The Blind Men and The Elephant

The Blind Men and The Elephant is a poem adapted from a very old Indian story by John Godfrey Saxe about a group of blind men who stumble across an elephant. They go about trying to describe what an elephant is by examining it with their hands, each one touching a different part and making vastly different claims about what it is. One grabs the tail and says it’s like a rope. One touches a leg and says it’s a tree. Another feels it’s tusk and proclaims it to be like a spear. The obvious point of the story being that while each was correct in describing one aspect of the elephant, none were correct in that the elephant, taken as a whole is not like anything they put forth. It hints at the relativity and inexpressibility of truth.

The Subtle, Reasoned Harmony

Often this story is used by those who would say that all religions and worldviews are basically saying the same thing. That the aspects where they differ are simply the result of each religion taking hold of a different aspect of the same god and making it central. On the surface, this sounds really good. How better to bring the world religions into harmony than to help them to understand that they are all speaking about the same thing seen from different perspectives?

There is a flaw in this proposal that is just as apparent in the story and it is that in order for the story to make any sense it must be told from the perspective of one who can see. Once we realize the narrator is actually an actor in this drama, the moral has a completely different tone. Instead of being a humble statement of, “Who can know with all these different views?”, the narrator (and we by extension) look down on these blind men and say, “Actually, we have the absolute truth and all of you are only seeing aspects of it.”

The Religion of Modern Man

And now we see the modern man, like the condescending narrator, in order to unify the religions of man, must actually put forth that he has been able to grasp what all others have missed and that his religion has claim to absolute truth. If he does not, his views must be evaluated on exactly the same plane as the religions he is purporting to unite. His claims mask themselves as tolerance, saying that your religion and mine are simply seeing different aspects of the same thing, but it is extremely disrespectful to look at two people well versed in differing religions and essentially say to them, “Actually, I know both of your religions better than you do and neither of you are seeing the whole picture like I am.”

If we truly want tolerance, it must be in the respect found when a person of one worldview can meet a person of another worldview with the understanding that neither comes to their beliefs flippantly. To ignore that there are irreconcilable differences in major world religions is to treat them with the same patronising manner that this modern unity theory purports to do away with.

Frame of Reference

Geocentric model and HeliocentrismImage via Wikipedia

In 1543, Copernicus published a book in which he systematically and scientifically justified the heliocentric model of the universe. This was a major shift from the old Aristotelian model where the Earth was at the center of the universe and all other bodies rotated around it.

This is often hailed a major milestone and a start of the scientific revolution, but really it is an example, on a grand scale, of what the scientific process is.

An interesting fact about the Aristotelian model that is not often mentioned is that this model is still entirely accurate for viewing the celestial bodies. One can track and predict exactly where a star or planet will appear in the night sky using the model. It is not inaccurate because it doesn’t work, it is inaccurate because it doesn’t represent the whole picture.

What Copernicus did in his new model was to recognize that our frame of reference was part of the system and therefore could not possibly offer the true model. Copernicus had to shake people of their reliance on sight alone to form their reference.

Today, science once again is set in its reliance on the frame of reference provided by our senses. But to say that these five senses are all encompassing and that nothing exists that cannot be observed by these senses is to end up in a contradiction, for why bother to expand our knowledge since knowledge cannot be observed by the senses?

We have reached a barrier. In order to get a truer picture of our universe, we need to take a step back, just as Copernicus did, and look from outside the box of our five senses. Some would say that this moves into the realm of philosophy, but if the scientific community wants to make truth claims about models that enfold their own frame of reference, that is exactly the realm into which they must move.

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