The Blind Men, the Elephant, and Understanding the Universe
How folks can still disagree even when everyone is "right"
People disagree on stuff sometimes.
Sometimes it’s no big deal.
It's no problem at all.
We don’t fight about it. We don’t care. Heck, we can even see disagreements as a good thing.
Other times, it is a problem.
We not only care, we hit some kind of high-voltage emotional live wire inside us. It matters. The disagreements have deep roots.
Cue: Heated arguments. Debates. Each getting frustrated with the other, both winding up exasperated.
You calm down and try to talk it out again, calmly, reasonably.
And then you wind up frustrated, exasperated again. At a loss.
One person is convinced that they’re right, and the other is just too mule-headed to see the obvious. Meanwhile, the other person is just as convinced that they’re right, and the other person is mule-headed, mule-footed, mule-brained, and worse.
What’s going on here?
Can people really live in completely different realities?
Are people from different planets, where "up" on one planet is "down" on the other?
Let’s peek under the surface and expose the underlying dynamics of the situation, and see what’s really going on if we dig a little deeper.
Every so often – it’s pretty rare – one person really is just right, and the other really is just wrong.
That’s maybe 4% of cases. (That's a made-up number, but probably pretty close.)
The other 96%?
One person is “right,” and the other person is “right.”
And they both disagree.
How does this work?
It’s fairly simple. Once you see it, it makes perfect sense. Yet again, to pull a number out of thin air that’s probably pretty accurate, maybe 99% of people don’t seem to see it, 98% of the time.
What’s going on?
Let’s take a look at a classic Hindu story.
The Blind Men and an Elephant
Once upon a time there was an elephant that was being touched by several blind men.
One of the men touched the side of the elephant, and declared: “elephants are big and flat, like a barn door!”
Another man touched the tail, and declared: “No! Elephants are thin and wiry, like a piece of straw!”
Another touched the leg and declared: “You’re both wrong! Elephants are round, like a pillar!”
Another touched the ear, and said, “All three of you are wrong! Elephants are thin and flat, like a piece of leather!”
Another touched the trunk, and said, “You’re all wrong! Elephants are bendy, like a snake!”
Another touched the butt, and said, “Elephants are slimy and disgusting and they smell super-gross!”
…and so on. Lots of parts on an elephant.
All the various men argued for hours, then went and got advanced degrees in elephantology, and went on television and the lecture circuit to argue why they were right and everyone else was wrong.
(OK, I embellished a little. And maybe a little more. You can find a better, more official version of the story here.)
So, who was “right”?
Which man was right in describing what an elephant was really like?
Who should have won the argument?
Of course, nobody. And everybody.
All of the men were “right.”
And each man, at the same time, was “wrong.”
Each man was “right” when discussing the part of the elephant, or the “data” he was exposed to.
Each man was “wrong” in assuming that he his “data” represented the entire elephant.
But here’s the fun part: this same script plays itself out everywhere, repeating itself over and over again, everywhere, all the time.
How we tend to get it wrong, so often, and fight about it.
Uncertainty is a core feature of the human condition.
Not knowing some basic things about ourselves and life and the universe is built-in. It’s there from birth. Babies are so irresistible – and innocent – in part because they are so thoroughly oblivious.
We’re born clueless.
Over time, of course, we figure a few things out. Raw experience, parents and friends, science, great websites, the interweb, even an occasional book can reveal all kinds of things about us and the universe around us. Discovering a real, reliable, solid piece of truth can be like landing on a piece of rock while swimming in a rough sea of uncertainty.
But here’s the thing:
When we really figure something out, we tend to cling to it. The way we cling to an island of dry land in the middle of the ocean.
If we really get hold of something, test it, turn it over and over and find it to be true, we tend to insist, “I’ve got it!” And let’s say we’re right: we’ve really found something that’s true, and solid.
What happens then?
We tend to overgeneralize.
That’s where we tend to blow it. We think we understand elephants when we’re really just holding an elephant ear.
The blind guys were right in speaking about their own limited and confined but direct experience. They were wrong in assuming that their piece of experience applied to the entire elephant.
"The worst quarrels only arise
when both sides are equally in the right
and in the wrong."
- Winston Churchill
This happens over and over again in science, business, relationships, and spirituality
Let’s take a few examples.
Let’s look at the study of behaviorism in the field of psychology. Watson, Skinner, Pavlov and others in their posse discovered some pretty interesting things: animals tend to seek rewards and avoid punishment. Great! Through operant conditioning, you can understand a lot about why animals do things, and train them to run mazes and do tricks. Some of it might even apply to people. Great!
Not great: behaviorists assume they’ve found “the key” to human nature, and everyone else is stupid.
After some limited successes, Watson, Skinner and the gang overgeneralize their grip on the leg of the elephant of human behavior and, in so many words, declare that everyone who talks about, researches, even acknowledges such fantasy-riddled stuff as the “mind” or “emotions” or “soul” are flatheads. (Can’t those Freudians see that it’s all about the operant conditioning?)
Meanwhile, the Freudians, being exposed to an entirely different set of data – and working face-to-face with people struggling to solve emotional problems, do the same thing from a different side. (“Can’t those stuffy Behaviorists see that the elephant is thin and wiry?”)
The same thing happens in business.
Let's look at managers and the folks they manage.
Project managers are usually focused on things like making deadlines, meeting milestones and completing projects on time and under budget. They value time and efficiency, and success means something like "doing what we’re supposed to do using as little time and as money as possible."
These values, needs and desires become filters that they experience work and their projects through. The folks who are building the stuff, meanwhile, don’t seem to “get it.” (“Can’t they see it’s broad like a barn door?”)
Meanwhile, the folks they’re managing – the ones who are building stuff - are focused on making wonderful, mind-blowing, incredible stuff, even if it takes a little longer and costs a little more.
They have a different set of values, needs and desires. They want to make great stuff, no matter how much time or money it takes. (“Can’t they see it’s round like a pillar?”)
And in relationships:
Let’s say it’s an argument about money. “Can’t you see that we need to buy X, and Y, and Z, and how great it would be if we could do A, B, and C?” (“Isn’t this tusk hard and smooth?”)
Meanwhile…”Can’t you see that we’re broke?” (“Look! It flaps like a piece of leather!”)
Even in spirituality:
Some folks might touch one part of the elephant, and decide that they pretty much have the whole "religion" thing figured out. (For example, “There's a God, and we should try to be good people, and everything's going to be OK, and that's pretty much what we need to know.”) (“The universe is like a barn door.”)
Atheists might touch another part. (For example, “I’ve seen no convincing scientific evidence of a barn door, and a lot of folks who talk about elephants being barn doors seem dumb. Life is basically a meaningless cascade of stuff that happens, then we die, and that’s it.”) They also decide that they've pretty much figured it out. (“The universe is slimy and disgusting and they smell super-gross.”)
Agnostics might have some sense that there’s more to the elephant that they’re able to put their hands on, but maybe can’t figure out how to get their hands around the whole thing. (“The universe definitely seems to be like a pillar, but there might be more to it than just that. I don’t know.”)
And it gets worse. Some folks might even be touching the same part of the elephant, but describing it in slightly different ways, and calling it different names, and then fighting about even that. (“It’s broad, like a barn door!” “Well, I think it’s more flat, like a wall!” “No! I think it’s slightly curved, like a huge, leathery beach ball!”)
There’s something deeper going on here.
In almost every case, there tends to be a few basic mistakes:
- A person focuses on their own direct experience (their piece of the elephant/data);
- They overgeneralize, and jump to the conclusion that their experience IS the entire elephant;
- They ignore or discount what other people are saying when it contradicts their experience;
- They tend not to dig deep into understanding why they have the positions they do, and why others tend to have the positions they do.
It gets to the crucial distinction between two words: being extremely clear on the difference between “stupidity” and “ignorance.”
Ignorance is basically a lack of knowledge or information or experience. (You've never touched X part of the elephant.)
Stupidity is lack of intelligence. (You've touched an elephant tail, but you decided to insist that it's a bowl of chocolate pudding because you like chocolate pudding. Case closed.)
Every intelligent person is ignorant about a whole lot of things. Meaning, they just haven’t been exposed to it.
If I’ve never seen, heard of, or been exposed to a bear – so I simply know nothing about bears – I’m ignorant about bears. But if I know lots of stuff about bears, and decide to charge and wrestle a hungry, full-grown grizzly armed with nothing but a handful of soggy tissue paper, then it's probably safe to say that I'm not ignorant; I’m stupid.
None of the men touching the elephant in our story are stupid.
Each of them, at least in this story, is ignorant.
Again, this isn't really a flaw or a vice or something to be ashamed of. It simply means they haven't experienced certain things.
Each of the guys touching the elephant is just ignorant of the other parts of the elephant that they aren’t touching. They haven't experienced the other parts.
When two people are in an argument, a common mistake is jumping to the assumption that the other person is stupid, when actually, they just haven’t been exposed to the same part of the elephant as you.
“We do not need theories
so much as the experience
that is the source of the theory.”
- R. D. Laing
There’s another catchy way of saying this.
We often tend to focus on the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own.
We all have "blind spots."
We usually have certain "blind spots" while driving.
There are blind spots that are built in to our perception. (Eg here.)
There are others that are built into the way we see the world, and others, and ourselves.
Our nature seems to have programmed us with a peculiar cluster of blindness in regards to the way we see things.
This "cluster of blindness" usually causes us to be “objective” towards others while being “subjective” towards ourselves.
We tend to just other folks by their behavior (often, their worst behavior) while judging ourselves by our best intentions (as a former president recently said.) This tendency seems to be “natural.” But – we can try to counter that nature tendency by also judging others by their best intentions, and ourselves by our behavior.
Few folks are able to do the opposite: where each of us tries to be objective toward ourselves, but subjective toward others.
Some might call this cluster of blindness “ego.”
Others might have other ways of describing it – bunches of various cognitive heuristics, for example (if you have the misfortune of being a modern psychology student.)
Regardless of what we call it, in the end, it comes down to certain built-in, hard-wired blind spots in ourselves that we carry through life.
But we don't have to be victims to our blind spots.
This particular “ignorance” is something that’s usually in our direct control.
And now I’m going to say something that sounds kinda messed up.
We have a tendency to avoiding touching another’s elephant parts.
OK, that sounds pretty messed up.
But the point holds: if I’m holding a tail and you’re holding a trunk, all too often, I usually don’t want to come over there and touch what you're touching.
- especially if we’re already started arguing about it.
Because touching the same elephant-part that someone else is – which can shed real light on why someone is thinking what they are – then usually means admitting that we were wrong.
We usually don't like that.
- or not “wrong,” exactly (after all, our piece of elephant is valid, too.)
Only “wrong” in the sense that I thought I already had a grip on the entire elephant.
Real science, of course, tries to remedy all this by making sure scientists don’t fluke it up, and overgeneralize their results.
Just because they run experiments and produce results on one part (“It bends like a snake!”) doesn’t mean that it applies to the entire elephant/universe.
They don't always succeed. (See Behaviorism vs Freudianism.)
And of course, this simple scenario – the blind men and elephants – can get exponentially more complex.
Some folks, like the poor old guys we keep criticizing in the story above, are only aware of the piece of the elephant that they’ve touched.
One guy, for example, might only be aware of the stomach.
Others, though, are more aware of several more parts of the elephant.
Some folks, let’s say, know about the stomach, the tail, and even a leg.
(They’re considered geniuses in their tribe. Folks give them degrees and shiny medals and money and stuff.)
Other folks might be aware of even more than this group: they know about the stomach, tail, trunk, legs, ears, and tusks.
(These folks are often considered weirdos and people usually don’t invite them to parties, and throw rocks at them and stuff.)
Sometimes the people who are touching the stomach, tail, and trunk all team up, coordinate together, and fight with the people who are only touching the legs, ears, and tusks.
And everything in between. And so goes the world. Drama ensues. Mayhem, anarchy, etc.
So, what should someone living amidst all this madness do?
Now that we’ve arrived at “mayhem, anarchy, etc,” and knowing all this, in true blog fashion, let’s try to boil all this down into a few handy and practical tips:
- There’s a tendency to overgeneralize, and assume that your piece of the elephant/your experience in the universe is the entire elephant/universe. Fight it.
- There’s a tendency to invalidate, and assume that someone else’s experience of the elephant/the universe, when it’s different from yours, is completely mistaken. Avoid it.
- There’s a tendency to stay on the surface, and declare the other person’s elephant reports to be wrong, instead of digging deeper, and trying figuring out what piece of the elephant they’re touching. Overcome it.
- A heroic move, usually, means going to the trouble of trying to touch someone else’s piece of elephant yourself, so you can really understand what the heck they’re talking about. Dig Deeper.
The piece of the elephant we’re touching can be the foundation for a lot of what we can call our "values," what we care about, our personal narrative about what the universe is, what our place in it is, and what we’re supposed to do about it.
And depending on what part of the elephant we’re touching, those values can clash.
Even when they’re both really good.
“Safety,” for example, can clash with “freedom.” And “kindness” can clash with “safety.” And “fitting in with others” can clash with “achieving great things.” “Wisdom” might clash with “Happiness.” “Justice” might seem to clash with “compassion.” And so on.
Here, it's not a clear, black-or-white choice.
It's not good-verses-bad. It's good-verses-good. Or bad-verses-bad.
Depending on what parts of the elephant we’re aware of, we value, experience, and care about certain things. Based on what we value, experience, and care about, we interpret the world and ourselves in certain ways. Which means we filter our experience accordingly. And when we have enough filters, we wind up arguing about whether and elephant is big or small, soft or hard, dry or slimy.
Jonathan Haidt goes pretty in depth on some of this in his book The Righteous Mind.
But for us, here, now?
The important thing, it seems, is to strive to touch as much of that elephant as you possibly can.
In fact...let's strive to know the whole darn thing.