The Perplexing Human Mind

This article is kindly contributed by Ong Siew Chey from Singapore. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.


The greatest advantage human has over all animals is superior brain power. We are able to think in abstract terms and comprehend philosophical and moral concepts. And we are supposed to be capable of attaining perceptions and forming opinions in a rational and logical way. In spite of these superb faculties, the human mind is subject to contradictions and often becomes incongruous and defies understanding. For instance, in a court of law or in scientific fields, we accept only facts that can be proven and substantiated. In some other areas, however, we readily embrace beliefs that cannot withstand objective scrutiny. There seems to be a two-tier system in the human mental process.

The human mind works in a mysterious way. Human nature is such that one tends to defend one’s views and thoughts by rationalizing them, perhaps because admission of one’s misconceptions may hurt the ego or affect self-interest. Many of us have come to believe firmly in certain tenets from our cultural upbringing, education, association with others or from self-interest. Once entrenched in our mindsets, the viewpoints are held tightly in a logic-proof compartment not penetrable by reasoning. Our mind appears to possess two separate and irreconcilable parts. We can be rational, objective and just, but we are also capable of being biased, bigoted and self-seeking. Our beliefs do not always follow objective and logical deductions. Our thinking is commonly marked by incongruity. As a result, perplexing paradoxical phenomena occur frequently in our daily lives in a wide range of matters.

The Obstinate Mind

The human mind is highly susceptible to indoctrination of ideas, which are readily assimilated as one’s own. We then defend them with all our emotion. Some of us even do not hesitate to resort to violence to suppress or eliminate views and criticisms unfavorable to our beliefs.

It is probably easier and more comfortable for us to cling to a familiar doctrine than to question it or explore alternatives. In general, we are not inclined to stress ourselves and go beyond our comfort zone. We try to avoid strenuous physical efforts, and similarly we tend to shun taxing and tiresome mental activities even at the expense of seeking truth.

Not so long ago, I watched a television program in Chinese on the Phoenix channel. It was a lively discussion by invited speakers with audience participation, presided by an impartial and witty moderator. The topic was “Is traditional Chinese medicine a pseudoscience?” Speakers on the affirmative side emphasized the need to have proven scientific facts and data.  The other side argued on the merits of long history, old tradition and culture, and anecdotal evidence. One elderly gentleman, apparently a prominent scholar, visibly upset when his age-old faith in traditional Chinese medicine was challenged, began to speak irrelevantly and condemn science as an instrument of Western aggression. He became so agitated that the moderator had to persuade him to take a pill from a vial kept in his pocket, presumably to soothe his heart. Surprisingly, a considerable proportion of the audience supported his side.

Recently, I happened to turn on the television and watch a local program. It was a symposium-like presentation concerning the basis of traditional Chinese medicine by several seemingly knowledgeable individuals. It was meant to be an advertisement, but except for a fleeting display of the sponsor’s name, one could have easily mistaken it to be a program featured by the television station. It was quite disturbing to note that nothing said made sense or came near truth. For instance, the heart was described as a “solid” organ that controlled the mind and had a parent-son relationship with the stomach. Anything wrong with the “son” would upset the “parent”. The stomach took in food but it was the spleen that absorbed the nutrients. The liver had the important function of producing qi, whatever it meant. These concepts would be at least two thousand years behind time; yet they are still held obstinately in the face of well-known and well-proven modern biological knowledge.

I found it quite incomprehensible that such antiquated and fallacious information could be presented to supposedly well-educated Singaporeans in the 21st century; it should really be considered an insult to the intelligence of our people. The sad truth is that many Singaporeans probably accepted what was said. Many of us have been exposed to some old erroneous concepts and have assimilated them in our mindsets. They are difficult to dislodge unless we are strongly motivated to seek truth and are willing to be introspective in an unbiased way. In this case of an emotionally-charged topic, one cannot even question the misinformation without eliciting a robust, hostile and possibly harmful response from interest groups because the bottom line here is financial interest.  I am reminded that some 28 years ago, the late Professor Wong Hock Boon, one of the most brilliant clinicians Singapore has produced, had to face a death threat (probably from interest groups) and public outcry when he said that Chinese herbs were like grass. He meant correctly that herbs were raw material like grass that had not been analysed, scientifically tested, and purified into drugs with proven pharmacological properties. In fact, the proper collective name for common Chinese herbs is “grass medicine” (草药). I remember that both the Chinese and English press and the general public ganged up to attack his views in a rather vicious and personal way. It was a case of tyranny of society, an ill-informed society, over an individual with knowledge and wisdom. It was also a case of tyranny of the press that subscribed to one-sided freedom of speech. I am sure many people (myself included) wrote to support Professor Wong’s views, but none of the letters were published.

History teaches us that our views and opinions, even if they are held by the majority, are not necessarily correct unless they can withstand free discussion and contest and finally emerge as truth. John Stewart Mill (1806 – 1873), an outstanding English philosopher and thinker, strongly stressed this point. Many of his views were well ahead of his time and are still miles ahead of the present time.

Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.), the great Greek philosopher, to whom mankind owes much not only for his wisdom but also for his bringing up a student named Plato, was tried and sentenced to death for corrupting the minds of the youth. Galileo (1564 – 1642), the great Italian astronomer, often called the father of modern physics, who maintained that the earth revolved around the sun, was found guilty by the Catholic Church for going against the teaching of the Bible, and was given a jail sentence, later commuted to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

It would seem that the human mind, once imbued with wrong beliefs, often has difficulty renewing itself as it tends to reject change. In spite of its capability, the mind is both susceptible and obstinate, and its fallibility easily leads to bigotry.

The Limited Mind

Our superior mind has made landing on the moon and exploration of distant planets possible. Our technological advances in recent decades have been incredible. Our knowledge in biology has reached the molecular level, and we have worked out our entire genome. We transplant organs routinely, and we can clone an animal. We are at the verge of using stem cells to repair tissues and organs. Yet when it comes to politics and economics, we become rather impotent and are unable to find fail-safe solutions. Our scientific achievements have been miraculous in the short span of a few centuries, but for millennia we have been unable to find an ideal system of government for ourselves.

In recent history, political ideology has been one of the most important factors leading to internal and international conflicts and wars. Numerous lives have been sacrificed over assertion or defense of political beliefs. The dust is settling with most people coming to accept that democracy is the ideal form of government. The conviction that only representative government is desirable seems to have been established in our minds. But is a truly representative government really achievable?

Each of the two systems, democracy and dictatorship, has its own merits and defects. Dictatorship is perhaps the most efficient system of government. In history, countries like Germany, Russia and China once surged to be world powers rapidly under their respective absolute dictators. Alas, an ideal, infallible and benevolent dictator probably does not exist in reality, and consequently the countries plunged into disaster and ruin before they managed to pick up the pieces. Individual dictatorship appears to be a high-risk system that is not covered by insurance. Group dictatorship perhaps can fare better, but one cannot be certain that the leaders will always be enlightened, just and benevolent, there being no effective checks and balances.

Although democracy has taken on various forms, it is basically the fairest available system and one that does not readily lead to violent conflict. Nevertheless, it is far from being truly representative of majority rule in most countries and is fraught with defects. To be really valid, it requires a population of a reasonably high general educational level and with interest and concern in the affairs of the country. Even in a country like the U.S., the turnout rate of voters is usually only between 50 and 55%. Moreover, one can say that many people probably cast their votes for the wrong reasons.

To conduct a successful election campaign, the candidate needs monetary and other extraneous supports. It is difficult for a candidate to completely avoid subtle and indirect influence of interest groups. The successful candidate after election needs to safeguard his political future and may be tempted to pursue a path that would not jeopardize his position or compromise his chances of advancement, instead of sincerely working for the greater good of the nation without fear or favors.

Furthermore, a democratic government system may be abused and may degenerate into a form that is as decadent as that of dictatorship unless a tradition of fair play, accountability, human rights and equality, and transparency of government, is firmly established. Examples of abused and distorted democracy are aplenty if we look at the sagas of some of the so-called democratic countries. Unscrupulous elected leaders frequently supplant the system of government for their own benefits and can continue to have an unyielding hold on the people’s minds.

In another aspect of government, the perpetual contest between socialism and capitalism seems difficult to resolve. A recent article written by Tan Chin Hwee and published in the Business Times pointed out the following humorous paradox:

“1949: only socialism can save China.  1979: only capitalism can save China.  1989: only China can save socialism.  2009: only China can save capitalism.”

The fallibility and vulnerability of the human mind condemn us to repeat history. We find it difficult to learn from past lessons, and belated realization of our mistakes is the usual rule.

We seem unable to escape from the unsatisfactory situation in politics. The best form of government we have is democracy, but it is riddled with shortcomings, and we have no better alternative to our Hobson’s choice. The human mind seems limited and powerless to break through this impasse.

The Incongruous Mind

An incongruous perplexing phenomenon in life is the matter of religion. There must be countless types, denominations, subdivisions and sects of religion in the world, and followers of each school consider their beliefs to be unquestionably valid and absolutely superior to all others. It stands to reason that not all can be right. Religions are overwhelmingly based on subjective beliefs. Unfortunately, they are unavoidably divisive of the human race and have provided the fuel for numerous conflicts and wars causing extensive bloodshed throughout the history. Why has all the killing been necessary?

In general, religion can be considered to consist of two components: compulsion to revere and submit to certain supernatural beings and observance of a code of behavior. The degree of dominance of either aspect varies a great deal from one religion to another. As a personal matter, religious devotion can lead to a peaceful state of mind and lessen the stress in our lives. In a broad sense, it has the potential of promoting love and kindness among men. The problem arises when ritualistic worship with its unquestioned, dogmatic doctrines becomes inundating and the basic instinct of “birds of the same feather” takes over. In that situation, religion lapses into a divisive and destructive force.

Religions have originated in different ways. One of the ways is that a certain human being, by virtue of his wisdom and behavior, is believed to have acquired supernatural power and immortality and have thus brought forth a religion. Another way is that there is in fact a creator who somehow materialized. He created the universe and all living things and his followers are beholden to him and are expected to praise and pray to him regularly and to conform to whatever directives he would have passed down directly or indirectly. Still another way is that certain deities seemingly spontaneously appeared and commanded the devotion of followers, who practice their worship essentially for their personal well-being. There are many other ways that have led to the establishment of religions, including the worship of natural phenomena and objects such as heaven, sun, fire and others, presumably out of fear of the unknown or unexplained.

In many religions, the belief in supernatural beings is accompanied by defined codes of conduct and behavior, most of which are desirable and would definitely promote human virtues. In exhorting the followers to conform to the teaching, several religions uphold a dogma that an individual can expect future reward for piety and eventual retribution for infidelity. This “hope for heaven and the threat of hell” doctrine exerts a very powerful influence on the human mind.  The teaching naturally necessitates the belief in each religious group that its supernatural overseer is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent.

There is, therefore, a great religious paradox. There have been many different religions existing in the world for a long time, and in each religion the worshipped supernatural supreme being is supposed to have unlimited power. Out of the great diversity of religions, logically there can be only one true religion and one true god in our world if religious beliefs are to maintain credibility. It is puzzling why all human beings have not been led by the single omnipotent Supreme Being to the correct belief. Many of us embrace a particular religion by birth and/or upbringing and not by conscious choice. In other words, most of us cannot be blamed for having a “wrong” religious belief, as it has been thrust on us. Why then have these innocent individuals been left to persist till death with their “wrongful beliefs” or the lack of a belief, and to face possible punishment or disadvantage in the “afterlife”?

In most religions the codes of conduct and behavior undoubtedly aim at benevolence and love among men and harmony and peace in the world. However, too often they are overshadowed by forms of worship. Basic reasoning and common sense would lead one to think that blessings should be bestowed mainly for merits of deeds and not for ritualistic worship, and prayers should be answered only for deserving individuals and not by the mere act of praying.

Since the Almighty Being is omnipotent, one must assume that all natural phenomena are under His control.  It is, therefore, difficult to make sense of the natural disasters such as quakes, floods, tsunamis, storms and volcanic eruptions in which numerous people including innocent children and infants perish. Are these disasters meant for mass punishments or are there other explanations? Even the Straits Times, which usually shuns discussion on religions, was moved to publish an article asking where God was in the tsunami of December 2004.

All these religious ironies leave one feeling perplexed. By the trend in the world today, it seems unlikely that mankind can find an answer for a few more millennia. In the meantime, religious strife will persist as the human mind continues to be incongruous and contradictory.

About the Writer

Ong Siew Chey is a retired general surgeon who occasionally writes for pastime. He is author of two books: China Condensed: 5000 Years of History and Culture and Tales from Old China. Primarily educated in Chinese, he attended university and underwent postgraduate training in U.S. Prior to his private practice, he was professor and head of surgery of the University of Singapore.

4 thoughts on “The Perplexing Human Mind

  1. Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, we have to live with the frailty and fallibility of the human mind, and the world can never be a perfect one.

    Ong Siew Chey

  2. A thought provoking piece indeed. We can always be made to believe the unbelievable, if subjected to brain washing long enough, either from birth or a few hours one day a week…

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