In my perspective, fighting systems can be divided into two broad but distinct categories–martial arts and martial sciences. Although both use movement for the stated purpose of self-defense, an art is different from a science in some very important ways. Arts are subjective and pursued for the experience. A martial arts student learns and practices movement for the excitement, joy, social connection and rank that he achieves when mastering a system. Many martial artists are collectors, trying out various systems and choosing which ones they enjoy the most, dabbling here and there in various disciplines and earning rank. Other martial artists are loyalists–staying with one system out of respect or bonding with a certain instructor, or because that system is comfortable and familiar. Sciences, on the other hand, are objective, functional and founded upon empirical testing. A martial scientist pursues learning and mastery only so he can effectively and predictably defend himself against attack. A martial scientist will continuously test his learning, looking for weaknesses and errors, and is prepared to reject any paradigm if it shows itself to be flawed or inefficient. A martial scientist does not spend time learning systems that won’t realistically add to his survival advantage or fighting preparation, and he never allows complacency or personal feelings get in the way of his search for functionality. In brief, a martial scientist seeks truth, a martial artist seeks experience. In my view, they both have unique value depending on one’s intent.
However, I believe that an art should never masquerade as a science. In biology, physics, quantum physics, chemistry, math, etc., there is one truth. We don’t have multiple schools, diverse interpretations and competing modalities–ideas are bifurcated into those that are right and those that are wrong, and those that are wrong are quickly discarded. Art is of a different nature, in that there is no “right” way of dancing, painting, sculpting, acting, writing or song-writing. We find value in art because of how it makes us feel. It’s worth lies in the varied and idiosyncratic dimensions of aesthetic and emotion, and that is a deeply personal abstraction.
I am a martial scientist. I seek truth, I seek functionality and I have spent the entirety of my adult life in pursuit of more accurate and efficient practices, both from the systems I have studied and the systems I create. Of course, being human, I can never directly access truth, only my own perception of functionality. Yet, our greatest strength is that we can access falsehood, and in so doing, we move closer to truth. As William Ernest Hocking proposes in “negative pragmatism”, what seems to be effective could be true and it could not be true, however if something is ineffective, then it is always false. In short, we can’t ever PROVE something is right, but we can prove that something is wrong, and our pursuit of truth lies in our ability to disconfirm our assumptions.
Herein lies the problem. To pursue truth, we must embrace disconfirmation, but it always feels better to be right than it does to be wrong. Not very many people, particularly amongst those in power and hard-earned prestige, seek out opportunities to be proven wrong. So, as scientists, we must be wary of the role that ego plays in the empirical process because frequently, the practitioner’s “need to be right” overrides the need to be accurate and truthful.
Other sciences have established mechanisms of peer review, validation, research methodology and ethics that protect consumers from the deception of researcher bias. In the fighting realm, we are not as protected–we have no such standards and that fact is painfully clear when we see how high-ranked practitioners attempt to display the “validity” of their systems. Time and again, I see demonstrations wherein it is clear that the intent is to appear effective and “look cool”, not to objectively or rigorously put a technique to the test. We should see our demonstrations in martial science as research experiments and conduct them in a way that preserves objectivity and accuracy. We should approach such testing knowing that the degree to which movement is not reflecting reality is the degree to which the experiment is polluted.
As I have stated time and time again, most of the systems I have learned and trained are broken–they unravel in the real world because they are not truth, and this can be readily demonstrated. What I realize now is that they are “arts” and I am in search of a “science”. My hope is that we start clearly distinguishing between martial arts and martial sciences. If we are to be martial scientists, we need to hold ourselves and one another to a higher level of epistemology, a more stringent standard of peer review, and expose our practices to objective testing, shielded from confirmation bias. Let me be clear, most of what exists in the martial world today is not science–it is art. Consider this: in a survival situation, would you rather be armed with a science or an art?