Notes On the Reductionism of Quote Bots


Consider each of the following lines in their entirety. What do they really say?

Buddhist meditation: Reality has no frills.  ~Zen Graffiti

Buddhist meditation: Can Buddha know Buddha? ~Zen Graffiti

Don’t be confused in your mindfulness.

Buddhist practice: Empowerment is not some secret deal. ~Zen Graffiti

I’m not quite sure who Master Zen Graffiti is but he certainly gets around in social media. [Actually they’re from a Twitter account with nearly 50,000 followers] There are possibly millions of these one-liners floating around the Internet. Sometimes people forward them on from other sources and sometimes they make them up themselves. At other times they are the product of automated programs called bots, in this case quote bots which chop up texts into somewhat random chunks or take lists of quotes and post them. These are automated programs that spew out a line or two of allegedly pithy wisdom or mindlessly retweet what others have posted based on some key word algorithm. There are a lot of quote bots in social media. Some of them have thousands of followers. There are blogs that do the same and so does big time media with tens of thousands of followers. What else are interns for in a publications office besides getting coffee, amirite?

These disembodied quotes don’t have citations or links to their context nor do they have any discussion as to their relevance to the intended audience. Even looking at the space in which they originate they have no connection to anything that precedes or follows them. Generally they are feel good platitudes or a bunch of words that might possibly be wise but they don’t generally invite anything further than cursory digestion until they get shitted out somewhere else on the Internet.

I have occasionally griped about such activity before. Parroting is not wisdom.

Today I was spurred to think about this again and in a slightly more organized fashion by a philosophy professor who took up the subject in objection to someone spewing out disembodied Freud quotes.

They initially wrote:

Here’s the rest of our conversation in a condensed format followed by some further comments. [FT is Fuck Theory of the Fuck Theory blog, NL is NellaLou. Twitter is one line at a time and a little asynchronous but I’m sure you’ll catch the drift.]

FT continued: There really are few things more offensive than philosophy ‘quotes.’ ‘Quotes’ in general, really. ‘Quotes’ are to knowledge what pennies are to cash. Sure, in theory you could spend your life collecting ’em and eventually have a billion dollars. Or you could, you know, actually get a job.

‘Quotes’ mostly indicate a passing familiarity with a writer or thinker’s name. Quotes are to erudition as name-dropping is to friendship.

The last section merited a retweet on my part and a response from me as well.

NL: Of course by retweeting @FuckTheory I am in effect quoting them…a dilemma.

FT: These are the little thought-puzzles that hone our minds for the intellectual revolution ; ) More importantly, I distinguish between a ‘reference,’ which opens the door to a different text, and a ‘quote,’ which reduces it.

NL: Nice distinction. I have another context in which is it would be useful. But not in any way reduced. Twitter often spurs people 2 seek context in terms of the conversation or a person’s whole stream. 2 me that’s 1 of its + points. IOW it’s rarely “just” molecules of 140 characters randomly floating about.

FT: That’s the beauty of Twitter, really. When you retweet, it goes without saying it’s a single moment from an on-going ‘stream.’ Exactly. Definitely agree. In fact, the retweet button means that you have to go out of your way to quote without ‘context.’ Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes something is said so perfectly that paraphrase is virtually sacrilege. “We do not yet know what the body can do,” for example. And there’s no point to thinking you can improve on genius. But if you have an entire Twitter account that is nothing but ‘quotes,’ you’re absolutely NOT yourself a ‘thinker.’ A Twitter made of quotes makes you a ‘thinker’ like a teenager’s posters make them a ‘rock star.’ i.e., not by any stretch of imagination. So, again. Inspiration is awesome – maybe that kid will BECOME a rock star! Or maybe they’ll still be bowing to false idols 20 years later. In conclusion, that ‘Freud books’ person should kindly do away with themselves for the capital sin of Ventriloquizing A Genius While Stupid.

Sometimes quotes can be quite brilliant on their own and can be inspirational. But they can just as easily denigrate or confuse the material they are a representative part of.

It’s very convenient to say “just sit” or ‘”kill your ego” or “be mindful” or similar and realize that these instructions may have a point in a particular context. The issue becomes a sticking point when these instructions are meant as indicating the entirety of Buddhist practice and when they have no context. They are then unhelpfully reductive.

What is reductionism? On the blog Think Buddha, written by philosopher and author, Will Buckingham the 2007 post A few brief thoughts on reductionism contains a lot of good information on reductionism as well as this definition:

reductionism noun the belief that complex data, phenomena, etc. can be explained in terms of something simpler

He discusses the usefulness of certain approaches to reductionism as well as some of the drawbacks.

What I sometimes see in the Buddhist context and what I’m pointing to here, is what Daniel Dennett  called Greedy Reductionism, which is:

…a kind of erroneous reductionism. Whereas “good” reductionism means explaining a thing in terms of what it reduces to (for example, its parts and their interactions), greedy reductionism is when “in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers … underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation.”[1]

~Greedy Reductionism, Wikipedia [Aside: I’m sure Dennett would be thrilled to be quoted on a Buddhisty]

While quotes may contain some relevant seed to some people reading them, that is those who understand their background, and to those distributing them, who have lifted them from somewhere or created them from a position of some knowledge, they may lack context for a great many people. In other words they may be taken literally, as stand alone statements. The quotes presented at the top of this post are examples of that. They have no provenance, nor origin, no link to anything else that invites further investigation, no real context. In that way, as they are, they are meaningless blobs of words.

For quotes to have meaning they are dependent upon sources. They then become references.

For quotes to be relevant they are dependent upon context. They are then understood to be part of a whole, not literal representations of the whole.

People who are most knowledgeable about Buddhism are often those who proffer these kinds of quotes with great frequency. The background is taken for granted in that case and the meaning of the quote may be quite obvious to them, however for the novice that is not the case.

Here’s a similar example we see in the comments of news blogs or even on tv stations like FoxNews. Sound bytes on the news come to mean things they don’t really mean because they have been decontextualized. On political issues there is a frequent mix up between the terms Nazi and socialist because the Nazis called themselves National Socialists. Nazis were loyal to the state, hence the word National meaning extreme nationalism, one of the characteristics of fascism. Socialism relates to people collectively doing something for the commons, that is in the interest of all the people. One may think that’s simply a semantic quibble but it certainly wasn’t to those on the Eastern front in World War II. So even the democratic socialism that one finds in countries like Sweden gets painted with a Nazi brush. Without context, background, history or adequate knowledge things start to mean something quite different or even opposite to their actual meaning.

It’s rather like this in the Western context. If we see the following quote:

‘Their throat is an open grave … Let their intrigues be their downfall’ Psalm 5:9-10

we understand it because culture in North America and Europe is heavily influenced by Christianity and we know that a Psalm is part of the Christian bible. This is part of common knowledge in the Western context. So we have somewhere to go with such a quote.

Likewise if a person were to write:

“Tell me what is good for me. I am a wanderer with a hollow heart.” ~Mahabharata, Book Sixteen: The Battle With Clubs

many Indian people would likely surmise that is a reference to Krishna in Mahabharata.

On a page about quotes from the Hindu epic called Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a small part:

“…now I am become Death [Shiva], the destroyer of worlds…”

~Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, Supervising Scientist of the Manhattan Project on 16 July 1945 at 0529 HRS, in the Jornada del Muerto desert near the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range. … quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita upon witnessing the first atomic detonation by mankind.

The exact quote from the Bhagavad-Gita is:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty one … [Chapter 11, verse 12]
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds. [Chapter 11, verse 32]

“The Atomic Age began at exactly 5:30 Mountain War Time on the morning of July 15, 1945, on a stretch of semi-desert land about 5 airline miles from Alamogordo, New Mexico. And just at that instance there rose from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one.”
William Laurence, New York Times, September 26, 1945

We might take this to mean that Oppenheimer is somewhat regretful or even appalled at the detonation of the bomb. In the Gita, Krishna, as charioteer, is actually absolving Arjuna for fighting and trying to allay his guilt and hesitation, not condemning him. Krishna basically says that if it weren’t Arjuna entering the battle the people would all die anyways in time. So he reminds him of his duty as a member of his caste. So the interpretation is considerably different than the way many non-Hindu people, and maybe even Oppenheimer, take it.

These were just some of the thoughts that came to mind today.

For a more in depth discussion of these matters Prof. Stephen Law, a philosopher at the University of London, has put an excerpt of his book, Believing Bullshit, online here Pseudo-profundity – from “Believing Bullshit”.

He introduces “pseudo-profundity” thusly:

Some marketing, religious, and lifestyle gurus have genuinely profound insights to offer. Others spout little more than pseudo-profundity. Pseudo-profundity is the art of sounding profound while talking tosh. Unlike the art of actually being profound, the art of sounding profound is not particularly difficult to master. As we’ll see, there are certain basic recipes that can produce fairly convincing results – good enough to convince others, and perhaps even yourself, that you have gained some sort of profound insight into the human condition.

If you want to achieve the status of a guru it helps to have some natural charisma and presentational skills. Sincerity, empathy, or at least the ability to fake them, can be useful. Props also help. Try wearing a loincloth, a fez, or, in a business setting, a particularly brash waistcoat. But even without the aid of such natural talents or paraphernalia, anyone can produce deep- and meaningful-sounding pronouncements if they are prepared to follow a few simple recipes.

Then he proceeds to an outline of the methodology of pseudo-profundity. Read that here.

[Others have also written about reductionism. Doug of the Japan and Korea: Life, Language and Religion blog wrote a post, Western Buddhism and Anti-Intellectualism, Reductionism in 2008.]

6 comments on “Notes On the Reductionism of Quote Bots

  1. Thank you for this, NellaLou. And thanks for the link to the J & K blog on Anti-Intellectualism in Western Buddhism. It’s nice to see someone discussing that topic without reverting to postmodernist pseudo-profundities ;)

    Twitter is itself a strange animal. How do we really say anything meaningful in 140 characters? And in a sense we are ‘talking’ to ourselves much of the time, myself even more than others, I suspect. I don’t even try, in general, to ‘chat’ with people on there. “Email me,” I say. As a student of early Buddhism and Kant, I hope that my twitter quotations of them can be considered ‘references’ (I try to always give the source). They may sometimes be taken as platitudes though, or *reminders* or conversation starters or the likes…

    Perhaps the big problem then is the sheer popularity of those generated or otherwise fairly vapid quotes (along with the charismatic reductionists), while ‘deep thinking’ gets so little notice.

  2. He he, I forgot I wrote that old post on reductionism but I’m glad it was useful.

    To your point, I think you’re quite right in that little philosophical “bites” are kind of pointless. It’s like a bag of chips you get from a vending machine: looks appealing but the portions are not enough and it’s devoid of any nutrition. :-p

    Great thoughts in this post. :-)

  3. Hello :)
    I found this blog through a link on Facebook, which took me to a site describing a journalists experience of a retreat with Daniel M. Ingram. I am interested in awareness and decided to Google Mr Ingram to find out more information about him. That is where I found a blog entry from roughly two years ago, in which the whole entry is a reply to a comment he made on a previous entry. It was very informative with some insightful humor that really made me giggle. He commented on this entry as-well and the language he used made me turn away from the idea of reading his material. It is very clear that he has academic knowledge on the subject and knows how to put it down in a manipulative and self-pleasing way but it is clearly from a distorted mind. Your response to his new comments were astoundingly fresh, humorous and handled with a mindful feminine grace that I enjoyed greatly :) I decided to check out some more posts and my thoughts is that this entry, is kinda silly. When talking about realization of the true self, is it necessary to attack such things as reductionism and online computerized quote factories and re-tweeters? I believe “I am that I am” Is one of the most reduced and profound religious quotes that has ever existed, does that need correct context or explanation? The very fact that these quotes could be misinterpreted, misunderstood, cause others to be lead astray and create false and destructive ideals is all part of the play of life isn’t it? The “Seeker” Community is sometimes like a group of people who believe they have a noble, almost god given duty, to shepherd the stray flock to the kingdom of heaven (To use Christian language). I don’t know whether its because they want to prove a point to themselves or others or whether its through an identification with pain and compassion that leads people to want to manipulate the world to make it a better place, it doesn’t matter. Some people just wont ever be aware, they have the capability and the requirements for all the deepest experiences that experience has to experience, but sadly will never realize. I have observed this in many people of many different ages and backgrounds and found that underlying factor that causes this, is how much of a persons life experience has backed up their own beliefs and mental images of themselves. These people who have the evidence behind their self assurance will be so mentally locked in their own reality, that nothing short of a complete mental and emotional breakdown, from their own experience, will cause them to realize. Those people who’s experience has contradicted their beliefs on reality, who are afraid of the circumstances that cause ego death, the ones who have gaps, will be the ones to seek. As the gaps get bigger in their lives, the harder they will seek, in all directions, until they will find the correct context to a quote or the truth behind a reductionism. What I’m trying (to stay on tangent with and hopelessly :P) say, is that the distortion will eventually point to itself regardless of what the material is. We are shepherds, we do have a responsibility, from the most mildly realized to the most enlightened individuals. We shouldn’t get angered by content and misdirection, taking action to push the flock in the “right” direction while they still have a taste for the world, in doing so we also mislead ourselves. Instead we should gently open gates and let be the choice of the flock to walk through. Some sheep will get lost in the world, some will walk through and others may sheepishly walk round the pen for a while before making a decision, and the world IS waking up :) more than anything, what I’m trying to say is – Relax and open gates again :) leave the details to those who wish to look at them x

    • Hey CU. Thanks for the advice I guess, if that is what you are giving me. I believe I did make the distinction regarding context and that some quotes may be more useful than others and that there’s always a bigger picture involved. I think that’s what the whole post was about.

      I don’t believe in a god so nobody’s given me “a god-given right” to do anything nor have I assumed the same. Your use of pronouns confuses me. Are you including me in this “seeker community” and the “they” of which you speak or are you writing about something and someone else. I can’t really tell.

      I don’t know if you are writing about what I wrote or generally making a statement with this:

      We shouldn’t get angered by content and misdirection, taking action to push the flock in the “right” direction while they still have a taste for the world, in doing so we also mislead ourselves. Instead we should gently open gates and let be the choice of the flock to walk through.

      These are just some thoughts I had on the matter. I’m nobody’s shepherd. What people do with these thoughts, if anything at all, I cannot control. Nor do I really want to. If I did I’d be sitting at my desk in a teacher’s black robe rather than a bathrobe. In any case I’m not responsible for anyone else’s enlightenment or realization or whatever, so if people find it useful or skillful or something quite other than that is not really an issue for me.

      So the point of your comment, to me at least, is that I should just not bother to write anything and just relax? Cool. I’ll take that under advisement.

      BTW I’m so relaxed and mellow I’ve melted right off my chair and am now no more than a puddle of jello on the floor. :-D

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