Some Problems with the Elephant and the Blind Men Example

dfvdfvdfThere once were six blind men attempting to describe an elephant. The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall.” The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. “How round! An elephant is like a snake.” The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear.” The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. “How tall! An elephant is like a tree.” The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. “How wide! An elephant is like a fan.” The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. “How thin! An elephant is like a rope.”

This example is used many times to discuss the relationship between truth and religion. The diversity of religious views is like the diversity of views that might be held by blindfolded people feeling different parts of an elephant. Each of the views held by the blindfolded people is partly right and only partly right. So, each of the views held by practitioners of world religions is partly right and only partly right.

Is this the case? I think not. The “blind men elephant” example has some serious issues.

rtgrtg1- This view runs into logical contradictions. All the religions can be wrong. But, because of the varied truth claims, they cannot all be right. What about the exclusive claims of each religion? Take for instance the three major, monotheistic religions  and their view of Jesus. In Islam, Jesus is merely a prophet. In Judaism, Jesus is a false prophet. In Christianity, Jesus is a prophet who is actually God incarnate. They cannot all possibly be true. Some might persist and say that they’re true for that person but not for another. Does this not make truth relative? No one thinks 2+2=4 is only true for them.

2-The example never really adds anything to the discussion about the relationship between religion and truth. Which part does each religion get right? What parts of the varied worldviews are true and which ones are false? The genius is in the details and there are none in the above example.

3-Are all views included? What about Satanism? Are only the monotheistic religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism included? What about agnosticism and atheism? What about eastern religions?

4-In what ways are the blind folks and religions similar? An analogy is only strong if there are sufficient relevant similarities and a paucity of relevant dissimilarities. It would seem to me that they are quite dissimilar. Are people blind? Is religion a shot in the dark? How does the person giving the analogy have his eyes opened? What about the Christian doctrine of revelation? Are all people essentially “searching” for God? How is God like an elephant? Do the people have enough evidence to say anything meaningful concerning the nature of God? What counts as a religion? Is a religion a living organism like the blind man?

dgfg5-The analogy is fraught with assumptions. First, the example assumes that all are equally blind. All religions are on equal footing despite the veracity of the claims made by each one. But, this is most certainly false. A religion built upon the facts of history that is logically coherent as well as existentially viable is in another ontological category than one without those features. Second, the example is one-sided. There is one person who isn’t blind. The tolerant pluralist has had his eyes opened. In the end, the pluralist is arrogant and his pluralism reduces itself to a form of exclusivism. Third, the example assumes that God has not revealed himself. For orthodox Christianity, Jesus is the final revelation of God and the sole mediator of salvation to his people. Christianity teaches that God can be known definitively and personally in Jesus Christ: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18); “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus Christ is the exact and final revelation of who God is. Hebrews. 1:1-3 says “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.(Heb. 1:1-3)” Colossians 1 says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).” The Christian rejoinder that the elephant is not silent is very important.

6-Does the analogy presuppose the reality that it is arguing for? “All religions tell a part of the truth but not the whole truth as evidence by the fact that all religions say something about the truth but none are holistically true. They’re describing truth from their perspective.”  It would seem that this example is begging the question. Begging the question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim.


4 responses to “Some Problems with the Elephant and the Blind Men Example

  1. I agree that there are problems with the “blind men and the elephant” myth. So I’m not defending the story. But, I think your critiques of it only scratch the surface, so I’m pushing back to drive the analysis deeper:

    1: The analogy claims that each religion is “partly” right, as you stated. So the critique that religions contradict one another at best elicits a shrug from the advocate of this brand of pluralism. Of course they contradict one another, but that just reinforces the idea that they are “partly” correct. These contradictions are only problematic for the pluralist if they are attempting to claim that all of the religions in question are totally correct in the entirety of their truth claims (which they, usually, are not).

    2-5: The analogy intends to say something about the way in which religious systems in general relate to truth. It doesn’t intend to say anything specific about what the content of religious belief should be (what parts of what systems are correct and what parts are not, etc). Trying to squeeze the analogy or critique it for not providing such details misses the point that is being made. Better to engage it head-on than throw up a red herring.

    2-4: The analogy gets traction because there are, in fact, a lot of ways in which many of the world’s religions espouse very similar views. Certainly you are correct in saying that the details of all the worlds religions are very different, and that is what makes them unique and distinct from one another. But those differences don’t change that fact that, across almost all global cultures and languages, certain major, overarching commonalities in “religious” or “spiritual” beliefs exist. This is what introduces the problem of “pluralism” in the first place. One approach to the issue might be to say this (there are plenty of other ways of conceptualizing it, though, so don’t fixate on this one): it becomes very easy, given these commonalities, to imagine a “common-origin” of these religious beliefs which evolved into various systems over the course of human history. But if that’s the case, then how do we know who’s got it right? How do we know which tradition holds the truth? Its this kind of epistemic question that gives rise to the “challenge of pluralism.” The elephant myth provides one way of answering this challenge: a little bit of the common truth exists in all the religions but none have the whole picture down. Appealing to the different details of the various world religions to refute this answer doesn’t actually solve the problem, it ducks it. You need, in other words, an answer that both acknowledges and deals with the commonalities of the world religions and demonstrates why those commonalities don’t force us to accept the elephant myth’s vision of pluralism.

    5: You hint at what in my mind is the biggest problem for the elephant myth when you talk about the un-blindfolded pluralist watching the scene unfold: that it effectively suggests we stop seeking the truth, that we acknowledge our common perspectival limitations and give up where we are. The suggestion that we use historical and existential evidences as a way of comparing religious truth claims are both, I think, good suggestions for how to not give in to the temptation to stop seeking the truth. But I think appealing to the Christian notion of revelation runs the risk of begging the question for Christianity, so I would be cautious about using that argument as an apologetic strategy.

    6: An analogy can’t really beg the question because it’s not so much an argument in and of itself as an illustration of an argument that presumably has already been made. Its a visual aide, not a syllogism. So I’m not sure this critique really applies.

    • Thank you for the dialogue Alex. I’ll offer some thoughts.

      1. I think noting the differences between the religions and how they contradict at very important, fundamental junctures is an appropriate response (albeit not the only response) to the elephant analogy. It is important because the religions are not somewhat all similar but disagree in areas concerning the nature of reality, the nature of God, is man sinful or divine, God’s revelation of himself, how or what salvation is, etc. The reason why I mentioned the issue of details is because the analogy offers none. In what fashion do all religions get truth partly right? No religion that I know of offers only partial insight needing elaboration from other opposing religions. They all seek to reveal ultimate and universal truths. Maybe the pluralist is a minimalist and says the partial truth that all religions get right is that there is a God. But, even then there comes in the issue of certain religions. Hinduism is polytheistic and certain forms of Buddhism are actually atheistic. Furthermore, some of the eastern religions hold that God is wholly impersonal whereas Judaism and Christianity disagree. There are some tangible issues and differences between the great religions that cannot merely be stretched out by saying “well, they all get some right.”

      2-5. You might be right that it is a red herring. But, the question of what counts as a religion may also be pertinent. Also, I don’t think it is unreasonable to point out how the person offering the analogy knows that all the religions are touching the same elephant which represents the reality of all religions. That’s a mere assumption. How does one know that?

      2-4. I like the idea that there was originally one “common-origin” of all religions and the manifold religions are evolutions of that one origin. I think that in fact is what the Bible teaches. The standard orthodoxy in modern anthropology is that humans began a process of worshipping animals, then maybe themselves on to the forces of nature, to many gods, and then to one God to deal with the fear and daily stress of life. The biblical account says otherwise. We started worshipping the One true God and then because of sin denigrated down into false worship including the worship of idols and have continued on to this day. Dr. Witherington recently discussed the ramifications of the findings at the Gobekli Tepe Temple with us at our apologetics conference ( and It would seem that some of the earliest worship we know includes priests, sacrifices and a worship of a deity. Witherington writes “The importance of this find for Biblical thinking is this— the Bible says that from the outset, human beings were created in God’s image. Human beings were religious creatures from Day One. Archaeologists and sociologists have long dismissed this theory saying organized religion comes much later in the game than the beginning of civilization and city building. As Ian Holder director of Stanford’s prestigous archaeology program says— this is a game changer. Indeed, it changes everything experts in the Neolithic era have been thinking. Schmidt is saying that religion is the cause of civilization, not the result of it. Towns were built to be near the Temple complex. Agriculture was undertaken to feed those living there and supply the temple complex, and so on. The first instincts of humans were to put religion first. Maybe there is more to that Genesis story than some have been willing to think or admit. Maybe human beings are inherently homo religiosis.” (From ). All this I think has relevance as we discuss pluralism and how it interacts and relates with Christianity.

      For the Christian, Jesus and the metanarrative of Scripture are calling the erring world of religions back to the knowledge of the One, true God. The earliest Christians saw their message in the light. I think N.T. Wright in his book What Saint Paul Really Said gets it right. In the chapter “Good News for the Pagans” the scholar talks about Paul’s vocation and his confrontation with the pagan world. I think the term “pagan” can be replaced with “pluralist.” He says “The direction of Paul’s message was confrontation with paganism; he had good news for them, but it was good news that undermined their worldview and replaced it with an essentially Jewish one, reworked around Jesus…Paul’s confrontation with paganism was of course sharp. He did indeed believe, and say, that certain beliefs were untrue, that certain practices were dehumanizing and simply wrong, and that certain styles of community life where not how the Creator God had intended people to function…good news for the pagan [was not] they were more or less right, but the sort of good news that, though they were at present going about things in a totally wrong way, the God who made them loved them and longed to remake them.” Dr. Wright areas where Paul’s message challenged the pagan world: 1) Paul offered the reality of the true God, and the creation as his handiwork. 2), Paul offered a clear challenge at the level of cult. 3), Paul offered a clear challenge to paganism at the level of power, particularly of empire. 4), Paul set out a way of being human which undercut the ways of being human on offer within paganism. 5), Paul was telling the true story of the world in opposition to pagan mythology . 6), Paul offered an implicit challenge to the major pagan philosophies of the Roman world (Said another way “God is the creator of the whole world and, therefore, is Lord of it (Col. 1:15-20). God confronts false gods: Caesar is not lord, Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2). God provides the true way of being human (Paul’s “ethical” teaching). God confronts pagan mythology with a story that the whole cosmos is going somewhere. The new age has begun. Evil and death will be defeated. God provides true wisdom over and against pagan philosophies).

      I’m fine with their only being “one bridge” as long as the bridge goes far enough. Christianity offers not another means for man to find God but the definitive solution to the quest of the seeker. God has “come down” to find man in his ruined garden. On the question of “how do you know which religion gets it right?” I think I would seek to ascertain what each religion or worldview teaches and see if it is the way things actually are. Other questions would also be of value. Is it coherent? Is it consistent? Does it correlate with what I see and experience in my normal life/ does it correspond to what is real? Is it comprehensive? Can I commit to it? Etc. Ultimately, what each religion and worldview does with what happened so many years ago in Palestine is of utmost importance to me and every other Christian.

      2-6 I see. I think because I’ve always heard the analogy in the context of discussions with people who are committed to the idea that all religions get it partly right, that it is intricately tied to an argument. You’re probably right  But, if I cannot appeal to the notion that Christianity has at its center the idea that Jesus is the revelation of God and the true path of life because its begging the question, shouldn’t that apply to the person making this analogy (I’m being facetious here btw)? My point with the Christian notion of revelation is that the “elephant” is not silent. We are not left to ourselves simply to figure it all out. We believe God is a speaking God who has refused to hide his will, existence, and attributes to his creation.

      • Only two quibbles with what you say here:

        First, a point of technicality. I’m not an expert in Hinduism, but from what I understand, it is no more polytheistic than Christianity is. Hinduism believes in one God manifested in many, many different persons (so a similar kind of logic to the trinity multiplied out by thousands). It might be said to be a kind of “pantheism,” with this God being manifested in every living thing, but I’m not sure that’s a perfect description either.

        Second, careful with how you interpret the archaeological evidence. I think its very interesting and that there’s something to the idea that religion might be the focal point of ancient cities and civilizations. But, the religion that we are talking about in these ancient civilizations is almost always a polytheistic mythology coupled with fairly primitive temple cults. That’s a long cry away from the “common origin” described in Genesis. So you might not want to lean too heavily on that evidence.

        One final note, of little to no importance except that it made me smile- I love that you wrote this sentence: “I think N.T. Wright in his book What Saint Paul Really Said gets it right.” 😉

  2. I have a quibble with your quibble. I’ll call this quibble a quabble to prevent confusion. From my reading, there are supposedly six fields of thoughts within Hinduism. One strand may be the pantheistic form. But, it is debated even amongst Hindus about whether or not they are polytheists, monotheists, or pantheists ( I’m not very comfortable apply the Trinity to the Brahman at all for various reasons concerning their natures. But, that’s neither here nor there I suppose.

    I agree with you in theory concerning the archeological data and its limitations. I’d recommend listening to the interview from Dr. Witherington though listed in one of the websites above. Archeological findings and data can never prove the Bible is true. However, they can be used as evidences that certain practices, rituals and people existed during certain time periods. Many archeological findings have been quite helpful for biblical studies. Some examples would be the Tel Dan Stele and the Mesha Stele which mention the “house of David.” It was asserted in the past that maybe King David did not actually exist because the only evidence we have is the biblical account. But, then the inscriptions were found. Now those obviously don’t prove the biblical account is true. But, they at least suggest that there was someone of importance named David in Israel.

    I couldn’t resist. hehe

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