Saturday, April 14, 2012

TN Part I: Elephants are not trees.

The state of Tennessee recently passed a "monkey law", celebrated by Discovery Institute as a way to advance their goal of allowing teachers to "present both sides of the evolution debate."  This is Part I of a series addressing this issue.

One of the arguments that I've heard in support of the "monkey law" is essentially that the people of Tennessee have a right to their opinion, and perhaps the rest of us should not be so sure of our own that we would force it down their throats.

"All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated, and well-supported in logic and argument than others." - Douglas Adams

The parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant tells us a story of blind men who, each having the opportunity to feel part of an elephant, come to different conclusions about what it is.  There are multiple versions, but in this one the elephant is thought to be a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, and a fan. The tale seems to be cited most often in theological discussions, and is a caution against arrogance when asserting to know anything with certainty.  It is sometimes used to claim that no opinion is better than any other, that it is pure hubris to tell anyone that they are wrong about anything.

There are good lessons in this parable:

1) Our personal experiences and personal knowledge are not comprehensive.
2) We should not dismiss the input of others without consideration.
3) Even our well reasoned conclusions may be inaccurate, because we may lack information.
4) Humility is valuable in our approach to knowledge.

However, the conclusion that no opinion can claim to be better than any other is total nonsense.  Not all methods of reaching a conclusion are equally valid, and therefore not all conclusions are equally valid.

In the parable, each blind man touches a portion of the elephant and declares his conclusion based on that alone.  The man who touched a leg believed that this object was a tree.  I will delete the King from the parable, since his absolute knowledge does not correlate to anything in the real world.  The blind men get together to compare notes, and the guy who thinks it is a tree hears that this object has also the features of a spear, a wall, a snake, and a fan.

If he is no fool, then he has begun to suspect that this object may not be a tree after all.  However, it is possible that these other men have confused the features.  A sharp branch may seem a spear, a flat spot on the trunk may seem a wall, a hanging vine may seem a snake (or there may be an actual snake in the tree), and certainly there are trees with leaves like a fan.  What his tree hypothesis requires is more evidence - he must go and see whether these features exist in a configuration that is consistent with a tree, or if they do not.

If he does this, collects his evidence carefully, and considers what can or cannot explain it, he will certainly come to the conclusion that this is no tree.  He may realize that it is an elephant, if he is already aware of them.  Otherwise, he may be mistaken in his conclusions - he might think that the elephant is an extremely large and strange aardvark, with tusks for stirring ant piles.  His aardvark theory would be wrong, but he would still be closer to "truth" than a man who insists that this is a tree.  Eventually, with enough evidence collected, he will realize that this creature does not eat ants, and that other findings are not consistent with aardvarks.  The quest for knowledge will go on, and whether he ever calls it "elephant" or not, this man will slowly learn more and more about the true nature of his subject.

This is the true moral of the parable: that those who seek and consider all evidence will learn more of truth than those who ignore tusks and trunks and tails so that they can continue to insist that the elephant is a tree.

Creationists are ignoring a great many tusks, trunks, and tails.  When a conclusion is drawn despite all evidence, rather than because of it, then we can disregard that conclusion as invalid.  Elephants are not trees, and not all opinions about this are equal.


  1. Here is to hoping I learn to at least think it's an aardvark even if I never truly grasp the concept of the elephant.