Monday, July 25, 2005


This weekend we watched What the Bleep Do We Know!?

It promised to ask some interesting questions about quantum physics and reality, and it did. But they're essentially the same questions I've been asking myself for years.

[I don't really know how this relates — a quantum-parallel consciousness? — but the film kept reminding me: when I was teenager, I dreamed I was dead. I did not see myself die, or observe the world affected by my death. I dreamed the experience of being dead, that everything was simultaneously dark and light, heavy and weightless. I wish I could dream it again.]

Synopsis (from the official website):
It is part documentary, part story, and part elaborate and inspiring visual effects and animations. The protagonist, Amanda, played by Marlee Matlin, finds herself in a fantastic Alice in Wonderland experience when her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality.


The fourteen top scientists and mystics interviewed in documentary style serve as a modern day Greek Chorus. In an artful filmic dance, their ideas are woven together as a tapestry of truth. The thoughts and words of one member of the chorus blend into those of the next, adding further emphasis to the film’s underlying concept of the interconnectedness of all things.

The chorus members act as hosts who live outside of the story, and from this Olympian view, comment on the actions of the characters below. They are also there to introduce the Great Questions framed by both science and religion, which divides the film into a series of acts. Through the course of the film, the distinction between science and religion becomes increasingly blurred, since we realize that, in essence, both science and religion describe the same phenomena.

While I enjoyed the concept of the movie and the ideas presented, the "story" on which all the documentary soundbites hang I thought was incredibly weak. Better to present a straight doumentary.

Specifically, three character traits were obvious but unexplored, so rendering them pointless.

1. She is deaf. How does this affect her powers of perception?

2. She is a photographer. Is she a keener observer for this? The "chorus" comments on how the brain registers scenes in our environment, but doesn't necessarily process them. [I'm reminded of the game Mara plays, to hone her skills of observation, and understanding.] But her character detail is wasted, her occupation merely serving as a reason to attend a wedding of strangers and observe human behaviours.

3. She takes antianxiolytics. Commentary touched on addiction (to various behaviours in general), how synapses fire and neural networks are built (and detroyed), and how to fool the brain (what is the difference, biochemically, between actually seeing or experiencing something and believing it?) One "expert" tells us a nervous breakdown is the destruction of a model of perception we had wired into our brain. [More thoughts on breakdowns to come as I wrap up The Golden Notebook.]

It bothered me that the credentials of the experts were not presented till the final credits were rolling. I suspect that had I known them up front, I would've viewed their commentary with a lot more skepticism.

While I was interested in hearing viewpoints on where science and God overlap and intersect, early on, the chorus turned more mystic than scientist and the movie took on a power-of-positive-thinking flavour (not my cup of tea).

One expert relates the anecdote (hypothesis?) that the Native Indians didn't see Christopher Columbus's ships approaching, because such an occurrence was beyond their wildest imagination. But they witnessed the effects of the ships — waved rolling on the shore — and exercised their reasoning to learn to be able to see them. (Doesn't most science witness merely the effects?) This little tidbit had us searching the backyard for aliens.

[Some time ago I'd noted an article regarding a new paper suggesting that SETI is looking in the wrong places. "Any long-lasting intelligent civilizations will have intensive information-processing needs, and indeed may "be" information, having hit the Singularity and uploaded their consciousnesses into the aether. In that case, the authors suggest, alien civilizations would head out to the frozen outer regions of the Milky Way — where information-processing would be easier for thermodynamic reasons." I think I understand it, but only because I'd been watching Doctor Who, and am reminded of Robert J Sawyer's Calculating God — the idea that an alien lifeform could be outside the existing paradigm we hold of "lifeform."]

The more I think about it, the less I like this movie, but it generated more interesting conversations than many recent films.


Tim said...

Liz and I watched that back in March. I won't waste all your commenting space on what I had to say (if you want to read it, the entry is here), but basically, this is the worst case of "pop science" posing as documentary that I think I've ever seen.

Einstein used all sorts of "thought problems" (metaphorical examples) to help him envision the way things may work in a relativistic universe. Unfortunately, this film runs off with this type of speculative theorizing, without getting the basic theories right to begin with.

I did, however, think it was funny that all of these gathered pop scientist were asking the question -- what the bleep do we know? With that kind of sloppy, mis-applied science, there's really nothing they could know.

Anonymous said...

You are the second person today to mention this movie. I may still check it out as I have an interest in the science/religion connection. I read the Tao of Physics years ago and began to devour all kinds of books about similar topics. I appreciate your review and will stand warned about the story portion - and as always be sceptical about the science portion. I do recommend the movie Mindwalk written by the author of Tao of Physics (with others). I think it does a good job of combining a story as a way to facilitate a thought-provoking conversation (actually this movie combines politics with science and religion).