The Elephant Analogy

October 9, 2008


Doctor Tim Keller wrote a very popular book called The Reason for God. He says a lot in this book, but it seems to be emerging that one particular illustration is catching the eye of many readers. Keller uses what many are calling “The Elephant Analogy” which Christians seem to find very convincing and non-Christians seem to find appalling. I think the drastic differences in reactions stem from the options for belief left open to readers, which Keller does not make clear. What follows is an attempt to help on this point.



It should be said first that the argument of the entire book is not at stake with this analogy. Those with great love for this work need not assume a defensive posture lest the book be rejected completely. It is a feature of the strategy that Keller adopts (something like an “inference to the best explanation” argument for Christianity) that it allows parts to fall short while the overall argument can still remain convincing. So this is not an argument against Keller’s book or the cause of Christianity. Instead, I hope Christians will take this as a charge to be more charitable in their understanding of non-Christians’ objections and refine their own arguments to better communicate across worldviews.

That said, following an unconvincing presentation, the view this analogy was meant to address remains open and still functions as a defeater belief. For Keller to succeed in his project, this objection needs to be revisited. An explanation of the analogy’s ineffectiveness and clarification of the defeating quality follows.



The relevant passage from The Reason for God:

“Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth.”

Sometimes this point is illustrated with the story of the blind men and the elephant. Several blind men were walking along and came upon an elephant that allowed them to touch and feel it. “This creature is long and flexible like a snake” said the first blind man, holding the elephant’s trunk. “Not at all—it is thick and round like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man, feeling the elephant’s leg. “No, it is large and flat,” said the third blind man, touching the elephant’s side. Each blind man could feel only part of the elephant—none could envision the entire elephant. In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?

There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to [all others]… We have to ask: “What is the [absolute] vantage ground from which you claim to be able to relativize all the absolute claims these different scriptures make?”

How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?1



I think all parties take the blind men to each be representatives of the various world religions. Most likely, the elephant represents God or at least some ontological truth about reality. It could be anything one supposes is true and we have experience of (like the laws of nature, the existence of other minds, or that everyone is themselves God) but for Keller’s purposes, it’s fair to limit the elephant to representing God. As God, the elephant is the object of the blind men’s religious claims.

Feeling the elephant represents the way in which we apprehend this object/truth. If the elephant were supposed to be the laws of nature, then feeling the elephant would presumably be experimental tests which support the hypothesis about the elephant-law. In Keller’s case, with the elephant representing God, what it means to touch the elephant is much more vague and ambiguous, but we can probably assume it means religious experience in general. Religious experience in this case would include many kinds of things, some of which might include: answered prayer, interpreting written revelation, a certain kind of observation about the world, and the phenomenon we generally call “hearing from God” (which comes in many shapes, sizes, and mediums across the many different religions in question). There is plenty of room for legitimate disagreement on what populates this category, but it is not important to the form of Keller’s argument. However, all parties would do well to weigh the content of religious experience to be clear in their discussions about what exactly is at stake! Objections to what counts as legitimate religious experience could bring this analogy to a grinding halt, but it is a particular discussion for another time and the specific content will vary from person to person.

In conventional 3rd person storytelling, the narrator is ignored and isn’t considered a participant in the story. However, Keller’s very point hinges on this distinction, and since it’s his analogy, it’s fair to consider. In fact, Keller’s whole point can probably be summed up by claiming that this is the kind of story which is impossible to tell in the 3rd person and must be told in the 1st person. Given the terms—the blind men as all world religions, feeling as religious experience, and the elephant as the object of their claims, God—there is nothing else relevant to the discussion. (i.e.: the trees, ground, sky, or potential for other beings aren’t relevant.) It is the point of the first half of his book, in fact, that every person alive is feeling some part of the elephant in one way or another—even when consciously refusing to do so. Disagreement on this point is for a discussion outside of The Elephant Analogy and happens at other places in the book. But his purposes here, Keller is almost certainly right about this point.



It is what results from the confusion of narrative perspective that causes the disagreement between Christians and non-Christians. Christians insist the non-Christian is putting him or herself in the impossible position of an omniscient 3rd person narrator. This is Keller’s point when he (somewhat sloppily) answers the objection with a rhetorical question: “How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?” The problem with this rhetorical response is that there are more answers to his question than Keller assumes, and at least one of these answers is the very starting point of the analogy!

Keller’s point with his rhetorical question is that when a non-Christian—one of the people touching part of the elephant—makes a claim about another person’s religious experience, the only way to do so is through the position of a 3rd person narrator—a position presumed and granted impossible. That the religious experience in question is that of another person, and not the speaker, is vital!

Keller is right that a 3rd person narrator is in a qualified position to make a claim about another person’s religious experience. I grant that he is also right in claiming that this is a position impossible to hold by any human being. In this case, it is analytically true (true by definition) since in the analogy, every person alive is touching the elephant and therefore, not the objective narrator. The non-Christian started this analogy as a person touching the elephant, and thus, not the 3rd person narrator. Keller’s point is that the only way to make a claim about another person’s religious experience is to remove oneself from elephant touching and assume the position of a 3rd person narrator. It is this claim which doesn’t hold and is the crux of the non-Christian’s offense and befuddlement with The Elephant Analogy.

The non-Christian supposes that a person can interpret and make legitimate claims about another person’s religious experience and what it entails about the beast by means which don’t necessitate being a 3rd party omniscient narrator. In fact, this ability is inherent in the analogy. Communication between the blind elephant-observers is exactly how the illustration starts. When one blind man makes a statement to the others about the features of the elephant he’s identified, each other blind man hears this statement and notes differences with what they feel. While this is happening, the non-Christian blind man realizes that some of what he has felt of the elephant is not present in the statements of the other blind man he heard. This leaves exactly four options for the non-Christian blind man: 

(1)  Assume that his experience is true and other claims are false.

(2)  Assume that his experience is false and other claims are true.

(3)  Assume that all claims about the elephant are false, including his own.

(4)  Assume two or more claims are true, but incomplete.

In truth, there are different non-Christians in the real world who hold each of these four options and different Christians who hold at least three of them. In this analogy, Keller only acknowledges the possibility of options (1) and (2). Although his book is admittedly broader than this little story, I don’t recall him coming back to the other possibilities. But interestingly, the options Keller leaves available to the blind elephant feelers are: (1), which is essentially the claim to be be an omniscient narrator—which Christians claim through “special revelation” (see the “third” point); and (2) which sounds a lot like conversion. By limiting the possible options a hypothetical non-Christian elephant feeler could take in this analogy, Keller insights riot from non-Christian readers who found the analogy plausible on the grounds of (3) or (4).

While I think the omission of half of the available options is sufficient to count this analogy as a bad one, more should be said on the plausibility of options (3) and (4). (3) is a claim usually made by two sorts of people: the crazy people who claim really bizarre, often nonsensical, and always unfounded things they tend to (improperly) label as “metaphysics,”2 and those of the science community who dismiss all religious claims out of hand.3

(4) on the other hand tends to be the option that “spiritual” non-Christians usually favor. This option carries with it not just the appearance of humility, but an actual admission that one’s knowledge about religious matters is incomplete. This is the option I believe all thinking people—Christian and non-Christian—end up holding but in varying degrees. The degrees of identification with this option vary according to how incomplete one is willing to admit their knowledge is. Interestingly, C. S. Lewis—the patron saint of modern day evangelicalism—went farther than most Christians are willing to in admitting what he didn’t know inside of orthodox Christianity. In Mere Christianity (with which Keller’s book has been hastily compared), Lewis makes a very non-Kellerian admission when he says, “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”4

There are even more possibilities available to the perceivers of pachyderms. These options are admittedly obscure in this telling of the elephant analogy, but can highlighted by a clarification in terminology. What non-Christians mean at least as often as “no one can see the whole truth” is better stated as “no one does see the whole truth.” The first is a statement about the human noetic system and what it’s possible to know; the second is a statement about observed information about extant religious systems and supposes a hypothesis about reality that more exists beyond what we currently know. The first is a stronger claim and the second a more modest one. Nonetheless, ability to see the whole truth is, at best, inherently assumed to be limited by the observers being blind or, at worst, left out of the analogy entirely. Conceivably, the blind men could team up and bring in more observers. Or who says they can’t move around the elephant? These extensions of the analogy have their corollary in the real world of religious experience by what usually comes with religious pluralism.

To answer Keller directly, the way a blind man could “know that no religion can see the whole truth [without] you yourself hav[ing] the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have” is by 1.) feeling the elephant for oneself, 2.) hearing the account of another person’s perception, 3.) acknowledging that something true you felt isn’t included in the other’s statement, and something they said isn’t including in your experience, then 4.) accepting (4) as the best way to charitably and honestly reconcile the various information.



For a respondent steeped in Keller’s thinking, one might object to the previous discussion and claim that Keller’s challenge to the non-Christian still stands: there is still an unprovable exclusive belief system being assumed by every non-Christian blind man—even those who opted for (4)—and in turn, imposed on the other blind men (perhaps against their will if they choose (1), (2), or (3)).

To this objection, a few concessions might first be admitted. Yes, the belief system is assumed and was even noted in each objection above. They all start with “assume.” What’s more, that assumption is used to assert in varying degrees that the other claims are not true. More specifically, (4) does in fact say to (2) and (3) that they are false. But note: this is very different than saying the experiences of those people are false! It is rejecting their interpretation. (4) also says to (1) that the component of (1)’s claim of exhausting the bounds of truth is false. Admittedly, these are unprovable assumptions. But the criteria for determining the best way to interpret religious experience was never and could never insist on making no assumptions of any kind. Interpretation of any kind always necessarily brings with it assumptions. This objection only says that all belief systems inherently do the very same thing; in fact, this is likely an essential part of what it means to be a belief system: you include assumptions. It is therefore no reason for rejecting or even disinclining a person from any particular system. 

What’s more, the criteria could not be that it deny the logical entailments that follow (ex: believing (4) entails the whole denial of (2) and (3) and partial denial of (1), and can’t be denied on that reason alone), or belief would necessarily be irrational.5 In fact, denying a belief system on the grounds that it entails a denial of opposing belief systems is likewise irrational! To deny (4) on the grounds that it does not allow (2) or (3) to be true is, by definition, irrational since (2) and (3) entail (not 4). If I believe (4) which includes (not 3),” it would be irrational to try to believe (4) and (3). So if not careful, someone meaning to defend Keller will fall victim to the very claim they want to protect.

On top of all that, one could appeal back to the analogy given in the first place as justification for why (4) is—while including an unprovable assumption levied on others—nevertheless the best way of interpreting religious experience. But for reasons mentioned, we would do well to retell the analogy, accepting Keller’s restriction on a 3rd person narrator, but also accounting for the missing options…



“Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none actually sees the whole truth.”


“Hey, I think I feel something,” I said, wishing I weren’t blind.

“Yeah, I think I feel it too,” I heard three other blind men say.

“Do any of you know what it is?” I asked.

“No, but it has a tough, rubbery texture,” I heard the second blind man say.

“Yes, it does,” we all agreed.

“We’re probably all feeling the same thing,” supposed one of the other blind men and again we all agreed.

“It feels long and flexible, like a snake,” said the first blind man.

“What I’m feeling is thick and round like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man.

“What I can touch is large and flat,” said the third.

“I feel something different,” I said. “Are you all sure that really is what you’re feeling?”

They each answered in turn. “Yes, it is confirmed. That is what I can feel.”

“Well, I think you are all wrong,” I heard the first blind man say. “I’m the only one who is actually feeling correctly. Your sense of touch must be messed up if you think you’re feeling anything but a snake.”

“You must be right,” the second blind man capitulated. “I don’t trust my senses. So if you say you are right, then despite feeling like a tree trunk, I’ll believe this is a snake—unless I heard you wrong…”

“No, man. Since we disagree, we’re all wrong,” said the third blind man. “Forget this touching idea. We’re all really on the beach right now. Can’t you smell the ocean air? Smell it quickly before the aliens come to take us all away!”

“Gentlemen,” I interrupted. “I know we’re all blind and so we’ll probably never know everything there is to know about this animal—like what color it is—but, since we have good reason to think we’re all touching the same animal, wouldn’t it be best to suppose that this thing is larger than we first thought and we all might be touching a different part? We should combine what we’ve learned and see if we can work together to understand it better.”

“Just get it off my foot!” screamed a fifth man.



If nothing else, these analogies demonstrate that the nature of discussion on these issues always, and perhaps must, take place on the level of analogical language. This is how we understand and give meaning to our world: through metaphor.6 As we communicate across cultural and ideological lines, the vagueness and ambiguity of these kinds of discussions deserves to be explored charitably by all parties toward making the issues clearer and the goal of greater understanding. The approach that we assume in coming to the discussion—options (1), (2), (3), and (4) above—is a choice each person makes apart from how they judge their particular religious experience. It has been a hope for this work to suggest (4) as the approach best suited for providing understanding and ultimately unity among people who find themselves feeling different parts of the elephant.


1 Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. pg. 8-9


2 This is definitely a gross distortion of the term and I neither mean to suggest that their claims have the semblance of the branch of philosophy with the same name, nor that philosophical metaphysics is as dismissible as the crazy guy who stops you in the supermarket.

3 Alvin Plantinga has made a very interesting and philosophically rigorous argument for a properly basic human sense of the divine in Reason and Belief in God.

4 Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. (This quote is found four paragraphs before Book III. There are no page numbers in my electronic text.)

5 The definition of “irrationality” is holding a proposition and it’s negation: P and ~P

6 For a brilliant discussion of this, see Metaphors We Live By, by George Lackoff and Mark Johnson.