Skepticism and the Martial Arts

If you haven’t seen the following video, you should give it a watch, even though it conjures feelings of embarrassment and disgust:

Pretty much every martial artist I’ve met has seen the above video. It’s heralded as evidence of the failure of traditional martial arts and the woo-woo associated with various “fighting” disciplines.

Matt Thornton of Straight Blast Gym discusses this video in a guest lecture for philosopher Peter Boghossian at Portland State University. Thornton mentions the concept of aliveness, which involves spontaneous training with a resisting opponent, such as what you would find in MMA, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), judo, muay thai, wrestling, boxing, etc. Aliveness is what separates these martial arts from traditional martial arts, which mostly rely on training with dead patterns that don’t prepare practitioners to face resisting opponents.

Here’s the lecture followed by a Q&A:

Thornton has been making the rounds in the skeptic community. I first heard about him years ago while I was contemplating a bad experience with a traditional martial art. Sam Harris has talked about him, and if you haven’t seen Harris’s appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience, you’ve really missed out.

Rogan likens Harris’s debates to the old Gracies in Action videos which feature Helio Gracie and his sons fighting various martial artists. Harris make the point, as a recent BJJ practitioner, that being on the mat is more satisfying that debating because no one ever taps in debates. By the way, THIS is why you should always tap (play it until the end).

You can also listen to an interview with Thornton over at Strange Frequencies Radio, which was tweeted by Harris last month. Boghossian, who hosted Thornton, also practices BJJ, and I wonder how many other members of the skeptic community practice martial arts. I seem to keep coming across skeptics in the BJJ community, at least when it comes to certain topics.

Boghossian writes that “Jiu jitsu is a great way to introduce children to reality. More than teaching them what they can do, it teaches them what they can’t do.” That has certainly been my experience with judo. Fighting and self-defense seem to be particularly vulnerable to faith claims, i.e., many practitioners of traditional martial arts pretend to know things that they do not know.

8 thoughts on “Skepticism and the Martial Arts

  1. Thanks for that. Very interesting interview for a number of reasons. I haven’t heard Harris talk about his intellectual development in so much detail before.

  2. Pingback: Hipster Atheism? | insecular

  3. The assertion that only certain martial artists–MMA fighters, boxers and BJJ practitioners–do free-sparring with “resisting” opponents is really ridiculous. The Chinese were fighting full-contact in lei tai matches-which included shuai jiao, or submission grappling–long before the UFC existed. You can see the modern sport version of this, without the submissions, in sanda/sanshou.

  4. I didn’t say that only MMA fighters, boxers and BJJ practitioners do free sparring. I listed those martial arts as contemporary examples, differentiating them from traditional martial arts which “mostly” rely on training with dead patterns. For every Sanda there are ten martial arts that have had their fangs pulled.

  5. Sorry to jump in here but this statement right here “I listed those martial arts as contemporary examples, differentiating them from traditional martial arts which “mostly” rely on training with dead patterns.” is utter B.S. Only if you think kata means traditional can this stament make sense. If you have trained in TMA than you will know that kata is a modern invention. Karate, judo, kendo, were all invented for sport and recreational AFTER the start of the edo period. So to say that Traditional Martial Arts are based only on Kata is to have a myopic view of history.
    If you see what the Gracies have done to Jujutsu is almost nothing in comparison to what the americans have done to jujitsu. BJJ is an american invention, the Gracies didn’t change what they were taught by Mitsuyo Maeda.
    The man on the video is Yanagi Ryuken and his style is Daitoryu Aikido, NOT Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu mind you. You see Daitoryu Aikido is HIS style, a modern style. He invented it. It is not traditional, it is not a Koryu style, it is what it is, a fraud.
    I hope you don’t mind me ranting because I am really liking your blog. Do you have a facebook account?

  6. I don’t think I specifically mentioned katas, but if I did, I would lump them under “dead patterns” (for the most part). A dead pattern is a broader category for me.

    Regardless, to address your point about BJJ, the Gracies made a number of innovations to newaza, but more importantly, they kept a certain perspective about the ground game alive as judo was moving away from its roots. The Gracies weren’t the only ones to do this, of course, but that’s another matter. Now, it’s true that post-Maeda GJJ looks rather simple compared to the BJJ of today, but we can’t just call it an American invention and be done with it. BJJ also evolved under the influence of other families, Luta Livre, vale tudo, etc. But you’re right that BJJ has gone through a more speedy evolution in the last couple of decades, and one can certainly credit Western innovations, or more accurately, the sportization of BJJ.

    You seem to want to elevate Koryu, but I don’t see much of a difference. You have the same nonsense with willing opponents and highly elaborate patterns (combined with historical reenactment in some cases). Maybe the kenjutsu and bojutsu is more hardcore, but I don’t see much going on with the grappling and striking. Then again, I have a small sample, and I would be willing to be proven wrong about such a thing, but I’m not holding my breath (or waiting for an invitation to practice at Yamato Dojo or wherever). Given how much bullshit there is in the martial arts, it would be impractical for me to constantly be searching for 16th/17th century revivalist exceptions.

    Facebook information should be on my About page.

    • “but I don’t see much going on with the grappling and striking.” But what are grappling and striking but not parts of the whole? You are compartmentalizing which is a western mindset. In Japan, the whole body is the weapon, doesn’t matter the context.
      ANother way to put it is this, you see MMA as more realistic than TMA because MMA are a western construct and TMA are asian. WOuld that be a fair assesment? Remember, vale tudo is not MMA, it predates it.
      I have seen the video, and as I said, it is a NEW art, not traditional. My point was not to elevate koryu but to point out that your criticism of TMA is of a Modern MA.
      The same way as criticizing the Orthodox church for the actions of the Westboro Baptists Church.

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