John G Bell

Systemic Thinking

Spring '04 - Geist

Comparative Approach – “The Elephant Parable, Schrödinger’s Cat, The Black Box and World-Views”

The Elephant Parable

In the Elephant Parable, a bored king decides to entertain himself and his retinue. He orders his courtiers and servants to bring an elephant into his courtyard and have several blind men attempt to identify what the elephant is. Each blind person encounters a different part of the elephant and from personal experience recognizes that part as something they have encountered before. One blind person examines the elephant's tusks, and having a history in the military, recognizes the tusk as a spear. Another blind person examines the trunk, and having lived near the forest, leaps back in fright at the having encountered a snake. Each blind person interprets what they encounter as something that they have previously known about the world. The blind men each holds to their truth about what they have encountered, refusing to believe the interpretations of the other blind men. The king and the courtiers are all very amused by this scene. The king is laughing because he sees the elephant and therefore knows that the blind men are all wrong in their interpretations of what is happening, and is proud of having created this amusement for the people of his court. What the king does not realize is that the courtiers are all laughing because someone has painted, on the side of the elephant opposite the king, a political cartoon of the king with his head in a physically improbable location between his own legs.

Not only do each of the blind people believe they have access to the truth, but so do the king and the courtiers. Each has a fraction, perhaps even overlapping fractions, of something in which they all collectively participate, but each thinks they have a complete view of the Elephant, the truth of how things are.

What if there is no elephant?

A primary assumption within the parable of the elephant is that the knowledge of what the object of investigation is comes first. The assumption is that the object comes before the experience of the phenomena it creates for the participants. The king and courtier believe they know the reality of the amusement before the blind people are forced to participate. This assumption of a priori knowledge is often an operational behaviour. However, this basis of knowledge is the operation of previous experience being codified into expectation more than a function of actual access to truth. The participants come to their knowledge of a thing from an interpretation of the phenomena, not the other way around. A world view is the reciprocal result of a constant a posteriori construction.

Schrödinger's cat

The quantum physicist Schrödinger developed a thought experiment to demonstrate some implications of probability and observation. A live cat is placed inside a box, and a gas is released into the box which is fatal 50% of the time. The question is then asked what is the state of the cat, alive or dead? The solution for Schrödinger is that the cat is neither alive nor dead as well as both alive and dead at the same time. The cat exists as a cloud of probability until the box is opened and the observer participates.

What if there is no observer?

One large assumption within the elephant parable is that there is an external observer. The king, that has a broader view of the events than the blind men, has access to primary truth and thus anchors the frame of reference in which the blind people are gathering only smaller slices of in their investigations. To some extent the king has to be present for the experiment to take place, because without the king the blind people could miss the elephant completely or decide they would much rather spend their time smelling flowers in the garden.

Within the parable as I have told it, the king does not even have full access to what is real, or true. The king is unable to see the other side of the elephant, where the political cartoon has been drawn. Even the courtiers do not have complete access to the truth, though they are as amused at the king’s expense as the king is at the expense of the blind men. Even the entire combination of all observations by all available or possible participants cannot be taken to be more than a collaborative picture of the experience. For any number of viewpoints (n), there is always another possible viewpoint that has not been added (n+1). Unless one were to accept Bishop Berkeley's answer that reality is constant because there is an omnipresent and omniscient eye, one must accept that there is no observer that is external to the experience. Even the existence of an omniscient, omnipresent observer cannot be relied on when access to that reference is imperfect. Therefore, at no point is it possible to get rational, experiential access to what is true. Reality and truth is a collaborative ongoing best effort of all participants and is only as strong as the least effective link in the group's ability to communicate those elements with each other. The collaborative project is only as rich as the depth of diversity in perspective.

A primary assumption in Schrödinger’s Cat is that there is an external observer that has access to the interior of the box, to know that it was a cat that was placed in the box and to be able to look inside the box to determine the state of the cat after the potentially lethal gas. This is the same as the king in the elephant parable assumed to have greater access to reality than any other observer. These are a different perspectives, but each is not any more primary than any other.

The Black Box

Within the context of Schrödinger's cat, the thing contained within the box is known before and after, if not while contained in the box. What if it was unknown at every point what the box contained? Without being able to determine the interior of a device, it is a common engineering project to reproduce the device functionally. It is not the goal that the new device must have the same interior structure as long as the function of the device is the same in relation to the inputs and outputs. As long as the devices function identically within the context of their environment, then differences between the engineering of the insides of the devices are irrelevant.

This is similar to so called clean-room implementations of computer hardware or software. The device itself cannot be examined, but the inputs and outputs are known. From those inputs and outputs, one must then design a device with the same goal, or outcome. The actual method of design or implementation is not important, in fact, in these cases, where the particular implementation is protected by legal limitations, it is essential that the design or implementation of the new device not copy the previous except possibly in ways that are obvious and can be defended as not a direct copy of the original.


Approaches toward examining the elephant, Schrödinger’s box and a black-box engineering problem differ in ways that represent alternative world-views. Each participant has a world-view, with which they filter their experience, and is the foundation of their knowledge of the world in which they participate. The collective epistemology becomes the group archidoxes, or conceptual scaffolding and framework, which informs group interpretation of phenomena, informs the community, collective version of Senge’s ladder of inference. The construction of a posteriori knowledge builds on the accumulation of collective experience as a framework for subsequent interpretations of phenomena.

Comparative approaches to the black box

In black box experiment, a device with unknown internals is investigated. The way one approaches this kind of project is in response to a world-view. If one is atomistic, one would likely start by asking of what the black box is comprised and what is the smallest element which can be used to construct the black box. This mode of examination would tend to derive a way to reconstruct the black box using the same materials in the same relationships.

A similar world-view would be a mechanistic examination. This world-view would likely try to determine the parts of the black box, take the device apart and determine the existing parts, as distinct from atoms, and how those parts are arranged to create the device as it exists. This mode of examination would be likely to produce useful knowledge about how the device functions and the possibility of making the device more efficient by determining the essential parts of the device.

Another world-view would take a look at the black box as a whole by looking at the uniqueness of its being and what the device takes in and provides in exchange with the environment in which the device exists. An examination of this kind would likely help to find ways to continue the devices functioning by trying to understand what necessary exchanges the device has.

Similar to this previous world-view, the device could be examined as a set of relationships within a larger context. The relationships within the device collaborate with the relationships outside the device to some end goal. This systemic examination would likely help discover ways to change the way the device functions and the relative necessity of the relationships within the device and that the device has within larger contexts.

Each of these world-views has specific utility in both how an examination is conducted and in what priority is placed on the results of examination. Each of these world-views could arrive at similar information, but each would interpret the results of an examination with particular language and priority. The atomistic world-view would likely be most concerned with the particular small substances necessary to create the whole, what each part is made of and in what quantity. The mechanistic world-view would likely be most concerned with replication of the functionality of the device by whatever convenient simulation could be constructed. The wholistic world-view would start with the device as a whole and be concerned most with the way the device interacted with the environment. The systemic world-view would recognize that there are parts, but look to see what relationship those parts had to each other and what they did in that relationship they could not do separately, the emergent properties of the device.

Comparative Approaches to the elephant parable

Each world-view offers an approach to a project. If these are methods used to determine the nature of an elephant, the atomist would attempt to determine the nature and quantities of essential elements comprised the elephant. This would likely involve taking samples and running them through a spectrometer to determine the chemical make-up of the animal. Further examination would likely lead to sequencing the DNA of the animal to determine the way in which these essential elements were formed together. Eventually, this might lead to an effort to clone the elephant as a test of the accuracy of the atomistic model.

The mechanist would likely examine the elephant as a collection of parts. What are these distinct parts and they function of them? Can the function of these parts be reproduced? If they can be reproduced, is there a more efficient mechanism that produces the same results as the original device? This would likely lead to a kind of bio-mimicry, an attempt to develop a mechanical process that simulated the functioning of the elephant.

A wholist would likely want to observe the elephant to see the way that it interacted within a larger environment. There would be a great deal of data about the interactions between this particular elephant and others similar, but clearly different, than itself. The interactions the elephant had with the environment would likely also be important to the wholist, but a definite focus would be this specific elephant and the nuances of it as a unique animal. This provides a unique view of this elephant as a specific whole, important and valuable in itself.

A systemic examination of the elephant would look for patterns of behaviour and interaction. These patterns and behaviours, as well as the variances from those patterns, would be useful in developing a model of how the elephant functions over time and within the context of forces outside of the elephant’s control, such as the activities of poachers or predators.

What if we are at the center, not the outside?

One lesson from the elephant parable is that it is insufficient to rely on one interpretation of phenomena. Each person has access to different phenomena and the interpretation of that phenomena is within the context of their world-view. If one only pays attention to one’s own interpretation, or even the interpretations of only those with similar world-views, then one is just like the blind people insisting that they have access to the truth and all others are wrong.

The corollary is that one cannot think alone. Reality as a collaborative a posteriori requires the participation of others. The more participation the more useful the construct. Further, since one is looking specifically to include world-views that are not like one’s own, there should be an expectation that there are conflicts of interpretation. If all conflicts and ambiguity are removed, then everyone is thinking the same and therefore not thinking critically. Conflict of interpretation is essential.

Each world-view is a strategy for accessing phenomena and a tool for interpretation. Each being essential can neither be taken out of balance nor ignored for long. This is not to say that flexibility should be removed, for sometimes a particular avenue of investigation may be the most fruitful to pursue. However, extended reliance on one model or strategy is likely to undermine the collaborative project to the detriment of critical thinking.

What if the elephant or cat makes themselves known?

One element that I think is missing from both the elephant parable and Schrödinger's cat example is the idea that the elephant and cat both are participants in the story. It's unlikely that the elephant would not have moved, had a smell or made sounds that would have changed the way it participated in the experience of each person. The cat could perhaps make noise or attempt to scratch its way out of the box, or otherwise moved within the box, making the observer aware of its state within the course of the shared experience.

This is a question of whether it’s possible to ever get access to primary reality, an experience of noesis, a paradoxical state of having access to reality as it really is without the subjective cloud of perception. This is an element of mysticism, but if each of the world-views is part of the development of a collaborative world-view, then the idea that the phenomena participate in the process cannot be dismissed. I may investigate the particular and essential construction of a phenomena, determine the parts and arrangement of parts, recognize that the whole of the phenomena has specific and unique properties, but I would also need to recognize that these are all in a relationship that has qualities that cannot be isolated to the parts, the atoms or the whole. There is an essential web of connectivity between the phenomena, the observer and the environment in which they all participate together.

Not what is true, but what if it were?

If the phenomena comes before knowledge of the object; if the object is likely to never be known, and there is no external observer with primary access to truth; if each world-view is a necessary perspective toward a collaborative construction of consensual reality; then, what is important is not whether an interpretation is true, but rather what if it were.

If the atoms, parts, whole and relationships are a collaborative a posteriori conclusion, then the whole concept of truth must be divorced from notions of objectivity. Even in the case where one has some theoretical primary experience, or noesis, the very nature of communicating that places the experience in the realm and context of the collaborative, speculative conclusion. Each method and strategy of investigation is a tool which enriches the consensual conclusions of community truth, so when faced with any interpretation that is in apparent conflict with one’s own or that of one’s community the appropriate question to as is not whether that interpretation is true, but in what way is it true. The question to ask is what if that interpretation is true, and allow each variance and invariance to inform the collaborative project.