Monday, May 24, 2010


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? 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Feyerabend's autobiography, a review

I finished reading Killing Time recently, with an eye toward learning about Feyerabend's approach to the philosophy of science.  A simple search on the Internet will provide a basic introduction, but it is always better to get information from as close to the original source as possible, so I am including a few quotes from the book below.  Feyerabend places the scientific tradition on an equal plane with other traditions, including religious traditions.  I think this is for several reasons:  science is not objective, nor are its products always beneficial.  If the scientific tradition is deposed as the ruling way of knowing, what we are left with is “epistemological anarchy”.  Popularly conceived, anarchy means chaos, but here it is better understood as pluralism – no single tradition has a monopoly on knowledge, or truth.  On the other hand, he would never say that scientific theories are not to be taken seriously.  So what is there to gain from all this?  In Feyerabend's words, “a little more freedom, a little more happiness, a little more light.”  It will take a reading of his other books to gain more insight into how he reached his conclusions.  For now, I appreciate being unbound by any ideology, free from guilt and free to understand my experience on terms of my own choosing.

A few weeks before he died, Feyerabend was told in the course of an interview "You have not created a positive philosophical system" to which he replied "You find positive things not in theories but in human relations.  If somebody is happily married, has good children, this is a positive thing in life.  It can't be put into concepts."  Feyerabend thought that happiness, love, friendship, and the full development of human beings was the highest possible value. 

Richard Dawkins will be visiting this summer to give a speech, and I would like to ask him his opinion of Feyerabend.  I am sure he should find him agreeable, as Dawkins opens his book The God Delusion with a short story illustrating why it is unethical to indoctrinate impressionable youth in a particular religion without allowing them to make that decision for themselves.  Feyerabend makes the same point, taking it one step further to include science among the list of ideologies susceptible to the same kind of religious fervor.