A fascinating, hilarious, and troubling recent study entitled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit examines the psychological factors that are correlated with a predisposition to believe in meaningless but superficially deep-sounding statements – or, as the study calls them, “pseudo-profound bullshit.”
Pseudo-profound bullshit in its purest form is “a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure.” It “implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth,” and it is “constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.”
I can think of few if any places where this tendency is exemplified better than in the writings of the popular author Deepak Chopra, the quintessential peddler of porridge-headed New Age gibberish. (The authors of the above paper cite his work in this context as well.) His Twitter page is an absolute gold mine for this stuff. Here are a few excerpts from just the past week or two:
These are not just run-of-the-mill asinine statements. They share a very particular characteristic in common: they’re all formulated to sound profound at a first, intuitive pass, but when you actually analyze them, they turn out to be meaningless gobbledygook. It’s not that what they mean is idiotic; they don’t mean anything at all. To quote Nietzsche, they “muddy their waters to make them appear deep.”
Chopra is such a prolific and shameless producer of this kind of drivel that someone has made a website that auto-generates fake Chopra quotes based on his tweets, and the fake quotes are indistinguishable from the real ones: The Enigmatic Wisdom of Deepak Chopra. See also the New Age Bullshit Generator for a similar site that parodies the entire genre rather than just a single author.
(By the way, if you’re an aspiring spirituality writer and you want to make New Age twaddle sound smart to stupid people, just sprinkle the word “quantum” liberally throughout your writing. Your less discerning readers will all coo, “Oooooooh, how scientific!” in unison.)
We can contrast statements like Chopra’s with purposefully perplexing statements from many of the world’s great religious traditions, such as the kōans of Zen Buddhism and some of the sayings in the early Christian Gospel of Thomas. The Zen and early Christian statements are formulated to appear nonsensical but are actually profound; Chopra’s statements are formulated to appear profound but are actually nonsensical. They’re the diametrical opposite of each other. Take this saying from the Gospel of Thomas, for example:
Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And cursed is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion will become human.”
In the context of the book, this saying means that the person who can dominate his or her bodily passions (the animal) with the spirit (the human) is blessed, while the person whose bodily passions come to dominate his or her spirit is cursed.
Such intentionally mysterious sayings have a particular point, but wrap it in a cloak that the reader has to apply himself or herself to unravel. In other words, these sayings demand that the reader discover what they mean on his or her own. This fosters both intellectual independence and spiritual development. (By giving you the meaning of the above saying attributed to Jesus, I’ve admittedly robbed you of the ability to do that for yourself with this one. Sorry about that.) Statements like Chopra’s, on the other hand, foster slushiness at the intellectual level and self-satisfied mediocrity at the spiritual level.
A casual stroll through any bookstore will show you that, unfortunately, pseudo-profound bullshit is particularly common in writings on spirituality (as well as certain other areas, such as self-help and the paranormal).
However, it’s entirely possible – and fairly common – to find people who are either highly spiritual yet highly critical of bullshit, or highly un-spiritual yet highly receptive to bullshit. As an example of the former, consider the many great theologians who have had a robust spirituality and have articulated it in exceptionally clear, rational language. (Or those who have taken a different approach but are equally resistant to bullshit, like the authors of the Zen and early Christian sayings we just discussed.) And as an example of the latter, consider the many atheists and agnostics who lap up and dutifully recite pseudo-profound slogans and conspiracy theories in the realm of politics.
Thus, there’s no necessary connection between spirituality and receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit – just a connection that’s all too common in practice, particularly, it seems, in our day.
This is surely due in part to the fact that we today have increasingly abandoned traditional religions. Traditional religions tend to have survived for long enough to become “traditional” in large part because they’re sufficiently doctrinally precise and truly profound to prove spiritually useful for generation after generation. Most modern “spiritual but not religious” teachings, by contrast – not all, but most – are forgotten in less time than a Deepak Chopra book takes to decay in a landfill.
This vacuousness is a tremendous tragedy, because spirituality, when done well, is the most meaningful and valuable of all human activities. Wallowing in bullshit and calling it “spirituality” is worse than consciously refusing to be spiritual, because at least those who consciously refuse spirituality are aware of their status. They’re thereby in a better position to take up a rigorous and effective spirituality than someone who has deluded himself or herself into thinking that he or she is already actively spiritual. The pseudo-spiritual person has to first realize that he or she is actually in the same position as the un-spiritual person, and until that realization is made, he or she is therefore an additional step removed from any real spirituality.
That’s a condition that most current spiritual writers foster rather than alleviate. To quote another passage from the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, “The Pharisees and the scholars have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them. They have not entered, nor have they allowed those who want to enter to do so. As for you, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
(This is why I want my arguments to be so simple, powerful, and undeniable that they read like blocks of iron locking together. Chopra’s statements, by contrast, read like amorphous wads of dandelion fluff drifting away into the ether.)
Perhaps, as philosopher of history Oswald Spengler would have it, this quantum hooey is a necessary return to a state of chaos, clearing the way for something new and truly profound to arise now that the conventional religion of our society doesn’t seem to particularly speak to people anymore. But New Age bullshit is not itself a new, vigorous spirituality. It’s part of the wildfire that sweeps away the old forest and enables a new one to grow in its place, not the new forest itself.
To continue the metaphor, what would that new forest look like, and when would it arise? Nobody knows. But in the meantime, we owe it to ourselves to at least maintain the discernment necessary to distinguish a fire from a forest.
If you’re looking for a clear, hard-headed philosophy of religion and spirituality, my book The Language of Meaning: Why Science Cannot Replace Religion should fit the bill.