horatioalderaan (horatioalderaan) wrote,

Blind Men, Elephants and Unverifiable Truth Claims

This is a response to an essay by my friend Josh on his own personal philosophy. To save scrolling, I have broken this response down into three parts. This is the second. I’ve also placed a complete, printable version of the essay on my website.

What Josh is not saying

I do not think Josh is silly enough to say that all religions are different aspects of the same fundamental truth. Or even that truth manifests itself differently in different cultures. On the surface this sounds very humble and tolerant. It does not condemn everyone who disagrees with me. I would argue however, that this is in fact an arrogant claim pretending at humility. To say that all religions are different aspects of truth when applied to their own context is essentially to say that your understanding is superior to all the religions.

The classic metaphor for this understanding of religions is the story of the blind men and the elephant. To save time, I will quote the short, Wikipedia version:

In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes on what they felt, and learn they are in complete disagreement. The story is used to indicate that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one’s perspective [or context].

If we apply this to religion, then the argument goes that one man in an Islamic context feels the trunk, another in a Buddhist context feels the tail, yet another in a Christian context feels the leg. They are all grasping part of the truth, but none has the whole of it. If this metaphor is correct however, the only way I can know that the blind men are all touching the same thing is if I can see the whole elephant. This then, is a claim to knowledge of the truth that is superior to the blind men. I claim to have vision where they are blind.

One might reply that this is not the case at all. The claim is not that we know the men are holding an elephant, but that since they are all seeking knowledge of the same thing and come up with different answers, this suggests an elephant might be present. If we follow this argument, then this could well be the case—there might be an elephant there. But it is equally possible that there is not an elephant there. We have no way of verifying the existence of the elephant. They could well be feeling a snake, a wall, and a pillar. One could be holding an elephant while the others are not. They could have all been high on drugs and feeling each other. We have no way of knowing and essentially fall into relativism. Truth may well exist, but I have no way of knowing if it is there, so for all practical purposes, truth is dead.

So, I believe the argument for different aspects of the same truth leads us in a circle. We are back at relativism versus arrogance. Either we claim to know better than everyone else, or we claim that nobody can know anything.

Unverifiable truth claims

I do not think that Josh is so silly as to be taken in by the Blind Men and Elephant argument. I believe he is trying to be consistent in applying contextual understanding and humility in a reflexive way. He gives a ‘clear example’ in one of his comments:

Ok I am going to choose a religion. This is going to be based on some evidence. Let[‘]s make a list –

1. Accepted/Majority religion in my culture

2. Historical influence on my culture/world

3. Ethics go along with my accepted ones

Now in our context, Christianity [is] most favourable. In china, Confuncian[-]influenced Buddhism is. Etcetera.

Now I can go further, and say I will claim something is 100% correct as far as we know, if it passes those criteria above. Now the whole thing really is flawed because it relies on external things such as defining culture. But close enough.

What I believe he is saying is that given that he has grown up in a culture where Christianity is in a majority, then Christianity seems the most sensible and rational religion/world-view from his perspective. His criteria are somewhat subjective (and even somewhat selfish) but at least he is being honest about what his perspective is, and humble enough to admit that his perspective might not be the correct one. As far as he knows, it makes sense, but it is possible that he is wrong.

If all major religions are internally consistent and claim to be some kind of divine revelation, then if we are to choose one, a choice between unverifiable claims faces us. One is pretty much as good as another, so we will examine them on their merits and pick the one which makes the most sense according to some criteria. Usually this will be the one that makes the most sense in my context, and for me in a western country, this happens to be Christianity. Further, I might also go with my own personal experiences of God. If I have had spiritual experiences in a Christian context, then perhaps that is further evidence that Christianity is true. For me this might be good evidence, but I must not be so arrogant as to assume that a subjective measure like this will be convincing for other people.

Thus far Josh’s logic seems to make sense. I would argue that the assumption that all religions are based on unverifiable claims is not correct, however. I also believe that this line of argument does not make a consistent application of contextual understanding.

Tags: christianity, philosophy, post-modernism, truth
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