Oct 16 2007

Blood Sugar Chi Magik

Recently on the SGU podcast we have discussed the martial arts masters who claim they can use chi, the mysterious undetectable life force of Eastern mysticism, to make themselves invulnerable to blows or to knock out opponents without even touching them. It’s all very impressive – in that it is an amazing demonstration of the power of suggestion and self-deception.

Belief in chi is also telling us something about human psychology. That there is a psychological motivation to believe in the magic of chi does not mean that chi is a fiction, but since we can say scientifically from independent lines of evidence that there is no credible evidence for the existence of anything like chi or any life energy, that does lead to the question of why people believe in it.

SGU listener, Matt Snodgrass, wrote us an e-mail saying the following:

I understand how people fall for a lot of the junk that’s out there, as I said I’ve tried some of it, and gone into more depth with things like the herbal concoctions. The only real way of advancing in martial arts though, is hard work. It’s like dieting in many ways, those who I’ve ever seen that become very good do so by make lifestyle changes such as going to the gym regularly, practicing drills and fighting moves constantly, keeping up on the cardiovascular training, etc. This becomes tedious to many people though, and the magic becomes very alluring, much like fad diets.

I think Matt is exactly correct, and his analogy is very apt. Belief in magic in many forms is about wanting an easy solution to life’s problems. Numerous industries exist solely to peddle easy or magical answers to complex problems. Easy answers sell well.

We see this clearly with weight loss. Changing one’s habits to limit caloric intake and increase exercise is hard work. What people want is to lose weight without diet or exercise, and so almost weekly we are promised a new miracle solution, a secret to accomplish just that.

And speaking of secrets, the recent self-help book, The Secret, is another manifestation of the exact same thing – the desire for easy answers. The Secret is, in a way, a perfectly marketed example of this phenomenon. It promises that all of life’s problems can be fixed just by wishing it so. Believe and your belief will become manifest, the universe will listen. It’s an all purpose easy answer. It also includes another component – that you have to take some specific action to cause the desired result to come about. This is slick – wish for an outcome, then do something to create the outcome, and the outcome will manifest. Of course, you could skip the whole wishing part, but that’s the marketing genius of the book. They are selling the wishing, the magic, the illusion of an easy answer.

Self-help and pop psychology books in general fall into the wish-fulfillment and easy answer genre. By and large such books claim to distill all of human psychological complexity down to one easy system. The simple system can then be applied to you to create simple steps to achieve whatever your goals happen to be.

With regard to martial arts (and in other examples) I think there are two phenomena at work. Certainly there is the desire for the easier or simpler path to prowess, denying the more unforgiving reality that there is no substitution for sustained hard work. But many martial artists who believe in the magic of chi also put in the hours of hard physical work. In these cases I think the draw is more for personal empowerment – the typical male power fantasy.

Belief in chi creates the possibility of going beyond martial arts skills to actual super powers. There is definitely something very seductive about the possibility of making an opponent collapse just by gesturing at them. It’s why Jedi are so cool, and it’s a major driver of the video-game industry.

What I am discussing are the psychological motivations that drive belief in chi and other magical nonsense. How people deceive themselves into believing chi is real is a separate question, perhaps for another post (although I have certainly discussed components of self deception in many previous posts).

Watching a chi master, after felling all his own students with the wave of a hand, getting the crap beat out of him by a martial artist free from such delusions, and watching a chi master cut his own arm with a sword, slicing himself down to the bone, should certainly serve as a cautionary experience. The lessons we should derive from their folly is to be knowledgeable of the mechanisms and power of self deception, be wary of reaching conclusions you really want to be true, be distrustful of easy answers to complex problems, and be aware of your own desires for super powers and therefore any claims that you can actually possess them.

Reality may be harsh but it has the distinct advantage of being real.

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