philosophy, Truth

>The Parable of the Elephant

>The parable of the ancient eastern belief about a king, seven blind men and an elephant, that is used to explain that there are many truths and many paths to God.

I. The Parable:

There was a king looking out his verandah, and he was looking at seven blind men who were discovering an elephant. They came to the elephant, and since they were blind, they could not see it but only feel it. And, each blind man found a different part of the elephant and mistakenly assumed that the entire elephant is really like the particular part that he was experiencing. So, one came to the tail and said, “Well, an elephant is like a rope.” Then another came to the leg and said, “An elephant is like a column.” Another came to the elephant’s side and said, “No, the elephant is really like a wall,” etc, etc.

So, the point being made by the parable is that each blind person, since he is blind, has only a small picture of the greater reality. And, they are drawing conclusions that are partially true, but mistaken as a total picture. This is used as an illustration of how religion and truth works – in that each religion has a small piece of the truth, but ultimately, they are all talking about the same thing.

II. What’s wrong with the elephant?

People often use this parable or illustration to describe the process of searching for spiritual truth. They say that we are all like the blind men and we have a sense, like touch, which allows us to get some information about God. So, we have Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. etc. – They all have a little piece of the picture, but we are all ultimately moving towards the same thing. So, it is an attempt to persuade about the nature of truth by using an analogy and the analogy is this parable.

Just because you can give an analogy, does not make it so. Just because one can say, “Well, truth is kind of like this” and then give a coherent analogy, only serves to help us understand what the person’s point of view is. But, it does not give reasons why we ought to believe that that person’s point of view is accurate. You do not prove a point by simply explaining clearly what you mean. What a metaphor or parable does is explain clearly what is meant – it does not offer evidence that the point is true.

III. The Deeper Problem

How do we know, in the context of the parable, that all of the blind men are mistakenly generalizing from one point to the whole? How do we know that they don’t have a clear picture? And, that really, the truth is a composite of all their points of view. How do we know that-in the context of the parable? Do you have the answer? The answer is – the reason we know all this is because there is a king who is watching and overseeing the whole process. In other words, the king has full vision, he can see everything, and since he has an accurate view of reality unhindered by blindness, then he is able to accurately state that each has a little bit of the truth and therefore, realizing that all of them are simply describing really the same thing from a different vantage point or perspective.

Now, let’s convert this to the discussion to religion. The only way that anyone could say that we each have a little bit of the truth, is if that person has the whole truth. And, that person sees like the king sees-all the other blind people grouping about-getting one little portion of the truth etc. If the fact of the matter is that we are all blind, then no one could ever say that we are all working toward the same truth because nobody can see it-we’re all blind! The only person that could say that we’re all working for the same truth is the person that says, “Everybody else is mistaken and I see the truth precisely, clearly, accurately, and here is what it is.” Now, of course, that is the claim that Christianity makes and is subsequently faulted for and called blind, narrow-minded and exclusive and offered this parable as a way of explaining how they have made their mistake. But, of course, the person can only offer the parable in a reasonable fashion if they are like the king who indeed sees everything clearly and can now instruct the Christian about his error.

This is the problem with the elephant. It cannot work in the way it is used to describe truth because the only way that you could claim that everybody has a piece of the truth is if you know the whole truth. But, knowing the whole truth is impossible for any individual and that is what the parable itself is meant to show. So, in summation, I hope the evidence demonstrates that this parable collapses upon itself.

I realize this may be philosophically primer material to most of you, but, I’m a primer and willing to learn. Let the discussion begin.


2 thoughts on “>The Parable of the Elephant

  1. >Good summary of the parable and critique of its assumptions. I can’t comment on whether it’s primer material or no, but I will say that such reasoning is not uncommon among the educated. As you’ve demonstrated, the teller of the parable assumes a knowledge of the entire elephant and tends to allegorize others as the blind men.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | September 20, 2007, 7:15 pm
  2. >Thanks for fixing the format of my post. I tried to follow the directions on how to post a summary at the top and the rest at the continue reading section, but somewhere along the way I guess I took a wrong turn 🙂

    Posted by hylander | September 20, 2007, 2:03 am

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