Monday, January 28, 2013

They Don't Make Sheeples Like They Used To

Another day, another fake Buddha quote.  An old friend shared this on Facebook today:

Knowing his audience, he added a comment: Someone will say 'Buddha didn't say that' , I dont care."

In reply, someone posted, "'The trouble with the Internet is, you can't tell which quotes are authentic' - Buddha."

While trying (not very hard) to track this one down, I came upon Fake Buddha Quotes, a blog by a Buddhist writer posting as Bodhipaksa who also knows something about tracking down sources.  He covers this quotation here.  He thinks it came from a 1994 book by an American Buddhist teacher called Jack Kornfeld, whose title (Buddha’s Little Instruction Book) makes it sound as if the teachings it contains come from the Buddha himself, rather than through the teacher.  He concludes that he's "not actually sure what it's saying," and suggests that it's a "deepity", a word "coined by the teenage daughter of one of [philosopher Daniel Dennett's] friends. The term refers to a statement that is apparently profound but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another."  I'd have thought that Dennett would consider everything from outside of science and positivist philosophy to fit this definition; he's coughed up a few of them himself, for that matter.  I would certainly classify a lot of canonical religious teaching as deepities.  (I think I'll stick with "platitude," though.  Dennett, like Dawkins, seems to be overfond of coming up with new words for old ideas, like "Bright," that always seem to be a bit off.)

A good many people get all spitty when it's pointed out that they've misattributed a quotation, either first-hand or by passing along a misattribution.  Others benignly brush it aside, because what harm is done?  I don't believe they'd be as blithe about misattribution if the same empty verbiage were attributed to someone they didn't like.  (I must get around to making a meme of my own, based on a feel-good platitude that was big in the 60s.  It occurred to me that it would show just how meaningless it is if I put it over pictures of some other less appealing people.  I'll get to this Real Soon Now, I promise.)

If it doesn't matter who said it as long as it makes sense -- though "making sense" is an odd criterion for religious types to invoke -- then why attribute it to the Buddha, or to anyone? It seems to me that someone tried to give their saying prestige by putting the Buddha's name on it. If it's valid no matter who said it, then why attribute it to anyone in particular -- especially to someone who didn't say it?

Whether it's valid is another matter. It's another one of those nicely vacuous platitudes that could also be true if it's reversed: "The problem is, you think you have no time." OMFG, how profound! We're always in a hurry, but time is an illusion and we exist in eternity, so high five! Since it's meaningless, it can also be interpreted differently if you attribute it to someone else. Auric Goldfinger, for example: Your problem is, Mr. Bond, you think you have time.  As usual, the people who love this quotation take for granted that their understanding of the platitude is the true and only one, though given its ambiguity it could be interpreted in numerous other ways.

I browsed a little through FBQ and found this post, which quotes from and links to another blogger's piece on the problem of falsehoods being spread over the Internet.  An excerpt from the other blogger's post:
Why do I care, you ask? Because it’s a waste of time. Because I want to believe that the people around me aren’t knee-jerk emotional reactionists willing to dispense with logic because the internet is such a shining bastion of quality information. Because it takes no time at all to stop, consider, and question. Because truth is better than bullshit. Because right is better than wrong…
Now, I agree wholeheartedly with the basic point, but I do have some objections to some of what the other blogger, John Shanahan, says.  Some of the trouble is apparent in the paragraph I just quoted above: he wants to believe that the people around him aren't knee-jerk emotional reactionists usw.?  That's faith, and the worst kind of faith at that: believing what you know isn't so.  The evidence is clear that the people around him are knee-jerk emotional reactionists willing to dispense with logic and so on.  And so, judging by his refusal to believe the evidence of his own observation, is he.  You're mad too, Mr. Shanahan, or you wouldn't be here.

Shanahan begins his post thusly:
At some point in the earliest days of e-mail, the internet began to take away our power of critical thought. It moved in slowly, taking hold like a cancer and then spreading. It preyed on our trust. It made us think it wanted to protect us from things or tell us about interesting things of which we were unaware.
Oh my goodness, you don't think this suddenly began with the advent of the Internet, do you?  It's much older than that, probably as old as humanity.  When did people conscientiously use their power of critical thought?  And it wasn't the internet that did this.  The internet doesn't prey on your trust: people prey on your trust.  The Internet didn't make you think anything; people do that, and in fact they can't make you think much of anything.  They can cajole, persuade, harass, seduce, and try to manipulate you, but it's you who decide whether to go along with them or not.

A bit later, after dismantling a couple of popular bogosities, he wails:
I know that there are some anti-Snopes people out there, or those who would challenge my use of it as a source. (It’s been done.) But you can’t refute a reference that–hang onto your hats, outright sheepish believers!–cites its sources. Its legitimate sources. Holy research! Sweet mother of web-based-journalism, how can this be?
Now, as a matter of fact, you can refute a reference that cites its sources, even legitimate sources.   The person citing those sources might misquote or misrepresent them.  The sources might be inaccurate, or mistaken.  For example, the economist Amartya Sen wrote in his Development as Freedom (Knopf, 1999, p. 168) that
the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica, in its vintage eleventh edition, refers to the Indian famine of 1344-1345 as one in which even "the Moghul emperor was unable to obtain the necessaries for his household." But that story runs into some problems. It is sad to have to report that the Moghul empire in India was not established until 1526. Perhaps more important, the Tughlak emperor in power in 1344-1345 -- Mohammed Bin Tughlak -- not only had no great difficulty in securing necessaries for his household, but also had enough means to organize one of the more illustrious programs of famine relief in history. The anecdotes of unified starvation do not tally with the reality of divided fortunes.
I admit that I haven't checked Sen's sources here myself.  But that's just it: I could conceivably refute the "reference" of a Nobel-Prize winning economist who cites his very reputable sources, if it turned out he had misrepresented them.  If he's right, then Sen refuted such a "reference" himself.  What you learn by checking sources is whether they've been accurately represented.

Bodhipaksa, to his credit, recognizes this himself.  He points out that all he establishes by tracking down a Buddha quotation to the canonical sources is whether it appears there.  Even the older Pali canon was preserved orally for several centuries before it was written down, and it is possible (even likely) that some of the teachings attributed to the Buddha there weren't actually spoken by him.  Anyone trying to sort out the authentic teachings of Jesus faces the same problem: we can say with fair confidence what the canonical gospels report that Jesus said, but we can't be sure whether he actually said them.  But if someone prints the text of the Gettysburg Address and tacks Jesus' name onto it, you can be fairly sure that it's inauthentic.  If a saying like "The trouble is, you think you have time" appears nowhere in the canonical Buddhist scriptures and only appears for the first time in a book published in 1994, it might be a very fine saying and true, but there's no reason to claim that the Buddha said it.

At the same time, the resistance many people give to admitting this is evidence of something: it suggests how sayings never uttered by this sage or that came to be attributed to them: it sounded nice, and such a wise man could very well have said it because he was wise and the saying is wise, so why not put his name on it?  This must be a trait of human psychology: it's ancient and widespread and difficult to dislodge.  Therefore it must be taken into account whenever someone does serious historical study.  It's a reminder of how tenuous and tentative most human knowledge is.

It must also be a product of the evolutionary process: we survived and flourished because a lack of scrupulosity about who said what is deeply rooted in human nature.  Oddly, many rationalists resist drawing this inevitable conclusion, just as John Shanahan resists recognizing that most people (including himself) are not particularly rational.  A commenter on his post wrote:
Every where you go on the internet, you are constantly beckoned to “follow” something…your blog, for example, or twitter…so why be surprised that we’ve become a race of sheeples?
"Become"?  Nope, we always have been "a race of sheeples," thanks to thousands and millions of years of evolution.  When I pointed this out, the blogger urged me to "throttle down the righteous indignation there, sport."  Well, that's only natural.