What the …

Yesterday Brian came home from work with a movie his coworker loaned him. Brian loves movies, but this was not his usual fare. We were looking forward to something different, and we got it.

What the #$*! do We Know? starts out explaining the mystery of quantum physics. It alternates between talking scientist heads, and a narrative starring Marlee Matlin. I always love her acting. She is especially expressive I think because she doesn’t rely on just words to convey her feelings.

[What's your addiction?] The movie turned out to be more about brain chemistry than physics. In addition to the narrative, they used cute animations to show how the body generates different enzymes corresponding to different emotions and how this affects the brain in the short term as well as long term.

Throughout the film, I was amazed at how much of this science was reinforcing the Buddhist ideas I have learned, especially in these ways:

1. We are healthier if we practice equanimity, experiencing our emotions honestly, but not being attached to them.

2. Meditation makes a difference not in just in our minds, but to the world around us.

3. Particle physics breaks down the distinction between what we see (incorrectly) as separate people and things. We really are all indistinct waves in the same ocean of drops of water.

I thought the movie relied a little too much on the romantic pronunciations of a mystical shaman-type woman who was recycling Buddhist concepts in west-coast new age language. But overall “What the…” had a profound message that I was very ready for. I have been feeling like it’s been too long since I have been on a spiritual retreat, and this film was like the dharma talk that teachers often share on a retreat. I’m thinking about buying it so I can make myself watch it periodically to reset my unhealthy brain patterns and get re-focused.

This also reinforced my existing plan to start meditating more often again. Hopefully I’ll get to the Zen Center this Sunday.

6 thoughts on “What the …

  1. We love that movie! Same thing, a neighbor loaned it to us and we really dug it. We too are thinking about buying it for the “reset” value. The few times I have had a break first thing in the morning to plan out my day, it has worked incredibly well (now if the kids would just sleep in more often).

  2. I forget where I read or heard this, but at least some [quantum] physicists have complained that the physics is seriously out of whack in this film. This, at least, fits with a lot of stuff I’ve read by other scientists: people have been grafting larger conclusions about mind/body, our relationship with the wider universe, etc, (and even telepathy) onto quantum physics for ages. Usually this is in ways that misconstrue the strangeness of it all: i.e. yes the physics is deeply strange, but not necessarily in a way that says anything in particular about our own relationship to the wider universe, mind/body duality (or lack thereof) and *especially* the ability of the mind to influence the physical universe. I haven’t seen this yet, but I’m guessing the film makes hay out of quantum indeterminacy and the role of observers in collapsing wave functions. There’s some good stuff out there on why making too much out of this is bollocks.

    That said, I’m speaking entirely from my own assumptions here. And I should point out that I’m married to a Zen Buddhist (Soto). Zen rules, precisely because it doesn’t require you to make any assumptions about the natural world. In fact, it’s all about rejecting assumptions.

  3. Ethan says:

    John Gorenfeld did a story on What the Bleep for Salon last year… the mystical shaman-type woman is Judy “JZ” Knight, channeler of the 35,000 year old warrior spirit Ramtha, who you may remember from Doonesbury. The film was funded by the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, or something like that.

    http://www.salon.com/ent/feature/2004/09/16/bleep/

  4. Oh crap, I had no idea the Ramtha people were behind this! (He’s a 35,000 year spirit from somewhere near Atlantis, by the way.) Salon quotes one of the scientists in the film, David Albert a Columbia prof:

    “I don’t think it’s quite right to say I was ‘tricked’ into appearing,” he said in a statement reposted by a critic on “What the Bleep’s” Internet forum, “but it is certainly the case that 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.”

    The writer also suggests that the film shows “very little patience for Enlightenment concepts like measurable results and scientific proof.”

    Looks like flaky new age bollocks to me…

  5. When I watched this with Ruby I never got the feeling that the science described was all that rigorous or complete. Maybe it’s just my natural skeptical tendencies but I don’t think people who watch this movie are in any danger of misunderstanding THIS MOVIE’S mysticism for science. But then again with a president who says creationism should be taught in schools and famous stars saying psychiatry is useless, “hard science” could be in LOTS of trouble, with a capital T.

    Arguably the first modern scientist, Issac Newton, was a DEVOUT Christian with a creative yet strict interpretation of man’s relationship with Jesus and God. I’d say his ideas were mystical and unconventional. He was an alchemist also.

  6. Brian: I think you’ve hit on the wider problem here. Putting aside the weirdness of the backers of the film, I’m sure if I bothered to see it (rather than ranting here from sheer blind prejudice!), I’d find a lot of it very engaging. But we’re also in a much dodgier moment as a culture where the right, at least, is playing fast and loose with science for its own ends (whether “intelligent design” or a denial of climate change). Obviously scientific conclusions have always been used for a variety of political and religious purposes. But as the Salon article pointed out, there seem to be a few disturbing echoes in this film of the way the right bends scientific conclusions. The last thing we need is a response from the left in the same vein as the right.

    There seems to be a big difference between the way Bleep uses science and, say, the genuinely interesting research being done on what happens during medititation, and how Buddhism has provided insight into consciousness confirmed by [genuinely hardcore, non-distorted] science (the stuff in ‘Zen and the Brain’, written by neurologists and published by MIT).

    I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not an either/or: either no dialogue between science and religion, or a total misuse. But it’s key to respect science for what it is and not bend or distort conclusions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *