Is a giraffe really orange, like the fruit?

WEDNESDAY, 19 OCTOBER 2011

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 someone a palette with ten or fifteen colours of paint. Then you pull open the curtains on a beautiful, colourful scene – let’s say grassland in Africa after good rains, with more than a dozen species of animals standing, walking, or lying around. After the person has taken in the scene, you tell him to paint what he has seen. And he has to do it with the ten or fifteen colours you have made available to him.

Perhaps this person is really talented, and his painting 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’s his personality, even his state of mind when he painted the picture. To pick one example, was his omission of the ominous clouds on the horizon deliberate? 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 paintings and sketches and pieces of text, all of which became increasingly precious items after his death. Eventually, these documents and art works were turned into prescriptions for how people should behave, and for how things ought to be described. Within a few generations, the landscape painting, for example, provided 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 had 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 painting, like hundreds of other sketches and paintings and pieces of text produced by this authority figure, had been elevated to the status of sacred artefacts. It follows that at this time it would have been 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 had eyes to see. “How can anyone deny it?” it would have been asked. “Even a child can see it. Indeed, you have to believe like a child.” To confirm this understanding, hundreds of volumes of material would have been written that explained the correct and only acceptable way the artefact should have been interpreted.

Let’s say in the course of a few centuries this religious community became the dominant group in society. By this time you could get in serious trouble with the authorities of the day if you even thought of a giraffe as anything other than Orange – Like the Fruit. Individuals who dared mumble something that sounded like “mustard” in reference to the giraffe could summarily have been summoned before a court, thrown in a dungeon, tortured, and in cases where it was 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 civilised times. “A giraffe is orange, a lion is brown, grass is bright green, the sky is blue, antelopes are brown, and their eyes are yellow. This is how it is. It must be so. It cannot be otherwise, because the Holy Painting says so.”

And anyone who wants to talk about an ancient palette with only ten or fifteen colours, and the original painting just being a sincere and honest attempt at producing a representation of a reality much too rich 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.

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