No Absolutes!

On one of the first courses we had with Steve Morris, he opened proceedings with a dialogue, part of which stated that there were no absolutes. The thrust of the argument was that as Martial Artists we should be striving to evolve and progress, continuously checking and re-evaluating our understanding and performance of our physical and psychological abilities.

I found this approach refreshing and unusual. Being used to ‘traditional karate’ where often students are corrected on form to the nth degree, there are absolutes galore. For example, the insistence on movement in stance holds rigid rules about form which absolutely have to be obeyed. Or something as daft as the Crane stance in the final fight scene in Karate Kid. This, ‘no absolutes’ thing reminded me of something puzzling during my time at university.

Zenkutsu dachi

Zenkutsu dachi, a karate absolute

As part of my undergrad research methods course, we were told that any theory has to be disprovable. You think about a problem, come up with potential solutions, test these and form a theory to explain it. Great! But then you have to go and disprove it.

The whole premise seemed very strange to me. Isn’t it pretty counterproductive to create a theory which has to be disprovable? Surely we are searching for the truth? By disprovable the lecturer explained that the theory must be testable, experimentally! Ah that’s a little more understandable. The theory must be testable, unlike Freud’s ideas which are difficult to test to say the least.

The lecturer then went into detail concerning the design of experiments (tests) for hypotheses (questions) and statistical procedures based on these designs. Great, it all started to fit into place, other than the rather odd ‘disprovable’ thing. But over time it became clear, science is a beautiful evolving beast, it morphs over time as theories come and go due to the development of better, empirically tested explanations. That is, as scientific study proves a theoretical explanation of some phenomenon a previous sub-optimal theory is replaced.

Scientific literature rarely, if ever, talks in absolutes. Statements tend to suggest, propose, imply or evoke; claims of unequivocal evidence are few and far between. This is partly due to methods of testing experimental evidence with statistics. Some people say that stats can be twisted to say what you want them to say. But stats do not deal with absolutes either.

Statistical procedures are developed by mathematicians and rely on probability of the reliability of an effect rather than a chance finding. That is an effect, such as kick a delivers greater force than kick b, has a probability ‘score’ of between 0 and 1. For the effect to be acceptable, statistically significant in scientific terms, this score must be less than .05, i.e. it must have less than a 5% probability it appeared due to chance. In broad terms what this is what scientists base their findings on.

In anyone’s book this approach does not deal in absolutes, as 5% equates to 1 in 20, so it follows that science does not deal in absolutes. Thus if as Martial Artists we evolve by continual re-evaluation and testing we are taking a scientific approach to our training. Not all Martial Artists, or scientists for that matter, actually take this approach. After all it would be difficult to accept that your life’s work is flawed, perhaps seriously, whether as a scientist or martial artist. Therefore, a progressive approach to martial arts training is scientific.

It occurred to me how motivating it must be to be continually progressive, continually re-evaluating and striving to evolve? Taking the ‘rule book’ dissecting it, tearing it up then starting over, not once, or twice but continually, both physically and psychologically. Often people talk about going beyond the comfort zone, or thinking out of the box. More often this is merely given lip service. After all the comfort zone is, well, comfortable. But if we base our reality on there being no absolutes there can be no comfort zone, there can be no box to ‘escape’ from we simply work at improving everything through testing. As long as the testing procedure is valid we’re onto something.

The simple statement “there are no absolutes” sets us free. Free to experiment and progress. Free from limits. Free from the idea that technique a is THE way to punch, technique b is THE way to get power, technique c is THE way to avoid attack d. Yeah, there are no absolutes.

5 thoughts on “No Absolutes!

  1. I’ve read this blog four times now and I still get lost in the maths !!!!
    BUT….. I believe I do understand what you are trying to say in ‘no absolutes’ – it should be progressive as things do change and you need to adapt to those changes. If something new works better then why stick to the ‘old ways’ because tradition says we should !
    Eveybody is built differently and in trad schools you can see that basing your actions and performance on rules of absolute doesn’t necessarily give you optimum results as what might work for one, wont work for another.
    Your statement about progressive martial arts being a science is also spot on and I’ve only just twigged why.
    The whole Martial arts can be likened to Science vs Faith scenario.
    You can have progressive MA that use continuous questioning and re-evalution on technique and power generation etc (scientific theorum) to evolve a style versus a more traditional style that work on absolutes,techniques and stances passed down from the old masters (god) with set rules and tradition. (faith).
    An excellent blog – keep ’em coming

  2. yes, I’m definitely in the evolution camp, rather than the faith camp. I originally wrote this after the course, probably close to two years ago. I like science.

    That is, I like how science evolves and actively looks to disprove, rather than looking to accept. An important distinction and one suitable for the healthy sceptic.

  3. I don’t like science but I do now understand what you are saying.

    I think so many of us have viewed our teachers as omnipotent godlike creatures who know all and have, therefore, taken their pontifications to be gospel. As a result we learn to believe that there is only one answer, only one way to do anything.

    It is only through exposure to more enlightened and progressive sources that we start to understand that any answer is only as good as the variables upon which it has been based. And so many students never step outside the rarified atmosphere of their first teacher so they continue to believe that there is only one way – hence all the ‘my way is better than your way’ arguments that you see on a variety of forums.

    For myself, I think I began to question because I have always been so much smaller, lighter and less flexible than my instructors and found it so hard to make their ‘one way’ work. I must have been (and probably still am) a very argumentative student because I want so much to ‘get it right’ and find the ‘optimum way’ for me and I had huge doubts about the wisdom of relying totally on a series of movement patterns designed for men with a very different frame… but I still wanted to be spoonfed the answers that would work for me.

    I think I now understand that no teacher has all the answers, it is up to me to try and test everything that is suggested and discard what I cant make work. Fortunately for me, I am now training with people who have worked on changing my mindset to take into account the possibility of variables and who can help me analyse the effectiveness of the data scientifically 🙂

  4. Pingback: Karate as a teacher « Karatebarbie’s Blog

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