Wednesday, September 29, 2010

If it's true, the Buddha said it

Tree Graffiti
Tree Graffiti, Berlin, 2010

One of my favorite Buddhist quips is the one in the title. I like it because it reverses the argument from authority that you quite often find in religious discourse, also including Buddhism.

The quip is actually an assertion of the form
If P, then Q.
However, the specific P and Q in it actually make it a reversal of another assertion, which is a bit like
If Bubba said it, then it's true.

So it might make more sense to write it out as
If Q, then P.
The interesting thing is that
If P, then Q != If Q, then P
for all statements P and Q that are not tautological. For example, if P = "it is a squirrel" and Q = "it has whiskers," we get
If it is a squirrel, it has whiskers != If it has whiskers, it is a squirrel.
Now, if P = "Bubba said it" and Q = "it is true," we get some rather interesting associations.

Let's assume that we're primarily interested in whether something is true or not. In this case, "If Bubba said it, it is true" could be used as a yardstick for it. If, somehow, we could reliably determine that Bubba said it, then we should assume it is true. In fact, this is how a lot of religious thinking proceeds—"If God said it, that settles it," as a one-time net.friend of mine puts it in his .sig.

However, the converse—"If it is true, then Bubba said it"—is completely useless as a test for truth-values. It makes the claim that Bubba has made every possible true statement, but does not preclude Bubba from also having made false statements. Reliably determining that Bubba said it does not mean that it is true. All we can determine from this "If Q, then P" version is that if we can somehow reliably determine that a statement is true, then we should assume that Bubba said it.

That's a Bubba I can live with.

Now, go read what NellaLou has to say about this. That, Bubba definitely said.


  1. It seems you caught the fallacy in your own title but then ignored it. "If it's true, the Buddha said it" (as you noted) has the Buddha spouting off all the encyclopedias of true knowledge -- wow! Plus, he could very well also be spouting off volumes of nonsense right along with it. Well, heck, locked-up crazy folks do that (except not exhaustively).

    I get what your after, though, and admire that -- I like that you steered us away from the other maxim, but don't like the new sound bite. So let me fumble: "Buddha shared some immensely helpful truths." Works a little better for me. I don't need a Bubba. Smile.

  2. The fallacy is the point, Sabio.

    There are two ways of looking at this quip: as a joke on the people who swear by religious authority, or seeing Bubba/Buddha as an anthropomorphic personification of that which is true and useful. You know, a bit like Kannon is the anthropomorphic personification of spontaneous, selfless, compassionate action.

    These ways are not mutually exclusive, and I like both. I like anthropomorphic personifications.

    OTOH I don't much care for your version. I don't even know if it's true, because I don't know what the historical Buddha actually said, and how much of that is helpful. Even if it is true, it's true only in a boring, trivial sense.

    That statement is only useful if you have a significant tendency to put your trust in authority figures—and I think the version I cited is more useful for that purpose, because it calls the whole concept of religious authority into question, not just one particular religious figure.