Tue Aug 21st, 2007 at 05:45:18 AM EST
As I've written before, I'm a pretty hard-core materialist with a long-term interest in esoterica like martial arts, shiatsu and various forms of meditation. Fitting the latter into the world-view of the former has been an interesting exercise.
I don't have much time for the angels-dancing-on-a-pinhead style of philosophical argument: at some stage we simply have to make a set of assumptions and work with them until it becomes clear that they need revisiting - I try not to believe anything but rather to have working assumptions. We like to call it science: everything I write could be wrong but so far it matches observations reasonably well.
It appears to me that there is an underlying objective reality which each of us perceives and which our brain fashions into our subjective reality. That reality is entirely material and subject to scientific analysis: there is no higher or lower reality, nowhere for the gods, angels, immaterial soul or cosmic spirit to exist. Here and now is all there is.
Subjective reality is a different thing: all sorts of nonsense can exist in there and always does, in all of us. Not only that, but the rules of subjective reality are not those of objective reality - positive thinking can make a difference in our own personal universe while the real world is only influenced by our acts. Subjective reality is ruled by the baroque, bodged together machinery of our minds and that machinery can be influenced by our own thoughts and feedback.
The martial arts and meditation methods I'm mostly familiar with share a belief in a mystic energy called "chi" or "ki" and in influencing its flow in order to achieve outcomes. There are various explanations about extending chi, building it through breathing exercises, causing it to pool and flow through standing exercises, releasing its flow through massage and other poppycock1.
Except much of it works.
The stories have power even though - or possibly because - they have no basis in objective reality. They can work because our bodies and our minds are one system: an image of balancing the flow of energy from each of your hands into your sword will make it easier to cut straight and smooth because it allows you to tell your body what to do in a way it can understand without the micromanaging that inevitably ruins the flow of the action. Pressing down on certain muscle groups and nerve bundles in certain ways is relaxing and energising and it doesn't really matter what story you tell to explain that.
The systems are based in experience: they continue to exist because they've been found to work. However, humans like explanations and as a rule if we don't know why something works we just make stuff up. I don't believe for a moment that there is a mystic force generated by living things that I can use to move things from across the room. I don't need to explain everything: I'm allowed say "I don't know how that works, but it does".
The fun is in sifting out which parts of the stories are useful and which bits are inventions for marketing purpose, to hide the ignorance of the inventor or to achieve social or political aims. Pretty much every school of Iai was handed down to the founder on a cherry blossom laden hillside by a grotesque demon after the founder proved his worthiness. Japan must have been full of busy demon sword instructors.
Keep the kernels of wisdom, lose the chaff.
(We'll entirely ignore the stories of how practitioners - who are generally dead or afraid to demonstrate except on their disciples - could fling people across rooms with no more than a flick of their eyebrow.)↑