Balancing Science and Culture in Martial Arts.

This is a follow up to an article that I wrote 4 years ago called ‘Branding vs. System’

Please read that article first here:

In the four years since I wrote that article, my views have changed somewhat (more experience and a good deal more thinking over these topics, as well as being exposed to different schools of thought will do that)- the basic premise of the previous article, however, still stands firm: The claim to fighting proficiency is a scientific claim, and claims ought to be tested. The crucible of combat sports is the best way for the techniques to evolve, and the modern sport of MMA has enabled many separate systems to lend techniques to a greater system- where ‘grappling and striking on the feet and on the ground’ is a sport in its own right, and has transcended the sub systems that originally comprised it.

This article will be somewhat more philosophical.

Firstly- WHY was this important to me, and WHY did my own personal martial art go from Classical Chinese styles into a more MMA paradigm?

Well- the first reason is that I care passionately about what is TRUE. 

Many people come to traditional martial arts to learn ‘self defence’ are often actually performing ‘military drills’ that were developed more for teaching ‘discipline’ to potential soldiers- rather than being the sort of training that would help you in an actual fight.

Often- unrealistic ‘applications’ are taught, that are obviously not effective in real combat (or, let’s face it, we would be seeing it used in full contact matches, right?)

I consider myself fortunate, in that my teacher in China had a good deal of real fighting experience and would always show me extremely practical moves, that I was later able to test out for myself in sparring in an MMA format (not having the desire to get into street fights, it was a perfect avenue for me to get realistic experience, but in a legal and ethical way.)

But even from my teacher, who I consider to be absolutely the ‘real deal’- Kung Fu still has a good deal of cultural trappings that are simply not valuable or useful to most Western students whose training is motivated by  ‘getting into shape’ or learning to ‘defend themselves’. Examples would be: training with classical weapons (like spears or halberds), performing a ‘Lion Dance’, complex two person sequences of choreography (as opposed to practical short combinations of moves), Chinese meditation and medical theory etc. Please don’t misunderstand me: I continue to practise these things and they have been valuable to me in my own personal journey – but to pass them off as ‘Self Defence’ or ‘Fitness’ training would be to mislead people.

This problem does not exist in MMA, since the combat sport paradigm does not allow for anything that is not effective. If we see it in the cage used against skilful resisting opponents- then it is manifestly ‘True’.

However, after another few years of teaching both MMA and traditional martial arts I am seeing another problem-

MMA evolves by the scientific method. By that I mean that techniques are tested in the ‘laboratory’ of the cage, and peers attempt to disprove them- ones that are effective are kept, and ineffective methods are discarded. It does not have any associated set of values, it merely serves to select the most effective techniques and training methods.

This is not inherently a problem: Science itself does not have any ethical framework. That was originally something left to religion, but these days, many people are skeptical and are really struggling to find a sense of meaning.

Facts Vs. Values:

The philosopher David Hume said that one cannot establish an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’- in other words, while learning more about how the world works (whether in fighting or any other area), one can become more effective at controlling the physical world- but this path will not lead to any wisdom about when to fight, or what is worth fighting for. These things are VALUES. Science gives us FACTS.

So- the old traditional arts, being tied up with the cultures that they came from, also functioned to   instil a set of values. These were passed down from the teacher, sometimes in the form of myths and legends, and sometimes encoded into the sequences of movements passed down through the generations.

Where the scientific evolution of fighting does not have an associated value structure, the sport of MMA has become a part of popular culture and now has its own share of cultural baggage that is quite separate from the physical techniques of the sport itself.

  Because professional fighting is driven by money, and the most important commodity is attention- the most successful MMA ‘stars’ are often arrogant, ego driven, insulting and let’s face it: pretty poor human beings. The way in which the sport is branded and marketed makes it difficult to ‘sell’ to the public as something that they really ought to be doing, much less something that they ought to be teaching their children. (and yet- as far as actual effective fighting methods go – it is, in my opinion, the best approach.)

So again- there is a disconnect between ‘facts’ and ‘values’.

Something that I have changed my mind about in the last few years, is that I thought these values were self evident, and would come to students who practise in a functional way. I was dismayed to find that they did not. Now I see that they are not inherent in the techniques or training methods- but in the culture in which they are taught.

Teaching is never in a cultural vacuum, and always must be integrated. I went through a phase of thinking- ‘who am I to tell people what to value? I am a martial arts teacher, and my job is simply to teach the most effective techniques in the most efficient way.’ But is this correct? Is it even possible? It is inevitable that I am also passing along some of my system of values, and now I am trying to do it in a more conscious way.

Traditional Arts, Archetypes and History.

As I said previously- the stories and myths passed down in the traditional arts contain wisdom. However, applying the scientific method- historians have debunked much of the ‘history’ and many of the events, historical figures and locations were most likely not factual. But does that make them worthless? Are they not a clue to what people valued? After all, the stories would not be told and passed down if they did not contain some ‘Truth’ (Or perhaps I should use the word ‘Wisdom’ to distinguish it from the scientific truth.)

In the same way- Science has proved that the earth is much older than 6000 years old, Noahs Ark did not actually contain two of each animal etc. So a literal interpretation of the bible is not something that most take seriously any more- but nevertheless, many people derive great meaning from the stories.

Many more are skeptical, and we claim to be ‘Rational’- but then we also seek out myths to give our lives meaning: Perhaps we read comic books instead of the old Greek myths, perhaps we get lost in movies involving archetypes of the Hero, the Sage, the Healer, (Yoda, and Mr Miyagi are essentially the same archetype as the myth of Bodhidharma.)


Instead of going to church or temple, we will go to a rock concert or an art gallery in an attempt to find the transcendent.

I know of several ‘Atheists’ who regularly dress up in costumes for ‘role play’ and find great meaning and satisfaction in things that are patently not ‘real’.

Even if we no longer ‘believe’- we still crave and actually need these things for our own mental health.

Do we perceive Truth or Values?

We assume that what we see is ‘real’ but actually, the unconscious mind filters a great deal of reality out (or we would be overwhelmed by information), what we value is the filter by which we select what to consciously perceive. In a very literal sense: Our values construct the world we inhabit.

As a practical example: If you put your hand into an ice bucket, you will have a clear experience of cold, gradually spreading from your hand up your arm. This is a real, vivid experience- but is it true? A scientist would say that the truth is that the heat is leaving your arm, not cold creeping in. If you tell that to a person unfamiliar with the idea of ‘absolute truth’- then it is ridiculous to suggest that what he perceives is not ‘real’- even a scientist would be motivated by the sense of cold as a value, rather than being motivated by the ‘Truth’.

That is to say: The circuits that are activated in the brain of the most rational scientist are those that are looking to move away from something (cold), as opposed to those that are motivated to move towards something (warmth)- even if, from a scientific perspective, it is not ‘True’.

So we are all motivated by values as much as facts.

And furthermore- our values determine how we perceive the world.

So, perhaps- these old myths are not true in the scientific sense, but are TRUTHS in that they embody a wisdom about values. And perhaps the meaning in life is not to be found in pursuing a superficial ‘happiness’, but rather in pursuing ‘wisdom’.

I think we all crave meaning in our lives. Without that we are not motivated to achieve anything. And yet our value structure can be very misguided- We can see examples of ‘world champion UFC  fighters’ that are arrogant, drug abusing bullies. Are these people happy, fulfilled human beings? Despite all of the cash and adulation that comes with such status- the high rates of addiction and suicide amongst celebrities prove pretty convincingly that this is not the case. Perhaps these people are chasing the wrong goals.

Dangers of both extremes, and finding a balance:

The danger of practising a cultural system without the moderating factor of resistance/sparring or competition, is that it can become delusional. Ideas left unchecked can become exaggerated (perhaps because the theory is beautiful, or the move is aesthetic, or just ‘feels good’ so becomes a preferred method). Conversely- the practise of a series of techniques in a competitive environment, without any deeper sense of values is inherently unsatisfactory. It may lead to some short term pleasure (Getting a submission, or winning a fight is ego validation. Getting in good shape to become more attractive can get some admiration etc.) but these are very superficial. They do not give life meaning or any ultimate satisfaction. It seems that there needs to be something deeper than that.

In contrast to the rise in critical thinking, there has also come a ‘New Age’ thinking, where one only has to believe enough, and something will become ‘true’ or manifest itself- this is usually peddled with a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense involving crystals, talk of ‘Quantum physics’ and positive self talk. In martial arts, this mindset is prevalent in classes where the students do not spar, and breathing and meditation practise can spill over into suggestion, mind control and cultish behaviour. This is where the culture has become toxic- because it is divorced from the real world. These ideas can be quickly diagnosed because they break down immediately when they meet the reality of testing- either combatively or scientifically.

The opposite extreme of this is where people have become deeply cynical- it can manifest as: ‘if it doesn’t work in the cage then it has no value’ mentality, or a ‘the story has proven to not be historically true, therefore the whole system is worthless’ mentality. This could lead to a kind of nihilism, where everything is just nonsense and meaningless- depressing and hard to argue against.

Since the quest for what is ‘True’ and the commitment to truth is the most powerful weapon against delusion- but how do we avoid going to the other extreme and becoming cynical?

One way is to value both Truth AND Wisdom.

We can understand that our ‘Values’ shape how we perceive the world without falling into the delusion that our thoughts can override reality- or the opposite delusion that what we perceive IS reality. This is a healthy balance.

Something magical happens when our martial arts practise is both honest, and in accordance with our highest values: We are in a ‘flow state’. There is an extreme sense of everything being ‘in it’s right place.’ This comes because our conscience knows that we are behaving ethically and striving to bring greater meaning to our practise- without deluding ourselves.

When we are in that deluded state- it feels uncomfortable. Some part of us knows that we are being inauthentic- often that leads to projecting that outwards onto others, and behaving in an arrogant or angry manner. Basically- we know we can do better. The sense of cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and we compensate by becoming more aggressive, or completely suppressing our aggression- to avoid facing our own faults.

With correct practise (This means practising realistically, but within a culture of high ideals) we really can become genuinely powerful and genuinely wise. The goal is not just to win a specific fight, but to win the ultimate fight- the mastery of ourselves.

This was the lesson of the original ‘Warrior’ archetype- both wise and powerful. Every culture has had this hero- whether the ‘Knights of Old’, the Samurai, the Shaolin Monks, the Jedi, the Justice League- we see the same ideals in myths and fiction. The lesson was both a code of conduct and to work for an ideal higher than the mere pursuit of hedonistic pleasure.

I think it would be a great shame if we have an idea that we know better today, and that these things have no value for us any more. It is very unfashionable for the MMA generation to think in these terms, and yet- if we embrace the traditional values whilst still valuing what is true and proven in real combat, we can have the best of both worlds.

2019. David Rogers