by Denyse O'Leary
The 2004 film What the Bleep Do We Know?, from Captured Light/Lord of the Wind was hugely successful, grossing at least $12 million so far, and selling a million DVDs, thus becoming the fourth best-selling documentary in history. And now there is a sequel, What the Bleep, Down the Rabbit Hole, which I haven't seen, so won't comment (but will link to reviews, below).
Why so popular? Why a sequel so soon? Well, two things: First, it's an attempt to enlist quantum mechanics in a non-materialist interpretation of reality. Second, 14 top scientists and mystics have come forward to say that science and religion describe the same phenomena.
But do science and religion describe the same phenomena? And if so, what does it mean?
First, if your religion doesn't include God, science and religion may well describe the same phenomena. But surely no one who believes in God thinks that God can be made to serve as a research subject? That said, some religions do not include any idea of God that Western monotheists would recognize.New age may well be one of them, and What the Bleep ... ? is clearly a new age production.
Now, many North American Christians will want to lock, double lock, and triple bar the door - and then go on to pile furniture against it - when they hear about anything to do with new age.
While I understand why they might feel that way, I am personally prepared to give any evidently sane person a hearing. After all, on the materialist side, we can easily find people arguing that free will and consciousness are an illusion because their scheme cannot account for such things. If I have to listen to that stuff, I may as well be patient with other things as well.
The basic topic of the film, shot in Portland, Oregon, is the role of quantum physics in the creation of mind. It should interest people who follow the intelligent design controversy because quantum physics may enable the grounding of a non-materialist view of mind in science.
Well, so let's have a look at the film, shall we?
The big opening announcement, "In the beginning was the void teeming with infinite possibilities, of which you are one" makes the new age orientation clear, as do slogans like "The real trick to life is not to be in the know but to be in the mystery."
Hmmm. Try explaining that to someone who is looking for a correct diagnosis of a painful and disabling medical problem. Many situations in life favor being in the know rather than in the mystery.
Basically, the film concerns a deaf photographer (played by deaf actress Marlee Matlin) who is getting over a painful divorce from a philandering husband. It intersperses interviews with various academics and notables, explaining aspects of quantum mechanics, and episodes in her life (maybe?), including meeting an illuminated little boy who offers to play basketball with her.
She is sent out to cover a wedding and finds that, thanks to her growing understanding of how the universe functions, she can actually do her regular job without pills. So far so great, in my view. We all need to be told that we can get our lives back on track if that's what we really want.
Some have complained that the film misrepresents quantum mechanics, but we need to be a bit cautious here because the quantum world is in fact pretty weird, despite efforts to normalize it. Indeed, in some cases, the materialist agenda is patent.
Dennis Overbye's review in the New York Times is an excellent exposition of the materialist approach:
Having pointed out that
When I first heard that Marlee Matlin had made a movie about quantum theory, I was excited. ... What could be more deserving of wide-screen cinematic treatment than the weirdness and mystery of the laws that sculpture our space-time adventures?
But hours and hours spent watching the two films and navigating their splashy Web site have tempered my enthusiasm. These films and the quantum mysticism industry behind them raise a disturbing question about the muddled intersection between science and culture. Do we have to indulge in bad physics to feel good?
Fair enough, but "bad physics", in Overbye's view, turns out to mean physics as if the universe were top down instead of bottom up. Well, there is a very good case to be made for the top down view, which permits intelligence and information to real qualities instead of the delusions that materialists are careful to insist on.
Indeed, having professed a faith in the randomness that "some physicists" espouse, Overbye then announces his own commitment to materialism:
Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it's a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival.
So incoherence and disjunction are okay, as long as they support materialism. Strangely absent from a review that charges "bad physics" is any explanation of why the physics is bad. I'm hardly surprised the filmmakers were quite happy to put Overbye's review on their site. He probably did them more good than fifty denunciations.
And this from a blog called Not Even Wrong by Columbia mathematician Peter Woit (best known currently for having little use for string theory):
The whole thing is really moronic beyond belief. One of the scientists interviewed is John Hagelin who, besides being part of the TM cult surrounding Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, presidential candidate of the Natural Law Party, and "Minister of Science and Technology of the Global Country of World Peace" is a rather prominent particle theorist. Prominent if you go by citations that is. His 73 papers are mostly about supersymmetric GUTs and considered quite respectable, with a total of over 5000 citations, including 641 citations for one of them alone.
Hagelin was a grad student at Harvard when I was an undergrad and I met him when we were in the same quantum field theory class. A roommate of mine was interested in TM and I think it was he who introduced us. I remember Hagelin wanting to discuss how quantum field theory could explain how TM'ers were able to levitate, something about how they did this by changing the position of the pole in the propagator. The fact that someone who spouts such utter nonsense can get a Ph.D. from Harvard and be one of the most widely cited authors on supersymmetric models is pretty remarkable.
Well, yes, it does raise some interesting questions, but many of the questions cannot be resolved simply by assuming that everyone in the world except the radical materialists is talking nonsense. Clearly, non-materialists are capable of doing good science and Woit is grumpy about it ... but unable to change it.
That said, quantum mechanics has long formed part of the new age industry, as an interesting item in Salon, "Bleep of Faith", reveals. It didn't help the credibility of the Bleep project that one of the advisers is a non-material entity named Ramtha, who is channelled by an American woman named JZ Knight. Or that one of the scientists interviewed claims to have been selectively quoted.
Apart from obviously promoting new age doctrines, the film takes several gratuitous slams at traditional religion. The explanation available from the FAQ sounds lame to me:
My religion does not adhere to the concepts of this film. What do you say for us who are not in agreement with what the film espouses?
It's not that your religion doesn't adhere - it's that what YOU believe in doesn't adhere. The fact that your set of beliefs includes a particular religion is just one example in your list of beliefs. Everyone has his or her worldview. In our view, there is not One Way, but six billion Ways.
Hmm. Well then, why talk about the "enormous subjugation of religion" or quote Ramtha's "channeller" on
"We have great technology. But we still have this ugly, superrrstitious, backwahds cohncept of Gahd," she says, adding that "the height of arrrrrrogance is the belief of those who would see Gahd in their own image."? ( Salon 's rendition)
So the field currently seems divided between those who fear that quantum mechanics may validate the existence of the mind or free will and those who hope that it validates channelling or aliens.
Open a window, somebody.
Overall, I was disappointed, because a film addressing quantum weirdness
without unnecessary new age weirdness or attacks on traditional religion seems like such an opportunity missed. That film has yet to be made. From what I can tell, it isn't Down the Rabbit Hole either. Links to some reviews of same follow:
From Michael Atkinson, Village Voice:
For those heretofore unbleeped, the movie is a sloppy amalgamation of animated instruction, dramatic vignettes (starring actualization-starved single gal Marlee Matlin), and talking-heads interviews, all of it a bum-rush lesson in how 40 years of quantum theory (clearly illustrated, I thought) and biophysics have come to confirm the essential ideas of Buddhism and spiritual self-determination. The methods the filmmakers use are childish - and therefore, probably palatable to high schooners - but the science on the table is fascinating enough to give you pause, and perhaps even steer you toward further reading and a renewed interest in taking meditation seriously.
William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer :
The sequel, "What the Bleep!? Down the Rabbit Hole," covers pretty much the same territory in more esoteric depth, with some of the same interviewees and a considerably higher quality of animation and special effects.
The interviews with a stream of doctors, scientists, theologians and mystics seem much more scattered this time, and difficult to grasp. (I watched the film on a DVD screener and, even with the ability to replay scenes, still found much of the testimony incomprehensible.)
As in the first film, the least effective portions are the scenes with Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin as a Portland photographer who learns to apply the promise of quantum physics to her own frustrated life. Somehow, it's just not a very striking metaphor.
So basically, people are looking for non-materialist answers. Of course. Humans have always done that, and increasingly, science as well as religion is providing them. But What the Bleep ... ? just has too much baggage - mostly gripes against traditional religion - to adequately represent that fact, and going Down the Rabbit Hole won't solve the problem.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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