Epistemology and Fighting

Before mixed martial arts, people were in the dark about which martial arts worked and which didn’t. How would a wing chun master do against a boxer? How would a karate black-belt fare against a wrestler? But since MMA, we’ve learned a bunch. Here are some of the important lessons:

1) Martial arts disciplines that don’t spar, don’t work. If you aren’t practicing against an actively resisting opponent, you do not know how to handle an actively resisting opponent. Sparring shows you which techniques actually work. Learning to fight without sparring is like learning to swim without water.

2) A lot of people can be full of baloney for a long time and never be called on it. A lot of things in kung fu and aikido simply do not work against trained martial artists. It turns out you can be a naked emperor for a long time without ever feeling the breeze.

3) Ineffective martial arts still have some things worth knowing. Tae Kwon Doe is not an effective martial art in a lot of ways—it does not have good punching or takedown techniques. But it does have some really effective kicks, and MMA practitioners will sometimes incorporate these kicks.

4) Ugly techniques that are effective can be ignored for long periods of time. Brazilian jiu-jitsu doesn’t look cool. When we imagine martial arts, we imagine flips and spinning kicks. Brazilian jiu-jitsu looks like two guys hugging each other on the ground. But it works. And if you don’t know it, you will get your butt kicked.

These four lessons carry over to intellectual life. ‘Learning about the world’ and ‘kicking someone’s butt’ may be different goals, but the same basic principles apply:

1) If you are trying to get at the truth, but aren’t being constrained by constant counterargument or potentially damning experimental data, you simply will not learn about the world. You need reality to be punching back.

2) There are entire disciplines, e.g., continental philosophy or theology, which appear to help you understand the world that are surprisingly unhelpful. And they can get away with being unhelpful for longer than you’d expect.

3) Ineffective disciplines often still have nuggets of wisdom. Meditation practices from the various contemplative traditions are an obvious example.

4) Certain epistemic practices are ugly/boring but essential. For example: advanced statistics. Abstruse statistical methods can be a thing of beauty to statisticians, but to laypeople they just look like tedious number crunching.

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