Monday, June 25, 2012

The MMA - Skepticism connection

It has been a busy summer to say the least. After teaching across Canada I went to Ireland and then back to the UK. Great trips, great friends, and a reminder of how fortunate I am. This was followed by the weekend at the Mundials (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world championships), where SBG managed to bring home a pile of medals, including several golds, and a new world champion from my own Portland Gym. All in all, lets just say life is pretty tremendous.

Between my above mentioned schedule, and the continuing work on my book, it's been tough to find much time to write on other topics. I have however been involved with a few things, including a podcast I did two weeks ago on the topic of MMA, skepticism and faith. The show was Strange Frequencies, and also featured physicist Lawrence Krauss, his interview on a Universe from 'nothing' is excellent.
You can listen to the podcast here

MMA, Skepticism & Faith with Matt Thornton

To new readers or people unfamiliar with the parallels that exist between traditional martial arts and religion/superstition, these two subjects might seem a bit unrelated. However, as those who've investigated this topic know, with the exception of course of religion, and 'perhaps' alternative medicine, few sub cultures remain as embedded with irrationality.

The last twenty years of my career have in one way or another been about the promotion of skepticism, critical thinking and the application of reason within the martial arts, and I don't think this has been in vein. Most of this work was done with the intentional introduction of a one word meme which, and I say this with some satisfaction, has taken hold worldwide. That word, as most of you probably know, is Aliveness. If someone really 'gets' what that means, then they can easily discern between what is fantasy, and what will align itself with reality once someone else actually begins fully resisting. Like critical thinking itself, it isn't the conclusion, or the technique that defines whether someone can actually pull off a movement against a non-cooperating opponent, but the process one used to arrive at that conclusion, in this case the training method, that makes all the difference in the world.
That practical skill set, whether it's learned within the martial arts or a critical thinking class, can easily translate into all the other areas of our lives. We can learn to engage reason and rationality to improve the well being of ourselves, and the world at large.

Occasionally I still get hit with questions like, "why bother explaining Aliveness at all, people will either get it or they won't?" As well as, "Since the advent of MMA everyone 'gets' Alive training now don't they?" Let me briefly address both.
For those who feel that explaining Aliveness at all is a waste of time because those that fall for the traditional fantasy based martial arts, thinking them efficient, are either stupid or lazy, and therefore deserving of their fate, let me just say I don't share that opinion.

About four times a year I guest lecture at the local university in a critical thinking class. This class covers everything from faith healers, astrology, alternative medicine, and fantasy based martial arts. You can probably guess which topic I am there to discuss. We start with various clips taken from people like George Dillman (famous for his "no touch" knockouts), Aikido, yellow bamboo kung fu, Silat, and other related delusions; and then follow with a discussion on the distinction between Alive combat sports and these type of dead pattern fantasy arts. As a skeptic I find that sharing critical thinking skills on these topics is both rewarding, and important; and anyone that thinks distinguishing between reality and these sorts of superstitions is "common sense", just hasn't spent enough time looking at the data, or talking to the average student.
As for the second comment, that everyone now "gets it" and therefore the need for discussion about these old training methods is moot, let me point out that the assumption that it is easy for those of us who've spent a lifetime in combat sports to understand what Aliveness really means, is simply that, an assumption. The reality is that the comments made, questions asked and classes taught by many of these people demonstrate that this isn't the nature of the situation. I still hear comments like "boxers skip rope", or "baseball players have batting practice", as if these comments relate in any way to what is meant, or not meant by Aliveness, and this is coming from people within combat sports. For those of you familiar with what Alive training means, these comments make it self-evident that even within our own functional arts, many people still don't understand what the conversation, or epistemology is actually about yet.

*If you are unfamiliar with Alive training I'd suggest starting here:

Finally, lets not forget that although training in functional martial arts is certainly on the rise thanks in large part to the sport of MMA, the Gracies and others, we are still in the minority. The superstition of fantasy based martial arts is still very much the majority.
So is Aliveness common, or always understood even within the combat athletics field, no, but that doesn't, by itself, explain why it's worth bothering with any form of critical thinking, or advocacy of reason.

Let me explain why I bother with that.
Because standing up for reason is important. The parallels between the promotion of reason within the martial arts and the promotion of reason as it relates to religion or other faith based topics, are nearly endless. One clear example, is the nature of the criticism that tends to get thrown at you. Anytime you tell the truth in plain spoken, non obfuscated language, about anything, martial arts or otherwise, you will end up offending some people. It's just part of the process. But what is important to realize is that these people are not offended because they think what we are saying is factually untrue, they are offended because we are saying something that is factually true, which they don't think we should say. And that is a very different matter all together.

Speaking up about rationality is principal. People deserve respect, compassion and understanding. We need to strive to be fully present, truly listening, if we want them to ever really hear us. However, these same values should not be applied to ideas. People deserve respect, ideas do not. When the philosophy of tolerance is applied to ideas themselves, the result is toxic. We create an environment where reason cannot be used to differentiate between good and bad concepts. If we refuse to admit that our preferences do not determine reality the we create a climate where reality cannot be improved. This is why we should never be timid when it comes to articulating why a bad idea is just that, bad. Because while blunt and authentic dialog might be offensive to some, stupid and dangerous ideas can be fatal to all of us.

If you have a taste for authenticity, if truth in the fact sense of that word is valuable to you, if you, like me, want to have your beliefs align with actuality as much as possible, if you've outgrown the desire for comforting delusion, if you find the polite but insincere distasteful at this point in your life, then feel free to pick up the banner of a free thinker; because reality is way cooler than any fairytale we can make up about it.

And that's why the promotion of skepticism, critical thinking and reason is important, regardless of the field you first apply it in.

Enjoy the podcast.