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Comments

Susan B.

Very well put. There is one other way in which this is a good metaphor for religion, though: most religions make some kind of claim about the dangers of getting too curious. Either you're not supposed to test God, or it's a sin to ask too many questions, or whatever. Likewise, the elephant may get annoyed at all these people poking and prodding it, climbing over its back, and pulling on its tail, and if you investigate it too much, you may get trampled or gored.

Felicia Gilljam

I think this post must be one of your best ones to date. Thanks!

Kris Shanks

Greta, this is brilliant. I think so many descriptions of the scientific method forget the communal aspect of the enterprise, and you've brought it vividly to life.

Eshu

Good work, glad you've dealt with the elephant in the room now. :) I love the way when people comment critically you provide a thorough answer in the form of a new post. I'm taking notes!

arensb
I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is.

I saw a perfect example of this. When PZ and ERV appeared on Bloggingheads.tv to discuss epigenetics, they started out by defining what epigenetics meant.

PZ was surprised to hear ERV say that it was a defense mechanism against viral infection, and ERV was surprised to hear PZ describe it as a regulatory system that guided embryonic development. But within minutes, they had explained their positions to each other and understood how ERV's tree trunk connected to PZ's tail (or tentacle).

AA

This is made of Epic and Win.

A short yet powerful story.

Abbie

This is a genius little post. You better be writing a goddamn book already.

Ebonmuse

"I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is."

Greta, you have a peculiar genius for finding the point that blows an old, worn parable wide open. This is just brilliant - I wish I had thought of it.

As far as the blind-man-and-elephant analogy for religion, it works only if you don't notice that it's sneakily assuming the very thing it's supposed to prove: that there is one, consistent being which all the men are perceiving different aspects of. How do we know that one really isn't feeling a snake, another one a brick wall, and so on? Only if they can communicate and figure out why they're perceiving these discrepancies, as you showed so well.

Shane Geiger

Religion apologists who argue that all religions are somehow compatible and related are essentially using a logical fallacy known as the fallacy of the golden mean. Theirs is yet another assertion that has no basis in observable, objective reality.

N.B.

This is brilliant in ways I never even could've imagined. I think I'm going to have to start including this sort of explanation whenever people want me to justify why I'm 99.99% certain that there is no god and why different religions can't all somehow be compatible.

the chaplain

As others have noted, this is an excellent post. It may be one of your best yet.

Richard

I think the problem in religion is that the blind men (and women) who do try to discuss it tend to be ignored or overwhelmed in the public eye by those who don't.

There are enough people who are willing to explore different bits of elephant, but for too many it would be admitting that maybe you're wrong or your picture is incomplete. That seems too much. It's a pity.

Melissa

I agree that so many people have a hard time connecting religion and science. A poll conducted by Gallup in 2000 revealed that 90% of the people in the United States believe in a spiritual dimension. Yet, most of us also believe in science. These facts support the need for a connection. Leo Kim, author of Healing the Rift, takes the reader through a metaphysical and scientific journey that explores where we came from, what we are, and the illusory nature of reality. I had to pleasure of understanding this connection after reading Leo's book. I hope you take a look at it too.

http://healingtheriftbook.com/

Paul A

I've been dipping in and out of your site - usually, as in this case, due to mentions in Skeptic's Circle and Carnival of the Godless - for months now but this post just blew me away. I was reading the argument you were developing and thinking, "Yeah, she's done it again" and then reached the killer line "Because the elephant is really there." and developed a huge grin which I'm having trouble removing.

You have some great insights and a fantastic perspective on the world in general, thanks for writing such a top-notch blog. Thanks also for cheering me up before a stressful job interview :)

Joe Andrieu

Great post. I love the insight that all the blind men needed to do was communicate in a spirit of science...

However, I would also direct you to Joseph Campbell's work on the Monomyth. While I'm not a follower of any organized religion, your assertion that religious believers are still squabbling because "there is nothing there" not only lacks data it is well challenged by Campbell's work.

Whether or not there is something there, a problem with religious zealots is that they are rarely open to discovering a new common understanding. They often lack the scientific curiosity (or will) to cross ethnic boundaries and learn something new--almost necessarily giving up something previously held true.

As Campbell makes clear, there is a critical difference between the ethnic ideas and the essential ideas of "God" (I use quotes because I think that term is lacking). The essential ideas (the elephant) actually are sustained through all major religions. The ethnic ideas (snakes, ropes, etc.) are those that allow those with the initial perception (the blind men) to communicate about it.

If you are interested in what the elephant might look like after all the blind men explore their common experiences, check out Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces".

Taggart

I want a shirt that says "The elephant is a lie." :D

An excellent post. I think I'll have to start reading your blog regularly.

Steve Caldwell

Have you heard the story of the six blind elephants trying to discover the essential nature of a human?

Six wise, blind elephants were discussing what humans were like. Failing to agree, they decided to determine what humans were like by direct experience.

The first wise, blind elephant felt the human, and declared, "Humans are flat."

The other wise, blind elephants, after similarly feeling the human, agreed.

Atramhasis

It's an old post, I know. But since there are only positive comments, I wanted to say, that this post is confusing. What is the elephant? First it's god then you jump and say it's the universe. At the end there is no elephant - is there no universe (maybe, there are such theories)? It is like you would compare apples and pears.
I think we should decide for elephant as the universe, everyone is trying to explain it, religions do it their way and science does it it's way. But it's the same elephant, we all just have to come together and find the one truth about it.

Greta Christina

Atramhasis:

In science, the elephant is the physical universe.

In religion, the elephant is God.

My entire point is that the reason that scientists can come to consensus is that their elephant -- i.e., the physical universe -- really exists. And the reason religious believers cannot come to consensus is that their elephant -- God -- does not exist.

And as I have written many, many times: What is the "way" that religion tries to explain the universe? What is the method by which religion comes to a clearer understanding of the truth? Science has a method, and scientists can tell you about it in great detail. What "way" does religion have of finding the truth, other than the extremely fallible methods of personal gut feeling and reliance on authority?

IMO, the human race is, in fact, in the very slow process of coming to the truth about God. And that truth is that God almost certainly does not exist.

Paul

Great logical post. But there is a bit of comparing apples to oranges. By your same logic, you would say that there is no such thing as beauty, because you can't measure it. Emotions also don't exist, because you can't physically feel touch or measure them. Yet anger actually exists. So does hatred. Perhaps science can only measure the physical affects of anger and hatred: genocide, child abuse, etc. But to say that only genocide and child abuse exist, but there is no such thing as anger and hatred would be faulty. And the error is that you've used tools meant to measure the physical universe (mass, volume, length, etc) to measure something that doesn't have a physical form (emotions.) This is the only post I've read of yours, but if you only believe in what you can physically measure, you will live a frustrated experience trying to figure out why you have anger and hatred and jealousy. Or you will medicate in order to cover them up. The other alternative is to conclude that there are some things that exist that aren't measurable by physical means. If that is true, would it not be worthy of study, reflection, and investigation, even if you have to use different tools to examine it? Perhaps religion is just that. If anger, hatred, jealousy, self-centeredness, arrogance, etc actually exist, we would typically call those evil, and if generosity, selflessness, humility, and courage also exist, perhaps there is a source to each.

Greta Christina

Paul: That's simply not true. Emotions are functions of the brain. We can observe and study them, and we do: there's tons of psychological and neurological research on emotions, and on how the brain produces them, and on how changes in the brain affect them.

And we understand why we have emotions: they're useful for the survival of animal species, especially (although not limited to) social species. It's hardly a mystery. I am always baffled by believers who say, "But atheism and materialism can't explain love!" when materialism and the evolution of social species explains it quite nicely.

don13

There is another fable that used to explain spirituality: a journey to a high mountain. You may approach the mountain from different directions, and finding the road to summit differs widely, and you can see others walking in the same area. It is the same mountain.
Of course the problem with the religious elephant-phantasm is still there, but with the Mri studies, I think we might see something ..

Lenoxuss

Like Atramhasis before me, I know this is an old post, but I have to respond to a couple of the comments.

Richard said:

There are enough people who are willing to explore different bits of elephant, but for too many it would be admitting that maybe you're wrong or your picture is incomplete. That seems too much. It's a pity.

and Joe Andrieu said:

Whether or not there is something there, a problem with religious zealots is that they are rarely open to discovering a new common understanding. They often lack the scientific curiosity (or will) to cross ethnic boundaries and learn something new--almost necessarily giving up something previously held true.

An implication of these similar arguments is that scientists are exceptionally humble, amiable, or curious, and hence is it much easier for them to get these sort of group-explorations going than the theologians can. I don't think this is particularly true (especially when you consider that most scientists are academics, and as such are just as frequently grand-standing rivals as they are friendly collaborators).

Science itself has the power to overcome various human biases, grudges, and over-enthusiasms. And if there is something to religion (and God isn't somehow a jerk who hates to be learned about), then a science of religion ought to work.

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