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How Bad Can It Be?: Noetic Science Goes to the Movies

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That Dan Brown was a terrible writer with a weakness for the sort of pseudohistorical conspiracy theories usually floated by college sophomores stinking of bongwater, we knew from his previous books. But what makes his latest The Lost Symbol truly annoying, as opposed to merely forgettable, is his use of so-called “noetic science” as a major plot point. Brown being inexplicably popular as he is, there’s already a ripple effect; BookScan indicates that Lynne McTaggart’s The Intention Experiment, which gets a mention in The Lost Symbol, is experiencing a spike in sales.

This is good news for Lynne McTaggart, who is, I’m sure, a lovely person — but bad news for those of us with fully-functional bullshit detectors. If noetics really is the next big thing, then we have reason to dread the water-cooler, these days, those of us who are interested in religion, or science, or both, and who resent the cheapening of both that comes of trying to fuse the two. Here’s Brown’s rundown on noetics — what we used to call “mind over matter,” back in the day:

[Katherine’s research] was a scientific tour de force — a massive collection of experiments that proved human thought was a real and measurable force in the world. Katherine’s experiments demonstrated the effect of human thought on everything from ice crystals to the movement o subatomic particles. The results were conclusive and irrefutable, with the potential to transform skeptics into believers and affect global consciousness on a massive scale.

“We have scientifically proven that the power of human thought grows exponentially with the number of minds that share that thought. …. The idea of universal consciousness is no ethereal New Age concept. It’s a hard-core scientific reality… and harnessing it has the potential to transform our world. This is the underlying discovery of Noetic Science.”

(Something about Brown’s prose always sound like he doth protest a wee bit too much.)

Now, Dan Brown knows a good idea when he steals one; the central conceit of The DaVinci Code was lifted wholesale from the conspiracy classic Holy Blood, Holy Grail. A couple of media sensations over the last few years have popularized the pseudo-science of noetics — the movie What the [Bleep] Do We Know!?, and the book The Secret and its spinoffs. It’s via one or both of these that noetic science most likely came onto Dan Brown’s radar. At least, it’s these two that I single out for blame and scorn today.

What the Bleep was a sleeper hit in 2004; it’s been described as a documentary, but it’s more of a manifesto, mixing talking-head commentary, SFX-laden representations of subatomic and biological phenomena, electronic music and dramatic interludes. It’s the same formula as Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking series Cosmos and its various PBS progeny — but populated wall-to-wall with quacks, cranks, grifters, and New Age wackadoos.

The dramatic sequences meander around the story of Amanda (Marlee Matlin), a photographer with an anxiety disorder, body issues, and bad luck in love. Her interactions with her kooky, free-spirit roommate and a series of mysterious strangers eventually bring her to wrestle with the classic big questions about life, love, and happiness.

The less said about these segments, the better, except to say that I felt embarrassed for everyone involved; but however clumsily scripted and horrendously-acted it is, Amanda’s story at least grapples honestly with the alienation and discontent of life. But whereas traditional systems of religious belief, in engaging with those issues, tend to emphasize the importance of the questions themselves — and of the way that pondering, itself, can reorient and stretch the mind — What the Bleep is relentlessly results-oriented. Not only do these eternal questions have answers, the film tells us — they all have the same answer: QUANTUM PHYSICS!

Why am I so miserable? QUANTUM PHYSICS! Why am I here? QUANTUM PHYSICS! Why is the world what it is? QUANTUM PHYSICS! Where does reality come from? QUANTUM PHYSICS!

Here’s the thing: if you’re going to use QUANTUM PHYSICS! as an argument-ender, you’d goddamn well better make a better case for it than the film does, otherwise it’s just New Age-speak for “the Will of God,” which cannot be questioned. Indeed, the film spent more time bulletproofing its ideas (“Well, you really can’t understand it,” says one talking head. “It’s very mysterious,” says another. “Nobody knows why it happens, but it does…” says a third. Shut up and don’t question, okay?) than it does actually explicating them — always a sign of a weak argument.

Here’s a fun drinking game for you. Watch this ten-minute clip of the film.

  • Every time someone says something evasive, take a drink.
  • Every time someone takes an unjustifiable leap of logic, take ten drinks. Just because.
  • Every time Marlee Matlin sighs, take a drink.
  • Every time an unsourced anecdote is presented as fact, claim to take a drink.
  • Every time the words “QUANTUM PHYSICS!” are uttered, take a drink and do not take a drink, simultaneously.
  • Every time someone says “We can’t explain it,” or some variation thereof, take a drink.
  • Any time somebody actually explains something… never mind, it won’t happen.
  • Any time somebody proposes a violation of Newtonian physics, untake a drink.

(You might want to have a priest and an ambulance handy.)


Are you dead of alcohol poisoning yet? Then YOU’RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT.

What these thinkers have done is to take Heisenberg’s axiom that “the observer becomes part of the observed system,” and, essentially, extrapolate that to “Your thoughts create your physical reality.” Now, getting from Point A to Point B requires, in this case, more than a leap of logic; logic must take a leap, a hop, and a running jump, then catch the crosstown bus for the airport and board the first plane to Crazyville.

Did I mention that the film was funded by the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, which is run by a sixtyish hausfrau who claims to channel the spirit of a 35,000-year-old warlord from the lost continent of Atlantis? (Funny how Donovan never mentioned him.) And that most of the film’s “experts” are affiliated with the Ramtha school — some impolite people call it a cult — in one way or another? And that at least one of the talking heads has disavowed the film, claiming that selective editing make him appear to espouse ideas that he in fact disavows?

There’s some valid science here, but it is degraded by the distortions, half-truths, and inconsistencies. The film’s science and its philosophy are both hopelessly muddled and self-contradictory — at once simplistic and needlessly complicated. One of the first things the film does is dismiss out-of-hand the materialistic, mechanistic electrochemical model of consciousness. All well and good. But then it goes into the mind-body connection, and starts undercutting its own argument. There’s a major thread about “addiction,” in its various forms, being responsible for most human misery. It’s not a surprising stance for the makers to take — New Age spirituality, remember, grew largely out of twelve-step recovery and self-help programs — and there’s a good deal of material about the physiology of addiction, about neuropeptides and drugs rewiring the brain — all, as far as I know, good science, albeit horribly illustrated. Feast your eyes on this slice of nightmare fuel, and feel the dawning horror when you realize that this is someone’s idea of high hilarity:

But that science depends upon the very same electrochemical model of consciousness that the film has already explicitly rejected. There are other traditions of dealing with the same problems — the Buddhist concept of attachment, for instance — but which do so on a pure-spirit level. So why didn’t they lean on one of those instead? Because attachment isn’t a scientific concept, and addiction is. But therein lies the problem: instead of lending the rest of the film an authenticity-by-association, the good science of the addiction material only makes the rest of the film look weaker by comparison. They haven’t just shot themselves in the foot here: they’ve blown the leg clean off.

There’s a similar problem with the sequences on theology and religion. Our God-concept, they say, needs a major overhaul: the “big man in the sky meting out punishments and rewards in the afterlife” model is obsolete and limiting. Fair enough. But the filmmakers don’t seem to have the confidence that the argument will stand on its own, so they wrap it in cheap shots at organized religion, while demonstrating no real knowledge of current theological thought. to watch this film, you’d think we were still living in the fucking Burning Time; to present the Big Daddy idea as the current dominant model means ignoring the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, Thomas Merton, John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong — ignoring everything since St. Augustine, in other words (and great chunks of Augustine, for that matter).

And, y’know, people who obey the channeled spirit of a 35,000 year old Atlantean warlord ranting against the primitive superstitions of Christianity — well. Glass houses, and all.

Anyway. What’s going on here is what theologian Karen Armstrong describes in her new book The Case for God — religion letting science define its agenda even on its own turf, instead of insisting on the primacy of the practice of faith. Now, rationalism and the scientific method are invaluable tools for perceiving and understanding the universe — perhaps even the best tools — but they are not the only tools. Faith is uniquely suited for some tasks of perception. Science is primarily descriptive — it’s all about the how; religion concerns itself with meaning, or the why. And you need both, I think, to get a well-rounded picture of the world.

It’s a matter of matching the tool to the job at hand. Writing about music is, famously, like dancing about architecture — but applying the scientific method to religious questions is like putting a sonnet under a microscope; looking at scientific question through the eyes of faith is like psychoanalyzing a mountain. Per Richard Dawkins, “Why are we here?” is, from a scientific standpoint, not even a question worth asking. And he’s right, as far as it goes. I would venture further that “How old is the Earth, and what’s up with the dinosaur bones?” is not a question worth asking in a religious context.

But religious thinking — process-oriented, poetic, allusive — has become disreputable, even among the religious, and so they take up the hammer of scientific thought — results-centered, descriptive, concrete — and try to apply it to existential questions. Instead of pondering the origins and immortality of the soul, they’re trying to figure its weight in grams. Instead of contemplating the impact of loving thoughts on a single human life, they’re quantifying their effect on the formation of ice crystals. When your only tool is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.

The DVD of The Secret, by contrast, is a bit more open about its mystical leanings, if no less embarrassing. Shot on cheesy video, largely lacking in the shiny production values of What the Bleep, The Secret looks like something you’d find late at night on The History Channel — not one of the classy World War II documentaries, but some “History of Sex” thing. There are fewer physicists in the roster of “experts,” and more authors and philosophers, and at least one whose occupation is listed as “Visionary.” (I’d love to see his business card.) It doesn’t make much of an effort to explain away its premise with subatomic particles or the like; it’s down with the magic. And while it pays lip service to personal fulfillment and all that jazz, it’s much more shamelessly materialistic than What the Bleep. Screw changing the world; The Secret is mostly about Getting Cool Stuff.


The Secret takes What the Bleep’s distortion of Heisenberg and extends it even further, into what it calls “The Law of Attraction” — the notion that human beings create their own circumstances by the power of (largely unconscious) thought — which it backs up with scanty anecdotal evidence. There’s no arguing with the premise that if you change your attitude, you can change your life, but The Secret gets cause and effect backwards. A better attitude doesn’t attract success to you — it gives you the strength to go out and find success. It’s self-actualization for people who want to duck responsibility. Ultimate credit or blame must go to the Universe, after all; all I’ve done is be clever enough to game the system. Anyone can do it.

And in both What the Bleep and The Secret, it’s presented in exactly such an obnoxious, triumph-of-the-will way — “Everyone is a god! Well, I am, anyway — me and the people who are clued in, who don’t buy into the paradigm propagated by the mediocracy, the ones who have the courage to stop being sheep and take the red pill!”

But what about those who aren’t clued in? Well, now, there’s the rub. Noetics, and the Law of Attraction, and the highly-selectively-defined QUANTUM PHYSICS! of What the Bleep do fail to qualify as religious expression, I admit, if we take as given that all religion must encompass compassion for the misfortunes of others. The “your thoughts produce your reality” model precludes any compassion; the poor, the sick, the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill — well, no one’s coming out and saying they deserve their fate, exactly. But they have chosen it. And so it is not my responsibility.

And so noetics moves from the realms of the pointless and misguided and into the arena of the truly reprehensible.

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