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The Elephant

July 13, 2008

“The Elephant” is one of the most important stories I have been told. It has been a major force in the shaping of my world view and after having decided what direction I’m going to give this blog, I thought that now’s as good a time as any to repeat this story. Come to think of it it’s not a time as good as any … now’s the best time. I shall be coming back to this story quite a bit, so …

Anyway, here goes.

Once upon a time there were three men who had never seen an elephant. As luck would have it – or rather, as convenience for my story would have it 🙂 – a circus was coming to their village the following week. And the word was that there were going to be performing elephants.

“Why don’t we go and see what this elephant looks like?” asked man no. 1

“Yes. Good idea. I’ll buy us three tickets,” said man no. 2

“OK. But what if we make things a little exciting? A little flutter,” said man no. 3

“A flutter?”

“We’ll blindfold ourselves and get somebody to take us to this elephant and we’ll try to guess what this elephant looks like just by touching it. Whoever guesses – or comes closest – takes the money.”

“Yes. I agree. What a wonderful idea.”

The next day, each of men nos. 1,2 and 3 were blindfolded and led, by their sons, to the elephant. The sons knew of the wager and decided to play a trick on their fathers.

Son 1 placed his father next to the elephant’s head and gave him its ear. “So, dad, what does this elephant look like?”

“Hmmm. This elephant is a flat animal. Like a sail. Probably not very big.”

Son 2 placed his father next to the elephant and placed his hands on the beast’s side. “Dad?”

“I think that the elephant is like a huge wall. A mountain of an animal.”

Son 3 gave the elephant’s tail to his father.

“The elephant must be like a rope. Tiny animal. Nothing bigger than a snake.”

The sons took their fathers next to each other. “Before we take off your blindfold, tell us what you think the elephant looks like.”

“A sail!”

“A wall!”

“A length of rope!”

“A wall! what sort of idiot are you?!”

“Can’t you tell a sail from a bit of string?! You must be thick.”

The exchanges soon changed to blows and it took all the sons’ strength to separate the fathers.

“OK. OK. Let’s take the blindfolds off.”

The three men stared at the elephant. It wasn’t like a sail and it wasn’t like a wall and it wasn’t like a length of rope. They were all wrong and they were all partly right.

Moral of the story: Human activity can only uncover discrete bits of reality, none more valid than the other. We can arrive at the truth only if we acknowledge our limits and encourage interdisciplinarity.


From → The Elephant

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