I recently have had discussions with several university students who are struggling with notions of truth because they are concerned with issues about perception – that because we have a limited perception about the world, we cannot know the truth – especially truth about things like God. To argue their case, they use one of two analogies: 1) the parable of the blind men and the elephant, and 2) the cylinder problem.
In the elephant parable, a prince has presented six blind men with an elephant, but the blind men are only allowed to touch a certain part of the elephant, and are then asked to determine what the object is. The one who touches the trunk thinks it is a snake. Another touching the tusk thinks it is a sword. The one touching the leg believes it is a tree. The one touching the tail thinks it is a rope. The one touching the elephant’s side thinks it is a wall. The one who touches the ear believes it is a fan. Ostensibly, none of the blind men is able to perceive what is really there: an elephant.
In the cylinder problem, the truth about a cylinder can be obscured based on the direction from which you look at it. From a certain angle, it looks like a rectangle, yet from another angle it looks like a circle. Both perspectives fail to allow the person to perceive the object for what it truly is.
While at first blush these situations seem very clever in making a point, they fail to support these students’ conclusion because they perpetrate a logical fallacy known as arguing from a false analogy. That is, the analogy is too dissimilar to be effective.
The blind man who knew enough to describe the trunk as a snake would know it was not a snake. The same thing could be said for the other five blind men. Furthermore, these blind men would have had access to more senses than simply their sense of touch. Using his hearing, smell, and proprioception, the man touching the tail would know he was holding onto more than just a rope. The story creates a situation which bears no resemblance to reality, and is therefore a false analogy.
The same fault exists with a person’s supposed false perception of a cylinder. If you look at a cylinder in such a way that you cannot see the round ends, you still would know you are looking at a cylinder because the shading on the surface would tell you it is not flat – it is a rounded surface. If you look at a cylinder in such a way that you can only see the round end, our human experience would still not arrive at the conclusion it was only a circle. We innately know we live in a three-dimensional world, so, as we look at things, our eyes and our head are constantly moving in order to gather sufficient information which allows us to perceive what we know to be the dimensionality of an object. By the way, the blind men would not be fooled at all by the cylinder.
These are false analogies because they fail to account for the nature of human perception. We generally do not perceive things from any singular perspective. We seldom make inferences from a single data point. I agree with these students that we are limited in our ability to perceive the full truth about everything. Even considering multiple perspectives, though, some of these students remain troubled because we do not have a complete perspective.
In this case, these students have stumbled into the logical fallacy known as the false dilemma. They have constructed a false dichotomy: if you can’t know everything about something, then you cannot know anything. We do not require knowledge which is tantamount to omniscience in order to arrive at a decision or determine an appropriate action. We only need sufficient knowledge.
From a theistic perspective, when it comes to knowledge about God, people recognize that we are not left to our own devices to discover the truth about the Divine. Acquiring knowledge in this case arrives by two avenues – it is not just what we investigate and perceive, it is also what has been revealed and communicated.
God, as the maximally perfect being, knows precisely what we need in order to have sufficient knowledge of Him. In my finite nature, am incapable of fully perceiving everything about an infinite God. However, He is able to give me everything I need to know about him in order to establish a relationship with him which was broken because of my sin, to have an abundant life that can only be realized through that relationship, and to have that relationship extend into eternity.
The apostle Paul was clearly thinking about the limits of our perceptions when he wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly”. But he also understood the sufficiency of God’s revelation to us when he wrote, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Paul indicates that when people do not acknowledge God – that they deny they can sufficiently perceive his existence – they are suppressing the truth.
With this understanding about how we obtain truth, I think the analogy of the blind men and the elephant is deserving of some revision. The prince is not blind – he has the ultimate perspective. Rather than limiting them to touching only one part, he is able to direct the attention of the blind men and provide them with adequate sensory inputs which would lead all of them to a correct perception of the object. They would also be able to come to this conclusion without excessive amounts of information – like going inside the elephant.
As for these university students, I applaud their search for truth – something people have wrestled with for millennia. Some choose to be apathetic about these matters, but I hope and pray these students will soon discover that absolute truth does exist and that it can be known. These are the necessary first steps which allow us to answer life’s most important questions.
 1 Corinthians 13:12
 Romans 1:19-20
2 thoughts on “Truth, Perspective and Elephants”
Well said, Carl!
I greatly appreciate your blogs! And I’m glad to see a glimpse of your interaction with your students.
Gratefully serving the transcendent and immanent God, Don
Thanks, Carl, for thinking and writing and addressing college students!