The Blind Men, the Elephant, and the Relativism-Absolutism Debate

Most of you have probably heard the story of the blind men and the elephant. Five blind men were brought up to different parts of an elephant and asked to describe it. One, who touched his ears, said the elephant is like a sail. The one who touched the trunk said an elephant is like a hose. The one who touched the foot said an elephant is like a tree trunk. The one who felt the tusk said an elephant is like a hard smooth stick. The one who touched the tail said--like a rope.

Now, if a relativist is telling this story, he might describe the blind men as screaming at at one another--you're wrong, an elephant is not like what you say, he's like what I say. "These blind men," says the relativist, "are like absolutists, who think that the truth is just one thing. But," says the relativist, "the truth here is obviously many things, one thing to one person, one thing to another. The elephant is perceived differently by the different blind men and they are all equally right. There is no single truth independent of perception."

The intelligent absolutist, however, says, "Not so fast. Maybe these blind men are equally right as you say, but they are not talking about the same part of the elephant. And they are certainly wrong if they believe that they have adequately described the elephant as a whole. But someone who is not blind realizes that the elephant has several parts. What's more, the blind person who slides his hands from one part of the elephant anatomy to the others would himself realize the incompleteness of his first description.

"My point," says the absolutist, "is that there are better and worse descriptions of the elephant. The description that mentions the different parts as well as how they are put together is better and closer to the truth than the partial truths with which the blind men started. There are objective facts about elephants, and the views that describe more of those objective facts are truer views. Not all views are equal."

Sophisticated relativist comeback: "Science is supposed to give us knowledge and truth about things, but in fact what was scientific knowledge in the 18th century about elephants is no longer scientific knowledge. 200 years ago scientists thought that animal species were fixed, that they had always been here and never essentially change. Nowadays, thanks to the theory of evolution, scientists believe that species come into existence, change, and perhaps disappear. The point is that scientific truth is relative to the perceptions of the scientific community, and those change from one generation to the next."

The absolutists have an even more sophisticated response to this fairly clever historical relativism. . . . But that is a more advanced topic . . .