The Blind Men and the Elephant

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, January 29, 2009)

The blind men and the elephant

According to a popular Persian parable, several blind men visit a king’s palace and encounter their first elephant. Touching the elephant’s side, one blind man says, “An elephant is like a wall.” Touching the tail, another says, “An elephant is like a rope.” Touching an ear, another says, “An elephant is like a fan.” And so on. A heated argument breaks out, because each blind man thinks his perspective is wholly correct.

At this point a king looks out from his balcony and informs the men that each has touched only a part and for an accurate understanding they should put the parts together.

Thus, the teller of this story would have us believe, our cultural and religious biases blind us to the truth that all religions are equally right and equally wrong. Each religion has only a part of the whole truth, so we should embrace religious pluralism—the view that all religions lead to God.

Here are a couple of reasons for thinking that this apparently humble parable fails as a defence of religious pluralism: it is self-refuting, and it is intellectually arrogant.

Gregory Koukl (from the apologetics ministry Stand To Reason) helpfully explains the self-refutation problem: “There’s only one way to know our cultural or religious biases blind us to the larger truth that all religions lead to God. Someone who sees clearly without bias must tell us so. This parable, though, teaches that such objectivity is impossible.”

Koukl adds: “It’s as if one said, ‘Each of us is blind,’ and then added, ‘but I’ll tell you what the world really looks like.'” If the story is true, the story can’t be true.

To reveal the story’s intellectual arrogance, Koukl recommends that we ask the storyteller: Where are you in this story? If the storyteller says that he or she is a blind man, then we should respond: But by assuming your “over-all” view is correct, you are acting like the king. Surely, though, we all have the same kind of access to knowledge that the storyteller has. So perhaps the object of our investigation is in fact a wall (or a rope, etc.) and not an elephant.

If the storyteller says that he or she is the king, then respond (gently): What makes you so special? If the storyteller isn’t blinded by bias, then it’s reasonable to think we needn’t be either. After all, we all have roughly similar perceptual and reasoning equipment.

Yes, biases sometimes (often) have a distorting effect; however, from this it does not follow logically that all perception and reasoning is hopelessly distorted. (To judge accurately that biases have a distorting effect requires judgments that are not hopelessly distorted by bias.)

Thus, the following question remains: Of all the religions and worldviews (including secular worldviews), which, if any, is reasonable to believe to be true?

The Persian parable illogically and arrogantly blinds truth-seekers to options other than religious pluralism.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

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