The Invisible Gardener: Part 1 Wisdom (Famous Philosophical Thought Experiments 1)

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You can find the full series here.

The Parable of the Invisible Gardener is a philosophical thought experiment originated by John Wisdom. It’s main application is to religious language and how people lead to different conclusions about the existence of God from the same evidence. However, it demonstrates a wider issue within science. It attempts to demonstrate that our conclusions from scientific method are subjective, and may not lead to how the world actually is. 

The parable first originates in John Wisdom’s Gods. It talks of two men who stumble across the garden. One of the men notices the flowers and concludes that a gardener must attend the garden. The other notices the weeds in the garden and concludes that there cannot be a gardener. They argue back and forth. The first man highlights the fact that they haven’t seen a gardener while the second responds the gardener could be invisible. The second then highlights how the flowers have been put into rows and how that requires an intelligent being to carry out. The second denies this as it could have occurred by chance. 

Both of them are presented with the same evidence. They both can see the flowers, the rows, the weeds and the lack of gardener. However, they still reach a different, opposing conclusion to each other. 

One thing this version of the parable demonstrates is that people can be presented with the same  evidence within the world and still lead to very different conclusions about God. Some people may see the order of the world, how well our ecosystems work together or how beautiful the world is and conclude it must have been created by a God. These ideas lead to arguments such as that from design and the cosmological argument. On the other, some may see the pain and suffering of the world such as those living in poverty or the emotional agony of losing a loved one. This leads to the problem of evil and from this some conclude that a God could not have created this world.  

This creates problems for those using the world to argue for the existence of God. If we can view the same evidence yet reach different conclusions on God’s existence, our belief that God exists or doesn’t exist must be to some extent subjective. If such beliefs are subjective, then we can’t truly prove that there is a God. Our ideas cannot be proven right as evidence does not necessarily lead to the right answer. 

However, the parable doesn’t just illustrated problems with arguing for God’s existence.  More gravely, it leads to problems with all our scientific statements and observations and whether they are purely subjective. For example, there are instances within science when two people are presented with the same evidence but reach different conclusions or they favour one hypothesis over the other. An example of this, highlighted by Kune is the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. The geocentric model was developed by Ptolemy in the 2nd Century CE. The model of the universe had the sun rotating around the earth. However, in the 16th Century, Copernicus developed the heliocentric model of the solar system (one similar to the model we have today) where the Earth rotated around the sun. At the time, there was equal evidence for both of the models. There were some thing’s Ptolemy’s model could explain and Copernicus’s couldn’t and vice versa.  Despite this equality of the two models, the heliocentric model was picked over the geocentric one. 

This illustrates a strong epistemological problem. If we can view the same evidence and yet come to different conclusions, how can we ever know if we are right or not? When we make epistemological claims, we want to think that we can know things which are true about the world. In particular, a world with set properties which do not change and exist independently of us. These properties or the facts we gain are not subjective. We look to gain this knowledge by looking at external evidence. This is used to guide us to a correct answer via deduction. However, if the same evidence can lead us to separate answers, only one of which can be right, it would suggest external evidence does not mean we can gain the right answer. Our beliefs are instead subjective and influenced by our own biases.

This is deeply counter-intuitive. So how do we solve this epistemological problem?


Part 2 will look into this question and how Flew attempts to adapt the parable in order to solve this question.  Part 3 will be reflecting on Dr John Frames’ adaption of the parable. 


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