my heart” and “You can’t prove it didn’t happen.” And they’re still coming up with no clearer picture of the elephant: no better ability to predict what the elephant will do, no better skill at guiding the elephant in the direction that they want, than they had a year ago, or a hundred, or a thousand.

Why?

Slashed circle
Because there’s nothing there.

It’s all just stuff people made up. Consciously or un-. People can’t show each other the evidence for the Snake, or the Tree, or the Rope, and convince each other on the basis of the evidence… because there is no evidence. There is no snake, no tree, no rope. There’s nothing there. There’s just the conviction that the snake has to be there, because everyone else says there’s a snake, and our mother and father and all our teachers and authorities say there’s a snake, and we Snakians have believed in the snake for generations, and we’ve known about the snake since childhood, and besides we just feel the snake in our hearts.

The reason that there’s no increased consensus about religion? The reason that different religions today are as different, as inconsistent, as mutually contradictory, as they always have been, for thousands of years? The reason that prayer and prophecy haven’t gotten any more effective over the years?

The reason isn’t that God is a huge, complex, multi-faceted elephant that no one person can completely and accurately perceive.

The reason is that there is no elephant.

Comments

  1. says

    Very well put. There is one other way in which this is a good metaphor for religion, though: most religions make some kind of claim about the dangers of getting too curious. Either you’re not supposed to test God, or it’s a sin to ask too many questions, or whatever. Likewise, the elephant may get annoyed at all these people poking and prodding it, climbing over its back, and pulling on its tail, and if you investigate it too much, you may get trampled or gored.

  2. says

    Greta, this is brilliant. I think so many descriptions of the scientific method forget the communal aspect of the enterprise, and you’ve brought it vividly to life.

  3. says

    Good work, glad you’ve dealt with the elephant in the room now. :) I love the way when people comment critically you provide a thorough answer in the form of a new post. I’m taking notes!

  4. says

    I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is.

    I saw a perfect example of this. When PZ and ERV appeared on Bloggingheads.tv to discuss epigenetics, they started out by defining what epigenetics meant.
    PZ was surprised to hear ERV say that it was a defense mechanism against viral infection, and ERV was surprised to hear PZ describe it as a regulatory system that guided embryonic development. But within minutes, they had explained their positions to each other and understood how ERV’s tree trunk connected to PZ’s tail (or tentacle).

  5. says

    I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is.
    Greta, you have a peculiar genius for finding the point that blows an old, worn parable wide open. This is just brilliant – I wish I had thought of it.
    As far as the blind-man-and-elephant analogy for religion, it works only if you don’t notice that it’s sneakily assuming the very thing it’s supposed to prove: that there is one, consistent being which all the men are perceiving different aspects of. How do we know that one really isn’t feeling a snake, another one a brick wall, and so on? Only if they can communicate and figure out why they’re perceiving these discrepancies, as you showed so well.

  6. Shane Geiger says

    Religion apologists who argue that all religions are somehow compatible and related are essentially using a logical fallacy known as the fallacy of the golden mean. Theirs is yet another assertion that has no basis in observable, objective reality.

  7. says

    This is brilliant in ways I never even could’ve imagined. I think I’m going to have to start including this sort of explanation whenever people want me to justify why I’m 99.99% certain that there is no god and why different religions can’t all somehow be compatible.

  8. Richard says

    I think the problem in religion is that the blind men (and women) who do try to discuss it tend to be ignored or overwhelmed in the public eye by those who don’t.
    There are enough people who are willing to explore different bits of elephant, but for too many it would be admitting that maybe you’re wrong or your picture is incomplete. That seems too much. It’s a pity.

  9. says

    I agree that so many people have a hard time connecting religion and science. A poll conducted by Gallup in 2000 revealed that 90% of the people in the United States believe in a spiritual dimension. Yet, most of us also believe in science. These facts support the need for a connection. Leo Kim, author of Healing the Rift, takes the reader through a metaphysical and scientific journey that explores where we came from, what we are, and the illusory nature of reality. I had to pleasure of understanding this connection after reading Leo’s book. I hope you take a look at it too.
    http://healingtheriftbook.com/

  10. says

    I’ve been dipping in and out of your site – usually, as in this case, due to mentions in Skeptic’s Circle and Carnival of the Godless – for months now but this post just blew me away. I was reading the argument you were developing and thinking, “Yeah, she’s done it again” and then reached the killer line “Because the elephant is really there.” and developed a huge grin which I’m having trouble removing.
    You have some great insights and a fantastic perspective on the world in general, thanks for writing such a top-notch blog. Thanks also for cheering me up before a stressful job interview :)

  11. says

    Great post. I love the insight that all the blind men needed to do was communicate in a spirit of science…
    However, I would also direct you to Joseph Campbell’s work on the Monomyth. While I’m not a follower of any organized religion, your assertion that religious believers are still squabbling because “there is nothing there” not only lacks data it is well challenged by Campbell’s work.
    Whether or not there is something there, a problem with religious zealots is that they are rarely open to discovering a new common understanding. They often lack the scientific curiosity (or will) to cross ethnic boundaries and learn something new–almost necessarily giving up something previously held true.
    As Campbell makes clear, there is a critical difference between the ethnic ideas and the essential ideas of “God” (I use quotes because I think that term is lacking). The essential ideas (the elephant) actually are sustained through all major religions. The ethnic ideas (snakes, ropes, etc.) are those that allow those with the initial perception (the blind men) to communicate about it.
    If you are interested in what the elephant might look like after all the blind men explore their common experiences, check out Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”.

  12. Taggart says

    I want a shirt that says “The elephant is a lie.” :D
    An excellent post. I think I’ll have to start reading your blog regularly.

  13. says

    Have you heard the story of the six blind elephants trying to discover the essential nature of a human?
    Six wise, blind elephants were discussing what humans were like. Failing to agree, they decided to determine what humans were like by direct experience.
    The first wise, blind elephant felt the human, and declared, “Humans are flat.”
    The other wise, blind elephants, after similarly feeling the human, agreed.

  14. Atramhasis says

    It’s an old post, I know. But since there are only positive comments, I wanted to say, that this post is confusing. What is the elephant? First it’s god then you jump and say it’s the universe. At the end there is no elephant – is there no universe (maybe, there are such theories)? It is like you would compare apples and pears.
    I think we should decide for elephant as the universe, everyone is trying to explain it, religions do it their way and science does it it’s way. But it’s the same elephant, we all just have to come together and find the one truth about it.

  15. says

    Atramhasis:
    In science, the elephant is the physical universe.
    In religion, the elephant is God.
    My entire point is that the reason that scientists can come to consensus is that their elephant — i.e., the physical universe — really exists. And the reason religious believers cannot come to consensus is that their elephant — God — does not exist.
    And as I have written many, many times: What is the “way” that religion tries to explain the universe? What is the method by which religion comes to a clearer understanding of the truth? Science has a method, and scientists can tell you about it in great detail. What “way” does religion have of finding the truth, other than the extremely fallible methods of personal gut feeling and reliance on authority?
    IMO, the human race is, in fact, in the very slow process of coming to the truth about God. And that truth is that God almost certainly does not exist.

  16. Paul says

    Great logical post. But there is a bit of comparing apples to oranges. By your same logic, you would say that there is no such thing as beauty, because you can’t measure it. Emotions also don’t exist, because you can’t physically feel touch or measure them. Yet anger actually exists. So does hatred. Perhaps science can only measure the physical affects of anger and hatred: genocide, child abuse, etc. But to say that only genocide and child abuse exist, but there is no such thing as anger and hatred would be faulty. And the error is that you’ve used tools meant to measure the physical universe (mass, volume, length, etc) to measure something that doesn’t have a physical form (emotions.) This is the only post I’ve read of yours, but if you only believe in what you can physically measure, you will live a frustrated experience trying to figure out why you have anger and hatred and jealousy. Or you will medicate in order to cover them up. The other alternative is to conclude that there are some things that exist that aren’t measurable by physical means. If that is true, would it not be worthy of study, reflection, and investigation, even if you have to use different tools to examine it? Perhaps religion is just that. If anger, hatred, jealousy, self-centeredness, arrogance, etc actually exist, we would typically call those evil, and if generosity, selflessness, humility, and courage also exist, perhaps there is a source to each.

  17. says

    Paul: That’s simply not true. Emotions are functions of the brain. We can observe and study them, and we do: there’s tons of psychological and neurological research on emotions, and on how the brain produces them, and on how changes in the brain affect them.
    And we understand why we have emotions: they’re useful for the survival of animal species, especially (although not limited to) social species. It’s hardly a mystery. I am always baffled by believers who say, “But atheism and materialism can’t explain love!” when materialism and the evolution of social species explains it quite nicely.

  18. don13 says

    There is another fable that used to explain spirituality: a journey to a high mountain. You may approach the mountain from different directions, and finding the road to summit differs widely, and you can see others walking in the same area. It is the same mountain.
    Of course the problem with the religious elephant-phantasm is still there, but with the Mri studies, I think we might see something ..

  19. Lenoxuss says

    Like Atramhasis before me, I know this is an old post, but I have to respond to a couple of the comments.
    Richard said:

    There are enough people who are willing to explore different bits of elephant, but for too many it would be admitting that maybe you’re wrong or your picture is incomplete. That seems too much. It’s a pity.

    and Joe Andrieu said:

    Whether or not there is something there, a problem with religious zealots is that they are rarely open to discovering a new common understanding. They often lack the scientific curiosity (or will) to cross ethnic boundaries and learn something new–almost necessarily giving up something previously held true.

    An implication of these similar arguments is that scientists are exceptionally humble, amiable, or curious, and hence is it much easier for them to get these sort of group-explorations going than the theologians can. I don’t think this is particularly true (especially when you consider that most scientists are academics, and as such are just as frequently grand-standing rivals as they are friendly collaborators).
    Science itself has the power to overcome various human biases, grudges, and over-enthusiasms. And if there is something to religion (and God isn’t somehow a jerk who hates to be learned about), then a science of religion ought to work.

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