Aliveness in Training

Re­lated: The Mar­tial Art of Rationality

One prin­ci­ple in the mar­tial arts is that arts that are prac­ticed with al­ive­ness tend to be more effec­tive.

“Alive­ness” in this case refers to a set of train­ing prin­ci­ples fo­cused on simu­lat­ing con­di­tions in an ac­tual fight as closely as pos­si­ble in train­ing. Rather than train tech­niques in a vac­uum or against a com­pli­ant op­po­nent, al­ive train­ing fo­cuses on train­ing with move­ment, timing, and en­ergy un­der con­di­tions that ap­prox­i­mate those where the tech­niques will ac­tu­ally be used.[1]

A good ex­am­ple of train­ing that isn’t al­ive would be meth­ods that fo­cused en­tirely on prac­tic­ing kata and forms with­out mak­ing con­tact with other prac­ti­tion­ers; a good ex­am­ple of train­ing that is al­ive would be meth­ods that fo­cused on ver­ify­ing the effi­cacy of tech­niques through full-con­tact en­gage­ment with other prac­ti­tion­ers.

Alive­ness tends to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment free from epistemic vi­cious­ness—if your tech­nique doesn’t work, you’ll know be­cause you won’t be able to use it against an op­po­nent. Fur­ther, if your tech­nique does work, you’ll know that it works be­cause you will have ap­plied it against peo­ple try­ing to pre­vent you from do­ing so, and the added con­fi­dence will help you bet­ter ap­ply that tech­nique when you need it.

Ev­i­dence from mar­tial arts com­pe­ti­tions in­di­cates that those who prac­tice with al­ive­ness are more effec­tive than oth­ers. One of the chief rea­sons that Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) prac­ti­tion­ers were so suc­cess­ful in early mixed mar­tial arts tour­na­ments was that BJJ—a mar­tial art that re­lies pri­mar­ily on grap­pling and the use of sub­mis­sion holds and locks to defeat the op­po­nent—can be trained safely with al­most com­plete al­ive­ness, whereas many other mar­tial arts can­not.[2]

Now, this is not to say that one should only at­tempt to prac­tice mar­tial arts un­der com­pletely re­al­is­tic con­di­tions. For in­stance, no mar­tial arts school that I am aware of ran­domly am­bushes or at­tempts to mug its stu­dents on the streets out­side of class in or­der to test how they would re­spond un­der truly re­al­is­tic con­di­tions.[3]

Even in the age of sword du­els, peo­ple would train with blunt weapons and pro­tec­tive ar­mor rather than sharp weapons and or­di­nary clothes. Would train­ing with sharp weapons and or­di­nary clothes be more al­ive than train­ing with blunt weapons and pro­tec­tive ar­mor? Cer­tainly, but the trainees wouldn’t be! And yet train­ing with blunt weapons is still use­ful—the fact that train­ing does not fully ap­prox­i­mate re­al­is­tic con­di­tions does not in­trin­si­cally mean it is bad.

That be­ing said, gen­er­ally speak­ing mar­tial arts train­ing that is more al­ive—that bet­ter ap­prox­i­mates re­al­is­tic fight­ing con­di­tions—is more effec­tive within rea­son­able safety mar­gins. There is a grow­ing con­sen­sus among stu­dents of mar­tial arts who are look­ing for effec­tive self-defense tech­niques that the spe­cific mar­tial art one prac­tices is not hugely rele­vant, and that what mat­ters more is the ex­tent to which the train­ing does or doesn’t use al­ive­ness.

Alive­ness and Rationality

So, that’s all well and good—but how can we ap­ply these prin­ci­ples to ra­tio­nal­ity prac­tice?

While mar­tial arts train­ing has very clear meth­ods of mea­sur­ing whether or not skills work (can I ap­ply this tech­nique against a re­sist­ing op­po­nent?), ra­tio­nal­ity train­ing is much murk­ier—mea­sur­ing ra­tio­nal­ity skills is a non­triv­ial prob­lem.

Fur­ther, un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances the op­po­nent that you are re­sist­ing when ap­ply­ing ra­tio­nal­ity tech­niques is your own brain, not an ex­ter­nal en­emy.[4] This makes ap­ply­ing ap­pro­pri­ate lev­els of re­sis­tance in train­ing difficult, be­cause it’s very easy to cheat your­self. The best method that I have found thus far is lu­cid dream­ing, as forc­ing your dream­ing brain to rec­og­nize its true state through the var­i­ous hal­lu­ci­na­tions and con­structed mem­o­ries as­so­ci­ated with dream­ing is no easy task.

That be­ing said, I make no claims to spe­cial or unique knowl­edge in this area. If any­one has sug­ges­tions for use­ful meth­ods of “live” ra­tio­nal­ity prac­tice, I’d love to hear them.

[1] For fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion, see Matt Thorn­ton’s clas­sic video “Why Alive­ness?”

[2] If your plan is to choke some­one un­til they fall un­con­scious, it is pos­si­ble to safely train for this with nearly com­plete al­ive­ness by wrestling against an op­po­nent and sim­ply re­leas­ing the choke­hold be­fore they ac­tu­ally fall un­con­scious. By con­trast, it is much harder to safely train to punch some­one into un­con­scious­ness, and harder still to safely train to break peo­ple’s necks.

[3] The game of As­sas­s­ins does do this, but usu­ally fol­lows rules that are con­strained enough to make it a sub­op­ti­mal method of train­ing.

[4] There are some con­texts in which ra­tio­nal­ity tech­niques are ap­plied in or­der to over­come an ex­ter­nal en­emy. Com­pet­i­tive games and some sports are a good method of find­ing prac­tice in this re­spect. For in­stance, in or­der to be a com­pet­i­tive Magic: The Gather­ing player, you need to en­gage many epistemic and in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity skills. Com­pet­i­tive poker can offer similar de­vel­op­ment.