Wishful Thinking and the Danger of Beliefs
Ever know someone, perhaps a father, grandfather, uncle, or friend, who chose to believe something that wasn't true? At first, this may sound silly. Why would anyone do that? People's feelings have a strong influence on what they choose to believe. If your grandfather believes that the government has been working with aliens since Roswell, then chances are he has chosen to believe this. What is the difference between this grandfather and some less far-reaching belief? More specifically, what is the difference between knowing something and believing something? Although this is a very broad subject, I will focus this section on how it relates to self-defense.
Most people probably do not differentiate between knowledge and belief. After all, what is the difference between knowing that the square root of 16 is 4 and believing that it is? Dictionary.com defines the verb to believe as:
- To accept as true or real
- To credit with veracity
- To expect or suppose; think
- To have faith, confidence, or trust
- To have confidence in the truth or value of something
- To have an opinion; think
When you believe something, it is not necessarily backed up with facts. None of the definitions above mention anything about evidence or facts. No matter what side of the Roswell debate you're on (and you should know mine by now!), it is clear that there is very little evidence that the incident took place. This highlights the difference between belief (in a practical sense), and a reasoned conclusion. A belief is often arbitrary, while a reasoned conclusion is based on evidence. A belief may be based on some evidence as well, but it may not be as well reasoned.
The easiest way to pull this concept from a murky slog into something resembling an explanation is with an example. Let's say that you kicked a bag with your hardest kick, and suddenly the whole bag flew from the hook and smashed into the wall. Surprised, you attempt to figure out what caused such a thing to happen. The S-hook that secured it was found lying next to the bag, having been bent when the bag flew sideways. Some fellow students that witnessed the bag said it appeared that it just shot to the side with the force of the kick. Another student ventured that such a thing could only happen if you had channeled your Qi perfectly into a super-kick.
What should you believe? That you are now capable of a super-kick? You could try re-hanging the bag and trying it again, but if you fail, what do you believe? Some people could jump to the conclusion that you have to be thinking just the right thing to focus Qi in so powerful of a fashion. Maybe you were angry when you kicked the bag, and now, no longer angry, you conclude that you have to be angry to do the super-kick. Though there is (very) scant evidence that Qi can be "focused", the term is used enough in the martial arts that it is a reasonably plausible answer. Your ability to reproduce the kick again may or may not have an effect of your belief that the phenomenon is real. If you fail to reproduce the super-kick, then you can decide that something else might have happened, or you can simply decide that you don't yet know how to focus your Qi. If you chose to believe that you could focus your Qi and cause a superkick, you will probably neglect other explanations. What else would cause a bag to fly off its holder like that? How could one kick deform the hook so much? While it is not that interesting of an answer, maybe the hook holding the bag had already been bent. Perhaps it hadn't been replaced in years. Since you didn't check the hook before you threw the kick, you really don't know whether or not this explanation is correct.
Which answer is likely more correct? The super-kick or the stressed S-hook? Both of them have evidence of a sort, but one of them is wishful thinking and the other is a more reasoned conclusion. You can't really rule out the Qi thing, but you can conclude a few things about the probabilities of either answer. If you believe that you have thrown a super-kick, you are latching onto unverified evidence supplied by an authority figure (another student). The other answer has a few bits of evidence behind it. The S-hook could certainly have deformed under years of hits. You know the power of your kick, and for 100% of the time before that one kick, you were not able to knock the bag from its holder. Though you don't know for sure, you can conclude that it is much more likely that the S-hook was already deformed, and that you did not perform a super-kick. (The only thing that could possibly give you solid evidence that something unusual happened is if you knew the S-hook was OK before the kick. The only reason you would check, though, is if you were concerned that it was stressed. Hm. Circular reasoning?)
Believing in the less likely explanation because the more likely one cannot be completely ruled is the foundation for wishful thinking. You would like to have thrown a superkick, but that is why it is wishful thinking.
This doesn't mean the other explanation isn't valid, at least from a specific point of view. If your instructor can throw really powerful kicks, and he claims that he is focusing his Qi for each strike, is he using Qi or just physics to kick very hard? After all, unlike the bag, you have repeated evidence. He can throw very powerful strikes. I wouldn't necessarily say that the instructor is wrong. What does he mean by Qi? There are many varied definitions (which is really the problem. "Life Energy" was a term created by people that didn't understand how the human body worked). One of the most common is energy, but what does this really mean? In physics, energy is defined as the ability to do work. The instructor has indeed focused his ability to perform the kick, a sort of "work" (although its defined somewhat differently in physics). Perhaps the instructor means concentration, muscle activity, focus, discipline, and power when he says he is focusing his Qi. Perhaps he means the most optimum strike, combining all aspects of power and discipline? Perhaps he just means years of practice? In this example, as in the last one, you cannot rule out completely any possible explanation, because they both fit the evidence. If you practice as long as the instructor, more than likely you will be able to kick as well. Once you achieve this goal, are you focusing your Qi for mini-superkicks, using muscles that are well practiced for each kick, or blending power, discipline, speed, and focus for your own Qi inspired kick? Note that the interpretations differ when we change what Qi means. These explanations are also somewhat equivalent. You could believe any of them and still reproduce your mini-superkick. Their similarities aside, what you believe does matter because your beliefs will effect your decisions. Qi is many things to many people, but it must still obey the laws of physics. If it were indeed possible to levitate with Qi, knock people out, or allow you to perform super-kicks, it would be verified by science. Remember that the scientific method is:
Science is not an elite society of white suited intellectuals who are determined to maintain the "status quo". If a scientist could prove that Qi could perform superkicks, she would do it without hesitation. After all, such a discovery would ensure the scientist fame and wealth. Almost every scientist dreams of advancing the knowledge of our species. (That's why they became scientists!) Although I have used a superkick as an example, there are many other effects that are attributed to Qi that could easily be substituted. If a claim sounds fantastic, it probably is.
From a self-defense standpoint, wishful thinking can be just as dangerous. The most likely explanation should be the default, with the more fantastic explanations requiring more proof, not just a stray fact or two that happens to fit. You should ask yourself if you believe something because you have evidence for it, or you want to believe it. If you believe you can stop any punch with a block, why do you believe that? Wishful thinking would be that you stopped one punch once, and so now you believe you can block all punches. Logic would suggest that you cannot take one example and apply it so generally. You can run into trouble when you believe something because you want to. We are all susceptible to this, though. Believing that a certain brand of car is the best because you own one of them isn't necessarily bad. Believing that you will never get caught doing something that you shouldn't be doing because you are better than everyone else that does it is certainly bad. This could be anything from speeding to driving under the influence to getting into a fight. Believing that you are better at something than everyone else is a uniquely human trait. Although we cannot dismiss other members of the animal kingdom, it isn't hard to find someone who thinks that they're a better driver than everyone else, even if that person is you. This is all part of wishful thinking. What proof do you have that you are any better than the average driver? Although this kind of wishful thinking is quite dissimilar from a family member believing in wild theories, it is all connected because we are driven by emotions to believe something, not an objective analysis of the facts. Because we all don't have pointy ears like Mr. Spock, we will always have to contend with wishful thinking. Critical thinking, however, can allow us to ask ourselves when something is likely to be true. We do this by demanding evidence.
Belief can be a very controversial subject. In general, I think, people feel most vulnerable when their beliefs are questioned by others. As social beings, we evolved to want to be accepted by other members of our species. Most people don't like to be an outsider, and when we all believe the same things we feel more comfortable. However, when other people don't believe the same things, we have a tendency to want to change their own beliefs to match our own. If you don't believe in UFO's, and you suddenly found yourself in the middle of a massive UFO convention, you would feel uncomfortable. Your first reaction might be that they are all weird and gullible. After all, most people think they are right, and if you're right, they must all be wrong. If you look at it from the side of the UFO enthusiast, then they would see you as wrong, because of the weight of the social support behind their belief and any evidence that they feel is relevant. Depending upon the strength of their belief, they might even want to convince you that they are right. Depending on the strength of your belief, you might want to convince them that flares and rocket debris aren't alien spacecraft. The point is that there is a tendency for people to want others to believe the same things as themselves. As I have already mentioned, people have many reasons for believing in something. When you have good evidence, such as if you flew to the moon in an Apollo spacecraft or flew around the world in a balloon, then you do not need to reinforce your own belief that the world is round. Most of us don't need that drastic of proof, but we are mostly convinced that we're not standing on a giant saucer supported by a massive tree, turtle, or pillar of rock. Our evidence is good. There are people, however, who do not believe the world is round. Some people, including myself, wonder how this is possible in today's information age. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates that evidence is not entirely necessary for belief. We believe a lot of things simply because others believe it, or because we want to believe it. Whenever you want to believe something, you may go to great lengths to convince yourself it is true. If you need any proof, just remember the people who deny the Earth is round.
Any difference between what we want to believe and the evidence causes friction, and this is where self-defense comes in. I will not tell you what you should believe, besides reminding you that belief is more comfortable with evidence (Sketics will say that it isn't a matter of believing, but of accepting based on the evidence.). However, you should be aware of what your beliefs actually are. Most people take these for granted. Can you separate your beliefs from your knowledge? What do you feel most strongly about? Are you threatened when people do not agree with you? This is the first step, because when you know what your own beliefs are, you are less likely to feel threatened when they are questioned. The second step is to try to discover what others believe. This is a huge source of conflict the world over, because beliefs are very emotional entities. From a self-defense standpoint, directly challenging someone's beliefs is not a wise thing to do, because a confrontation will make your argument less likely to succeed and increase the chance for an emotionally driven, potentially violent response. Likewise, a martial artist, trained in the art of hurting others, can't let himself or herself be easily driven to violence based on such a confrontation.