Malaysian Atheist

An avowed atheist living in Malaysia.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Blind Men and The Elephant

I've often heard the story of the blind men and the elephant used to describe religion. It goes something like this:
Three blind men found an elephant. None of them had seen an elephant before so they groped about, hoping to understand and describe it. One man got hold of the trunk and says that it is a snake. Another finds the tail and concludes that it is a rope and the third man examined the leg and describes it as a tree.
The moral of this story is that each man, in his blindness is describing the same thing but in a completely different way. If we substitute the elephant with God and the blind men with religion, we may say that all religions are describing the same thing but through different perspectives. The idea is to promote religious harmony since in our 'blindness', each and every view of God is equally valid.

Of course the explanation above presupposes a God. I think a more accurate interpretation of the story is to substitute the elephant with any natural phenomena (the solar eclipse, volcanic eruption, tsunami, burning bush, etc.) instead of God. Then the blind men represent the many prophets/sages/seers out there, trying to understand and explain these phenomena. Each one comes up with a different explanation, but you can't really blame them, since their view is limited to what they can feel and also to the scope of their prior knowledge.

As each blind man returns to their respective village, they will tell their fellow villagers of the experience of coming in contact with an 'elephant' and so, different views are accepted by different villages. So, the different villages with different views of an elephant represent the different religions of the world. Note that some villages are bigger than others, just as some religions have more followers than others. Some blind men are more imaginative than others. They write books and songs about the 'elephant', they even predict when they'll see the next 'elephant'. But that doesn't change reality, because in reality, all the blind men are wrong. The elephant is neither a snake, nor a rope nor a tree.

Imagine a fourth blind man, Geordi, comes along. But unlike the first three, Geordi wears a Star Trek VISOR. The VISOR interfaces directly to the brain and allows him to see the elephant.

He thus sees that all three blind men are wrong. Geordi even offers his VISOR to each of the blind men to try out. But when the blind men saw the elephant, they were aghast. They began to question Geordi's VISOR. Is the VISOR flawed? Has it been tempered with? How come the elephant looks nothing like the elephant they've each imagined all this while?

With this new image of the elephant, though, each blind man returned to their respective village and redefined their idea of an elephant. The first man said, "Yes, it is still snake-like, as we previously thought, but this snake has a VERY big tail!" The second man said, "Yes, it is still a rope, as we previously thought, but this rope has a VERY big knot tied to one end!" The third man said, "Yes, not only is it a tree, as we previously thought, it is actually a forest of FOUR trees with snakes and ropes hanging from the foliage!"

I think my point is pretty clear. The Star Trek VISOR represents all the advancements in science and technology, that has dramatically altered our perceptions of all the 'elephants' of the world. Yet even through these lenses, some 'blind men' are able to repackage the image to one that is consistent with their earlier beliefs.

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