The Mountain Trek of Life: an analogy

Imagine a mountain. You are on this mountain, and you know you are on the mountain. Side by side with you is the rest of the people on the Earth. For the purpose of this, there’s five of you, and not the rest of humanity. Looking up, you and your buddies can make out that there’s a peek above the clouds- you can’t really see it, but you know there’s a peak there.

For whatever reason, you are trying to get to the top of the mountain. Something is up there that you want, and you don’t know what, why, or how, but you want to get there. You are going to trek.

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When it is said to them: “Come to what Allah hath revealed; come to the Messenger”:
They say: “Enough for us are the ways we found our fathers following.” what!
even though their fathers were void of knowledge and guidance? Al Qur’an 5:104

You’ve got a few buddies next to you. You talk to your buddy, Lucas:

You: “Say, Lucas, what do you think is up on that mountain?”

Lucas: “Well, my parents told me that our god is up there. It’s a legend that’s been passed down my families for ages, and I actually had a great great grandparent that made it to the top and talked to him.”

You: “A god or the God? That doesn’t make any sense at all anyways. Why should there be? And you know, legends are usually not true at all. What do you think, Max?”

Max: “Up where? I don’t see a peak. You guys are talking crazy, we don’t know if this mountain peaks at the top, or just rounds up like a hill. The clouds make it too difficult to determine, so stop speculating and just live.”

You: “Max, I’m pretty sure I can make out a peak. The rest of us can, too.”

Nolan: “Well, I’ve been reading a bit lately, and Max, you’re being silly – all mountains have peaks, even if I haven’t seen the top of this one. I also read that apparently the higher you get the colder the temperature tends to be. So I don’t know what’s up there, but it’s sure to be cold!”

You: “That’s all you know? There’s so many unknowns, how do you live with it?! Me, I’m making an educated guess. I swear, with these binoculars, I can make out a tree up there. Have a look.”

Max: “I don’t see it. Too cloudy.”

You: “Well, David, what do you think?”

David: “Why bother looking? If there’s a peak, who says its worth checking out? If there isn’t, so what?”

On this mountain of life, you have five friends looking up trying to decide what’s at the peak. We can call the summit Absolute Truth – whatever that may mean. Now, you four buddies decide to go up and see who’s right.To Lucas, that’s what his forefather have been telling him (faith?). To Max, there’s no way to be sure there’s a peak, and thus there’s no Absolute Truth (relativism). To David, there’s no way to be sure and there’s no reason to care (“indifferent” relativism). To Nolan, he knows some things, but he’s not too sure about the rest, except it has to be something following the rules of what’s down in the valley (science-only materialism). For you, it’s a bit ambiguous,  but you are making educated speculation – guesstimation (via a mix of science, faith, intuition, etc).

Lucas takes the path his forefathers took – it’s dangerous, treacherous, and doesn’t look effective, but he’s banking on it anyway.

Nolan pulls out a compass and a notebook, figuring out what’s best, not seeing any immediacy to anything at all.

Max listens to the ideas, but doesn’t like any and takes a nice, convenient path – not sure if it or any path at all makes it anywhere.

David listens to the ideas, but doesn’t bother to get up either, watching everyone else approach the mountain in curiosity but not adventure.

You talk with Nolan bit, but find his assertions a bit dubious on the math, and aren’t too sure how to fix it. You attempt Lucas’s path, but keep Nolan’s ideas in mind. You don’t really consider Max, however, because you’re quite sure you see a peak up there.

Lucas ridicules the rest of you, not following the word of generations of intelligent human beings. Max ridicules the rest of you, relying on a conclusion that isn’t conclusive (is there a peak?). Nolan ridicules the rest of you, not using the laws of actual nature. David ridicules the rest of you, trying anything at all. And you ridicule the rest, being too rigid one way or the other.

Somehow, along the way, you all but David meet up again at a juncture by a river. At this point, neither of you is sure what to do. Lucas doesn’t know what path his forefathers took, Max doesn’t care too much, Nolan is out of ideas for calculation, and you have no methodologies from the others to use. For whatever reason or the other, some of you turn left and the others turn right. But you do not criticize each other, since no one really can justify the choice they made. They merely picked because they had to.

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I’ve always found the analogy extraordinary – here we have different philosophies and ways of life guiding people up the mountain of life, and a measure to how those of differing opinions should treat each other. At the departure, the different characters chose different directions because of their philosophical reasoning. At the junction, the different characters chose different directions from no legitimate reason besides the fact that they had to. From that lens, we can see when it is appropriate to criticize, and when it is appropriate to “agree to disagree”. 

An example (albeit poor) of the junction could be a chosen lifestyle: “to get married or not to get married, that is the question!”. Neither necessarily has a certain worldview attached to it, a certain idea of existence or morality. Meanwhile a question such as”to love or not to love, that is the question!” comes with a bundle of legitimate questions on life. More daring examples can fit one way or the other: homosexuality, suicide, nihilism, patriotism.

Likewise, this addresses the question of empathy. Nolan may have found a complex trigonometric reasoning for a certain path up the mountain, but you may not be good at math. Nolan doesn’t bother explaining, then, and gives you the ultimatum to blindly follow or reject. Doing either can make sense: if you relent that Nolan is exceptional at math or if you refuse to disobey your own reasoning. And both choices are understandable from Nolan’s perspective. Likewise, one can see where another comes from on a question such as, “who’s the good guy in the Iraq war?

Another use for the analogy is looking at intellectual arrogance. There are some who would insist that they have reached the peak of the mountain, that they look down on the others and try to guide them up. Those who say so, or act like so, see themselves at the Absolute Truth already. But I feel uncomfortable with those who assert or act so, as if they hold some

And what is this common purpose? What is this Absolute Truth? Depending on the context, the truth is God, the best answer, the Prime Mover, the ultimate reality, the ubermensch, the eternal abode. It is a perfect morality, a grand scheme of things, the equation that makes everything work. It is the secret of life, the universe, and everything. secret access (ski lift) to the top that no one else has, that they can present themselves as above the rest for the enlightenment they hold. We are trekkers up the mountain, but none of us are there. And in realizing that, we must see that our perception of Truth, our method to Truth, our pondering of the existence of a Truth, is really just an educated guess, or a leap of faith, or a surrender to ignorance. In the end, it is speculation after speculation, working in tangent or against, all for a common purpose.

And in that light, perhaps we can see the dangers of cultural imperialism, of rigid absolutism, of religious dogmatism. We cannot claim the top of the mountain, nor that we have the answers for every juncture. By no stretch of the imagination can we thump around our Bibles or our latest Krauss book declaring knowledge to something so distant and so cloudy. What we can say is that we are searching, and that we are looking, and that we are speculating and leaning on one idea or the other. In that light, we can see a new humanity of humility, of shared values, of similar goals. The atheist and the terrorist, the psychopath and the Pope are all looking for the same answers and for the same objective: that peak. The peak of the mountain trek, the secret of life, the universe, and everything, is common to almost all of us…but only if we choose to trek together.

NOTES:

  • Mountain trek analogy can be for many things besides life.
  • None of this applies to a true, ambivalent, indifferent relativist 
  • I adapted this analogy from Tariq Ramadan from one of his books, except that I don’t know which and I can’t find it either on Google or in anything I have.
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