Blind men and an elephant

There exists this quite interesting parable that, in one of the many versions of it, goes like this:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

Following this event, the men, in some versions, started arguing and accusing each other of not telling the truth. In one of the versions, a sighted man entered the scene and described the elephant to all the blind men, who in turn learned that they were all partially correct and partially wrong.

While one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth.

What I take from this parable is that we should always be humble to the fact that there’s a lot we don’t know, and that we should try to seek more information before drawing any conclusions.

The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.

Werner Heisenberg put it like this:

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.
Werner Heisenberg

Read more about this story on Wikipedia, and if you’re interested in more like this there’s also a rough equivalent of this parable in Western philosophy called Allegory of the cave.