Photos ©Lord of the Wind Films, Inc.
In the pantheon of modern myths, few have wrought more damage than the one which asserts that science and religion are inherent foes. With its dogmatic rejection of evolution, creationism tears apart school boards, bowdlerizes textbooks and pushes the U.S. further down the international index of scientific literacy. Yet far from being the historical norm, creationist hostility to science is itself the aberration, a puerile interpretation of Scripture that finds its roots not in the long span of Christian intellectual history, but in a narrow stripe of fundamentalism that raised its head in the 1920s and effloresced into a tumorous mass of the body politic in the 1970s.
For most of Western history, if the religious spirit has “erred” it has been in the opposite direction, of overzealously interpreting scientific theories and discoveries as proof of the divine. For Copernicus, who hewed to the Neo-Platonic tradition of associating light, and hence the sun, with God, a heliocentric cosmos affirmed the deity’s primary role. Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, likewise saw in these cosmic “harmonies” the imprint of a divine architect. And no less a giant than Isaac Newton believed that in the force of gravity he had found evidence of a cosmic overseer.
History abounds with religious enthusiasts who have read spiritual portent into the arrangement of the planets, the vacuum of space, electromagnetic waves and the big bang. But no scientific discovery has proved so ripe for spiritual projection as the theories of quantum physics, replete with their quixotic qualities of uncertainty, simultaneity and parallelism. A new film, What the #$*! Do We Know!, opening June 18, abandons itself entirely to the ecstasies of quantum mysticism, finding in this aleatory description of nature the key to spiritual transformation. As one of the film’s characters gushes early in the proceedings, “The moment we acknowledge the quantum self, we say that somebody has become enlightened.”
Starring Marlee Matlin as Amanda, a confused and questing photographer whose life is slowly unraveling, What the #$*! Do We Know! intercuts her existential meltdown with interviews from a dozen “experts” who deliver snack-size sermons linking personal psychology through neurobiology to quantum mechanics. At one point in a playground, Amanda is enticed by a precocious child (a quantum-sprite) onto a basketball “court of unending possibilities,” where he asks, “How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?” Lamely appropriating that most beloved literary trope, we are duly propelled down a CGI tunnel (the sphincter-cam effect) into the quantum realm — which appears here as an expensive computer-animated pageant of shimmering potentials.
What we find down the rabbit hole is a universe “liberated” from the materialism of classical physics, a realm that one expert describes as a place where “we have to accept that everything around us — chairs, tables, everything — is just possible movements of consciousness.” From there it is a mere bunny hop to the proposition that each of us, with the right consciousness, can “infect the quantum field” and create reality for ourselves. “We are here to be creators. We are here to infiltrate space with ideas and mansions of thought,” another of the experts announces near the end of the film. By acknowledging consciousness as “the ground of all being,” the message of quantum physics, we are told, is that we can all become “like the great avatars of history — Jesus and Buddha.”
Ever alert to novel possibilities for spiritual inflation, the New Age movement has long embraced the potential of science. In the ’60s, the means of choice was chemistry, the flower-power revolution having been fertilized by a nutrient soup of psychotropic drugs. Hippies journeyed to the mystical havens of India and Tibet, but mostly they journeyed inward, seeking to expand their horizons through chemical travel. In our current, comparatively abstemious age, pharmaceuticals have been replaced by physics, with equations rather than molecules becoming the transport to the transcendent Beyond.
The ground for this transition was laid by physicists themselves in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters, two best-selling books from the 1980s that explored the parallels between quantum physics and Eastern “ways of knowing.” At the same time, Paul Davies (God and the New Physics) and Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) were promoting a fusion of God and science in a nebulously Christian context. Deepak Chopra, uncannily attuned to the psychical currents, mined this vein a decade ago in Quantum Healing. But the apparatus has been most shamelessly exploited in that apotheosis of pop-spiritual hogwash, The Celestine Prophecies, in which the final step to enlightenment comes when one’s atoms vibrate so quickly the self “crosses over” to a higher plane. Like the Prophecies, What the #$*! Do We Know ends on a pitch of quivering promise, delivered by one of the experts: “If we can change, we can become the scientists of our life — which is the whole reason why we are here.”
But who are these people? Not until the end credits do we learn their names, or even their professions. The common factor seems to be that all have written books with titles like The Quantum Self and Conscious Acts of Creation. There are several medical researchers, a psychiatrist, a couple of therapists and four card-carrying physics Ph.D.s, one of whom is a Stanford professor. The filmmakers are eager to tout that credential — particularly on their Web site — banking on the authority of institutional science to sell their message of spiritual uplift.
For many scientists, however, the embrace of the New Age is almost as irksome as is the hostility of the fundamentalists. At least the latter can be challenged on the battlefields of empirical evidence. But how does one fight a befuddled and besotted lover? Along with the Stanford physicist, one of the film’s most prominent voices is J.Z. Knight, a Yelm, Washington, mystic who channels an 11,000-year-old spirit named Ramtha. At one point, Knight/Ramtha tells us that quantum physics is the only science that can explain “how a mustard seed is the size of heaven,” an endorsement that will surely leave most physicists quivering.
The problem here is not just that the science itself is never explained in a meaningful way, but that we have no idea at any point whether physicists actually say what we are being told they say, or if this is simply Ramtha’s take on quantum mechanics. Rather than dispel confusion, the film encourages it. Fred Alan Wolf, one of the actual physicists, tells us that “the trick in life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery.” Later, he adds, “If you study this science long enough and deeply enough, and you don’t come out feeling wacko about it, then you haven’t understood a thing.” Which appears to be the aim.
Quantum mysterions may embrace science in principle, but they have little more interest than creationists in learning about it in practice. Under their adoring gaze, the mathematical formalisms of quantum mechanics, which make concrete predictions accurate to dozens of decimal places and which underlie the technologies of microchips and lasers, are stripped of all empirical content and reduced to a set of syrupy nostrums. At the same time, quantum mysticism promotes a vision of spiritual satisfaction achieved not by the hard transformative work of ritual or study, but by the mechanism of consumer choice. In the infinite sea of possibility here promoted, nothing is real except what you choose to accept. Which is not that far from the creationist position — there, too, empirical evidence is brushed aside and reality becomes what you’d like it to be.