Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Extending the Parable of the Blind Men and Elephant

Originally posted on August 10, 2012

In a recent post I mentioned the recent probable confirmation of the Higgs boson, which is only a condensation (?) of the “Higgs field”—which is still very mysterious indeed. Indeed, there are many mysteries at the edge of what our most expensive and complex machines can access: Also there are the various models of subatomic particles and forces, the concept of other universes, “branes” how they “at times” contact and this may be an explanation for the “big bang”; what is inflation; dark matter; dark energy; and various other mysteries of time, space, quantum physics, etc. As an association to how knowledge can expand and branch outwards, David Bodanis’ book on electricity reveals how early theories were forced to expand with experiments, into magnetism, motors, radio, radar, chip technology, etc. I don’t doubt that each of the aforementioned mysteries will lead to more insights that lead to a “tree” of many more mysteries.

I’m reminded of Plato’s “Parable of the Cave,” and in this scene, someone escapes from her chains and instead of leaving the cave, she checks the wall. She examines the patterns. She says, “Hey, these are just shadows.” The others answer back, “What are shadows?”

Another analogy is the the proverbial and many-cultural story of the blind men and the elephant. I’d add whole chapters to the story. Chapter 1, they argue over whose perception is “right” and how the others are all wrong. That’s the standard story and you can google the poem and picture. But let’s then extend the story in our imagination!

In Chapter 2, a wise leader is able to convince them that they’re all right, but the apparent differences may be explained by considering that they are all apprehend different parts of the same whatever. The name “elephant” is given to whatever is the whole of what they’re apprehending. Don’t think it’s easy for these blind men to understand much less believe that all their different perceptions are indeed about the same being, but with the help of higher mathematics or what-all, let’s say they get there.

Chapter 3 gets more interesting. Two of the blind men—let’s call them A & B, or Ahmed and Burqa—both claim that the elephant is like a wall. But on Ahmed’s side, the Fan (ear) is to the left, whereas it’s on Burqa’s right. Also, they notice that the behind with the tail is at an angle to the side walls.  (I’m drawing an analogy to the mysteries of the discrepancies in theories about sub-atomic physics, about how both Einstein’s and Niels Bohr might have been right but in different ways. And the issues are by no means settled!)

Very gradually it dawns on them that the elephant has not only height and length and features, but also something hard to detect unless one “visualizes” it—“breadth”??—which is quite difficult—but not impossible—for these blind guys to conceptualize. (Thus, also in ordinary 3-D reality, it is very difficult to appreciate theories about higher-dimensional space-time that transcend ordinary sense perceptions.)

In Chapter 4, further struggles ensue regarding the concept of breadth or depth. It this “elephant” (as it is called—remember, it’s a name for that which is by no means clear to the proverbial blind men)—if “it” were solid, someone figures out that solid means weight and the elephant if pure wall would be heavier than what it turned out to be. The figures don’t match: Could it be possible that the elephant was not solid, and if so, what was “inside”?  The whole concept that there could be an “inside” truly boggled the minds of the fellows trying to figure this out. (Please forgive my use of all males—the problem of women and gender in general only obscures this. Calling them “sentient beings who are not fully evolved in their consciousness” might be a little more precise, but frankly wordy and near obscure.)

Chapter 5 takes the story in new directions, as do many sciences and various theologies. In these variations, the “elephant’s” movement and smells made apparent that it was a “living animal” and as such might be imagined to have reproduced using the processes of mating, sex. Building on this far-reaching (for them) hypothesis, an expedition was set up with very expensive government grant monies to find another elephant. (I’m alluding to the billion-dollar enterprise at the CERN high energy particle collider in Switzerland.) Since they’re blind and the whole thing was weird, they finally after much effort did get another one—but it then took a lot of time and  money and work. They discovered another “elephant,” set it up, and much to their dismay, finally figured out they had the “wrong” sexes. Who knew there were two sexes?

This leads to Chapter 6 in which the blind men try and finally learn to tell the difference between male and female sexes in elephants, which leads to Chapter 7, the search for a female elephant. Blind men checking wild elephants in Africa to find out if they are ladies or gentlemen is fraught with danger and adventure, so that’s quite an epic in itself.

In Chapter 8 they finally, finally isolate and manage to bring “back” a lady elephant and then they wait. And wait. And then they think something happens. They think it’s mating, but it’s very unclear. A lot of blind men got trampled in tying to find out what happened.

Finally, in Chapter 9, there was a third elephant that showed up, smaller than the other two. They think it might be a baby elephant. But they don’t know what the heck is really going on. They’re trying, though, bless their hearts. I mean, if you’re a committee of eight or even eighty blind men, it gets real difficult using all the tools you can to figure out what’s happening here.

In Chapter 10 there’s a major “oops.” These kind of things happening. In trying to find out what’s inside the elephant, the procedure kills the elephant. Just finding out the difference between a live and dead elephant is a whole chapter here.

Chapter 11: Pressing on, the idea that there may be more structures “inside” the elephant is hypothesized and the keep looking and finding. This autopsy work is difficult for blind guys— let’s just notice that! (It is really difficult for humans with vision, too, the whole field of anatomy and parts of pathology—and that doesn’t even get into what it took to find out the “meaning” of all those innards!) So what this is opening up to is that the elephant has a structural make-up, with each element posing yet another set of challenges! (To link this parable to our efforts to find out what’s going on, consider our dancing mentally around the whole idea of a “black hole,” which, if you really think about it, is inconceivable.)

In Chapter 12, someone keeps looking closer and closer—which is hard if you’re blind, and this fine structure can’t easily be felt. But say they invent a touch-based microscope that allows them to “read” microscopic anatomy as they’d “read” Braille. But there are years of decoding, generations, for people to figure out how this set of bumps differs from that set. So this is the frontier of elephant micro-anatomy, which might be a plausible analogy to our contemporary speculative cosmo-physics of “string theory.

Chapter 13 looks back and considers all the many facets of  elephant-hood—or is it elephant-osity or -ology or -ness? Different sects spring up just around that wording. The different external parts, the discovery of depth, of “inside,” of organs, of sex, who knows what else? The idea that there may be far more yet to learn is almost too much to cope with. Some metaphorically circle the wagons, proclaim themselves authorities, and slip into believing that what they know about elephants now is sufficient. Alas.

Chapter 14. A few blind guys have noticed that elephants are “animals”—and in this sense they are a bit like other types of “animals,” like gorillas; this in itself is mind-stretching, but it is undeniable that there are discerned similarities. Skin, eating, defecating. Hm. So theory builds, abstractions are constructed, and someone proposes that since in some ways gorillas are like monkeys and these are in a few ways like humans, well, that starts up a whole theological struggle about human exceptionalism. That could fill a chapter.

Meanwhile, the discovery process continues. None of this was in the beginning story, but the anatomy and physiology and sexual behavior is by no means the end of the story. In the next several chapters, the blind men begin to be aware that elephants have a whole social network—there are lots of elephants and more than mere numbers, there’s a complex and mysterious social network there.

Here we find we’re hampered even as seeing beings telling about blind beings, because we ourselves haven’t learned very much about elephant sub-sonic communications and all.

Other chapters look at ecology, what they eat, how those plants grow, where they bathe, that they bathe, why they bathe, what’s all that about. Each frontier is full of hundreds of hard-earned discoveries. We have a whole field of elephant-ology that overlaps with general animal comparative anatomy, physiology, zoology, and now extending into behavior and consciousness! What??!!  Yes! How do parent elephants take care of their babies, and their sick and dying? What does it mean for an elephant to be in a zoo or a circus, or trained to help humans with their tasks of logging and such. Do they have feelings and (gulp) rights? Do we have any moral obligations to them?

Well, that’s just elephants. Which are only 1 gazillionth of everything. So then we shift our focus again to everything and our really surprisingly feeble attempts to know about the most fundamental principles of everything. Are we not like blind men with the elephant?

As for blindness itself, is it not a metaphor for different types of consciousness and how difficult it is for one type or level to know about another type or level? Is a puzzlement! So, returning to a contemplation of the Higgs Field, and Dark Matter, etc. What if the Great  Mysteries are only the “tip of the iceberg,” the noticing that, back to the allusion to Plato’s parable of the cave and my sub-plot that someone notices that there are “shadows on the wall  of the cave,”—all this speaks to realities that people haven’t even considered.

Does this mean that what we call reality is only a shadow-play that is hardly a tiny fraction of what is the greater reality? Yes, that’s what I mean. Well, then, what else could it all be? Ah, that’s the problem. Even if I knew, there might be layers of paradigm-shifting for me or you to be able to understand.

And that whole iceberg is just the tip of the iceberg about what weather, sea, ice, and earth are about—and this is just the tip of the iceberg of a seemingly never-ending cascade of mysteries. At this point, your mind should be thoroughly stretched. I can only reassure you that mine is also, and alas, I pretend to hold no final answers.

Oh, yes, one more speculation: Human minds may not be able to conceive of much more than the tip of the iceberg of what it’s all about. We may need to have a planet-sized super-computer (shades of Douglas’ Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Universe trilogy) to get to the answer tothe question of the ultimate meaning of life, the universe, and everything: 42!   (Hahahaha).

2 Responses to “Extending the Parable of the Blind Men and Elephant”

  • […] objective reality that we are trying to determine, however we may be analogous to the proverbial blind men and the elephant. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to shift perspective slightly and realize that part of the glory […]

  • victor ochoa says:

    It was a he not a she in the parable. But that is another matter.

    There is indeed some validity to the idea that the human mind is just one example of an atom contemplating itself. For which we may already know the limits, or at least have an inkling of the limit through Heisenberg. I believe that it is not the ability to see or access uncountable facets of a problem, or answers to a large number of problems,(a super giant computer would be useless) rather it is the ability to contemplate different aspects of one problem – at the same time! This might be akin to knowing position and velocity at the same time.

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