Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Blind Men, the Elephant and the Narrator.

The next entry from my Quaker blog, from June 15, 2008:

It’s an old story, much beloved by unviersalists. Some say it’s originally Buddhist, some say it originated with the Jains of India. In any case, it entered western consciousness mainly through a poem by John Godfrey Saxe.

Five (or six, or three) blind men go to see an elephant and decide what it is. One feels the leg and proclaims the elephant a great tree. Another feels the trunk and declares it must be a great serpent. On they go: the ear is like a fan, the tusks like spears, the rail like a rope. The blind men fall into a terrible argument. The moral is clearly drawn: when people talk about the divine, they argue because they all generalize from incomplete information.

The problem with the story is that we all know what an elephant is. The storyteller isn’t blind. Someone is enlightened enough to tell us the whole truth. And that right there is the crux of a big cultural divide: some people believe there really is a storyteller like that, and some believe that all storytellers are just as blind as the blind men.

What makes us “blind” in the metaphorical language of the tale? I think we can divide them into three categories: mortality, individuality, and limited senses.

Our mortality is the great delimiter: we can only learn so much, we can only live so long. There’s a reason immortality is pretty much guaranteed to deities: any being that is immortal, we believe, would have the time to learn everything.

But that assumes truth is separate from point of view. The fact of my independent consciousness, my individuality, means that no matter how long I live, I will not be able to understand all that goes on even for one instant of time. I cannot fully and completely understand my neighbor, let alone all five billion other humans, let alone the points of view of every other being in the universe.

And even if we did see from every other person’s point of view, that point of view only hears and sees certain wavelengths, has a limited sense of smell and taste, and our brain tends to to do a constant filtering job on what sensory input receive, focusing on what we deem “important.” Even if we focus our attention on hearing and seeing more, both important and not, we then lose time to process and understand that input.

All of which leads to a cold, inhospitable sense: we will never really understand the divine. It will always be beyond our reach.

Our religious traditions say otherwise. And that, as I said, is the crux of a conflict.

Religious traditions propose that our soul, our consciousness, is separate from our body; it is immortal, and its limitations are bound up in our physicality. We can free ourselves of that physicality now or after death, and thus be reunited with a more transcendent point of view.
Religious traditions often propose prophets or siddhas or shamans who are like the storyteller. They may or may not transcend death, but they do transcend their mortal bodies to achieve a higher understanding.

And, as the old story goes, if you put enough of them together, they sound like a bunch of blind men arguing about an elephant.

I guess I don't buy it. Some people my develop (or be born with) a longer vision than others, but I can't get myself behind anyone truly developing transcendent consciousness. I think what we see is not a whole elephant, but at most part of one arm. The left elbow of God. The great visionaries may see a shoulder or a wrist, but I think our limitations as mortal, individuated beings with limited senses, bound to our bodies, pretty much mean we can't ever see the whole thing. We can't know how many arms there are, or it there's one head or ten heads or no head.

That's where I am now anyway.

Lone Star Ma commented on June 16:

I am also very universalist and I guess I don't really see it as a conflict so much. I'm happy enough with the elbow and excited about the journey to the shoulder. I think it's more about touching the elephant and trying to understand what the elephant wants of me...


Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that you're positing mortality, individuality and the senses as the main things that separate us from transcendant consciousness -- the Vedas and Upanishads (many of them, anyway) agree with you that those things do separate us from perfect communion with the All and Everything.

It's the old Buddhist joke -- what does God see in the mirror?

However, they also question the exclusive realty and necessity of those three things. What if we are both mortal and immortal? What if we are an individual and the Godhead at the same time? What if we can access Reality in ways that are not our bodily senses?

Math has its "Law of the Excluded Middle," which states that a proposition and its opposite cannot both be true. Although it's very difficult to prove mathematic propositions without resorting to the LEM, there is a (rigorous) branch of math devoted to exactly that -- exploring the implications of a world in which oppositions (ie., P and not P) may both be true, or both be false.

America is grown from oppositions, whether our adversarial legal system (check out what "adversary" is in Hebrew, by the way), the dialectic synthesis of western philosphy, the two-party system, or even the method of science -- hypothesis/controlled-experiment/proof/rejection. It's normal that we think in exclusive oppositions -- it is the world we live in.

A short-lived religious group in the 1960's-70's called The Process had a theology which embraced both Christ and Satan, recognizing that both Division/Separation and Love/Union could never actually be separated. Vedic thought also posits the Brahma/Shiva/Vishnu triad, understanding Sustanance, Destruction and Creation as integral begins/processes.

I mention all this because it's a logic that can include theist and universalist structures usefully, embracing both conflict and communion. Division? Yes. Union? Yes.

``For I am divided for love's sake, for the chance of union.''

natcase said...

You make a subtle shift between where I was heading: I was talking about how we have limits in understanding, and you talk about separation from transcendent consciousness. They sound alike, but are not quite the same.

My argument is simply that human consciousness cannot be omniscient, omnipresent, or omnitemporal. We can't pay attention to many things the way can pay attention to one thing. An omniscient consciousness would not be human (which is one of my problems with the monotheistic model of deity: it tries to have it both ways, with a personal divine who is also omniscient).

And no, I don't believe in a soul beyond the body. I just don't, and i freely admit that does color my thinking. Probably also disqualifies me from seeking national office.

I don't object to contradictions, and in theory I embrace them, but confronting them to me reveals one of our essential limitations: as persons with point of view me must see ourselves as on one side or another; when we agree with both A and not-A simultaneously, we are confronted with a way of thinking that is not inherently human. I note the group you mentioned was short-lived. We can recognize contradictions as inherent in the universe, but homo sapiens does not live happily with them.

Anonymous said...

This thread is settling out a bit as I've thought about it. All of these things that we've been talking about -- lines gridding the earth, words like theistic and universalist, logical propositions P and not P -- they are divisions of human origination. Or should we say, distinctions of human origination?

We've agreed that these divisions are useful, in being able to navigate, define one's beliefs, or prove a lot of important math. And we agree on their origin, although Nat uses the word "neutral" to describe them, and I prefer "arbitrary" in writing about these tools of definition/division.

We also agree that there is "slippage" whenever we apply our focus to the boundary we've posited -- our real experience is lumpier, more blurred than our lines, words or logical systems acknowledge.

The reason we're having this dicussion is because we care, and are invested in both ends of this polarity; Division/Unity. Division defines, locates, maps, territorializes, whether we use lines, numbers or words. Unity is the certainty that our definitions break down, in reality. If either Nat or I really thought one was right, we wouldn't still be typing.

But I began thinking about this contradiction, and the innumerable contradictions that spring from any act of division that I can think of -- and began experimenting with using the word "tension" instead of contradiction. "Tension" evokes discomfort, and the possiblity of damage, but also strength, force, and even gravitation/repulsion. "Contradiction" implies the necessity of an either/or choice.

So if the two pole of our "contradiction" merely create tension (instead of the impulse to deny one or the other, or to fold our hands primly and say "to each her own") -- tension like the graviational force of two bodies in space -- what is the dance of those two bodies that would be impossible without that tension?

natcase said...


And as you as an architect know, tension is stabilized force. It's like we establish systems to ground brute force, to make it less dangerous and more productive: to take lightning and use it to make internet blogs possible.

In the universalist/specifist divide religiously, I've had in mind a "two-fisted" solution: we are all both qualities, it's a question of how we hold each. Your evocation of that holding not just as holding but as dancing is a good one. Thanks.