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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

David Albert: ‘What the BLEEP’ Is Wildly and Irresponsibly Wrong

Posted by on February 8 at 18:08 PM

Last Friday, I mentioned an email I received from What the BLEEP director/producer William Artnz. He took issue with my complaint about his inclusion of a Columbia University professor of the philosophy of physics, David Albert, in the new version of the film. (Albert had previously denounced the filmmakers’ misrepresentation of his views about the intersection between quantum physics and spirituality.)

I emailed David Albert to ask what was up, and he wrote back with an explanation of why he agreed to appear in the new version, the actual events that transpired at the conference Artnz referenced, and what he thinks of the claims made by the movie. His verdict: What the BLEEP is “swarming with scientific inaccuracies, and its overall thesis is (in my opinion) wildly and irresponsibly wrong.” Artnz’s initial letter, my response, and Albert’s elaboration appear behind the jump.


As one of the filmmakers of Down the Rabbit Hole I read with interest your review. A few observations: Most of the people interviewed are in fact "legitimate scientists". If you check the credentials you will see that, and of course if you have any scientific proof of the invalidity of their claims, that would make interesting reading indeed.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'll define "legitimate scientist" by the following: Being presently employed as a professor in the hard sciences at a research university (Albert, who is a professor of philosophy of physics, almost qualifies; there are a few other legitimate MDs at accredited research universities, but no PhDs and certainly no physicists) OR having published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in the last five years. As far as I can tell, the film contains few or no "legitimate scientists" besides Albert, though I'm open to challenges. Amit Goswami, Dean Radin, and William Tiller are all employed by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which, according to its website, "explores phenomena that do not necessarily fit conventional scientific models." (Mmm.) John Hagelin, a former Natural Law candidate for president, is a professor at Maharishi University of Management, where you can presently earn a PhD in one of two programs: "Maharishi Vedic Science" and "Management."


As for David Albert. Dr. Albert was invited (not by us) to give a presentation at a conference last year with most of the other interviewees. We were going to re interview everyone so I contacted David. We had a long talk about the previous film. I said we were going to issue an extended version, but would not include him against his wishes. However I said that his views were extremely interesting and I thought it would be a loss. We then came to the agreement that we would re-film but, but would only include footage of him in the Rabbit Hole subject to his OK. He was sent a DVD of those interview segments, with interviews before and after so that he could see the context. He approved all of them. He came to the conference and gave a presentation on what he thought was incorrect about what we had in the first movie. All of us filmmakers were impressed by his willingness to come before a BLEEP crowd and contradict them and make them think. Instead of us focusing on our difference and conflict (which the media feeds on), we focused on what we had in common - an inquiry into the way the world works, and a refinement of that view in accord with the true workings of the Universe. Personally having watched many hours of the interviews with Dr. Albert, I can say that he has pushed me to examine more closely the ideas put forth. As Dr. Hameroff says during the credits in Down the Rabbit Hole - "I want to thank David for his healthy skepticism".

David Albert responded.

[I had asked whether 1) whether Arntz's version of events was correct.]

(1): Mr. Arntz's version of events is more or less correct. I would only take issue with his remark that "we focused on what we had in common" at the conference he mentions. We have very little in common, and my remarks at that conference amounted to a very strong denunciation of the film.

[2) Was your appearance in this version of the film coerced? and if not, 3) Why were you willing to contribute?]

(2) and (3): My appearance in the second film was not coerced. What happened was this: When I was interviewed for the first film, I had no idea what sort of a film it would turn out to be, and I had no clue as to the background or the agenda of the producers. This may have been at least in part my own fault. I was not as skeptical, I was not as inquisitive, as I ought to have been. Had I known then what I know now, I would certainly not have agreed to appear in that film. Once that had happened, however, I decided to participate actively in the ensuing public discussion, and to do whatever I could to insure that the sequel (or the director's cut, or whatever it is) contained at least a suggestion - however short and fragmented and out of context and pushed off to the side - of what an intellectually responsible treatment of these questions might actually sound like. Whether or not that attempt was a success, whether or not it did any good, whether or not it would have been better (in the end) for me to insist that I be withdrawn from the sequel altogether, only time will tell.

[4) Have you seen the new movie? What do you think of its thesis?]

(4) I have seen the second film. It is swarming with scientific inaccuracies, and its overall thesis is (in my opinion) wildly and irresponsibly wrong. Let me elaborate on that a bit.

The argument of these movies (and of the second one in particular) runs something like this:

Up through the end of the 19th century, science (and physics in particular) was at work on the construction of a thoroughly MECHANICAL, thoroughly CLOCKWORK sort of a picture of the universe - a picture that seemed to have no room in it for God and spirit and freedom and mystery and all sorts of other stuff that we thought we wanted. And in the 20th century, with the advent of Quantum Mechanics, there was a great crisis in that project, and there were announcements, from many quarters, that the project had broken down, that it was now at an end, that it would need to be replaced by something else. And the argument of the movie is that this crisis somehow obviously amounts to a dramatic and long-awaited re-affirmation of the truth of this other, ancient, pre-scientific world-view, a re-affirmation of the existence and of the centrality of God and freedom and spirit and mystery and so on.

And there are two very large and very serious problems with that argument:

1) The film neglects to make any mention whatever of the fact that there has been a growing consensus among serious investigators of the foundations of Quantum Mechanics for 30 or 40 years now that this crisis of mechanism has PASSED, that we now see a way OUT of it, that (in so far as we can tell at present) the original, mechanistic, scientific project is very much alive and well. (The second film actually does a reasonably good job, with some help from me, of explaining how that crisis arose. But, as I said above, it makes no mention at all of the fact that that crisis has now passed. All of my numerous attempts to explain to the producers how we have now found our way OUT of that crisis were cut out of the final versions of both movies.)

2) Both of these films are wildly wrong about what a collapse of the project of mechanism (if such a collapse had indeed occurred, which it did not!) would have MEANT. Both of these films are wildly wrong (that is) about where a collapse of the project of mechanism (if such a collapse had indeed occurred, which it did not) would have LEFT us. The film makers are apparently convinced that such a collapse would straightforwardly resuscitate the old metaphysics of God and spirit and so fourth, but they offer no reasons whatsoever for thinking that, and I cannot imagine what such a reason might be.

It seems to me that what's at issue (at the end of the day) between serious investigators of the foundations of quantum mechanics and the producers of the "what the bleep" movies is very much of a piece with what was at issue between Galileo and the Vatican, and very much of a piece with what was at issue between Darwin and the Victorians. There is a deep and perennial and profoundly human impulse to approach the world with a DEMAND, to approach the world with a PRECONDITION, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE FOUNDATION OF ALL BEING, is some powerful and reassuring and accessible image of OURSELVES. That's the impulse that the What the Bleep films seem to me to flatter and to endorse and (finally) to exploit - and that, more than any of their particular factual inaccuracies - is what bother me me about them. It is precisely he business of resisting that demand, it is precisely the business of approaching the world with open and authentic wonder, and with a sharp, cold eye, and singularly intent upon the truth, that's called science.

-David Albert

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Amit Goswami was a physics professor for a long time at the University of Oregon, which is a research university - he's now retired. I guess that might not count. But he's a very smart guy.

I'm not standing up for the film, either - haven't seen it, and the first one bugged the shit out of me. But Mr. Goswami's a friend of the family, so I'm piping up for him.

I'm curious about both movies now. The blurbs for the first movie gave me something of a cross between curiosity and the ebby-gebbies. The ebby-gebbies won, so I didn't see it. Now I'm wondering what new warped New Age thought is making it's march - especially sense I think science actually DOES support the notion of spirituality.

Thanks for posting this, Annie. I haven't seen What the Bleep, because I suspect it would only make me angry, but I could read/talk about this controversy all day. My biggest concern is that there may be some very useful and interesting ideas currently considered New Age or supernatural, but because of popular anti-intellectual New Age fare like WTB, these ideas will find it harder to get a serious look from rigorous scientists.

Incidentally, if anyone else is interested in the intersection between science and spooky, and willing to actually think critically about it, I recommend the work of David Hufford; his book The Terror That Comes in the Night is a good place to start.

I say see it, just so you can shit talk it with reference to the actual film. trust me, it's baaaad. wait for the dvd and get it on netflix .. or from the library.

Thank you for being a level-headed reviewer. My girlfriend and I wasted our first NetFlix rental on the original version of this flick and were shocked at how awful it was within the first half-hour. While we're both open minded, one atheist and one religious, we're also scientifically friendly, rational thinkers (and, gasp, lawyers). The moment this movie starts trying to extrapolate the interesting parts of quantum theory into wild claims about water molecules that react to emotions, Native Americans being unable to see boats, and other such on-its-face laughable bunk, we knew that something was up with this movie. Your links slam dunked our own theories on its origin. While I believe the human mind is limited by our just-past-ape evolution, I can say this: What the Bleep do I know? I know enough to say this movie is a pseudo-scientific cult film that genuinely feels insulting to intelligent, rational viewers.

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