Critical Thinking and the Martial Arts

       There is a tremendous skill lacking in the traditional martial arts. This skill is critical thinking. The lack of critical thinking is what brings people to believe their instructor when he says he knows the touch-of-death, or some other such nonsense. In this article, I am going to examine critical thinking, and how it can be used to address some of the issues which plague the traditional martial arts.

       Critical thinking is the method of questioning assumptions rather than simply accepting on authority. At its base, authority is another assumption. If I tell you I was sent by the President of the United States to give you this information, you may take the information as if it came from the President, or you may take is as coming from a crackpot. Whether or not the message has authority will be based entirely upon whether or not you think it has authority. Anytime anyone or anything in your life has authority over you it is a result of this (usually unconscious) decision.

       Critical thinking is not generally acceptable in most martial arts schools. In the traditional schools, the endless questions and requests for proof will likely lead to your expulsion from the school. Many so called masters get pretty irritated when asked for proof of their asinine claims. However, critical thinking does not mean simply refusing to accept any information, rather it means asking that such information be proven, or at least testable. Obviously, when a master makes a claim of the ability to perform the touch-of-death, you are not going to be able to convince him to demonstrate it. He has an easy excuse for not demonstrating it. But there are claims which must be demonstrated or not believed. (And don’t believe the touch-of-death claim either).

       In spite of our many scientific advances, and our highly technological world, people are still surprisingly superstitious. Personally, I find superstition to be more amusing than harmful. But there is an aspect of superstition that can actually prove harmful in the long run. Accepting superstitions as fact lets people slip more and more into a world of fantasy, and their ability to engage in critical thinking can be greatly diminished. Even worse – this type of thought pattern can cause problems as the more widespread the belief becomes, the less likely that science will be listened to. People today, as much if not more than ever are relying on ancient methods of science, astrology, and medicine, when most ancient “knowledge” was proven false long ago.

       On another level, we have a human habit of looking for meaning in our lives, a purpose, and an answer to the question “why” whenever a tragedy occurs. We all do this in some degree every day. I remember watching the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as they happened. All the while my mind was searching for an answer to why that had to happen. This is an overdevelopment of our natural (and quite necessary) skill of making sense of every bit of stimuli we encounter every day.

       In the martial arts there is a baffling over use of pseudoscience. In many fields, pseudoscience comes in when people are looking for something to fill the gap of knowledge in order to make things “make sense”. When an expert uses a strike we did not see, it had to be Qi Power. When we didn’t hear the master approach because we were not paying attention, it was because he can move without sound. All of these explanations and rationalizations come to mind out of ignorance, or hope. Some people are simply not educated enough to understand that these answers are BS, and the only hope for them it to educate them. But the others, who hope and dream that these super powers exist, they are the tough cookies. They believe with an almost religious-like fervor that these powers are real, and that if only they try hard enough, train with the right people, sacrifice enough, etc., they will be able to develop these powers.

       I know, because for most of my life I was one of these people. I sought out masters, trained with them, paid far more money than I ever should have, sweated, sacrificed, and in the end, left. I left disappointed. I was disappointed because I wanted these powers to be real. I wanted what they said they had to offer to me. I mean – how cool would it be to a 300 pound teen to be able to levitate! For a kid who had been picked on as much as I was; knowing touch-of-death would have been just what I needed to intimidate the bullies! There was so much wonder and promise.

       But it was all BS.

       For the modern student of the martial arts, a very unique situation must be addressed. On one hand, there will never be progress without questioning, examining and testing the claims made by the martial arts instructors. On the other hand, I myself can see the total frustration I would have if my classes were interrupted constantly by questions about this or that point, and requests on how to test this claim. In most traditional schools, questioning the claim of the instructor, or even requesting proof is not only very bad form – it is absolutely rude! It simply isn’t done.

       Whether the martial art in question is claimed to have been handed down to us from a temple or an army, the end result is the same. In the temple, the master is not questioned, no more so than the commanders in the military are questioned by those under them. Transfer these ideals into the martial arts school and the ideal student will then be that student who mindlessly follows orders, and never questions the “master”. Of course, in our modern time, this should not be happening. When we have a “master” making claims of comic book style powers, the students not only should, but they must question the claims. It is the submission of the critical mind in these situations which allows these idiots to claim in full confidence that they can move, stop, or knock out people without touching them. The absurd, mystical and supernatural claims of martial arts pseudo-masters must be questioned.

       This needs to be seen as an obligation.

       Without crossing any lines, we should be able to see that the use of critical thinking in the martial arts can be done without being disrespectful. Being skeptical of the claims of mystical martial arts does not mean that you will rudely interrupt a class to tell the instructor he is full of it. Be ready to accept and believe anything that can be proven. But you are never under any obligation whatsoever to simply accept based on the instructor’s authority.

       In Church, speaking of wanting scientific proof is considered to be very out of line. One of the hallmarks of Religion is the value of faith in things which cannot be proven. This does not mean that we should allow this to cross over into the dojo. While there are those few who treat their martial art like it is a religion, they are in the minority. When speaking of martial arts, very often people make the (sometimes unwarranted) jump to the conclusion that we are also talking about self defense. Is it a well thought out plan to have your plans for self protection and self defense based on a matter of faith? I should hope that most people are more intelligent than that. Yet, every day people go sign up for lessons in a martial arts school which uses a high level of faith based practices. When you are told that you are training your qi to make up for what you lack in size and strength, you are training in something requiring faith (and a lot of luck in never really needing to use it…). If you ever end up in a situation where you need to use what you were taught, reality will rear its ugly head and you might live long enough to learn something real.

       But let us take a step away from the mystical. Let us say you are in a traditional martial arts school that does not bring magic into the mix. The instructor teaches you a complex, three or more step series of techniques to get out of a wrist grab. Does critical thinking need to come into play here?

       Yes, it does.

       First, one must examine the odds of being attacked with a wrist grab. Actual statistics are not handy for this one, but I would guess the average mugger or rapist does not walk up to you from the front and grab your wrist. In the event that they did actually grab your wrist, I would venture a further guess that they would not simply grab your wrist and wait. Anything involving a series of separate maneuvers to escape something as basic as a wrist grab is probably doomed to failure.

       Years ago I taught for a Taekwondo school in Austin, Texas. The school manager taught a “self defense” class one Saturday. He told a group of students, “When you are in a mall, and you get the feeling that someone is following you, don’t be scared and timid. Turn and stare at them. Chamber a side kick and just stare right back at them. I guarantee they will back down.”

       The students sat there wide eyed and nodding approval for this deep insight. I hope none of them ever tested the guarantee.

       One must be able to see through whatever is being claimed through the use of common sense. Claiming that an attacker will back down from a stare and a chambered kick is every bit as fraudulent as claiming that you can knock someone out without touching them.

       Whether it is enforced by the instructor/organization or self imposed through the granting of authority, this refusal to question is probably the biggest problem in the world of martial arts. The modern MMA students see our legends and unrealistic claims, and they rightfully laugh at those of us in the traditional martial arts. If the martial arts instructors could stop being afraid that their students will surpass them in skill and knowledge, and stop making claims of comic book style super powers in order to keep the students from ever reaching their level, then we will be moving in the right direction. We can ask questions in a respectful manner, and instructors can accept questions and answer them, if they do know the answers.