The Blind Men and an Elephant demonstrates that people, in general, have learned to abhor exclusive claims. Instead of the full comprehension of outward reality, many people all over the world try instead to exalt their preferences above and beyond the way reality actually is. And as groups of individuals with similar backgrounds, inclinations, likes, and desires are concerned, relativism finds strength in numbers as various peoples insist that truth cannot be known in its entirety, cannot be exclusive, and must be relative. Case in point is the story of the six blind men and an elephant. As the parable goes, six blind men, each feeling a part of the elephant, unable to see what it is they are each touching, conclude they are dealing with entirely different things. One of the blind men touches the tail of the elephant and concludes that the elephant is a rope. Another blind man hugs one of the legs and concludes it is a tree. Another, touching the side of the elephant, claims it is a wall. The others touching the elephant’s tusk, trunk, and ear, claim the object is a spear, a rope, and a fan respectively. The analogy is meant to demonstrate that not one of the blind men was completely right, but that they had a partial view of the overall picture. They were all partially right, and thus, it is supposed that exclusive claims to truth are to be avoided on the basis of the blind men and the inability of any of them to be able to give us the full picture of what they were dealing with. The parable is meant to demonstrate the difficulty in deciphering truth through the limitations of our perceptions. On the surface, the analogy may look convincing to some, but a moment’s reflection should be enough to find the faults with the intent of the parable. Despite the difficulties in discovering ultimate truths, such discoveries are possible, and insisting on inherent limitations outright is something to be avoided.
The first problem with the parable is that there is an artificial a priori handicap. The parable depicts people who cannot see. Why? Why would such a presumption be made in its setting? Despite the imperfections of our perceptions, one cannot simply assume error outright. When one sets the stage of an experiment, if the results he wishes to get, are the natural outworking of the game he’s rigged, there is little to be learned from the actual experiment. The presumption is a bold one – it implicitly injects, at the very outset within the analogy, that comprehensive, objective truth cannot be known by any one person – hence all the blind men. It is presupposed at the outset. It would be apt to ask why? But even more importantly, how? How can one know that no one person can know, fairly completely, the nature of reality? And what would happen if at least one of the men could actually see? Well, the parable self-destroys. Not only would the seeing man see the elephant, hence see the full picture of reality, but he would also see the errors of the blind men who were grasping at straws trying to describe what they thought they were dealing with. And if the man who could see corrected the men who could not about their error in identifying the elephant, would we be justified in calling him a fanatic and divisive individual? Not at all.
Now, suppose we line up all brilliant individuals of history, men who saw things others did not, men who revealed scientific, philosophical, and other truths to humanity, all distinguished men of history. Now suppose we said that these individuals have the same exact grasp of the nature of reality as any other, that their insight and research had nothing to do with our current understanding of the world, that they too were merely prisoners of their own perceptions without any chance to overcome them – would such a claim ever be taken seriously? If this parable truly exemplifies the nature of things, then the answer is no. If we are mere victims of our perceptions without any chance to add to our knowledge through reason and evidence, then there are no distinctions. One of the blind men could be a world class philosopher, the other a world-class scientist, the other could be a world class doctor, and none of them has the upper hand in making any breakthrough in his own field of study – all because he is operating through his crippled perception.
Second, if objective truth is impossible to know, then this writing of mine is merely the result of your crippled perception. The fact that you are reading this and assessing the objective information contained herein has already proven that you have embraced objective reality. At this point, the only way to escape this conundrum you find yourself in is to misunderstand these words intentionally, take them to say something entirely different from what I intend to say, and feign misperception of the entirety of my point.
Having said all of this, we’ve not even touched on the biggest problem with the parable – what are we to do with the narrator? The story is told, but the omission of what to make sense of the narrator gets lost in the shuffle. After all, if the narrator did not have requisite knowledge of the entire scene and able to see the entire elephant himself, he would have no way of knowing that there was an elephant there at all, let alone people around the elephant; that they were all blind, and lastly, that all the “blind” men were mistaken (because of his view of the entire scene transcending the story).
With this in view, if the primary goal of the parable was to make the truth of the blind men merely subjective and relative, then the parable falls flat on its face since the narrator himself provides an unmistakable visual proof about what all the “blind” men were mistaken. The narrator transcends the parable and gives us the full view. Hence truth is NOT relative as the narrator helps us see. We all have individual personal views of reality, but there is an objective reality, one truth, one elephant, with all other “blind” men terribly mistaken because they failed to take corrective action to get the best chance at deciphering each of their respective errors, at least in as much as the narrator has handicapped them.
Unfortunately, the story of the elephant and six blind men is often used to promote religious pluralism – the idea that there are different paths to the same God, or that all religions have an equally valid view of God. But since the vast majority of belief systems differ so significantly from one another at their core, they cannot all be true. As the law of noncontradiction helps us see, even within this story, disagreements about the nature of reality turn out to be helpful because they help us see that the objective (elephant) does not change. But the subjective notions (the views of the blind men) can and do turn out to be misaligned from that objective reality. This does nothing to negate the objective reality; it only helps us see truth and error in what people believe. Thus the very things that the parable is (my guess) aiming to affirm, it is inherently rejecting within itself during its unfolding… and relativism turns itself inside out and evaporates.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.