Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant: How It Is Misapplied to Religion

The Parable to Consider

"Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, "Hey, there is an elephant in the village today."

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.

"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

"Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

"It is like a solid pipe," Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said."

"Oh!" everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.

The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree too. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, "Maybe you have your reasons." This way we don’t get in arguments. In Jainism, it is explained that truth can be stated in seven different ways. So, you can see how broad our religion is. It teaches us to be tolerant towards others for their viewpoints. This allows us to live in harmony with the people of different thinking."

— Source:

This kind of story is often invoked to justify religious indifferentism.  It claims no religion has a monopoly on the truth and each one has only a partial truth which limits them.  Is such a view accurate however?

The Parable is a Misunderstanding of Issues

I am inclined to think no, this is a false view of what religious disputes are about.  This Jainist parable looks at it as if religions are saying "The elephant only is like a pillar" or "The elephant is only like a rope" or so on.  This is inaccurate.

The dispute between religions is not over whether "the elephant" is like a pillar or a rope.  It is more like a dispute over whether the concept of "elephant" has a trunk or does not have a trunk.  If the elephant has a trunk, those who claim it does not err.  If the elephant normally (as opposed to a birth defect or accident) does not have a trunk, then those who claim it has a trunk err.

The elephant cannot both have a trunk and not have a trunk however.

So even if the truth "can be stated in seven different ways" as the parable says, there is still the case of speaking truth or falsehood.  No matter how many ways one speaks truth, falsehood is not truth.  This is the source of dispute over religion in all forms.

True or False?

When it comes to religious claims, there are several divisions which require an answer one way or another (This set of divisions inspired by Peter Kreeft's "Socratic Logic 3E"):

  1. "Is there any hope of finding the truth about religion?"  Agnostics/skeptics answer no.  All others answer yes.
  2. "Is there any type of God or supernatural reality which justifies the attitude of piety?"  Atheists answer no.  All others answer yes
  3. "Is there an ultimate oneness to this reality?"  Polytheism answers no.  All others answer yes.
  4. "Is this reality distinct from the universe and human consciousness?"  Pantheism answers no.  All others answer yes.
  5. "Is this reality a person rather than a force or principle?  An 'I AM'?" Vague Philosophical Theism says no.  All others answer yes.
  6. "Did this 'I AM' reveal Himself?"  Non-Religious Philosophical Theism says no.  All others answer yes.
  7. "Did this 'I AM' send any Prophet greater than Moses?"  Judaism says no.  All others answer yes.
  8. "Is the greatest prophet Jesus?"  Islam says no.  All others answer yes.
  9. "Is Jesus a divine person as well as a human person, and is God a Trinity rather than one?"  Unitarianism says no.  Trinitarian Christianity answers yes.
  10. "Did Jesus establish a single visible infallible Church with the authority to teach in His name?"  Protestantism says no.  All others answer yes.
  11. "Is the Pope in Rome the present universal head of this Church?" Eastern Orthodoxy says no.  Catholicism answer yes.

These divisions (wherever one may find themselves in it) show the flaw with the Jainist argument given at the beginning of this article.  Either there is hope of finding the truth about religion or there is not.  If the skeptics are right, then all others are wrong.  Either there is some kind of God or there isn't.  If atheists are right, then all others are wrong.  Either the supernatural is one or it is not.  If polytheists are right, all others are wrong.  Either God is distinct from the universe or is not.  If pantheistic religions are right, all others are wrong… and so on.

"What IS" is The Issue of Dispute

The point is, arguing over whether the elephant is a trunk or a leg or a tail is not what religions dispute.  It is over issues over whether a thing is or is not.  It cannot be both in the same context, so people who hold one necessarily must deny the other.

I think this set of divisions also shows the nature of the dispute between different groups.  If a Christian debates an agnostic, the ground of dispute is not over Christian doctrines but over whether we can know truth about religion.  When Christians and Eastern practitioners debate, it is over whether or not God is distinct from the universe.  When the Christian debates the Moslem, the dispute is over whether the greatest revelation is from Christ or not.  When Catholics and Protestants debate, the debate is over whether God intended one authoritative Church to teach in His name.

Obviously we can't believe that we can both know and not know the truth of religion, as these are contradictory.

Because of this, I really don't think this Jainist Parable is valid in approaching the disputes of religion.

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