In a recent Sam Harris blog post, covering the topic of martial arts and self-defense of all things, two videos are included that illustrate beautifully and tragically the difference between the power of belief, which is a sublime aspect of human subjectivity, and the unforgiving laws of physical reality.
Throughout the article Harris uses the discussion of learning various fighting styles as metaphor to illustrate the painful contrast between ways we conceive or imagine the world and how we actually experience the world. He focuses on a form of self-defense called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which involves techniques used to handle the situation of grappling with an opponent when both adversaries are on the ground.
Harris likens the experience of facing someone skilled in BJJ to being thrown into deep water with no knowledge of how to swim; it is like drowning, but once you learn a little bit, e.g. how to tread water, you wonder what the big deal is. You forget how it feels to fear drowning because of a little bit of knowledge. Unlike swimming though, the variations one faces in BJJ are diverse enough that it can feel as if one is drowning and learning to swim over and over again.
In the course of this discussion Harris presents two videos of Japanese Aikido master Yanagi Ryuken. The point as Harris puts it, is to show how "delusions of martial prowess have much in common with religious faith. A crucial difference, however, is that while people of faith can always rationalize apparent contradictions between their beliefs and the data of their senses, an inability to fight is very easy to detect and, once revealed, very difficult to explain away."
In the first video we see the master and his students demonstrating the master's ability to ward off attackers using only his chi, or lifeforce energy. Ryuken is sparring with his adoring disciples, who share the master's belief in his powers. They don't dare doubt it by physically striking the master, or perhaps, one might conclude from watching this video, this master really has martialed an invisible force with the amazing invincible properties we can "see" with our own eyes.
In the second video the master Ryuken exhibits confidence in his powers by putting them to the test against a student from another school.
We can very quickly and painfully see that what is invisible bears a remarkable similarity to the non-existant. This difference between a confident belief and the punishing hardness of reality nearly qualifies as comedy if our sense of pity and empathy didn't balance the gleeful impulse upon seeing inflated pretense so thoroughly punctured.
The master Ryuken and his disciples provide a perfect metaphor and lesson for the dangers involved in respect for authority, group collusion in preserving cherished belief, and relying on untested faith as a guide to making consequential decisions about the world external to our imagination. To those liberated from the bonds of religious faith, the world is full of Ryukens and his students, living in a culture designed to protect them from facing reality. It is amazing to think that so many billions of people over so many centuries could have acted like the complicit disciples of Ryuken, falling to the mat with deference whenever a religious opinion is expressed.
As more and more people muster the courage to seriously test their faith against a student from a different school, that of serious scientific inquiry, fewer and fewer humans will fall victim to religious solipsism, the illusion that they can project their subjective interior conceptualizations onto the world as it is, which remains stubbornly different from and indifferent to what they would like it to be.
Our ability to conceptualize and imagine are invaluable tools of learning and pleasure. They give us ways of seeing new possibilities and exploring hypothetical situations with little cost or consequence. And as long as these imaginings remain possibilities that affect our subjective state of mind only, we can celebrate and indulge them. This is the beauty and joy of fiction, of poetry, of art, and even of spiritual experience, such as in meditation or prayer used to fortify one's inner strength or confidence. The danger lies in elevating such fiction or emotional subjective experiences to the status of belief, of actually embracing the opinion that these inner experiences apply to the objective world outside of our minds.
If faced with physical conflict with a person larger than yourself, especially in the case of a struggle on the ground, a little bit of BJJ can mean the difference between getting home safely or ending up in the hospital or the morgue. Harris concludes that "the difference between knowing what to do in this situation and merely relying on your primate intuitions is as impressive a gap between knowledge and ignorance as I have ever come across."
This same gap is displayed between faith in any religious conception of nature, of human origin, of creation, or of life after death, and the experimentally tested hypotheses and theories of science. There are important reasons why people of "faith" do not keep their sick children at home and mumble incantations at their bedside. When it really counts they take them to the doctor or the hospital to get the kind of care they can actually have proven confidence in. Indulging in subjective emotional and conceptual fantasies may lead to pleasing interior states of mind, and may even give you confidence or consolation, but science and reason actually gives us the practical advantage of having knowledge as opposed to ignorance. One can enjoy both aspects of living. But one should avoid the religious fallacy of mistaking our subjective mind for external reality.