Re-post: Subjective and Objective — Don’t Think of an Elephant

Get the junk out of your mental trunk

“Yeah, well, y’know that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
-The Dude. The Big Lebowski

We have entered a period in our history where we have elevated what our senses can perceive as facts, while we relegate abstract principles to the realm of opinions.  This is not healthy.

Processed with VSCOcam with b1 preset. John Varvatos frames

I can see clearly now.

No sane man would question the sensory data that demonstrate the existence of water, trees, birds, fire, or anything tangible, or of the ways we speak of their dimensions. Height, depth, heat, cold, wetness — no one has a problem with these ideas or the substance they describe.

At the same time, however, we are losing our ability to consider the objective reality of concepts — of things — such as truth, beauty, justice, love, honor, right and wrong. Some of this linguistic debasement is intentional. Destroy the vocabulary for moral reasoning and you establish the frame for the debate, if there can even be one.

Let’s pay a visit to the poetry corner and talk a bit about the limits of stunting debate:

The Blind Men and the Elephant


It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

– John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

Although I have seen others use this poem to illustrate the folly of moral certitude, I am not certain it makes that point at all. Some friends of mine with a materialist worldview argue that no human being can possibly know anything — that like the six blind men encountering the elephant, we are only capable of grasping a part of what we think we know.
I agree that humility is a virtue, and that a man should admit to himself and others that he can be wrong and or that his knowledge may be incomplete.  However, note that although each blind man asserted something that was true about elephants based on his experience, his limited knowledge didn’t diminish the objective reality of the entire elephant. Each man may have been mistaken in part, but none was in doubt that he was arguing about the nature of an elephant.
If this isn’t clear, let me explain it this way: A man who doubts the existence of trains can still be killed by one if he lies down on the tracks.
While a man should be humble enough to recognize he may not have the whole picture, he should not use that as an excuse to avoid acquiring more knowledge or broadening his perspective. He should also avoid the error of parochialism — adopting the narrow interest of his immediate circle while ignoring the larger context. Read, study, argue, debate and test your theories against known facts. Try on the other guy’s point of view to see if you’re missing anything. The best ones will emerge victorious and the weak ones will die — but do you really want ideas or values that can’t stand up to inquiry?

So how about you? How are you striving to cultivate your moral sense? What have you found helpful? Please add your comments below.


Note: We will resume our series on Identity, Stimulation, and Security next post. This is on-topic for where we’re going.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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