Longing For A Free Mind (Part 2 of 14)

In Part 1, I discussed the importance of having leaders and followers with free minds – Hamka’s “berani menyebut yang aku yakin” – if we hope to aspire to Vision 2020. In this second part I assert that a free mind is Allah’s command; it is a necessary condition to being a believer.

By M. Bakri Musa

The Meaning of A Free Mind

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

I will not wax philosophical on the meaning of a “free mind.” My co-panelist Dr. Azly Rahman is more than qualified to do that; he is also more erudite. The only formal exposure I had to philosophy was an introductory course in my freshman year; that hardly qualifies me. Instead I will share with you my understanding of the concept.

I am less concerned with the philosophical pondering on whether something can exist without being perceived (the tree falling in the deep forest) rather the more practical problem of the same reality being perceived differently, sometimes diametrically so. It is this that can so often leads to much strife and even greater misery.

One way to grasp the meaning of a word is to seek its synonyms and antonyms; likewise a concept. An open, liberated or flexible mind would mean the same as a free mind. Its opposite would be a closed or rigid mind. We have a saying, katak di bawah tempurung (frog underneath a coconut shell). That is an apt and beautiful metaphorical imagery of a closed mind, the very opposite of a free mind.

As Roger William’s song has it, we are “Born free! And life is worth living. Live free and beauty surrounds you.” A free mind is also Allah’s command, as attested to by many Koranic verses. Those who would enslave others are going against His command. And not having a free mind is to be enslaved.

Consider Allah’s command to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as eloquently revealed in Surah Al-Rud (Thunder), “… Thy duty is no more than to deliver the message; the reckoning is Ours!” (13:40 – approximate translation). The prophet was to deliver the divine message but not to force it. This is reinforced in Surah Al-Rahf (The Cave, 18-29), “… Let him who will, believe; and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.”

A faith enforced is no faith. That is the essence of those verses. We accept Islam on our own free will, not because it is forced upon us. A free mind is thus a necessary condition to being a believer.

We have an obligation, to ourselves and to our Creator, not to be enslaved. Nor should we enslave others. Of course none of us would willingly submit ourselves to be so. The road to serfdom however, to borrow economist von Hayek’s phrase, is often laid with the best of intentions. We can be readily seduced into following the paved path that would lead to our enslavement.

We also have an obligation to those enslaved, to help topple their coconut shell. To do so effectively, we first must appreciate and understand the challenges and obstacles they face.

Let me clarify three related terms: brain, mind, and mindset. The brain is the jelly-like anatomical structure in our skull; it is part of our central nervous system (the other being the spinal cord). To use the language of the computer, the brain is the central processing unit of our nervous system. The brain is also the core of our consciousness.

The definition of the mind that is relevant here refers to the intellect and consciousness, our thoughts, perceptions, memory, emotions, will and imagination. The mind is also our thinking process, the rational aspects of our behavior. Thus behaving in an aberrant fashion is referred to as being out of one’s mind.

Mindset on the other hand refers to our outlook in or philosophy of life, the German’s Weltanschauung. It is the set of ideas, attitudes and assumptions that we as individuals or members of a group share of reality, or what we perceive to be reality. While the brain is something physical and can be touched, mind and mindset are but concepts or constructs, as the social scientists would put it.

All three are interrelated but the nature and level of the relationships are not well understood. Increasingly they point towards the molecular (specifically neurotransmitter) level, or what neuroscientists refer to as “neurotransmitter correlates of consciousness.”

Anatomists would be hard put to declare at the gross or even microscopic level that there is such an entity as the Malay brain any more than there is a Negro or Caucasian one. At the genomic level however, certain markers are associated with certain races and that there is indeed a Malay brain in contrast to a Caucasian one, just as there is with Malay intestine or red cell in contrast to Caucasian ones. That is why Malays do not tolerate cheese and the English readily succumb to malaria.

Those with a racist bend will find these insights of modern biology as supporting their prejudices. The scientist Daniel Hillis however, likens our genes (or genome) to the menu of a restaurant, or the ingredients found in its kitchen. Yes, if you were to see a wok and MSG in the kitchen and the menu offers sweet and sour pork, then you could categorically conclude that you are at a Chinese restaurant. Similarly if you were to find cheese and truffles in the fridge and the menu offers chicken cordon bleu, then it is most likely a French bistro.

You cannot however conclude from that the taste or quality of the food, the reason for choosing a restaurant. Those depend less on the ingredients and tools in the kitchen and more on the talent and experience of the chef.

Besides, we have so much more in common between the races and so much more variations within a race that it is less helpful if not distasteful to discuss the brain in terms of race.

The mind and mindset however, are culturally and experientially dependent. Since the cultures and experiences of the various races are so demonstrably different, an argument could be made for the meaningful discussion of the Malay mind and Malay mindset, in contrast to those of the Chinese or English.

The practical reality is that whenever we discuss the Malay mind or the Malay mindset, the dialogue inevitably and quickly degenerates into the dredging up of old ugly stereotypes to “explain” our current dilemmas instead of trying to find solid empirical evidence from which to formulate useful and workable solutions. For this reason I will shy away from discussing specifically the Malay mind despite it being on the agenda and instead focus more on the overriding theme of this conference, “Longing for a Free Mind.”

Next: Part 3 of 14: The Comfort of the Coconut Shell