The Blind Men, the Elephant, and Knowledge

The Blind Men, the Elephant, and Knowledge July 27, 2018

Folklore for Friday: what does this folk tale say about the nature of inquiry?

I saw this cartoon yesterday in a discussion about science and Theories of Everything, and found it very appropriate. You’ve all heard the fable of the blind men and the elephant. What meaning do you derive from it?

To Learning Much Inclined

Here is the famous poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), Blind Men and the Elephant:

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said— “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

So at least in this 19th-century Western formulation, it was intended to criticize religious dogmatism. In our millennium, what does it tell us about inquiry?

All Were In the Wrong

At least to my way of thinking, it describes the perspectival nature of truth. That is, truth presupposes a perspective and a context. Our modes of inquiry are all limited in ways we never have reason to acknowledge, since we define reality according to the ways we find useful in making sense of it.

A science fan (if he or she doesn’t simply dismiss it as a “myth”) could argue that it’s a parable about intersubjectivity, because only theories that integrate various categories of observations can be considered robust and explanatory.

The realists among us could say that it demonstrates the proper approach to objective reality: there is one true and complete description of reality, which exists independent of our conceptual schemes.

What’s your interpretation? How does this folk tale describe the way you understand inquiry, truth, and reality?

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  • The elephant strikes me as extremely patient.

  • Also the parable is basically how I see psychology as a field. The idolaters in labcoats opine about the human psyche, without any real idea of what goes on with it.

    it’s also a fable that shows us how “stovepipe systems” are born, when we can’t see the underlying truth (inasmuch as we have one), but are required to deal in only partial emergent properties which we can observe.

  • The Seventh then approach’d the beast
    Named Shem this arrant slob
    And when he near its rear stood by
    The beast let loose a blob
    “My word!” quoth he, “The elephant
    Is very like a job!”

  • lol nice

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    For me, it’s a reminder that there is an objective truth, but that objective truth is always going to be filtered through subjective experiences. The truth, the data, the facts — when done right, all that is objective. But the mind that grasps those facts, grasps that data, and squeezes that tail, is anything but. As an epistemological tool science is probably the best tool we have for getting close to the objective truth, but because humans will always be subjective creatures, the truth will continue to elude us. It’s like an epistemological Uncertainty Principle: you can never know everything about the objective truth because your mind is just to guided by your experiences, memories, dreams, wants, and goals and as a result, there will always be that subjectivity getting in the way.

  • Kevin K

    My cousin has two kids. When they were young, you give them identical toys and one would learn how to operate it while the other would take it apart. The first is now a geologist; the second a diesel mechanic. The second one makes more money.

    Most of the sciences are reductionist in nature. We make progress by breaking the whole into smaller parts to figure out how it works. The problem is when you believe the part you’re looking at is the only thing.

    Or you start by assuming at the outset you know what you’re going to find. (I had an editor like this — she was constantly urging me to have a source confirm her preconceived notions of thus-and-such — “get him to say…” was her favorite thing. One time, she wanted me to get an expert to say HIV was transmitted by mosquitoes.)

    The blind men should start talking to one-another about their findings, then they’d come up with a coherent whole; or a close approximation to it. That’s how the real world works. We’re still “blind” to a lot of things, but the more we investigate the parts and talk to one-another about our findings, the closer we get to discerning the elephant.

    So, I see the fable as being a warning. Not against reductionism, but of assuming the part is the whole AND not sharing your data with others.

  • So, I see the fable as being a warning. Not against reductionism, but of assuming the part is the whole AND not sharing your data with others.

    And it could also be that it’s warning against assuming that any one object domain describes everything. Science gives us data about empirical phenomena, but the universe is a lot more than just the sum total of all atoms. We need to realize that non-empirical things are also part of reality, the results of individuals and communities creating civic and artistic artifacts as well as ascribing meaning to phenomena.

  • The problem is when we talk about objective reality, we’re making a really imprudent epistemic leap because we only understand it through the methods and tools we’ve developed to study it. The blind men make wildly divergent and inadequate knowledge claims about the Elephant because they’re defining it through the methodology that appeared to give them the most reliable information, and they dismiss any theory that doesn’t jibe with their own self-validating set of assumptions.

    I’m not denying that reality is real or anything. But our methods of inquiry are dialogues with reality and with each other; whether there’s any pristine objective reality out there waiting for us to discover it is irrelevant.

  • larry parker

    The fable is built on a false premise. The blind men were not inclined to learning. If they were, instead of dogmatically accepting their first impression, and after hearing counter proposals, they should have dumped their first impression and felt around a little more.

  • We need to realize…

    Who doesn’t?

  • Cute, if libelous.

  • “Your Honor, on a scale of one to a hundred…”

  • interesting.

    i feel the exact same way about the way western science tries to decode queerness.

    and they’re about as accurate as the blind men in the OP.

  • ephemerol

    Of course “truth” and empirical observations are perspectival. From my usual perspective, the sun and the moon appear to be the same size, the earth appears to be flat, and parallel railroad tracks appear to converge. Appearances can be deceiving. To gain a more objective view, you have to be able to perceive your parochial observations in terms of a larger scope that includes observations from other perspectives. That’s why scientists like to observe phenomena under extreme conditions, where what might appear to be an inviolate “law” under mundane conditions, might prove to just be a special case. Newtonian physics is a good approximation for many things at relatively mundane scales and speeds, but we now know its answers aren’t exact. You need to use relativistic physics to make technology like GPS work as intended, or quantum mechanics to make electronics work as intended, which involve viewpoints under conditions that are, for the average human being, extreme ones. We don’t yet know how to unify these things together as a single theory that yields exact answers under all conditions that we currently work in. We need another scientific revolution that will result in expanding the scope in which we perceive our observations yet some more.

    The perfect real-life example of the the blind and the elephant is how there arose 5 different competing versions of string theory, but one remarkable genius, a shining light among shining lights, Ed Witten, saw how all 5 of them were actually compatible, and unified a fracturing field by explaining how they were all valid descriptions of a bigger and more encompassing picture of string theory, now known as M-theory, which hitherto had not been realized by anyone. They were all valid, but were all equally wrong in terms of scope. (Not that I think string theory is right. I actually suspect it isn’t going to pan out as a candidate for the underlying mechanism of the cosmos. Still, something useful may come out of it anyway.)

    We’re all blind, in that there’s infinite possibilities for things that we don’t know that we don’t know yet. Continually what we have discovered from the pursuit of science is that it’s a rare bird indeed who doesn’t have a terrible and inadequate imagination to extrapolate from what we already know to successfully predict what we don’t. What we wind up finding out usually takes us by surprise. Mathematics is the best extrapolation tool we have available, but even that is limited by our poor imagination.

  • simpledinosaur

    Agreed. I dinosaur of my size would never put up with such perspectival jostling.

  • simpledinosaur

    Nietzsche was big on the notion that “truth” is a perspectival matter. And a man with a mustache like that can’t be entirely wrong.

  • fair

  • ugh

  • Everyone’s a critic, according to Idries Shah.

  • Kitsune Inari

    More specifically, after hearing counter proposals they would show to the others the evidence they have and explain why they think the elephant is a tree | blanket | rock | etc. “Oh you’re right, this does feel like a big snake. Come over here, I’ll show you something that is like a rope.” And they will all agree on what evidence they have, and start building on that to construct models of what they believe the elephant is, and those models will help them predict new observations before they even look for them.

    When explained properly, this fable can be a powerful metaphor of science.

  • The problem with that is that GC’s assumption that the elephant is really there is premature. Here at DTA, we consider the notion that science helps us discover truths about reality presumptuous, like putting the cart before the epistemological horse. It’s more accurate to say we invent facts about the elephant that work in the context of the social endeavor of science.

  • Kim

    I just heard a short rendition of this poem yesterday in context to who people say Jesus is, and the speaker said…”What if the elephant could tell them, he was an elephant?” The elephant was non of what these men said he was. He was an elephant. Same with Jesus. There are many who make Jesus out to be who they think he is, not who he has said he is.