The famous parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant has appeared in several texts, across religious traditions, children's books, movies, as analogies in physics, biology and more. Originating in Ancient India, it is a story of a group of blind men who encounter an elephant, whose shape or form they do not know, and who feel the component parts to try figure out the whole. The late cartoonist, Sam Gross, parodied the fable in one of his books, titled The Elephant is Soft and Mushy:
Though the text has many interpretations, a common one is our shared tendency to assert absolute truths, based on our subjective experience which is inherently limited. That is, having inspected a component of the elephant, each man thinks they know the elephant. In some versions, the men begin to fight with each other, each asserting their truth is the absolute and only.
But even if the men were to share their findings with each other, and combine them peacefully, what would result is an aggregate of truths. And such an aggregate of truths is still not the whole truth. Said another way, the the map is not the territory.
A joke, by an unknown source, turns the parable around and illustrates that what we observe is not the thing in and of itself, but the result of our mode of questioning the thing:
Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, 'Men are flat.' After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.
We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.
To better understand the elephant, and to do so peacefully when confronted with others whose views differ from our own, we must be aware of the limits of understanding.