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I have periodically encountered the illustration of a group of blind men and an elephant - basically, each man feels a different part of the elephant and concludes that the elephant is a different item than it is. For example, the person who feels the legs assumes that it's a tree, the person who feels the trunk assumes that it's a log, etc.

Here's the problem: doesn't that story assume that there's someone around who isn't blind to realize that it's an elephant? If, as is often implied, we're all blind men in some sense, wouldn't this be a fatal flaw in the argument?

(Note: I am actually asking if I'm correct about this or not, not merely creating a rant in disguise ("this parable sucks, am I right?")).

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    This would only be a flaw if one presupposes some form of anti-realism, every view has to be a view from somewhere, there is no "view from nowhere in particular", as Nagel called it, a.k.a. "God's eye view". On the traditional realist viewpoint the reality is mind-independent, it is there even if no one is watching, it looks what it looks like even if all men are blind. One can try to explain this God's eye without God by using "in principle, unlimited abilities/unlimited resources, all things considered" modalities, for example. – Conifold Jun 14 '18 at 23:33
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Yes, there is one "seeing" person: you

First a quick note...

As you say: The Blind Men and the Elephant is a parable. Whoever is constructing a parable is free to lay out the narrative as they see fit, and make things come out right for the point that they want to make. As such a parable is not an argument. A parable is merely a catalyst for thought.

As for your question...

In the narrative of The Blind Men and the Elephant there is no seeing participant. If there was this would sink the whole parable, because the seeing person would simply tell the blind persons that they are mistaken and that they need to expand their investigation of the elephant.

But in the telling and consuming of the parable, there is one person that does "see" the elephant and knows the nature of it: you, the reader. Without you as the seeing person, the parable would lose its impact. Because if you too were made "blind" by not being told exactly what it is the blind persons are groping at, it would just be a very confusing tale of some people that meet some mysterious thing, and they all come to different conclusions. If we — as the intended consumer of this parable — were not "seeing", we would have a hard time knowing why they are coming to different conclusions, and why they are all wrong.

So yes, there is one seeing person in all this — you, the reader — and without this seeing person, the parable does not work.

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  • Good point about the reader. Also, the narrative speaks of those who are feeling the elephant. It does not say that nobody can see the whole elephant. The tale is told in some quarters as a caution, to suggest that we should not become a blind man feeling bits of an elephant but grasp the whole thing. – user20253 Jun 14 '18 at 12:05
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    @PeterJ I suppose the "blind" part is added in because it is hard to make the parable work otherwise... vision is such an amazing tool to get a — quite literal — overview of what it is you have in front of you. If the characters could see they would instantly know that they have something larger before them. It is harder to get a working parable with a "tunnel vision" version of it. Touch is inherently much more limited than sight, hence the parable works much easier when we force the characters to examine their world with this limited sense, while leaving the reader with sight. – MichaelK Jun 14 '18 at 12:10
  • You doesn't has to be the seeing person, I believe. I mean the reader could be blind, but should know that there exist people who can see -- suppose the narrator, to understand the parable -- not the elephant. – Adeel Ansari Jul 4 '18 at 11:53
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    @AdeelAnsari As I said in the post: yes, you can leave out the explanation that they are feeling their way around an elephant and leave the object to be unknown to the reader. The parable can still work to illustrate that without a complete investigation, you will reach discrepant interpretations. However(!)... in the form where the elephant is known to the reader,. the reader gets to know that not only are the interpretations discrepant, they are also flat out wrong, all of them, which increases the impact of the parable. – MichaelK Jul 4 '18 at 11:56
  • The known elephant, is used as a parable for the unknown, eg god. So it's not correct to say this doesn't work without a narrator who sees the full picture. It is pointing at how transcendent perspectives can unify seemingly contradictory accounts. Consider the qualia of being the elephant, what 'complete investigation' includes that? Only, being the elephant. No account can be truly complete. We all have an incomplete picture, and need to listen to each other in good faith. – CriglCragl May 12 at 14:24
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This is basically an analogy of the following form:

Me:Blind Man::X:Me
I am in the same relationship to a blind man as the enlightened person (X) is to me

As @MichaelK correctly pointed out, this assumes that "me" (the reader) is not actually physically blind, but rather metaphorically blind, in relationship to the higher truths. Further note that "X" does not actually have to exist in order for the metaphor to work --a more carefully parsed version of it would be:
Visually confirmed reality:the blind person's conception::higher reality:my conception

This is a common metaphor in the history of philosophy and religion. One example is Plato's Cave, where those in intellectual darkness are blinded by the light of Real Truth. Another is found frequently in the Christian scriptures, for instance Luke 6:39-42 ("the blind leading the blind"), John 9:35-41 (the real blind people are those who claim to see) and 1 Corinthians 13:12 ("now we see in a mirror, darkly"). It's worth noting however, that this metaphor does not suit modern attitudes towards disabilities, and may be considered offensive by some audiences.

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If, as is often implied, we're all blind men in some sense, wouldn't this be a fatal flaw in the argument?

No. If you only consider one subjectivity valid, your picture will be incomplete, and you will find the experiences irreconcilable. But by entering into the experiences of others, a larger perspective can be found, capable of encompassing the disparate experiences. To get our best picture of the world, we must at least tentatively consider the experiences of others as like our own - this is pointing at intersubjectivity, which another ancient metaphor also first recorded in Buddhist texts illustrates too, Indra's Net.

We find this all the time in science, different ways of approaching the same knowledge, with for instance the four (now maybe five) fundamental forces and associated energy levels, which it is thought were unified in one force near the big bang, which will probably require energies that can probe the Planck scale to prove (ie black holes). Consider the necessary knowledge to get to unify the 3 quantum forces: nuclear synthesis (mainly from cosmology), deep inelastic scattering and nuclear decay, and relativistic electrodynamics that followed from precise photon energy tunings. Parts of the elephant - we know they fitted together or interacted deeply at or after the big bang but now are at separate scales, we know they are part of the 'big picture' that can encompass all the data (Hawking suggested Godel's incompleteness theorems mean no final theory is possible, I would suggest only no computationally enumerable final theory - ie, it could be a mind, a strange-loop).

We also have many cases of top-down versus bottom-up ways to approach knowledge, like psychology versus neuroscience - we know they are both trying to understand the same thing, just in different ways.

Probably the most common purpose the story has been turned to, is different religions approaching one greater truth. I like the Kurzgesacht short story The Egg, as a playful example of how a bigger perspective could encompass the cosmologies of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Abrahamic ideas.

We are in fact, a community of the blind - in science, in religion. We don't, cannot have, access to the transcendental supersubjectivity without actually being god (we might participate or contribute though), and we can't have a final theory without that theory elaborating reality beyond itself - there can be no 'final vocabulary'. There will always be an elephant in the room, you might say.

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