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.]