Here's the tale:
Posted on: May 10, 2009 2:31 PM, by PZ Myers
Once upon a time, four blind men were walking in the forest, and they bumped into an elephant.
Moe was in front, and found himself holding the trunk. "It has a tentacle," he said. "I think we have found a giant squid!"
Larry bumped into the side of the elephant. "It's a wall," he said, "A big, bristly wall."
Curly, at the back, touched the tail. "It's nothing to worry about, nothing but a piece of rope dangling in the trail."
Eagletosh saw the interruption as an opportunity to sit in the shade beneath a tree and relax. "It is my considered opinion," he said, "that whatever it is has feathers. Beautiful iridescent feathers of many hues."
The first three, being of a scientifical bent, quickly collaborated and changed places, and confirmed each other's observations; they agreed that each had been correct in the results of their investigations, except that there wasn't a hint of feathers anywhere about, but clearly their interpretations required correction and more data. So they explored further, reporting to each other what they were finding, in order to establish a more complete picture of the obstacle in the path.
"Tracing the tentacle back, I find that it is attached to a large head with eyes, fan-shaped ears, and a mouth bearing tusks. It is not a squid, alas, but seems to be a large mammal of some sort," said Moe.
"Quite right, Moe — I have found four thick limbs. Definitely a large tetrapod," said Larry.
Curly seems distressed. "It's a bit complicated and delicate back here, guys, but I have probed an interesting orifice. Since this is a children's story, I will defer on reporting the details."
Eagletosh yawns and stretches in the shade of a tree. "It has wings, large wings, that it may ascend into the heavens and inspire humanity. There could be no purpose to such an animal without an ability to loft a metaphor and give us something to which we might aspire."
The other three ignore the idling philosopher, because exciting things are happening with their elephant!
"I can feel its trunk grasping the vegetation, uprooting it, and stuffing it into its mouth! It's prehensile! Amazing!", said Moe.
Larry presses his ear against the animal's flank. "I can hear rumbling noises as its digestive system processes the food! It's very loud and large."
There is a squishy plop from the back end. "Oh, no," says Curly, "I can smell that, and I think I should go take a bath."
"You are all completely missing the beauty of its unfurled wings," sneers Eagletosh, "While you tinker with pedestrian trivialities and muck about in earthy debasement, I contemplate the transcendant qualities of this noble creature. 'Tis an angel made manifest, a symbol of the deeper meaning of life."
"No wings, knucklehead, and no feathers, either," says Moe.
"Philistine," says Eagletosh. "Perhaps they are invisible, or tucked inside clever hidden pockets on the flank of the elephant, or better yet, I suspect they are quantum. You can't prove they aren't quantum."
The investigations continue, in meticulous detail by the three, and in ever broader strokes of metaphorical speculation by the one. Many years later, they have accomplished much.
Moe has studied the elephant and its behavior for years, figuring out how to communicate with it and other members of the herd, working out their diet, their diseases and health, and how to get them to work alongside people. He has profited, using elephants as heavy labor in construction work, and he has also used them, unfortunately, in war. He has not figured out how to use them as an air force, however…but he is a master of elephant biology and industry.
Larry studied the elephant, but has also used his knowledge of the animal to study the other beasts in the region: giraffes and hippos and lions and even people. He is an expert in comparative anatomy and physiology, and also has come up with an interesting theory to explain the similarities and differences between these animals. He is a famous scholar of the living world.
Curly's experiences lead him to explore the environment of the elephant, from the dung beetles that scurry after them to the leafy branches they strip from the trees. He learns how the elephant is dependent on its surroundings, and how its actions change the forest and the plains. He becomes an ecologist and conservationist, and works to protect the herds and the other elements of the biome.
Eagletosh writes books. Very influential books. Soon, many of the people who have never encountered an elephant are convinced that they all have wings. Those who have seen photos are at least persuaded that elephants have quantum wings, which just happened to be vibrating invisibly when the picture was snapped. He convinces many people that the true virtue of the elephant lies in its splendid wings — to the point that anyone who disagrees and claims that they are only terrestrial animals is betraying the beauty of the elephant.
Exasperated, Larry takes a break from writing technical treatises about mammalian anatomy, and writes a book for the lay public, The Elephant Has No Wings. While quite popular, the Eagletoshians are outraged. How dare he denigrate the volant proboscidian? Does he think it a mere mechanical mammal, mired in mud, never soaring among the stars? Has he no appreciation for the scholarship of the experts in elephant wings? Doesn't he realize that he can't possibly disprove the existence of wings on elephants, especially when they can be tucked so neatly into the quantum? (The question of how the original prophets of wingedness came by their information never seems to come up, or is never considered very deeply.) It was offensive to cripple the poor elephants, rendering them earthbound.
When that book was quickly followed by Moe's The Elephant Walks and Curly's Land of the Elephant, the elephant wing scholars were in a panic — they were being attacked by experts in elephants, who seemed to know far more about elephants than they did! Fortunately, the scientists knew little about elephant's wings — surprising, that — and the public was steeped in favorable certainty that elephants, far away, were flapping gallantly through the sky. They also had the benefit of vast sums of money. Wealth was rarely associated with competence in matters elephantine, and tycoons were pouring cash into efforts to reconcile the virtuous wingedness of elephants with the uncomfortable reality of anatomy. Even a few scientists who ought to know better were swayed over to the side of the winged; to their credit, it was rarely because of profit, but more because they were sentimentally attached to the idea of wings. They couldn't deny the evidence, however, and were usually observed to squirm as they invoked the mystic power of the quantum, or of fleeting, invisible wings that only appeared when no one was looking.
And there the battle stands, an ongoing argument between the blind who struggle to explore the world as it is around them, and the blind who prefer to conjure phantoms in the spaces within their skulls. I have to disappoint you, because I have no ending and no resolution, only a question.
Where do you find meaning and joy and richness and beauty, O Reader? In elephants, or elephants' wings?
Why Terry Eagleton? Because of his recently published book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Stanley Fish reacts to Eagelton in a New York Times blog.