On the Seventh Blind Man and the Elephant



Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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34 Responses

  1. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    PFG, JB, on every level, as I’m self-appointed judge & jury for Opposite Day.

    An agnostic who prays all the time!

    This.  There is not one “believer” who is honest with himself who’s not agnostic on alternate Thursdays, yet he keeps praying anyway.

    I was struck—as I am with your post here, JB, and the nail you have hit—when Anthony Boucher quoted the Bible’s Roman centurion in his timeless “The Quest for Saint Aquin” [1951]:

    LordI believe; help thou my unbelief.

    Turned out “St. Aquin,” well, here is Boucher’s famous short story in full on the internet. [Free.] [Sci-fi.]


    I haven’t read it since I was mebbe 15, and I’ll read it again now, but sure, God is an Elephant.  The elephant in the room, at the risk of overloading your metaphor.

    Your mileage will vary, but just recalling this and re-reading the first paragraph has already brought me tears of joy.  If you or anybody @LoOG ever follows my links, this is of the finest kind I know, the sharing thing. Lulz, as Mr. Stillwater so aptly and contemporaneously put it.


    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      I am pleased that you liked it. You were one of the members of the intended target audience whose thought made me rewrite sentences.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jaybird says:

        JB, I haven’t thought of the Boucher story in very many years.  You inspire, and frankly, I’ve been quite angry at life and the universe of late.  Hope you’ll read it. When I read it as a child, a young man, it made some sense, although I did not read the original St. Aquin until decades later.  Didn’t even know what the story really meant.

        But the best thing about the Elephant is that it’s in the room, even if it’s too big to see it all.  Cheers, brother.  You get it.Report

        • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          Wanted to say something here about the Dragon’s Egg, a tale well known to the Chinese and similar to your elephant. But Googling same only found this not even close but worthy of consideration.

          TBD of course I’d follow your links to the gates of Hades. And Jaybird told us more than we can know, even in pointing me to an aged tome of his from 09 re: the 12 steps. As I recall (and never knew before hand, not having fallen to the lure of the vine to penury or worse) I’d never heard of the details of the 12 steps. Thanks to JB I now know them, at least in principle. The only one I knew for sure (reinforced by a series on TV that was marginally funny at first) was the one about making amends for past transgressions. The only alcoholic I knew who went through the 12 steps – a childhood friend – I was always chagrined that he opted not to apologize to me. I found out recently that he had lapsed after almost 20 yrs of sobriety.

          As for he Universe? It doesn’t compute anger. We can’t know the “big guy” anymore than a fingernail cell can understand it is part of our body.Report

    • Avatar boegiboe in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      TVD, thanks so much for the story link. I also read it when I was young, and could remember nothing about it except that it confused me in a way I liked, that it was sort of medieval in a far-flung future, and that it was about Christianity truly persecuted. I’ve occasionally looked for the story, but I had too little to go on to find it.

      It was wonderful to read it again, to link my memories of my childhood’s unquestioned belief to my present atheism. To understand that some of the aspects that seemed medieval to me then were only misunderstandings because I’d never been exposed to Catholicism except in history class and TV and movies.

      Thanks again!Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to boegiboe says:

        Cheers, boegiboe.  Aquin has become a dear friend; altho raised Catholic, we had never been properly introduced.

        His arguments for God via Aristotle aren’t based on faith or doctrine of course, a tonic for the restless mind that begins to find them insufficient as it loses the clarity of youth.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Written with real passion if I’m not mistaken.  Also noticing, Jaybird, you did not employ the device of an Evil Twin to advance this argument.  Maybe your Evil Twin would be the right one to tell us what’s wrong with it?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I’ve been thinking about it and it’s slowly dawning on me that I am Evil Jaybird.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

      But, in short, here’s what’s wrong with it:

      It’s completely and totally unfalsifiable. You had a hamburger and you liked it? It’s God! You can’t demonstrate otherwise! You had a particularly unpleasant burp afterwards? That’s an insight into how we aren’t one with God!

      As such, everything pleasant in your day is evidence for and everything unpleasant is evidence for. The stuff in the middle? If you really thought about it, that would be evidence for as well… and by focusing on how everything is evidence for, you can begin to notice how much more evidence you come in contact with every moment of the day! Even the entire (yes, the *ENTIRE*) experience of a hamburger.

      It’s set up so that there’s no real way to disprove and if you give an example of something that doesn’t fit, I can just explain that you haven’t (yet) achieved the amount of enlightenment necessary to understand how that was God too (but, don’t worry, you will! Keep at it!).

      In a nutshell: It’s an unfalsifiable argument that flatters the reader.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

        Not only is it unfalsifiable, but this very argument, framed slightly differently (focusing on the desire rather than the satisfaction), has been used to argue precisely the opposite position: say, in certain strands of Eastern philosophy, or in Schopenhauer. Sure, every once in a while I am sated, but most of the time, my desires are merely suppressed or deferred, and the desires themselves, which constitute the bulk of my life, imply that there is something off kilter, something wrong. There are many explanations for why this might be (original sin, maybe, if we’re going to be theists), but maybe the elephant I’m feeling isn’t god, but myself (and all things) in a rare harmony that occasionally relieves the suffering that is this fractured manifest. At least, that seems as likely as some mysterious being, entirely separate from us, who’s pissed at us because some woman ate an apple at the behest of a snake a few thousand years ago, and has decided to make us want shit.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

          Dude. Life isn’t that bleak; you have access to the internet and enough time to blog so things can’t be that awful for you. Maybe swap out the Nine Inch Nails from the shuffle list on your iPod for something with a happier tone. Eat a piece of decent chocolate. Play with a dog. It’ll be okay, I promise.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

          I had actually considered taking on Buddhist philosophy.

          The paragraph opened with a joke about how yet another trust fund baby went to explain to poor people that they were too preoccupied with “stuff” and then made a joke about how I made a joke about that, then I would have jumped to the problem of the Bodhisattva and I would have muddied up the idea of Enlightenment entailing detachment but also sticking around to help others achieve enlightenment and I would have said that this is another way to say “still having hang-ups” in a socially acceptable fashion. I would have tried to finish with a joke about how the earliest translations of “Bodhisattva” mean “someone who likes butter chicken and the occasional beej”. I then thought that my first comment could have been “I, too, am a Bodhisattva.” We could have made it a running joke!

          I dropped the paragraph.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

        I see the same problem as I have with Lewis’ argument from desire. The existence of a desire does not imply the existence of something that satiates the desire. A hungry man may lack the ability to eat; just ask Roger Egbert. A man may be castrated yet still feel the yearnings of carnal desire which are as much psychological as they are physiological. While climbing a mountain, I may greatly want a bridge to cross a crevasse; it is not there. Concededly, it is possible for such a bridge to exist, but it does not and the theist is not arguing that it is possible for God to exist (nearly every atheist would concede that possibility) but rather that He actually does exist.

        To be sure, even the atheist feels joy from love; awe when inspired by beauty and grandeur; grief when faced with death; and outrage at injustice. These are ineffable, intangible experiences. Reducing them to neurological phenomena is, in my opinion, a mistake, as this both strips the richness out of the experience and denies that something is happening in the non-solipsistic world (just as reducing the staggering sensation of seeing the Grand Canyon with one’s own eyes to a series of visual stimuli and transmission of electricity on the ocular nerve is insufficient to describe the experience).

        Nevertheless, experiencing intangible emotions does not imply the existence of something outside of nature intentionally causing the intangible experience to occur (recall that God – in at least His role as Creator – is both an intentional actor and the uncaused cause of all other caused events), even if that causation is only limited to have arranging things such that the experience is possible.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

          To counter, (puts on opposite cloak)  I’d say that Ebert disproves nothing… he still gets food in his belly via a tube. The fact that he was damaged prevents his eating. Same for the eunuch. It is possible to take someone and cut something off our out of them that prevents them from living the way that someone intact can live.

          Isn’t the intact person the person we ought to be using as the ruler rather than the person who has had (whatever) taken away from them?

          Now, it’s true that there isn’t (and won’t be) a Thor or a Zeus no matter how much a person hopes for one or believes in one. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an ineffable divine in the same way that someone wishing for Martian Space-cow Hamburgers means that it’s not possible to eat something. Sure, Martian Space-cow Hamburgers don’t exist. But food does. To get overly specific in naming the thing you’re hoping to find is to be disappointed when it turns out that there’s no such thing as a fat-free, sugar-free, calorie-free filling meal. There *IS* food. You just have to open yourself up to alternate ideas to the ones destined to leave you disappointed.

          (Drops the cloak)Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

        It’s completely and totally unfalsifiable.

        That doesn’t make it wrong.  It just makes it transcendental.  Not all knowledge needs to be empirical, or even reducible to axioms.  There are lots of things that are totally unfalsifiable.

        If God exists, this is his joke on us.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Drew says:

      Oh, I also wanted to point out a particular trick that I used:

      At the very beginning, I said “Our problem is that, much like the blind men, we mistake the fan or the rope or the tree for the elephant and when we encounter someone who says “no, it was more like something else” our intuition is to say that they, somehow, did it wrong.”

      But then, very quickly, I went on to talk about those who were “secure in their experience of the spear and the spear only that they remain blind and that they’d benefit from feeling around a bit more.”

      Later on, I mentioned “I don’t have the “where-to-stand” to say that these people have not touched the elephant themselves, but when they point to the book rather than to the Elephant, that’s a good sign right there that they aren’t using their hands to touch things but are stuck reading books written by others that talk about what the Elephant is like. I’m sure you’ve seen them caught once or twice in a situation where they have to choose between believing what they have touched with their hands and what they have read with their eyes. It takes quite a bit of courage to go with what one has experienced rather than with what one has been told, if one has spent one’s life doing what one has been told… enough about them, though.”

      I started with a “we can’t judge” in such a way that said that I knew that you, the reader, were absolutely justified to have reached your conclusions… but then immediately went on to point out the people who may have similarities (but were unsympathetic) were not (they didn’t have the whole picture). And then, again, I said “I can’t judge” and then, immediately, judged.

      I was doing what I could to use the fact that the theists that I deliberately wasn’t directly talking about are exceptionally unsympathetic to my target audience to do a bit of heavy lifting for me.Report

  3. Avatar James K says:

    The fact that the abyss or death or whatever is something anxious-making is an indicator of something awry, no? When we say goodbye to a loved one (even a pet!), we know that this is something broken that we experience. A fundamental “this is not the way the world should be” sensation.

    I buy that, it is wrong that we should die.  Of course, the universe is not structured for our benefit.Report

  4. Avatar Chris says:

    “Oh, you’re just engaging in wishful thinking”, I can imagine you saying. “You’re trying to feel better about the abyss or death or whatever.” The fact that the abyss or death or whatever is something anxious-making is an indicator of something awry, no? When we say goodbye to a loved one (even a pet!), we know that this is something broken that we experience. A fundamental “this is not the way the world should be” sensation. A sense of fundamental loss and disconnect from the Beauty and Good that was the companionship of another piece of the Elephant in our lives.

    Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
    Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
    And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
    Of sure obliteration on our paths,
    The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
    Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
    Whispered a little out of tenderness,
    She makes the willow shiver in the sun
    For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
    Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
    She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
    On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
    And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

    I feel like Tom or  Blaise, commeting with a quote.Report

  5. Well, as one of the theists hereabouts, I really have nothing but praise for this lovely little essay,  It comes as close as anything I could write (and is doubtless much better) about what I believe about belief, and why.

    Also, it seems you’re familiar with “The Pilgrim’s Regress”?  Not the very best that Lewis ever wrote, but still one of my favorite book.Report

  6. Avatar Murali says:

    Dude, you sound a lot like Swami Vivekananda (or parts of the Bhagavad Gita for that matter). I approve!Report