Monday, January 7, 2008

What the Bleep do We Know!?

The following are my thoughts on the movie "What the Bleep do We Know!?"

The phrase, "down the rabbit hole" originated in Lewis Carroll's book "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," a work of fiction that is traditionally categorized as "nonsense literature." Therefore, it seems appropriate that many 9/11 conspiracy theorists use this phrase when delving deeply into their convoluted theories that will "blow your mind" and, unfortunately, the same seems to be true for the inclusion of the phrase in the subtitle for the 2004 film "What the Bleep do we know!?"

The general theme of the film appears to be a scientific affirmation of a certain mystical philosophy, and it is bookended with statements alluding to a forthcoming merger between science and religion. Unfortunately, the science presented as evidence of this throughout the film is more speculative fantasy than scientific reality.

The basis for the thesis (or at least the closest thing to one that the film gets) presented in the film is that quantum mechanics proves that the effect of an observer being present is a necessary part of the equation. As evidence they present the results of the "double-slit experiment"

where the results of single photons passing though two slits changed from a wave-like pattern to a particle-like pattern when the path of the photons passing through the slits was being monitored. The philosophy presented in the film is that when no observer is present, there only exists infinite possibilities, and it's only when a conscious observer e
nters the equation that a specific reality exists. The filmmakers postulate that if a conscious observer is necessary for reality to exist, then humans literally create reality with thoughts. I have two big problems in buying this philosophical idea:

  1. Anyone familiar with the "double-slit experiment" knows that the effect of the measurement itself is only one of many possibilities scientists have formulated to explain the results they were seeing; it is not a legitimate scientific theory because it cannot be falsified. Attempting to prove or disprove it involves a Catch-22: One cannot prove that an object behaves differently when not being observed without observing the behavior of the object.
  2. Quantum mechanics deals in the sub-atomic world, where Netwon's laws of physics do not apply. In fact, at one point, a talking head in the film specifically states that the sub-atomic world is "a fantasy created by mad physicists trying to figure out what the heck is going on when they do these little experiments." In other words, the theoretical sub-atomic world has no connection with the rules of physical reality. It is, by definition, theoretical. Yet, this film pulls the observer factor from the theoretical world of quantum mechanics and applies it directly to the physical world in which we move.

So we have a film presenting philosophical views that cannot be proven true or false by legitimate scientific methods. That sounds a lot like religion to me, but there's more to it than that.

The filmmakers literally make a quantum leap from the theoretical sub-atomic world to the tangible physical world, and there is no bridge between them. The closest the film gets to making some sort of connection is to classify human cells as conscious observers.

The point where the film really started to lose me is when they refer to a series of water experiments where human intentions projected into water droplets apparently affected the formation of crystals when the water was frozen. The evidence is so clearly skewed to fit the mold of the film that it just simply cannot be trusted. The "peaceful" crystals are shown in blue while the "angry" crystals are shown in red. Without the color difference both formations would look equally beautiful to me. Further, these are just single crystals in a drop of water. There is no evidence that EVERY crystal in the drop of water formed in a similar way.

When first viewing this film, I was immediately frustrated by the lack of identification of any of the talking heads. Any decent documentary shows the qualifications of the person speaking as they are doing so. If someone is explaining how human thought has the ability to literally create reality, I think it would be helpful to know whether this person has some legitimate qualifications in the field about which they are speaking, or if they are a Burger King employee who was struck with a life-altering revelation while changing the French-fry oil. Throughout the duration of the film, "What the Bleep" never gives so much as these people's names… least not until the credits roll…. And then it's a real eye-opener.

One of the talking heads in particular caused my brow to furrow more than once. She is a blond wearing a somewhat unusual red outfit, and is filmed from a slightly uncomfortable level of close-up (much closer than the rest of the experts on camera). She speaks in somewhat fragmented sentences with a vague accent that seems to come and go depending on what she is saying at the time… and she gets a lot of screen time throughout the film. When the credits come to identifying her, they read as follows:

Master Teacher – Ramtha School of Enlightenment
Channeled by JZ Knight

When I read this I had to immediately stop the film and do a Google search on JZ Knight and Ramtha. It turns out that although I thought I was simply listening to a mysterious woman with an unusual method of speaking, in reality I was hearing the voice of Ramtha, a warrior spirit from Atlantis who lived some 35,000 years ago, being channeled by Judy Zebra Knight. The more I read about JZ Knight and Ramtha the more I came to see this film less as actual science and more as propaganda for Knight's new-age religion.

This feeling deepened when I discovered that the three filmmakers, William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente, are also all members of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, as are several of the experts they interviewed. Among the other experts we have a chiropractor who has discovered the ability to create his own reality, an anesthesiologist, and a few people who actually happen to be some form of scientist.

David Albert is among the legitimate scientists presented in the film, and is the first one presented in the extended interviews on the reverse of the DVD. After watching the interview and then viewing the movie a second time it is clear that in no way does he endorse the message of the film. In fact, since the film's release, Albert stated:

"I was edited in such a way as to completely suppress my actual views about the matters the movie discusses. I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film ... Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed."

Another of the talking heads in the film with actual scientific knowledge is John Hagelin, but he has some unusual credentials. The school at which he teaches is the Maharishi International University, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, creator of the Transcendental Meditation technique. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but if the principals discussed in "What the Bleep" had actual scientific merit, one would think that a more mainstream source could be found to confirm them.

Another of the legit scientists, Jeffrey Satinover, is author of "The Gay Gene" and claims to have the ability to "cure" homosexuals.

Michael Ledwith is one of the main people in the film making a connection between scientific and religious concepts. He is a former Catholic priest, who resigned his position amid controversy surrounding statements about Jesus's twin brother and accusations of child molestation, but by the time "What the Bleep" was made, he had found a position teaching at the -- you guessed it – Ramtha School of Enlightenment.

Fred Alan Wolf is probably the closest to an actual legitimate scientist who represents the views presented in "What the Bleep," and despite his wild, wavy white hair, he appears to me as the least crazy person in the film as well as its most endearing character. It is important to recognize that his official title is "theoretical physicist," and he is the one who explains the subject matter in which he deals as a "fantasy created by mad physicists." It is also important to emphasize that none of the legitimate scientists shown in this film suggest that actions in the quantum world have any bearing on actions in the physical world (such as people creating their own reality). The science presented in "What the Bleep" is fallacy, but it does match identically the teachings presented as fact by the Ramtha School of Enlightenment.

In actuality, "What the Bleep" is a marketing tool for JZ Knight and her "school." It's basically her equivalent of sending a Jehovah's witness to your door. Of course that does not necessarily make it a dangerous or even bad thing. The basic message of the film, in essence: "Think positively and you will change your life for the better," is not destructive in casual use. Of course, when taken to an extreme it could be dangerous. For example Knight's ex husband apparently sued her for delaying his treatment for HIV claiming that she could cure him on her own. To be fair, almost anything taken to an extreme is dangerous and I think that there is nothing essentially wrong with the message that this film delivers. What is dangerous is the deception involved. I doubt that many people viewing "What the Bleep" are aware that it is not so much science as pseudoscience. It is, in fact, a work of fiction, much like The Celestine Prophecy (a book written in 1993 that also predicted a merger of science and religion), but it presents itself as a genuine look at quantum mechanics.

While both the Celestine Prophecy and "What the Bleep" provide some interesting food for thought, anyone who bases a religious philosophy on these fantasies is certainly no better off than a member of any traditional religion.

My theory on the current state of scientific knowledge is that it is the equivalent of an early stage in a role-playing computer game where you are presented with a primarily black map and are only able to see the area immediately around you. As your characters explore the world, more of the map is illuminated and you know more about your world. Of course as our sphere of knowledge increases, so does our awareness that there is more out there that we do not understand. The larger the circle becomes, the larger the perimeter between the known and unknown is and our list of unanswered questions grows.... and we have no idea how large the black area actually is. I believe that building a religion on what is currently known to scientists (or in the case of atheists, what is unknown to scientists) is a mistake.

At the end of Lewis Carroll's story it is revealed that the entire sequence of events is an illusion. It's seems immensely ironic when wide-eyed conspiracy theorists lay out a trail of nonsensical paranoia in front of me and then ask me how far down the rabbit hole I want to go.

When looking at these people, who are typically shifty folks with nervous twitches and rapidly shifting eyes living in an underground bunker somewhere, I often think that if this is what it's like to be awake and enlightened, then I'd rather just hit the snooze button.

Andrew Meyer, the University of Florida student who earned his 15 minutes of fame with the catch phrase, "Don't taze me, bro!" is well on his way to becoming one of these people. Because of his delusional view of reality, he behaves irrationally at events like the John Kerry Q&A, which brings on things like the "tazing" which further deepens his paranoia. He is being sucked down the rabbit hole, and the conspiracy book he's clutching is a poor substitute for a Saint Christopher Medal.

Instead of a bleary-eyed college student, "What the Bleep" has a young boy with a basketball, but regardless of what entrance you take into the rabbit hole, it's a good idea to not be too cavalier about jumping into the darkness. One should always view whatever they see in a rabbit hole with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Both 'What the Bleep" and the 9/11 conspiracy film "Loose Change" very convincing if you approach them with naive trust. However, if the viewer exercises a little critical thinking, does some fact checking, and pays particular attention to who exactly is making the claims presented, they should not fall victim to any deception.

Most 9/11 conspiracy films contain people claiming to be "experts" such as "civil engineers" who explain how the collapse of the World Trade Center towers could only have been accomplished through the intentional detonation of explosives in the buildings. Of course they hide their true credentials. One prominent Civil Engineer in the 9/11 truth movement is in fact a golf course manager. The 9/11 Truth movement is full of people who happen to have the word "engineer" in their title speaking outside of their realm of expertise. There are dentists, water testers, architects and so on... but not a single qualified structural engineer supports their theories.

"What the Bleep" is very similar. It too contains footage of people speaking outside their level of expertise, such as a chiropractor explaining how the neural network of your brain functions. While this particular doctor of chiropractic medicine may in fact have extraordinary knowledge about neural networks, if the theories he is presenting had much merit there would surely be some legitimate neural experts whom the filmmakers could use instead to give the argument more credibility. As it stands, "What the Bleep" is extremely lacking in that department.


You can read my review of 9/11 conspiracy film "Loose Change" via the archive on my myspace blog - The Loose Change blog was posted on myspace 03/12/06