Conference of the Birds


Monday, May 22, 2000

A Persian poet, Farid ud-Din Attar, was born during the twelfth century in northeast Iran. He was trained as a physician, chemist, and as a Sufi. He was followed in time by Rumi, perhaps the most famous of the Sufi poets. While the long poem, Manteq at-Tair, “Conference of the Birds,” concerns aspects of sufism, tenets of which are particular and specific to this system, the allegorical essence of its message can be distilled to a message that cuts cross all beliefs.

In this poem, the birds of the world gather together to seek a king–a leader. They are informed by a wise man that they already have a king but that he lives far away and the journey is dangerous to undertake. At first, the birds are filled with enthusiasm, but as they consider the difficulties, they begin to give excuses: the nightingale cannot leave his beloved, the hawk is satisfied with his position at court waiting on earthly kings, the finch is too afraid to set-out. The reasons given are many and convincing to the reasoner. Finally, the group dwindles to a small number led now by the wise man, who describes in detail the journey, a trip through seven valleys. Upon reaching the goal, they are reluctantly admitted, arriving at the court of their apparent king, where they find that the one they sought is none other than themselves.

They believed, however, that they needed a specific leader, a king, to follow, to trust, to obey. The plight of the birds compares, allegorically, with that of the present-day physician.

The respected philosopher, Quine, wrote a short duograph with a colleague entitled: The Webb of Belief. Quine describes how all beliefs are united, are joined to each other, in the manner of a stiff spider web, a multi-pointed pantograph. Imagine the shape: changes position of one belief (or point) affect all others. Some beliefs, however, are fixed in position. These particular beliefs are acquired at specific times during the ontogeny of an individual. The beliefs become immobile, for they are incorporated into a psychological brain state at a particular vulnerable time. Such beliefs include religious beliefs and beliefs in specific racial or cultural superiority. For this vulnerable period, I coined the term: pedagogophilial stage. It is a period known to those who wish to indoctrinate others. It is a narrow zone of influence existing from about 7 years of age to 17 years. The decade of pedagogophilia: anything forced upon a youth by a convincing authority “takes.” It is no mystery why religions employ this period to insert their dogma, calling it religious instruction, usually in preparation for a rite of passage. In Christianity, the rite is “confirmation,” in Judaism, “bar or bas mitzvah,” in tribal ritual, it is the bodily removal of the child from its parents to be instructed by tribal elders, ending with a dramatic event: circumcision or scarring, something to remind the child of the experience. From the point of view of tribal success and vigor, it is of seminal importance that the members know how to fight, how to recognize the enemy, what foods are edible and how they should be prepared, what to do in case of catastrophe, and so forth. There is significant species survival value contained in this narrow zone of pedagogical susceptibility.

Hitler’s youthful “brown shirts” show how this sensitive era is employed by society. Consider the “Young Democrats,” the Young Republicans,”the current rush to private denominational schools, and it is readily seen how similar are religious and political beliefs and the methods of indoctrination concerning them.

The Neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, writes: "The human capacity to hang onto our beliefs in the presence of confounding data is astounding. [In an experiment design to test this,] It was found that subject's belief in their initial position was strengthened if the [a scientific study] supported it, while their initial belief was hardly affected at all if the study opposed it. Clearly, people evaluate evidence concerning an established belief in such a way as to maintain its perceived validity, and are more likely to discredit methodology than their own beliefs."

"We human beings without powerful tendency to create and maintain beliefs, readily generate causal explanations of events and actively seek out, recall, and interpret evidence in a manner that sustains our personal beliefs."

This is the very stuff of Francis Bacon, who made this observation: "We believe to be true what we prefer to be true."

The significance of those beliefs adopted during the vulnerable period concerns their embedded, fixed character. If to these beliefs all other beliefs are joined, then they affect every other belief, every new discovery and every observation. Quine suggests that one whose beliefs are rigidified in this manner cannot respond to changes in factual information. A person with rooted rigid religious or political beliefs uses a filter that affects all observation. Such a person cannot find credence as a scientist or philosopher, for both endeavors are rooted etymologically in the idea of gaining unprejudiced, pure, knowledge.

The above helps explain the observation that humans are more or less fixed by their genetic origins, that the moldability, tabula rasa, required for educational theory to be sound, does not exist. A person has a fixed ontogeny, one that draws them to specific endeavors. It also pre-determines how seriously is taken a belief gained during those vulnerable years. The ontogeny also predetermines social and cultural success. These ideas are difficult to accept in an era pushing for the inherent equality of individuals. The observations support a statement attributed to Socrates: “all learning consists of being reminded of what is pre-existing in the brain.”

Gazzaniga describes a neurophysiological basis for the Socratic conclusion: The brain is functionally organized into "...domain specific Darwinian algorithms - which is a fancy way of saying evolutionary pressure has coughed up specialized circuits in the brain that carry our specific mental functions. When we think we are learning something, we are only discovering what has already been built into our brains.

Astonishingly, this kind of built-in system is known to exist at the cellular and molecular level - in the immune system. Great complexity is built into the immune system, and selection works on that complexity. There is no quibbling about this: That is the way the immune system works. And. . .selection processes are also central to evolutionary theory and all of biology. There is a great deal at stake if this claim is true for human cognition. It casts a different light on the nature/nurture argument that has plagued science for years, and makes obsolete traditional and popular views of psychological processes, such as those expressed by every behaviorist and many knowledgeable observers of molecular biology. . ."

This neural organization is unequivocally confirmed by the most recent identical twin studies reporting on identical twins separated at birth and raised by different parents in differing cultural environments. Each twin copes with the environment in specific ways, and reveals thereby, sociobiological, genetically pre-determined twinning, the character of which is almost eerie. Two twin men, meet for the first time after 50 years of separation, each wearing the same odd, specific belt buckle and clothing.

The combination of specific, genetically determined mental functioning and pedagogical susceptibility is deadly for self-determination. Even if one can “see” the vulnerability of one’s own beliefs or ideals, doing something about them is another matter indeed. This is the stuff of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Well-researched reports attest to the lack of change in patients in therapy.

What do people choose to study medicine or Law? Physicians do not just happen to be physicians. They are pre-selected by their special qualities, qualities that others do not possess. Gazzaniga again: ". . .there seems to be something about [medicine] . . . per se that selects the people who go into it. . .it is not clear whether such selections (of specializations etc.) are based on motivational or cognitive dimensions of mind. It is clear, however, that they go on all the time. My guess is that those drawn to formal philosophy have special systems that the rest do not possess. I really don't think Wittgenstein happened to be a philosopher."

Medicine requires students to grasp a vast amount of information in a fairly restricted period of time and demands that they be enslaved, in effect, by a training system exacting severe physical and emotional demands. The kind of person who accepts these requirements would also be the same one who would gravitate towards a leader, or accept any system imposed upon them without much of a fight. I have here described my fellow physicians. And, myself.

Twenty-six years ago, I wrote a monthly column in the Sonoma County Medical Bulletin. I reviewed these writings recently, and found that I am asking today the same question I was asking then: why are physicians so willing to give-up freedom? “Why?,” I asked then, “ do physicians give the power of their self-determination to another, a leader, king, president? Today, I understand the reasons a bit better but find little solace that Attar described these same tendencies 800 years ago and advised the same solution: the leader, solution, goal, happiness, king, god, we seek is none other than ourselves.

Are you capable of this degree of individualism?