I regret to inform you that I have decided to abandon reason altogether.

I don’t abandon it lightly. All of modernity is tied to the same anchor, and so to cut loose of it must cause one to hesitate. But cause itself is the cancer, and can therefore be surgically removed without scrutiny.

Martial arts are a little bit crazy, as you and I quietly know. Maybe it follows that martial artists are as well, and I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer evidence to the contrary. We have at once been labeled naive, paranoid, anachronistic, arrogant, dangerous, and especially delusional. Admittedly, the signal to noise ratio in our community isn’t exactly favorable. In fact, I would argue that any signal we may come across is merely a statistical anomaly, and the rare fruitful discussion is well within the margin of error.

And so we, as martial artists, begin our journey toward understanding with the deck stacked against us. The responsible martial artist does his part to impose order upon the chaos of combat, using whatever shreds of philosophy that he has at hand. He collects theories and observations, instructions and experience, and then he cuts a swath through them with his faculties of reason. But many an inquisitive martial artist has caught himself in the epistemological traps of his discipline. Martial arts, both traditional and modern, commit daily offenses to reason which cannot be overcome as easily as we would like. As students, we have no idea which elements of a martial art contribute to its success as a method of fighting or training, so we have no recourse but to empty our cups and accept the teacher’s tea. And yet, when I emptied my cup, I found it difficult to refill.

Cracks in the Foundation

When I lived in Beijing, I had a Wing Chun teacher who was prone to talking to me at length after class. During one such talk, he asserted that Westerners take the wrong approach to Chinese martial arts. Western logic and reason are limited tools, he said, and anyone who bases their beliefs solely on reason is stuck in a box. If I never leave that box, I can only reinforce the worldview that I already have.

As a dyed-in-the-wool rationalist, I was keenly aware that reason is the only path toward certainty. I was tempted to pursue the matter Socratically, to expose faults in his idea through a series of innocent questions. But each question that arose in my mind presupposed the very idea that was under attack. I couldn’t critically examine his point without betraying myself as an advocate of reason.

After listening quietly, I asked “How do we know whether we are achieving our goals?” He thought for a moment, then said “That is a very good question.” The problem, he said, is the word “know.” We cannot know, we can only have faith. It seemed that he had given up on certainty altogether.

I went home frustrated, unable to come up with a way to convince him of the importance of reason. We disagreed on such a fundamental level that it was nearly impossible to find common ground. So I asked myself: How could I justify reason to a man like him?

The Paradox of Reason

That night, I discovered a problem. Reason cannot be justified without begging the question. All justifications are based on reason, so any justification must presuppose that reason is valid. Circular reasoning is invalid logic, so reason fails on its own terms.

Well, that was easy.

David Hume (1711-1776) is usually credited with identifying the problem of induction.

There must be some other justification, I thought. Reason seems to match observation, shouldn’t that count for something? Yet sense observation is a poor basis for reason, as reason itself can undermine the senses quite easily. Take Descartes for example, who reasoned that his perceptions could all be part of a dream or deception. Fair enough, you might say, but doesn’t reason have an incredible track record of success? Cue David Hume, who famously outlined the problem of induction. Not only is it impossible to use past experiences to predict future events, but to do so is to engage in inductive reasoning. So we are left, once again, begging the question. The very notion of justification presupposes the value of reason.

Reason demands that we discard all ideas which have no justification. But if reason has no other justification, then we are left with an order to disobey all orders. It seems that all commands of reason are suspect, and that we had better learn to do without.

Living Unreasonably

It’s liberating. Without reason, there is no way to establish cause and effect. In terms of martial arts, I am free to use any solution to solve any problem, although I have no justification to expect any result. In fact, why solve problems at all? There’s no reason for it. There, I can take the rest of the day off.

My teacher was right about one thing: Once you take reason out of the picture, the only alternative is faith. Faith requires no reason whatsoever, and ceases to be of use when reason is involved. Since matters of faith require no reason, I need no reason to have faith in anything – another liberating idea. I can have faith that the world is as it seems, that I can trust my perceptions, and that my pen is now a leopard. Perhaps those ideas seem contradictory, but I have faith that they are not.

Faith has no claim to certainty. But once we give up all hope of certainty, faith becomes quite an attractive option. It is the only way to satisfy our addictions to cause and effect. For example, when I am unhappy with someone, I simply lend them my pen. I have faith that they will be very badly mauled as a result. Such feats of mental agility are beyond the grasp of reason. Faith’s reach never exceeds its grasp. No article of faith is more nor less reasonable than any other article of faith, because reason has nothing to do with it.

Best of all, faith can be as circular as it likes. When confronted with a doubt about my faith, I can simply conjure up more faith in my own beliefs. It’s really quite convenient.

But I am not willing to have faith in reason. What’s the use of faith if I have confidence in reason? If I have faith that things can and should be justified, then I may require a reasonable justification of my own faith. And then the house of cards comes tumbling down yet again.

So it seems that my teacher was right. I’m grateful, because my world has become significantly more whimsical as a result. I only wonder why he persists in teaching Wing Chun when he could just get a leopard like mine.