Is a giraffe really orange, like the fruit?


This morning around five o’clock I woke up for about five seconds, had a thought about a handful of crayons, a child and a picture, and the meaning that can be extracted from that on the limitation of language when it comes to religion and “absolute truth”, and then I fell asleep again.

The point was this: you give anyone a palette with 10 or 15 colours. Then you pull open the curtains on a beautiful, colourful scene – let’s say a plain in Africa just after good rains, with dozens of species of animals standing, walking, or lying around. After the person has taken in the scene, you tell him to paint or sketch what he has seen. And he has to do it with the 10 or 15 colours you have made available to him.

Perhaps this person is really talented and his image is rich in detail and full of colour.

Question is, is this image a 100% accurate representation of the actual scene – of the grass and the trees and the animals and the sky and the clouds and the birds and all the minute details that fill reality?

How can it be? He only had a dozen or so colours to work with! And then there is his personality, even his state of mind when he painted the picture. Did he, to pick one example, deliberately not include the impending storm in his version? How much detail did he leave out simply because he lacked the necessary talent?

Let’s now take the analogy further. The person who had painted the landscape is later seen as an authority figure in some religious tradition. Besides the landscape representation he also produced hundreds of other pictures and sketches and pieces of text, all of which become increasingly precious commodities after his death. All these documents and art works later become prescriptions about how people should behave, and they dictate how things ought to be described. Within a few generations the landscape representation, for example, then provides guidance to the community about how one ought to talk about animals as found on an African grassland after good rains.

Initially it would have been acceptable if someone said, “This is clearly a giraffe, although a giraffe isn’t really orange like the fruit, it’s more of a dark mustard colour.”

A few generations later this image’s value, like the value of the hundreds of other sketches and pictures and pieces of text produced by this authority figure, will have been elevated to the status of sacred artefacts. It follows that it would at this time be orthodox to refer to a giraffe as orange like the fruit, even that it had never been anything but orange. Why? The picture indicates it as such – clearly, to all who have eyes to see. “How can anyone deny it?” it will be asked. “Even a child can see it. Indeed, you have to believe like a child.” To confirm this understanding, volumes of material are written that explain the correct and only acceptable way the artefact should be interpreted.

Let’s say in the course of a few centuries this religious community becomes the dominant group in society. Now you can get in serious trouble with the authorities of the day if you even think of claiming a giraffe is anything other than Orange, Like the Fruit. Individuals who dare mumble something that sounds like “mustard” in reference to the giraffe may summarily be summoned before a court, thrown into the dungeon, tortured, and in cases where it is suspected that such a person might have contaminated other innocent minds with the heretical mustard colour business, be sent to the stake.

“You are wrong,” people would say centuries later in more civilized times. “A giraffe is orange, a lion is brown, grass is bright green, sky is blue, goats are brown and their eyes are yellow. This is how it is; it must be so; it cannot be otherwise, because the Holy Picture says so.”

And anyone who wants to get smart about an ancient palette that only had 10 or 15 colours, and who wants to utter something about the original image just being a sincere and honest attempt at producing a representation of a reality much richer in colour, taste, sound and feeling for any human being with limited resources and capabilities to ever reproduce 100% accurately is simply too smart for their own good.