January 29, 2009

The Blind Men and the Elephant

APOLOGIA
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.)

30 comments:

Pvblivs said...

     I do not fit any of the characters in the story. For, although I may "blind" to things beyond the world we see, I recognize that differing perpectives are just that, differing perspectives. Were I in the story, I would try to get the feel of the other perspectives instead of simply fighting. I would also encourage others to try to get a feel for my perspective.

Paul C said...

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.

The second statement doesn't follow from the first one at all. Simply recognising that bias exists would be a sufficient starting point. The king in the story doesn't know everything about the elephant - he can't see inside it, for example. Yet he can certainly inform others that their perspectives are incomplete, while still acknowledging that his own perspective is incomplete as well.

Climenheise said...

I'm not sure that recognizing other people's perspectives solves the problem. The blind men could exercise such humility, bring their perspectives together, and still get nowhere near the reality of the elephant.

I wonder if the parable may not actually go in a quite unexpected direction: suggesting that some kind of revelation from a source external to the knower is necessary for anyone to build their perspective on. Without revelation, is any real grasp of truth possible?

carm_trop said...

"The second statement doesn't follow from the first one at all. Simply recognising that bias exists would be a sufficient starting point. The king in the story doesn't know everything about the elephant - he can't see inside it,"

You're taking the story too far. That isn't the intention of the story; it seems to be that Occam's razor plays a crucial mediating role here -- the story is simply pointing out the existence of an all pervasive perspective, that of God, and so the blind men who touch the elephant, can only experience it phenomenologically; they are naturally limited in what they can discern, ultimate speaking.

Our job, as blind men, is to hope for greater revelation. A revelation that is more personal instead of remote -- Jesus Christ accomplishes and claims this role as the divine Word, revealing truth about God that was previously remote, mediated through various venues, Abraham, Israel, The Ten Commandments etc.

We err when we try to push such parables too far, to mean what they don't. Deconstructionists play this game all the time, looking for complexity when simplicity suffices.

Paul C said...

You're taking the story too far. That isn't the intention of the story;

In fact, that is precisely the intention of the story; it simply points out that nobody ever has the full picture. Ironically I think that you'll find that it is you who are taking the story too far.

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!

Dr. V said...

Dear Pvblivs, Paul C, Climenheise, and Carm_Trop,

Thanks for your comments. I think that each of you sheds some important insight into the parable, but I think there’s still some room for further insight. (Maybe the blogger is like the king and the blog commentators are like the blind men? Okay, so this is a truly feeble attempt at humor.) Please bear with me, as I add my two cents worth.

Pvblivs wrote:

I do not fit any of the characters in the story. For, although I may "blind" to things beyond the world we see, I recognize that differing perpectives are just that, differing perspectives. Were I in the story, I would try to get the feel of the other perspectives instead of simply fighting. I would also encourage others to try to get a feel for my perspective.

Hendrik’s reply:

I am inclined to agree with Pvblivs regarding the importance of recognizing others’ perspectives and trying to get a sense of those perspectives (instead of fighting). I think that’s what we try to do, and can to some extent achieve, with good education and critical thinking. I would add that if I could stretch the notion of perspective here, maybe the perspectives could include the various disciplines of inquiry about the world: e.g., the sciences, history, philosophy, etc. So, our knowledge (albeit fallible and limited knowledge) of whether the world is an elephant or wall or whatever could be to some extent gotten from our various investigations of the world.

Climenheise wrote:

I'm not sure that recognizing other people's perspectives solves the problem. The blind men could exercise such humility, bring their perspectives together, and still get nowhere near the reality of the elephant.

I wonder if the parable may not actually go in a quite unexpected direction: suggesting that some kind of revelation from a source external to the knower is necessary for anyone to build their perspective on. Without revelation, is any real grasp of truth possible?

Hendrik’s reply:

I agree with Climenheise that the possibility of revelation—say, from the elephant or wall or whatever is the ultimately real—needs to be seriously considered. Perhaps the elephant has spoken. Perhaps the snake has spoken. Etc. (To be fair to Koukl, he does consider this possibility, and the talking elephant idea is from him, but I couldn’t include it within the 400-word limitation of my column.) However, instead of speaking of mere revelation, I think that it would be helpful (as I’m sure Climenheise would agree) to consider seriously the distinction between general revelation and special revelation and the application of that distinction here.

It seems to me that the universe might reveal in a general way, via various clues, its Creator. It also seems to me that there might be good evidence in history of a particular or special revelation from the Creator.

The clues from the general revelation—e.g., the evidence of the universe’s big bang beginning suggesting a cause of that beginning, the fine-tuning of the universe’s initial conditions suggesting an intelligent cause, DNA’s language/code, etc.—could be discerned by the sciences, and the evidence from the special revelation—e.g., Jesus’ alleged miraculous resurrection—could be discerned via the investigation of history. In other words, the general revelation of God in nature could get us to believe reasonably that a powerful universe-transcendent intelligent cause of the universe exists, and the special revelation of God in history could get us to believe reasonably that the Creator of the universe has come to earth as a human being in Jesus Christ. Of course, the evidence of competing specific alleged revelations from Muhammad, Bahaullah, and others would have to be seriously considered.

(For readers interested in a more detailed look at the evidence from general and specific revelation, I suggest William Lane Craig’s book Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition [Crossway Books, 2008). Also, my PhD dissertation, “Miracle Reports, Moral Philosophy, and Contemporary Science,” is relevant here. A link to my dissertation is available on the right side of this blog.)

Paul C wrote:

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.

The second statement doesn't follow from the first one at all. Simply recognising that bias exists would be a sufficient starting point. The king in the story doesn't know everything about the elephant - he can't see inside it, for example. Yet he can certainly inform others that their perspectives are incomplete, while still acknowledging that his own perspective is incomplete as well.

Hendrik’s reply:

Paul, I’m going to disagree with you. In fact, I’m inclined to side with Carm_Trop here, but maybe for slightly different reasons.

First, I think that Koukl’s additional comment concerning the parable should be taken into account. (Context is always helpful in understanding a writer, as I’m sure you will agree.) 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.'" So, according to the parable, we’re all blind men, so it’s not possible to have the king’s privileged point of view—but the storyteller continues anyway seemingly unaware of having him/herself assumed the king’s disallowed privileged point of view. This much is clear.

Now, is it the case, as Koukl claims, that the only way to know it’s true that our cultural or religious biases blind us to the larger truth that all religions lead to God requires that someone who sees clearly without bias must tell us so? That is to ask: Is it the case that to know this thesis—that it’s true that all religions lead to God but we cannot know this because of our biases—requires someone without such bias to tell us this? It sure seems so to me.

With all due respect, Paul, I think that the story has captured you with its spell. Sure, the king in the story doesn’t know everything about the elephant (e.g., its insides), and so, yes, his perspective is limited. But that’s beside the point. The point that gets missed (not just by you but by many) is this: The king knows what the story says he cannot know, the king has a perspective that the lesson of the story says he cannot have. The lesson of the story is that we are all the blind men—none of us is the king. Consequently, as Koukl correctly points out, the story is self-refuting: “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.'"

I hope that the above is somewhat helpful. Of course, it’s possible that I’ve misunderstood your criticism.

P.S. I like your poem. I intend no disrespect in saying this, but we should keep in mind that the poem’s field of reference (i.e., those who “rail” and “prate”) probably includes those who present the poem.

Carm_Trop wrote:

[Quote from Paul C:] "The second statement doesn't follow from the first one at all. Simply recognising that bias exists would be a sufficient starting point. The king in the story doesn't know everything about the elephant - he can't see inside it,"

You're taking the story too far. That isn't the intention of the story; it seems to be that Occam's razor plays a crucial mediating role here -- the story is simply pointing out the existence of an all pervasive perspective, that of God, and so the blind men who touch the elephant, can only experience it phenomenologically; they are naturally limited in what they can discern, ultimate speaking.

Our job, as blind men, is to hope for greater revelation. A revelation that is more personal instead of remote -- Jesus Christ accomplishes and claims this role as the divine Word, revealing truth about God that was previously remote, mediated through various venues, Abraham, Israel, The Ten Commandments etc.

We err when we try to push such parables too far, to mean what they don't. Deconstructionists play this game all the time, looking for complexity when simplicity suffices.

Hendrik’s reply:

Thanks, Carm_Trop. As I mentioned in my reply to Paul C, I’m inclined to agree with you here. So I won’t make any further reply.

Closing comment from Hendrik:

Thanks Pvblivs, Paul C, Climenheise, and Carm_Trop for your insightful comments. I hope that our discussion has shed some additional light onto the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

With best regards,
Hendrik

Paul C said...

First, I think that Koukl’s additional comment concerning the parable should be taken into account. (Context is always helpful in understanding a writer, as I’m sure you will agree.) 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.'"

My point is that Koukl is entirely wrong, because that's not what the king says at all. The king merely points out that none of the blind men have the complete picture; he makes no claim that he has the complete picture himself. The story is not arguing that we need an external unbiased observer to tell us the whole picture; in fact, some versions of the story don't even have a king / wise man / observer figure in it at all. The story's message is equally clear if you just have the blind men comparing notes and realising that while none of them have the full picture, but that together their picture is more accurate - which is exactly what some versions of the story have.

Now, is it the case, as Koukl claims, that the only way to know it’s true that our cultural or religious biases blind us to the larger truth that all religions lead to God requires that someone who sees clearly without bias must tell us so? That is to ask: Is it the case that to know this thesis—that it’s true that all religions lead to God but we cannot know this because of our biases—requires someone without such bias to tell us this? It sure seems so to me.

One doesn't need somebody without bias to point out one's own bias. The external observer can have their own biases but still perceive yours clearly; you can recognise that you have biases even while you still hold them. (It's worth pointing out at this stage that the story is not about bias, but about the limits of perception - the clue is that the blind men are, well, blind. It's kind of a hint.)

Consequently, as Koukl correctly points out, the story is self-refuting: “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.'"

No, because nobody says that in any versions of the story - the king or wise man or sometimes just the narrator merely points out to the blind men that each of their pictures is incomplete, and makes no claims that they alone know the full picture.

P.S. I like your poem. I intend no disrespect in saying this, but we should keep in mind that the poem’s field of reference (i.e., those who “rail” and “prate”) probably includes those who present the poem.

No it doesn't, because the poem itself doesn't make any claims about God except that nobody has a complete picture of God, as you can read for yourself at http://www.wordinfo.info/words/index/info/view_unit/1/?letter=B&spage=3.

All of this is merely a warmed-over version of Newbigin's claims. He misunderstood the story, Koukl misunderstood it and now it appears that we're following in that rich tradition.

Dr. V said...

Hello again Paul,

Thanks for your additional and truly insightful comments. I need to take some time to ponder what you've written. If I am misundertanding the parable, I would like to know that (plus I would want to acknowledge my mistake). But, as I say, I need some time to ponder.

Best regards,
Hendrik

carm_trop said...

"In fact, that is precisely the intention of the story; it simply points out that nobody ever has the full picture. Ironically I think that you'll find that it is you who are taking the story too far."

Interesting. I'm only pointing out that infusing factors that do not apply is taking it too far: "seeing inside it," is not part of the story, you conveniently put that in. To me, it is an attempt at evading the key issue here, the limits of revelation, that we require a special revelation to get the full exposure of theological truth.

The king knows the whole truth, and from his position can reveal it, but he chooses not to. Our question, then, is this an accurate portrayal of the king? I say no, it's actually an arrogant projection on the part of storyteller/maker who uses this as justification for pluralism.

Simply parroting a poem does not constitute a refutation from my perspective, but nice try.

Paul C said...

Simply parroting a poem does not constitute a refutation from my perspective, but nice try.

"Parroting"? Where I come from, we call it "quoting", but I always appreciate being patronised, so thanks. Thanks.

In any case, you clearly missed my refutation, so I'll repeat it:

The king merely points out that none of the blind men have the complete picture; he makes no claim that he has the complete picture himself. The story is not arguing that we need an external unbiased observer to tell us the whole picture; in fact, some versions of the story don't even have a king / wise man / observer figure in it at all.

Without this figure, of course, your entire argument falls apart.

Dr. V said...

Paul and Carmelo (carm_trop),

Thanks for your comments. In thinking about what both of you have written thus far, I wonder if the following point might be helpful: Whether the story ends up in self-refutation depends on the purpose of the person who is presently telling the story.

If the teller of the story is using the story to justify the truth of the claim that he/she knows this thesis—that it’s true that all religions lead to God but we cannot know this because of our biases—then, and perhaps only then, is the story self-refuting. This present-day storyteller is using the story to say “Each of us is blind, but I'm telling you what the world really looks like."

If the teller of the story (present-day or ancient) is using the story to justify the truth of a different claim, say, the claim that he/she believes this thesis—that we all are limited by our perspectives, though some perspectives are better than others, even though none of us (absent divine revelation or God-like knowledge) have the wholly correct perspective—then there isn’t a self-refutation problem.

So, I am agreeing with Paul that the original story is not necessarily self-refuting, and in fact it sometimes isn’t; but this would depend on its context of use. Also, I am agreeing with Carmelo (and Koukl) that the story can be, and sometimes is, self-refuting; but again this would depend on its context of use.

I seem to remember from my readings of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work that an important clue to discerning the meaning of a sentence is to investigate its use. It seems to me that Wittgenstein’s insight applies to stories, too. So, if I'm mistaken in this, blame Wittgenstein! No, seriously, I think Wittgenstein may shed some light here.

Again, Paul and Carmelo, I appreciate your comments. There’s a verse that comes to mind that I think is appropriate here: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17) I think that this discussion has been sharpening our intellects. Thanks.

With best regards,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Paul and Carmelo,

I have just had an insight (or at least it seems to me to be an insight).

Consider this: In those circumstances in which the story self-refutes (as I've described above), "self" refers to the person who is (re)telling the story, or, better, his/her explicit purpose in (re)telling the story, not the story per se.

Is this helpful?

Cheers,
Hendrik

Paul C said...

If the teller of the story is using the story to justify the truth of the claim that he/she knows this thesis—that it’s true that all religions lead to God but we cannot know this because of our biases—then, and perhaps only then, is the story self-refuting. This present-day storyteller is using the story to say “Each of us is blind, but I'm telling you what the world really looks like."

Perhaps if you, Carm_trop or Koukl could point to actual examples of somebody using the story in this way, your argument would have more force. Certainly I've never seen anybody make such a claim.

The original intent of the story is as I described it, as even cursory research into the story shows. Koukl looks into the story and sees only himself at the heart of it - ironically proving the truth of the story.

Dr. V said...

Hi Paul,

Here is my reply to your most recent comment.

Paul wrote:

[Hendrik’s quote:] If the teller of the story is using the story to justify the truth of the claim that he/she knows this thesis—that it’s true that all religions lead to God but we cannot know this because of our biases—then, and perhaps only then, is the story self-refuting. This present-day storyteller is using the story to say “Each of us is blind, but I'm telling you what the world really looks like."

Perhaps if you, Carm_trop or Koukl could point to actual examples of somebody using the story in this way, your argument would have more force. Certainly I've never seen anybody make such a claim.

Hendrik’s reply:

Here is an actual example from my life experience: My oldest brother (when he was 20 and I was 16) told me the story of the blind men and the elephant shortly after he had become a Baha’i. He told the story of the blind men and the elephant as a justification of his view that religious pluralism is true, though we are blinded to this truth by our faulty religious predilections. This was almost 40 years ago. I have heard the story used this way on several occasions since then, usually in popular-level discussions with folks who are either Hindus or “liberal” Christians.

On the basis of my experience, I am inclined to think it’s highly probable that Koukl has had at least a few experiences of the story’s use which are similar to mine, especially because he has had much more interaction than me at the popular level with pluralist-leaning folks. (For readers not familiar with Gregory Koukl’s work: He runs an apologetics ministry called Stand To Reason, he is the host of a popular U.S. call-in radio talk show on apologetics-related topics, he has been a feature guest on Vision TV with Valerie Pringle in a program called “Pluralism”; a link to Koukl’s organization Stand To Reason is available at the right of my blog.)

Paul wrote:

The original intent of the story is as I described it, as even cursory research into the story shows.

Hendrik’s reply:

As I mentioned, I am willing to concede that the original intent of the story is as you’ve described it (though more than cursory research, it seems to me, would be needed to make a strong case for thinking that the story was actually used by its original author/s for this intent; but maybe you’ve done more than a cursory research in this).

Still, and importantly, the following philosophical point remains: A storyteller’s intent in retelling a story can be different from the original intent of the author who first told the story, and so, depending the context of the retelling, i.e., depending on the specific use to which the story is put, the storyteller, when he/she retells the story (of the blind men and the elephant), can, in fact, end up in self-refutation. The storyteller could use the story to say that each of us is blind, but then proceed to tell us what the world really looks like. This, however, leaves, the uncritical thinker accepting what shouldn’t be accepted and believing, mistakenly, that the storyteller has said something profound.

It’s interesting to note that the above philosophical point would help explain why Bishop Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) seems to disagree with the original intent that you attribute to the story. It may very well turn out that in Newbigin’s years of actual interaction (as a Christian missionary) with folks who retold the story to him, those folks had a use/purpose for the story that was different than the use/purpose of the story’s original author—a use/purpose like that of my Baha’i brother.

(For the record, in case my brother is reading this. I love my brother and I respect him—a lot. There’s much that I have learned from him and, I believe, there’s much that I will learn from him. I just happen to disagree with him on a couple of important matters. Love and disagreement on important matters need not be mutually exclusive.)

Best regards,
Hendrik

Paul C said...

My oldest brother (when he was 20 and I was 16) told me the story of the blind men and the elephant shortly after he had become a Baha’i. He told the story of the blind men and the elephant as a justification of his view that religious pluralism is true, though we are blinded to this truth by our faulty religious predilections.

I misunderstood your original statement, for which I apologise. You originally said

If the teller of the story is using the story to justify the truth of the claim that he/she knows this thesis—that it’s true that all religions lead to God but we cannot know this because of our biases—then, and perhaps only then, is the story self-refuting.

This is false. The story would be self-refuting if the story-teller (or the "wise man" character inside the story) claimed to have complete knowledge of the elephant. The story is not self-refuting if the story-teller intends to communicate that no single person (including themselves) has complete knowledge of the elephant.

The example you give of your brother is an example of the latter, and it is not self-refuting since e is not claiming to have complete knowledge of the elephant. Indeed I assume that he believes that no human can have such complete knowledge, just as I assume that you believe that no human can have such complete knowledge.

It is worth noting that religious pluralism does not necessarily entail accepting all religions, and does not necessarily tell us anything about the character of God except that it is not knowable by humans.

Dr. V said...

Hello again Paul,

I think that you are not fully understanding a couple of important points and distinctions that I've made in our discussion thus far, and, it's clear, you think that I'm not fully understanding some of your points. It seems to me that attempting to resolve our differences will involve a lot of rehashing of what's been previously said, which will probably not be terribly interesting (except to us). So I am simply going to acknowledge that we have a disagreement here and leave it that. We can let our readers (if there are any left at this point) decide where the truth lies in our discussion.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Paul C said...

We can let our readers (if there are any left at this point) decide where the truth lies in our discussion.

So essentially you're saying that neither of us has complete knowledge of the elephant, and you're appealing to external observers to decide what the elephant looks like.

How ironic.

Dr. V said...

Paul,

I intend no personal disrespect in saying this, and this might sound a bit harsh (though I don’t intend it to be harsh), but your last comment clearly confirms that you have not been grasping the finer points of the discussion at hand.

Let's just agree to disagree.

Cheers,
Hendrik

Paul C said...

Probably for the best. There are two things going on here:

Gregory Koukl... 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 is false, as I have shown.

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.'"

This is also false - the story does not imply that the storyteller can tell you what the world really looks like, only that no single person has the complete picture.

I misunderstood your critique, that you are more interested in showing that religious pluralism is false - my apologies. However the story itself doesn't provide you with the ammunition to do that - it is a metaphor, not a philosophical argument.

Climenheise said...

I admit readily that I do not follow all of the points in the discussion between Dr. V, Paul C., and Carm Trop. I note that Paul's riposte (noting the irony of Dr. V's appeal to outside observers to judge the discussion) is neat; but I note also that it misses its mark. (Think of a fencing match, in which one fencer makes a neat move, but the blade actually glides past the other fencer.)

To acknowledge that others can judge what we see assumes something quite different than simply the conditioned nature of our own reflections. It assumes that, although we are conditioned, we (and the others listening to us) can apprehend reality; so we all have the ability to judge what is real and true, and what is not. We have our biases, indeed; but we also see what is real.

The basic problem I note in the story of the blind men and the elephant is that none of us will accept that we are completely blind, unable to see reality at all. I don't have time to pursue the question here, and will follow the continued conversation in Apologia with interest.

Dr. V said...

Hello again Paul,

When I recommended that we just agree to disagree, I was planning to disengage myself from our discussion of the blind men and the elephant. However, your last comment has prompted me to set forth yet another reply. So please be forewarned: If in my old age I obsess and rant about the blind men and the elephant, I will tell my caregivers that it’s your fault! (An attempt at humor…) In all seriousness, I wish to set out a reply so that the commentary for the column at hand doesn’t end on a note of confusion.

Paul wrote:

I misunderstood your critique, that you are more interested in showing that religious pluralism is false - my apologies. However the story itself doesn't provide you with the ammunition to do that - it is a metaphor, not a philosophical argument.

Hendrik’s reply:

Let’s begin with some (additional) clarification. A metaphor can be used as a premise in an argument, philosophical or other. Consider the following premise and conclusion. In the early 1900s the Canadian National Railway was the life-promoting circulatory system of a growing Canadian economy and culture; therefore, it was wise of Canada’s early government to provide financial nourishment for this railroad company. Also, consider the following premise and conclusion. I am the door; therefore, no one comes to the father but by me. Clearly, the fact that a piece of discourse is a metaphor doesn’t preclude it from being used as a premise/ argument. A story about a circulatory system or door, if used as a justification for some other claim, would simply be a more complex premise/ argument. The point: Discourse can have multiple functions, context of use allows us to determine the function at hand, and sometimes the function at hand is that of argument. (For the record, this point is presented in most of the undergraduate Introductory Logic and Critical Thinking courses that I’ve taken, audited, or taught.)

Re: Your apology. Though this might seem harsh, your apology is not accepted. Paul, I appreciate your personal sensitivity here, but the fact remains that for me to accept your apology would be for me to agree to your misrepresentation of my views. So let’s get clear on this.

Contrary to what you apparently think I’m doing, the overarching point of my column (and subsequent commentary) is not to show that religious pluralism is false (even though that’s a part of my broader interest in Apologia in general); rather, the overarching point of my column (and subsequent commentary) is to show that the story of the blind men and the elephant isn’t a good justification of religious pluralism. My column “The Blind Men and the Elephant” makes this clear, surely. In the column I make explicit the fact that the story of the blind men and the elephant is used by at least some re-tellers of the story as a “defence of religious pluralism” (where religious pluralism is understood as the view that “all religions are equally right and equally wrong,” “each religion has only a part of the whole truth,” “all religions lead to God”). In the column I also explicitly state that the parable “fails as a defence of religious pluralism: it is self-refuting, and it is intellectually arrogant.” Also, the rest of the column clearly is an argument to show that the parable fails as a defence of religious pluralism. Moreover, my subsequent blog commentary is clearly and primarily a defence of the column’s argument. So (again), the overarching point of my column (and subsequent commentary) is to show that the story of the blind men and the elephant isn’t a good justification of religious pluralism; the point is not what you claim it is—the point is not that I’m trying to show that religious pluralism is false. (A position could still be true even if an argument in defence of its truth fails; another argument would be needed to show that the position is false.)

Paul, your not noticing the distinction between these points is quite a large mistake, and your not noticing it serves to confirm my earlier observation that you are also missing a few of my more subtle philosophical distinctions.

Paul wrote:

[Quoting Hendrik who quotes Koukl:] Gregory Koukl... 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 is false, as I have shown.

[Quoting Hendrik who quotes Koukl:] 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.'"

This is also false - the story does not imply that the storyteller can tell you what the world really looks like, only that no single person has the complete picture.

Hendrik’s reply:

With all due respect—no—you haven’t shown that Koukl’s explanation of the self-refutation problem is false. As I’ve argued in my earlier comments, your critique was beside the point. Please bear with me, then, as I run this by you again.

Koukl claims (given the particular understanding of religious pluralism at hand, and given the particular employment of the story of the blind men and the elephant as a defence of this understanding) that the only way to know it’s true that our cultural or religious biases blind us to the larger truth that all religions lead to God requires that someone who sees clearly without bias must tell us so. In other words, Koukl is claiming (given the previous parenthetical points) that to know this thesis—that it’s true that all religions lead to God but we cannot know this because of our biases—requires someone without such bias to tell us this. Now, here is the rub (I encourage readers to take some time to think about this next sentence). The religious pluralist (in the sense under discussion, who is using the blind men and elephant story as a justification for his/her position) is telling us that he/she knows these two theses: (1) it’s true that all religions lead to God (and it’s true that all religions are equally right and equally wrong and each religion has only a part of the whole truth) and (2) it’s true that people cannot know the first thesis because of cultural and religious (etc.) biases. Now, let’s be gracious to the pluralist under discussion: let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that the previous sentence is true—true in all of its parts. Okay, so, because of the truth of the second thesis, our knowledge of the first thesis is blocked. That is, we are agreeing, for the sake of argument, with our pluralist’s claim that it’s true that our cultural and religious biases block our knowledge of the truth of the first thesis (which says it’s true that all religions lead to God, that all religions are equally right and equally wrong, that each religion has only a part of the whole truth). Now keep in mind that we are, for the sake of argument, also conceding the truth of the first thesis (which says it’s true that all religions lead to God, etc.). Now keep in mind too that we are, for the sake of argument, also conceding the truth that the pluralist under discussion knows the truth of the first thesis as well as the truth of the second thesis. But if we grant these truths, it follows logically from them that to achieve knowledge of the truths of theses 1 and 2 would require a point of view that isn’t blocked by bias. Remember: We’re granting that it’s true that we can’t know thesis 1 because our biases preclude us from achieving this knowledge, but we’re also granting that we do know thesis 1. This means someone without bias had to tell us. (Think about it.)

In view of the above, we can see that Koukl is correct when he writes (of the religious pluralist under discussion who sets out the story of the blind men and the elephant as a justification of his/her position), “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.'" Thesis 2 says each of us blind; thesis 1 is a description of the reality of the world as seen by the non-blind; both theses 1 and 2 are known to be true (or believed to be known to be true) by the pluralist who tells the story as a justification of his/her pluralism.

So Paul, your claim, that “the story does not imply that the storyteller can tell you what the world really looks like, only that no single person has the complete picture,” is false. The story as used by the religious pluralist under discussion does logically imply that the storyteller can tell you what the world really looks like and it logically implies that he/she can’t. In other words, in the hands of our pluralist story-teller, the story self-refutes. (As I argued in a previous comment, the “self” that gets self-refuted is the storyteller’s position, i.e., the position of the re-teller of the story, which in the present case is the religious pluralist who holds to religious pluralism as described in the column.)

Okay, I’ve said what I wanted to say. Paul, if you still disagree with me, so be it. I think that we’ve made our disagreement as clear as can be, and I believe that there’s no need for further engagement. Go in peace. (Also, I must stop thinking about the blind men and the elephant and instead focus my energies on other matters—which, I hope, will help me avoid becoming that awful old person I described at the beginning of this comment.)

Cheers,
Hendrik

Christopher said...

I think there's a transitory problem in this parable, too. That is, it doesn't account for the fact that a 'temporary' event, such as a bunch of blind guys touching different parts of an elephant, does not account for everyone else who can see. Thus, in order for the parable to make any logical sense whatsoever, it requires that the person who hears it assume that someone saw the event to understand what was happening. Thus substantive reasoning, or long-term observations have to be put in place. Without that, we can't even begin to set down a parable such as "The Blind Men and the Elephant."

More, the fact that he blind men experienced cognitive dissonance does not mean that we can logically reason to the point that everyone who engages in religious, or philosophical understandings is necessarily trapped in a cognitive dissonance. Reasoning from the parts to the whole like that is egregious thinking at best.

get_education said...

Gys,

Isn't this just a little story that tries to make a point? The point being that perhaps all religions lead to God and that limitted and biased beliefs might not let us see such thing?

The words by this Christian apologist seem to me to be more inspired of a rejection to think that other religions might be "correct" (even if limited), and/or rejection that his religion might not be "The Truth."

I find it deplorable when people try to use such excessive argumentation against a parable with no other intent than, perhaps, reaching peace among people's with different religions.

Anyway, it is to be expected. After all, religions do contain claims about being the right one, while everything else is false.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

Hello again G.E.,

Thanks for your comments. I’ll reply in piecemeal fashion.

G.E. wrote:

Isn't this just a little story that tries to make a point? The point being that perhaps all religions lead to God and that limitted and biased beliefs might not let us see such thing?

Hendrik’s reply:

Yes, it is a little story that tries to make a point. If the point or purpose of the person who is retelling the story is merely that perhaps all religions lead to God and our limited and biased beliefs might not let see such a thing, then that’s fine. However, if the point of the person who is retelling the story is that in fact all religions lead to God and our limited and biased beliefs do not let us see this, then the story is self-refuting (where “self” refers to the purpose/position of the person retelling the story). The latter case is important because it involves philosophical sleight of hand (whether wittingly or unwittingly) and deceives people. Surely, a careful reading of the previous commentary should have made this clear.

G.E. wrote:

The words by this Christian apologist seem to me to be more inspired of a rejection to think that other religions might be "correct" (even if limited), and/or rejection that his religion might not be "The Truth."

Hendrik’s reply:

I disagree. I think that there is such a thing as figuring out, in good faith, what’s actually going on with a story when it’s told, regardless of what one’s broader desires might be. See my previous (“excessive”?) argumentation.

G.E. wrote:

I find it deplorable when people try to use such excessive argumentation against a parable with no other intent than, perhaps, reaching peace among people's with different religions.

Hendrik’s reply:

I’m all in favor of reaching for peace among peoples with different worldviews, whether those worldviews are religious or atheistic or whatever. However, I think that a prerequisite for reaching for such peace is the use of careful and respectful discussion and argument. I would rather that we engage in so-called “excessive” argumentation in a respectful and well-reasoned manner than engage in, say, poor argument, insult, or physical violence. I suspect (hope) that you would agree.

What I find deplorable is when people dismiss my argumentation (apparently without having taken the time to read it to get a clear understanding) simply by calling it “excessive.” I’m a fairly intelligent fellow and so are those with whom I converse in this blog. If we are arguing about something, it could very well be that we’re on to something. Please don’t just dismiss our arguments. That’s rude.

G.E. wrote:

Anyway, it is to be expected. After all, religions do contain claims about being the right one, while everything else is false.

Hendrik’s reply:

Yes, religions do contain claims about being the right one. But, to be fair, this isn’t solely the domain of the religions. My atheist friends (and several former professors) claim this too for atheism—i.e., that atheism is the only right worldview. Also, the well-known atheist Richard Dawkins in his popular book, The God Delusion, makes such a claim with much fury. Moreover, many of the other so-called “new atheists” do this too.

Also, it’s not true that, say, Christianity, “contain[s] claims about being the right one, while everything else is false.” Here are some comments that might be helpful, taken from my lecture notes for my Philosophy of Religion course (the references to Clark are from page 295 of David K. Clark’s excellent essay, “Religious Pluralism,” in To Everyone an Answer, edited by Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland):

To say that a religion is deeply true is not to say that it is true in all of its doctrines, nor is it to say that no other religion can teach truths.

Clark clarifies: “[T]hose who follow a religion that’s deeply true aren’t necessarily right about everything. If Christianity is deeply true, that doesn’t mean Christians have only true beliefs.”

Clark continues to clarify: “[E]ven if…only one religion is deeply true, other religions teach many true things. Examples are easy to find. If Christianity is deeply true, Buddhists are right that suffering is universal [and that desire, especially misplaced desire, can lead to problems]. Muslims are right to believe in one God [and be strongly committed to the one God]. Hindus are right that [the] Ultimate is infinite [and not wholly understood rationally]. Jews are right that God spoke through the Hebrew prophets. So exclusivism regarding the truth question means that only one religion is right on the most central of religious questions. It doesn’t mean either that this one religion is right about everything, or that all other religions are wrong about everything.”


G.E., I again hope that my replies to your comments haven’t been disrespectful to you as a person. I truly do want to present what’s true and reasonable in such a way that doesn’t alienate those with whom I am arguing. I’m trying to learn how to do this as I write, and I’ll probably not do this well sometimes. I really think it’s important to model respectful disagreement—even on Internet blogs—for the sake of our readers, especially the younger generation. But I do get tired of the great lack of civility on the Internet.

With best regards only,
Hendrik

get_education said...

Hi Hendrik,

Sorry that my post sounded so harsh to you. I meant what I said though. I read what you said, and what everybody else said. I also found that you continually cited some person in your heading post, so, I assumed your inspiration to be someone else's perspective on the parable.

In any event, I still find this excessive. Sorry, but I do. I might also disagree with the whole point of the story. Yet, I do not find any need to go find whether the story is "self-refuting" or "arrogant." The story cannot be self-refuting nor arrogant, since the story is just a story. Now the person might be taken as self-refuting or arrogant, and that is different. But what if the person tells you that this is just a possibility, and that her/him self might be one among the blind? What if the person comes to tell you about how this story has given him/her food for thought about the possibilities and, better than that, about respect for other religions since we do not know "which one is the right one" or "whether we all hold some of the truth"? Would then the person be self-refuting and arrogant?

If I were convinced that Christianity is the truth and nothing but the truth I might reject the lesson of the parable on that basis. But I would not try to destroy the parable like some kind of logical argument. It is a story. With a purpose, but a story nonetheless. If you do not like the purpose, or do not agree with the lesson, say so. Trying to find fault in the parable itself seems, again, excessive.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

Your apology is accepted. Thanks. I admit that I may have been in a bad frame of mind in my last reply to you. I’ve recently become deeply appalled by what I’ve been seeing on various blogs (Christian and other). Couple that with some neighbors who have been keeping my family and me awake at night over the past six weeks. The result is that I’ve become a bit overly sensitive, and perhaps (sometimes) downright irrational. The good news is that our neighbors have been given notice and must leave by the end of March. Six more weeks…

Back to our argument. I think that our disagreement centers on whether a story can be self-refuting. I think a story can be self-refuting. I can imagine a writer telling us a story the moral of which is that all words have no meaning or cannot communicate ideas. That would be a self-refuting story. (And, I think, it would be a fun story to read.)

In the case of the blind men and the elephant, I think that we’re otherwise in agreement. The story could be used to illustrate the possibility of the situation with respect to our limitations, etc. No self-refutation, no arrogance. However, if, say, I use the story to support or demonstrate the (alleged) truth that nobody can know anything metaphysical but I do, then the story self-refutes (where “self” refers to me or my position). Enter, too, my intellectual arrogance.

Anyways, I will stop. I, too, am beginning to think that you are right: this is getting excessive. I apologize if I’ve been ungracious to you in any way.

Best to you,
Hendrik

get_education said...

Thanks Hendrik,

I find your blog quite refreshing given what I see in other blogs too.

No need for you to apologize. I know I also have my rough edges. Rest assured I took your words for their explanatory meaning, and did not read any "tone" out of it.

G.E.

Paul C said...

I appreciate your continued engagement with the discussion, although I find it slightly frustrating. I also find it interesting that - in the many online discussions that I've participated in - it's only ever Christian apologists that accuse me of misunderstanding their arguments. We press on regardless.

The religious pluralist (in the sense under discussion, who is using the blind men and elephant story as a justification for his/her position) is telling us that he/she knows these two theses: (1) it’s true that all religions lead to God (and it’s true that all religions are equally right and equally wrong and each religion has only a part of the whole truth) and (2) it’s true that people cannot know the first thesis because of cultural and religious (etc.) biases.

So you believe that the religious pluralist does not have two theses, but four - at least that's how many you describe here, since the three theses in point (1) are not identical and could reasonably be held separately. (Let's call them 1a, 1b and 1c in case we need to refer to them later.) However thesis 2 does not seem to be a claim made by any religious pluralists - their claim is that it's true that people cannot know the whole truth about God because of inherent limitations on human knowledge.

In fact it is difficult to see how theses 1a, 1b and 1c could be held without already holding this thesis 2, so my contention is that, in the mind of the religious pluralist, this thesis 2 comes first. That people cannot know the complete truth about God because of the limitations of human knowledge (whether perceptual, cultural, etc) seems relatively uncontroversial and is something that I think most Christians would agree with. The elephant story serves to illustrate this point, and is not self-refuting on those grounds.

Any further conclusions a religious pluralist might draw - whether 1a, 1b or 1c - can be argued with, of course, but I don't think the elephant story would be used to support them, since as a metaphor it would only support 1c. I can't gainsay your story about your brother, although I would strongly suspect that he was using the story to illustrate thesis 2, rather than any of the others. I say this on the basis of having known a number of religious pluralists, including Bahai.

I was hoping that you would offer an example of somebody making this argument in this way that I could refer to. If it is as widespread as Koukl and yourself obviously believe, I am sure there are many examples to be found on the web. Certainly I was able to find many examples of the story, but unfortunately they only fitted with the interpretation I gave above - supporting thesis 2, rather than any others.

Re: Your apology. Though this might seem harsh, your apology is not accepted. Paul, I appreciate your personal sensitivity here, but the fact remains that for me to accept your apology would be for me to agree to your misrepresentation of my views.

Please be assured that I have no personal sensitivity in these matters, since your rejection of my apology does not reflect on my character. I have not misunderstood or misrepresented your argument, since I agree that the story would be self-refuting if used in the way you describe. Rather I am challenging your basic premise that the story is ever used in that way, since the evidence I have available suggests that this would be the exception rather than the rule.

get_education said...

Sorry to be so insistent,

Paul said:

Rather I am challenging your basic premise that the story is ever used in that way, since the evidence I have available suggests that this would be the exception rather than the rule.

Which is my point mostly, that I doubt anybody uses the story as a demonstration [of whatever it was] rather than as an illustration. Also that if such a person exists (one who uses the story as a demonstration of their superior whateveritis) then it is the person who could be (not necessarily is) self-refuting, and who is (most probably) intellectually arrogant.

Anyway I do stop right here.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

Paul and G.E.,

I appreciate your tenacity. Nevertheless, I continue to disagree that the story never gets used the way in which I’ve heard it used. I’m pretty sure that I was there when I heard the story used in the way in question. Also, I’m pretty sure that I interpreted the story and its use accurately. In addition, when Gregory Koukl claims to have heard the story used in the way in question, I’m inclined to agree with him. Over the years I’ve come to respect Koukl’s critical thinking skills, so I don’t think he’s a slouch on this. But, of course, you are free to differ.

Also, your arguments haven’t persuaded me, for the reasons I’ve set out (and set out...). I believe it's reasonable to think that if the story does get used in the way in which I’ve said it gets used (as in the original column), then it’s self-refuting (where “self” refers to the person or position of the person who is setting out the story for this purpose). That is, if the point of the person who is retelling the story is that he/she knows that in fact all religions lead to God (etc.) but our limited and biased beliefs do not let us know this, then the story is self-refuting (where “self” refers to the purpose/ position of the person retelling the story). Of course, you are free to differ on this too.

Gentlemen, your input has been truly appreciated - thanks. At risk of seeming dogmatic, I’m having the last word here. (It seems to me that some of the finer philosophical points made earlier in the commentary are getting lost.) I hereby close this discussion.

Best regards,
Hendrik