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What The Bleep Do We Know? – wind-up a scientist

No dice.

No dice.

What The Bleep Do We Know? – Directors: Arntz, Chasse, Vincente.

(BBC Prize Review)

Wind up a scientist – praise this movie! One distinguished writer on science has used terms like ‘atrocious, ‘junk’ and offers the view that if you know anything about science you will be violently ill after seeing it.’ Now you gotta be interested in a little film of largely talking heads, mostly scientific, with a tenuous narrative thread, that has stirred the science community into such an emotional, non-objective tiz.

A more balanced scientific response said that the basic science of quantum theory and neuro-physiology discussed in the film was pretty sound but that the extrapolations from these concepts to issues of life, identity and personal choice were dubious. By which I rather think he meant ‘non-scientific’. Wake up and smell the coffee guys – science ain’t the only legitimate intellectual game in town.

This is a challenging, fascinating, intellectual roller coaster of a movie. It poses most effectively, the basic paradox of our scientifically based culture i.e that while in the popular mind, science offers the paradigm of certainty and knowledge; real scientists know that especially as expressed in Quantum Theory – it is precisely uncertainty that lies at its heart. Personally, I am with Einstein who said that anyone to whom Quantum Theory makes sense hasn’t understood it.

Cinematically, Bleep echoes Richard Linklater’s brilliant Waking Life. Deaf, Oscar-winning, West Wing regular, actress Marlee Matlin, takes a personal journey of personal discovery encouraged by eclectic thinkers in science, religion, psychiatry. Her journey is an exploration of the one critical concept that troubles science most – consciousness. And I guess what has got up the noses of the scientists so much is that Bleep argues by analogy that if quantum theory, lying at the heart of modern science, allows room for a degree of uncertainty, then maybe the physical intervention in the world of conscious individual minds, is itself not reducible to simply physical description.

It is the besetting vice of scientists to first ignore almost all of 20th century philosophy, conflate brains with minds, and fail to notice when even their most cherished theories rely upon metaphor. For example: the ‘Big Bang’ theory is irreducibly a metaphor. I have yet to see a form of its expression which is not logically and semantically incoherent.

Susan Greenfield once wisely said her task in science was not to explain, but simply to describe the activity of the brain in more and more comprehensive and helpful ways. Science can never explain the mind for the only kind of explanation that is truly scientific would be an account of something from which all the logical features of what we call a mind have been expunged.

So, tough going at times, but always kept visually interesting, Bleep engages the grey cells big time. Philosophically it is explicitly existentialist in character. It subverts religious dogma just as much as those dogmas of science that masquerade as objective truth. I does get a bit New-Agey in parts (I quite like my thinkers to have two names and ‘Ramtha’ who is apparently a ‘conduit’ of someone else’s spiritual ideas gets a bit freaky at times) and I’m not sure at points that it doesn’t hedge its bets a bit with physicalist explanations.

This movie offers no answers. It just asks a lot of the right questions. It is inherent to its intellectual stance that you have to find your own answers. And that the hubris and intellectual arrogance of many scientists should not undermine our confidence in the experiential truth that we can and do have choices, however tough they may be. A key challenge in the movie: “any emotion you can’t control is one you’re addicted to.” Try that one on for size.

There’s some weird stuff in Bleep and a few question marks over its funding. But for independently minded people interested in considering some much-neglected profound questions about science and its relationship to our consciousness and individuality, this striking movie hits the spot – in the mind, not the brain. Highly recommended to make you think – even if only to disagree.

(September 2005)

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