The Stubbornness of Trained Minds

This semester I am taking a course in Tai Chi to finish up my PE requirement. I am very glad I am, as it has turned out to be a wonderful class for me, both for my overall flexibility and for my general state of mind. Tai Chi is rather controversial in the West, because it is based on the idea of chi, or life-energy, which the practitioner can manipulate and guide within himself to achieve balance. Skilled masters can also manipulate the chi of others, to heal or to use offensively when practiced as a martial art. This is also the basic idea behind acupuncture. Of course, this would appear to violate several laws of physics, and is therefore not well received in the West.

Tonight the class watched two videos, the second of which was a taped program where Bill Moyers went to China to explore traditional medicine and medical techniques. (At least, that was the theory; he spent most of the time with a condescending smile on his face, despite the fact that when a doctor manipulated Moyers's own chi, he felt a definite response. Let me note in passing that Bill Moyers likes the sound of his own voice too much for anyone's good.)

What interested me was Moyers's guide, an American doctor who had studied Chinese medicine off and on for twelve years. He clearly was open-minded enough to think that the Chinese were on to something, enough so that he spent a good portion of his life learning from them. And he was quick to note the empirical effects of such things as acupuncture. One clip showed a woman undergoing open-head surgery for a very large brain tumor; she received acupuncture and was also dosed with about half of the typical amount of anasthetic. She remained conscious and relatively lucid during the operation, and was completely without pain.

When the doctor was interpreting for an acupuncture specialist, he mentioned to Moyers that the map of acupuncture meridians had almost no correspondance with actual human anatomy, but was meant to represent flows of chi. At the same time, then and every other time the subject of chi came up, the doctor belittled the idea, portraying it as simply how the Chinese thought of things, a quaint outgrowth of a rather interesting philosophy.

Now, speaking empirically, he knows that acupuncture produces large effects on felt pain and even on some physical ailments. He also knows that acupuncture is not interacting with any nerves or any other anatomical feature that could explain this. He is naturally resistant to the idea that the Chinese know what they are talking about, with this energy nonsense, but he has seen far too much to simply dismiss it as a placebo effect. How then can he simply write off chi wholesale?

This shows, I think, just how rigidly the human mind can resist breaking its training. This doctor believes in the absolute primacy of the laws of physics, and therefore anything suggesting otherwise is to be viewed as a curiosity, and not as a challenge to his beliefs. How could it be? After all, the laws of physics are absolutely true!

Jewish thought, on the other hand, is quite comfortable with the idea of a world based on energy. Indeed, much of the mystical tradition tends in that direction. This partly explains why I am open to the idea of chi myself. I wonder, though, what sort of dogmatic beliefs I could cling to in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. I would like to think that I am rational enough to adapt my worldview to new information, rather than distorting the information to fit my preconceived ideas, or simply dismissing it. But it would be foolish to assume that to be true.

One must constantly examine his own beliefs and test them against reality, for practical reasons as well as philosophical. If someone persists in holding a wrong idea in the face of reality, sooner or later reality will catch up to him with a wet meaty crunch. This is a particular concern for people with power or influence, because of the greater magnitude of their actions.

Yet more and more people hold beliefs that are clearly suspect. Atheism is a classic example. With the exception of prophets and mystics, humanity does not know one way or the other whether there is a god. Therefore, an utterly rational person not possessing mystical insight would be an agnostic. Atheism, on the other hand, is just as "irrational" as is belief in God. In fact, it is even more so, since atheists must explain the very existence of the universe, whereas believers must only explain the existence of Evil.

Marxism is another example. Karl Marx had a keen insight into the societal trends at work in his day, and made the mistake of drawing straight-line projections into the future. That, combined with a monumental misunderstanding of human nature, gave us Marxism. Yet you will still find many committed Marxists running around, despite the fact that modern technology does not concentrate the means of production in the hands of a few, but rather makes them available to more and more people. Modern Marxists simply are unwilling to see the trends that sit right in front of their faces.

At any rate... the next time you see or hear something that seems obviously wrong, take a moment to think about it. It may still be wrong; but it could be that you are about to learn something new, that lets you understand the world just a little better.


Anonymous said...

Yoga works for centering the mind also.

Anonymous said...

"Atheism, on the other hand, is just as "irrational" as is belief in God. In fact, it is even more so, since atheists must explain the very existence of the universe, whereas believers must only explain the existence of Evil."

You are working from a common misconception about the nature of atheism and theism. They aren't knowledge-claims, they are (non)belief statements.


"Therefore, an utterly rational person not possessing mystical insight would be an agnostic."

That only works up to a point. I can claim all sorts of things and then insist that because you don't possess my "mystical insight," you must remain "agnostic" about what I am saying. Just how far would my claims have to go before you dismissed me, though? At some point people will say that I'm just silly. Being technically "agnostic" (not claiming to know for sure one way or another) isn't incompatible with dismissing or accepting something, at least provisionally.

It's the difference between knowledge and belief.