More Options

What the #$*! Do They Know?

Film Review

Eric Scerri

Volume 28.5, September / October 2004

People who espouse New Age philosophies are not generally known for their knowledge of modern science or their respect for critical thinking. Ironically enough, though, when it comes to quantum mechanics, everything seems to change, and they embrace it wholeheartedly. Given half a chance, many of them have something to say on the subject. But what New Agers really seem to like about quantum mechanics is all those alleged bizarre effects that they mistakenly believe can be appropriated to support their views on the nature of reality and the cosmos.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the makers of a recent New Age movie making its way across the country decided to inject a massive dose of quantum mechanics into the film’s storyline. What the #$*! Do We Know!? is packing them in. Many people who have seen the movie are already claiming that it has changed their lives. I tried to go to one of the first screenings in Los Angeles and was turned away because it was sold out. So what is this movie that uses quantum mechanics to change people’s lives?

Filmed largely in Portland, the movie is a hodgepodge of all kinds of crackpot nonsense dressed up as modern science. The film oscillates between interviews with a number of so-called experts (especially in physics) and a rather flimsy storyline involving a deaf woman, played by Marlee Matlin, who is being encouraged to wake up and see life’s full potential. A young basketball player who has taken it upon himself to enlighten her repeatedly asks her how far down the rabbit hole she wants to go.

An examination of the film’s pedigree helps explain its peculiar approach. The three directors are students of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment in Yelm, Washington, which is run by New Age channeller J.Z. Knight. Knight claims to channel a 35,000-year-old warrior from ancient Lemuria named Ramtha (aka “The Enlightened One”), who dispenses wisdom through her. Ramtha’s followers are said to include many people from the entertainment industry, such as actors Linda Evans, Don Johnson, Shirley MacLaine, and Richard Chamberlain. Knight herself appears in the film as one of the talking heads, and even holds forth on the subject of quantum mechanics.

Knight, who’s been channeling her prehistoric alter ego since the 1970s, is paid as much as $1,500 by those who attend retreats held at her school.

I want to focus a little on the science, because this is where I believe the film is at its most disingenuous. Each of the physicists interviewed trots out a sound bite or two about how quantum mechanics supposedly shows that objects can be in two places at once, that matter is mostly empty space, or that all parts of the universe are deeply interconnected. The existence of a reality that’s independent from the human mind as usually understood by scientists, or indeed by any rational person, is repeatedly assaulted to the point of being mocked. In addition, we are assured that when Columbus arrived on the shores of the Americas, the natives could not actually see his ships because it was beyond their paradigm of what could exist.

The fact that the science is being distorted and sensationalized here is not at all surprising. What puzzles me the most is that by making quantum mechanics the heart of the movie, the filmmakers have fallen prey to a crude form of reductionism which is usually regarded as the enemy of New Age ways of thinking. By focusing so much on basic physics, the filmmakers do not seem to realize that they are shooting themselves in the foot. One moment they talk about all kinds of emergent phenomena, such as global consciousness, that go far beyond the reductionist worldview. The next moment they seem to suggest that the physics of fundamental particles explains human behavior! Even if we grant that quantum mechanics tells us that particles can be at two places at once-which, of course, it does not-how can one then assume that such bizarre effects work their way right up to macroscopic dimensions with no attenuation in order to determine human behavior? As many scientists and philosophers now realize, even if matter is fundamentally governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, this does not entitle us to suppose that chemical and biological phenomena will follow those same forms of behavior. This is to say nothing of even larger leaps such as the question of whether human behavior is dictated by the laws of physics.

Reductionism works in principle but not in practice, even though all the branches of science are interrelated. If you want to perform a certain chemical reaction, you ask a chemist. You do not ask a quantum physicist, although, in many instances, the quantum physicists may have some very helpful things to say on the matter. If you want to study biological organisms, you do experiments on the biological scale instead of renting time at the local particle accelerator. The breakdown of strict reductionism has become common knowledge among scientists, and yet Amit Goswami, John Hagelin, and Fred Alan Wolf, to mention just three from the film, have not caught up with this way of thinking about science. They prefer to remain within the old-fashioned paradigm that supposes that everything is indeed nothing but physics. This is not entirely surprising, given that each of them earns money writing books about popular physics laced with allusions to Eastern mysticism and the “really big questions in life.” But now their knowledge of quantum mechanics is even allowing them to become movie stars and, better still, in a movie that is changing people’s lives!

After dazzling the audience with dubious pronouncements from quantum physics, the storyline returns to Marlee Matlin’s character, who is having an ever-increasing number of mind-expanding experiences, culminating in her realization that she no longer needs her prescription pills and that she can toss them into a lake. What a pity that the appreciation of modern science shown by New Agers is restricted to the more esoteric parts which are seen as supporting their worldviews. Meanwhile, something as beneficial (and mundane) as modern pharmacology is viewed with utter contempt to the point that people are effectively being told to throw away their prescription drugs and to cure themselves by waking up to the real meaning of life.

Eric Scerri

Eric Scerri is a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at UCLA, where he also teaches philosophy of science. His Web page is www.chem.ucla.edu/dept/Faculty/scerri/. He is the editor of the journal Foundations of Chemistry; for more information see www.kluweronline.com/issn/1386-4238.