Monday, May 24, 2010

Anekantavada

Have you heard the story of the blind men and an elephant?
In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men 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 blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a tree; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a snake; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a spear. Each blind man has interesting and useful things to say, but what seems an absolute truth is relative due to where each blind man stands.  The story is used to indicate that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one's perspective.  
I used to say that the elephant was like a tree and a rope, then I only thought it was only like a tree and maybe sometimes like a snake, but now I think it is like all of them. Sometimes I even feel like I am "one with the elephant."  The interesting thing about elephants is that their characteristics are transient, and they are always moving around, so what they are like at one moment can be completely different at the next.  That's nature, but it can be accepted and even transcended when one takes the perspective of all perspectives, and realizes, as expressed by Wang Yang-ming, that "all things form one body".  The same sentiment is contained in the Western Inscription.  I take this to mean not only all things, as in material things, but also the contents of the mind.  In this union with everything, there is peace.  There's only one problem, I can't help feeling a little delusional writing "I am everything and nothing" in a blog entry. 

So the story of the blind men and an elephant is a very useful one, even if by itself unconvincing.  And elephants are just cool!  They are big, smart, and have one of the most awesome appendages in the animal kingdom - a trunk.  A trunk is so useful.  How many herbivorous animals without hands can paint on a canvas with a brush? 

9 comments:

aratina cage said...

They are big, smart, and have one of the most awesome appendages in the animal kingdom - a trunk. A trunk is so useful.

Oh yes (link to YouTube video).


That's nature, but it can be accepted and even transcended when one takes the perspective of all perspectives, and realizes, as expressed by Wang Yang-ming, that "all things form one body".

I just watched a video (linked to at this comment) in which the physicist Sidney Coleman utilized a similar realization to clarify some difficult concepts. The gist was that people were using classical physics to relate to quantum physics, which subsumes classical physics, forgetting that even we are quantum physical systems.

aratina cage said...

Another thing that I remembered I wanted to comment on about the blind men and the elephant, it seems to sneak in a limit that does not exist in reality. You see, they are only allowed to feel one part of the elephant.

If I were to update the tale, I would have each blind person trade places or exchange stories with each other about what they felt. Or, similar to how you put it, have the blind people stay in place and turn the elephant slowly, and gently, around. At the end of that scenario, each person's description of the elephant would be in agreement.

Well, that is really what you were saying, right? Learn about things from every angle you can, including how you fit into the picture.

Now, the only problem with the updated elephant scenario is what to do with fabrications promulgated or hallucinations experienced by the blind people? Suppose one of the people touching the elephant says that when they touched the elephant they were momentarily cured of their blindness from its divine presence or something spectacular like that, then where do you draw the line between what is real and what is imaginary?

Keir said...

The point of the tale is not that they are only allowed to feel one part of the elephant, but that no blind man can feel the entire elephant. Moreover, no blind man can feel the elephant in exactly the same way as any other blind man. Even if they traded places, exchanged stories, or turned the elephant around, they would still not be entirely in agreement. Let's give the blind men eyes, and provide them with all the modern tools of science. Would they now be in agreement as to what an elephant is like? Even so, whether the blind men agree or not isn't even main point. The lesson is that reality is not one way or another, it is many ways. Why try to determine which description is more accurate or better than the rest? Why not take all the descriptions and use them equally according to their various virtues and deficiencies? I am saying that it is important to learn about things from every angle, but also that we must be careful when making value judgements on other perspectives just because they don't happen to be our own.

I think that fabrications and hallucinations eventually are seen for what they are, as powers of observation increase. But even when our powers of observation are severely curtailed, as with blindness, epistemological claims are still vulnerable to a skeptical mind. If our mental powers are deficient, then we are far more vulnerable. In the final assessment, we are all victims of chance and circumstance. The line between real and imaginary is not fixed, if it can be said to exist at all.

Regarding the links you sent, I would like to spend an hour with Sidney Coleman sometime, a big name in physics, but my day has few hours left in it. That is a very cool robotic trunk (or tentacle). Is this the bionic prosthesis for amputees of the future? But the cyber-kite is what I really want! Beautiful! Totally awesome (and bird/bat safe renewable wind power generation!).

aratina cage said...

The line between real and imaginary is not fixed, if it can be said to exist at all.

Of course. We always have limitations placed on our capacity to know, and we have to acknowledge our tendency to imagine things that are not real. I like to use apply the test of reasonable doubt to things I hold true, and when they hold beyond that point, I find that is good enough.


whether the blind men agree or not isn't even main point. The lesson is that reality is not one way or another, it is many ways.

I would agree with that when examining reality past a certain precision, but would disagree with it at the scale of terrestrial things—the scale we evolved to survive in.


we must be careful when making value judgements on other perspectives just because they don't happen to be our own.

That is true. However, a high degree of success can be attained by very discriminating people as long as the discrimination has clear out-groups that it is pointed at and so it contains a mushy middle for maximum inclusivity.


my day has few hours left in it.

I understand and am a tad envious.

Keir said...

Reality is many ways in more ways than one, regardless the scale. The same elephant - spear to one, rope to another. The same music - beautiful to one, annoying to another. The same building - big to one, small to another. The same idea - useful to one, useless to another. And that's just comparing two perspectives on each subject!

as long as the discrimination has clear out-groups that it is pointed at and so it contains a mushy middle for maximum inclusivity.

That sounds like being careful when you discriminate. Discrimination, as a synonym for preference, is an unavoidable and natural part of life that can't be avoided.

I understand and am a tad envious.

Of what? All the overtime I put in at work? I'd rather that the load was lighter myself!

aratina cage said...

The same music - beautiful to one, annoying to another. The same building - big to one, small to another.

But that is just the point I was trying to make about the elephant. People can come to agreement if they make the effort to see things from the other person's point of view. Sometimes it might be impossible, like if you hate some kind of music viscerally then you won't be very able to explain that hate, and sometimes very easily, like with tall buildings for one being rather short for another based on what each other is familiar with.


Discrimination, as a synonym for preference, is an unavoidable and natural part of life that can't be avoided.

I meant it in the more negative connotation, of people who are great haters.


Of what? All the overtime I put in at work? I'd rather that the load was lighter myself!

Ah, I didn't realize it was your professional workload taking all of your time.

Keir said...

I meant it in the more negative connotation, of people who are great haters.

Thanks for the clarification, I wasn't sure exactly what you meant. You were making the point that when a majority of the population discriminates against a minority group, even though this is unethical, it can nonetheless result in the success of politically ambitious people who capitalize on the fear and hatred of the masses. That is true. Success in life is a nice thing to have, but at what cost? I would not want to be successful because I have perpetrated fear and hatred, or denied the natural rights of a minority population only because they did not share my views, skin color, or geographic origin.

Aratina Cage said...

I just saw this on Pharyngula, and I think it is a much more powerful update to the blind men with elephant story:

pure agnosticism simply state that there's simply no way to know. It's like a group of blind men arguing whether a piece metal is like a mirror. They can feel it all they want and claim that it is smooth and can likely act like a mirror, but it is a perfectly fine stance to argue that we have no way of knowing. -UberFubarius

Keir said...

Possible conclusions: A) it is a mirror, B) it is not a mirror, or C) unknown. All are perfectly valid choices. Anekantavada states that none of them alone are right, and the only right answer must include all of them.