Blind men and elephants

1993, revised March 2005

What is the point of the story about the blind men and the elephant?

It has been used to justify a kind of know-nothingism. Each man's conclusion about the nature of an elephant may be seen, by this interpretation, as either equally valid or equally irrelevant, depending on the perspective from which it is evaluated. One is the perspective of any sighted person � we�ll call him an everyman � who knows what an elephant really looks like. The other is that of a hypothetical naive researcher who knows nothing whatever about elephants.

The everyman is reminded that, given their disability, the blind men drew the best conclusions they could from the information they could get. Furthermore, each man's image of the elephant was, for him, just as real as the other men's images, and the everyman is told that any criticism of these images is unwarranted. Finally, the everyman's image, based on data inaccessible to the blind men, is by this interpretation irrelevant to them, being as it is outside their experience of reality.

The naive researcher, meanwhile, is reminded that because he has no basis for considering one man's report more valid than the others', then the real nature of an elephant must remain a mystery. Unless he can arrange to see an elephant himself, he can learn nothing useful from the blind men's reports.

However, both the everyman and the researcher could take note of a datum common to all four reports, though not explicitly stated in any of them. The datum is that each man stopped his investigation as soon as he had gotten his one bit of information.

Any one of the blind men could have walked all the way around the elephant, feeling the whole animal, and thereby discovered that his initial conclusion was faulty. If any of them had done that, his report of what an elephant is like might have coincided well with the animal's true appearance. A reasonable everyman would therefore be justified in criticizing the blind men for being too quick to draw their conclusions.

Now, what about the naive researcher? Is there truly no way to make any sense of these four reports?

Well, here is one way, as he might present it in a proposal for a grant to continue the research.

None of the four field investigators had time to gather any but minimal data, and these data are so inconsistent as to allow few inferences. Some, however, can be drawn.

The possibility has not yet been ruled out that the elephant is an imaginary creature existing only in the folklore of the area's inhabitants. However, while the inhabitants could have staged a ruse for the investigators, evidence for such a conspiracy is totally lacking at this point.

Assuming, then, that the elephant is a real phenomenon, we can consider two possibilities.

One is that, while the inhabitants insist that it is a single creature, the word in fact refers to some kind of group entity. However, while many such collectives are known in nature, there is no previously discovered instance of such highly coordinated behavior among four such dissimilar species.

The likeliest possibility, then, is that the elephant, whatever it is, is extremely large. Judging from the investigators' relative positions at the time they obtained their data, the creature must exceed 4 meters in at least one dimension. While no extant land animal is known to attain that size, certain reptile fossils show that such proportions are possible.

The single-creature hypothesis could easily be confirmed by a sighted investigator, were one available. The alternative is to arrange for the unsighted team to conduct a more thorough investigation. It will likely be discovered that the wall-like structure is the elephant's body, and the treelike object one of its legs. The 'rope' and 'serpent' are surely appendages of some sort, one of them presumably its tail.

Until additional data are obtained, any conclusions are obviously premature and must be regarded as highly tentative. That very consideration, however, suggests the unwiseness of the proposed discontinuance of this project.

It is not true, as the project's opponents suggest, that we have learned nothing yet. Unless we entertain the ruse hypothesis, we have confirmed that at least one elephant probably does exist.

We also may infer, unless subsequent discoveries force an alternative, that it is a very large animal, hairless but otherwise mammalian, and with at least one appendage of unknown function on or near its head."

Site home

Philosophy index