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Epistemic Viciousness

Someone deserves a large hat tip for this, but I’m having trouble remembering who; my records don’t seem to show any email or Overcoming Bias comment which told me of this 12-page essay, “Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts” by Gillian Russell.1 Maybe Anna Salamon?

We all lined up in our ties and sensible shoes (this was England) and copied him—left, right, left, right—and afterwards he told us that if we practised in the air with sufficient devotion for three years, then we would be able to use our punches to kill a bull with one blow.

I worshipped Mr Howard (though I would sooner have died than told him that) and so, as a skinny, eleven-year-old girl, I came to believe that if I practised, I would be able to kill a bull with one blow by the time I was fourteen.

This essay is about epistemic viciousness in the martial arts, and this story illustrates just that. Though the word “viciousness” normally suggests deliberate cruelty and violence, I will be using it here with the more old-fashioned meaning, possessing of vices.

It all generalizes amazingly. To summarize some of the key observations for how epistemic viciousness arises:

One thing that I remembered being in this essay, but, on a second reading, wasn’t actually there, was the degeneration of martial arts after the decline of real fights—by which I mean, fights where people were really trying to hurt each other and someone occasionally got killed.

In those days, you had some idea of who the real masters were, and which school could defeat others.

And then things got all civilized. And so things went downhill to the point that we have videos on Youtube of supposed Nth-dan black belts being pounded into the ground by someone with real fighting experience.

I heard of one case of this that was really sad; it was a master of a school who was convinced he could use ki techniques. His students would actually fall over when he used ki attacks, a strange and remarkable and frightening case of self-hypnosis or something… and the master goes up against a skeptic and of course gets pounded completely into the floor.

Truly is it said that “how to not lose” is more broadly applicable information than “how to win.” Every single one of these risk factors transfers straight over to any attempt to start a “rationality dojo.” I put to you the question: What can be done about it?

Gillian Russell, “Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts,” in Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness, ed. Graham Priest and Damon A. Young (Open Court, 2010). ↩︎

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