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

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m going to start linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things. The tl;dr: Some religious believers use the fable of the blind men and the elephant (the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and arguing about what it really is) to explain why different religions believe different things… the idea being that God is too vast and complicated for anyone to understand completely, and different people just perceive different parts of him. But if that were true, then why can’t the blind people compare notes and come to a more complete and accurate understanding of the elephant? We do that in science — why can’t we do that in religion? The answer: Because in science, the elephant is really there. In religion, it’s not.

A nifty pull quote:

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?

Enjoy!

Comments

  1. Ariel says

    I’m a bit hesitant about giving a comment to this. I’m interested in discussing these „goodies from the vault” you are showing us (the newcomers), but I’m not sure whether any additional comments should be inserted here or in the original thread. Both solutions have its advantages and disadvantages. Adding a comment in the original thread provides for continuity and compactness of discussion – you will have all of them in one place. Adding it here emphasizes that it is a new discussion, which will engage perhaps mainly the new people you mention, who knows. I’m not sure how to handle this and that’s the reason I’m hesitant. Maybe you will just tell us what you prefer?

    And now a comment about the text. In short: it seems to me that you misconstrued the metaphor.

    Some details now.
    In your opinion the elephant metaphor is

    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.

    Then you say that it’s not a good metaphor for religion, but it could be improved on to give a good metaphor for science. Your reason is that the story stops too soon. You say:

    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.

    Such an improved version shows how with scientific method the limitations of individual perception can be overcome. Checking, double-checking, communicating – that’s what the blind men can do, and with good results. In religion we don’t have it and the analogy breaks down. Therefore it’s not a good metaphor for religion, but it can be made a good metaphor for science. That’s what you say, right?

    But the problem is – as far as I can see – that the metaphor is not about the limitations of individual perception. It’s about the limitations of mankind.

    First thing: metaphors are … you know, they are just metaphors. In order to be useful, they do not have to be perfect. It’s a very bad idea to insist on perfect analogies (“Juliette, my flower!”; “Oh, you say so, Romeo, but where are my stamens, dear?”) In discussing the metaphor, we should rather try to see how and with what aim the metaphor is used. And once you do it, the reason why the story stops so soon won’t be a mystery any more.

    So how is it used? I take John Hick as a typical example. He takes the elephant story as a metaphor for men (collectively, not individually) trying to describe the ineffable – trying to describe something for which there are no good linguistic means available (the blind men have only expressions like “snake”, “trunk” etc. at their disposal); moreover, the real properties of this object stand only in a very loose similarity relation to the properties of everyday objects (like trunks, snakes …). The object can’t be experimented upon, you can’t move it a little bit to the right, you can’t hammer a nail into it (I wouldn’t recommend that with an elephant anyway!), you can’t perform on it typical manipulations associated with physical object. (Observe that if you use physical objects in a metaphor with that sort of intended meaning, it’s bound to be imperfect from the start! But you know, metaphors don’t have to be perfect.) So, why the story doesn’t continue in the way you want? I think you already have an explanation.

    You didn’t show that that religion isn’t like the fable of the blind men and the elephant. You just misinterpreted the fable.

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