Any well-developed martial art requires long-term study. It stands to reason that one must have a great deal of confidence in a system before investing so much time and effort. But how does a martial art earn our confidence?

We can assume that not all martial arts are worthy of our confidence. Given this premise, a martial artist must be skeptical in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. Skepticism lies at the core of modern reason, and without it we would have to rely on blind faith. But even as an avowed skeptic, I have to admit that skepticism has its limits. When studying a new system, for example, isn’t it presumptive for a martial artist to judge a martial art in the short term? Many underlying principles are not easily observable or understood, especially to someone without prior martial arts experience. How can a beginner even expect to know what criteria by which to judge a martial art? Isn’t this kind of skepticism antithetical to humility? The study of a martial art is a process of discovery, one which cannot occur if the martial artist is unwilling to admit ignorance. So, if a martial art cannot be thoroughly and accurately judged in the short term, what good is skepticism at determining whether a system merits long-term study?

At first glance, faith seems to be the alternative. Certainly, those of us who attempt to be humble must suspend judgment at times. It seems natural to assume that an instructor is knowledgeable, and that it might be wise to accept their claims at face value. Many martial artists would say that they have confidence in a particular martial art, even despite a lack of concrete proof. But what is faith? Faith can be defined as a belief held in absence of or opposition to evidence. When, as a beginner, I temporarily suspend my skepticism in order to give a martial art the benefit of the doubt, is that faith? Certainly, this is a situation in which the martial artist maintains confidence despite an absence of proof. It can be difficult to reconcile this behavior with modern rationality.

Rather than faith, this is an example of inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is a simple process, and one which we use every day.

It allows us to make probabilistic assumptions based on incomplete evidence. Take, for example, the scenario given by Bertrand Russell in his book The Problems of Philosophy: If the sun has risen every day of our lives, then we can reasonably assume that tomorrow the sun will rise again. However, we can never be certain of this.

Bertrand Russell

Fig. 1: A British person

The more days that we observe the sun rising, the higher the probability will be that this is an unbreakable rule. However, we can never be certain that there isn’t an exception to this rule. Perhaps one day the sun will fail to rise. Let us set aside the fact that on that day, humans will likely have greater problems than epistemology. If the sun fails to rise, then we will have to revise our beliefs to account for this new data. Perhaps we failed to account for the possibility of a solar eclipse, or even that the Earth suddenly stopped rotating. Even under such a scenario, we could never be sure. Inductive reasoning can never be truly reliable. All we can do is collect as much data as possible before making a hypothesis, thereby increasing the probability that it is accurate. In other words, the best that we can hope for is an educated guess.

In martial arts, we establish a base level of confidence through observation and practice. Intellectually, we learn that many of these arts developed under violent and unforgiving circumstances, which lends them further authenticity. We draw confidence from the endorsement of generations of fellow martial artists around the world. And most importantly, we see the masters, perhaps even practice with them, and through them begin to understand the difference that long-term training can make. By making these observations, we realize that even if a martial art seems ineffective in the short term, it may be devastatingly effective after serious, long-term training. Although on the surface this appears to be a faith-based approach, it is entirely based on reason and observation.

Even an ignorant or misled martial artist employs inductive reasoning, though his conclusions may suffer from a low quantity or quality of supporting evidence. The crucial element is reason. It is only when reason is discarded that faith comes into the equation. However romanticized it may be, faith is the least reliable option available to us. But a purely faith-based approach is rare. Most of us establish our beliefs through reasoned assumptions, however strong or weak these assumptions may be. Faith tends to come into play when one makes an inductive assessment and refuses to amend it upon discovery of evidence to the contrary. We are all information gatherers, and it is important to remember that as the information changes, so must our conclusions.

If we are to entrust a martial art with our confidence, it is critical that we do so with purpose and reason. But a student won’t get anywhere by expecting instant gratification. To be humble is to suspend judgment, and to suspend judgment is to admit that you may not have enough data to make a conclusion. We can never be certain that our conclusions are correct; all we can do is continue gathering data over the course of our lives to support these conclusions. And when we encounter evidence to the contrary, we can weigh both sides and make a reasoned assessment. The process is slow, and may test the patience of the diehard skeptics among us. But it is this very process which cultivates informed and independent martial artists.