About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, September 04, 2006
What the Blip Do We Know?
The idea, I take it, was to introduce the audience to the basic findings of quantum physics and neurobiology, and to draw consequences for the “big questions,” you know, the ultimate nature of reality, consciousness, god, and whether one should take one's espresso macchiato or not, that sort of thing. This is accomplished in the movie by alternating a rather silly “fictional” plot of a woman whose sense of reality is being shaken by the revelations of modern science with very brief (and rather disconnected) bits of interviews with individuals who appear to be scientists or philosophers (though you have to go to the additional material on the dvd or to the credits to figure out who they actually are).
Let's look at a couple of examples to get a sense of what “Blip” is all about. Neurobiologists have shown a fascinating phenomenon by scanning people's brains. Suppose you see a very attractive woman taking a very provocative pose right in front of you (this is an actual example shown in the movie). If your head were connected to a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine it would show certain parts of the brain lighting up in response to the visual stimulus. No surprise there: after all, if you are perceiving the world it is through the activation of particular neural paths. The interesting bit is that if you close your eyes, take the actual physical woman literally out of the picture, and imagine the same scene, roughly the same areas of your brain are lit. While this is, indeed, interesting, it really shouldn't be that surprising: it implies that your brain is, in fact, a virtual reality simulator, which can work (almost) equally as well with the real stuff as with memories. But the “expert” on “Blip” drew a far more daring conclusion: that this hints at the fact there is no difference between the outside and the inside world; you see, it's all in your head, we literally make up reality as we go.
First of all, if that were true, actually having sex and imagining it would feel the same. Have you compared the two experiences? This would be a fatal blow to the practice of online dating, which I really don't think has anything to fear from the “insights” offered by “Blip.” Second, if we (or some other mind, such as god's) create our reality – an old philosophical position known as Idealism – it is entirely mysterious why some people want to create for themselves a reality in which they are poor, can't find a job, or are so unattractive that their mind truly is the only place where they can have sex.
Let's move on now to the most abused area of science by mystics and New Age people of all stripes, including the makers of “Blip”: quantum mechanics. The thing about quantum mechanics, of course, is that so few people understand it (and I am told that this includes a lot of physicists), that it's easy to pick up on a quantum mechanical phenomenon (say, the dual particle-wave nature of light) and turn it into complete nonsense (a physicist-pastor a few years ago seriously suggested a close parallel with the dual nature of Jesus: god and man... If that sounds like a profound insight to you, you'd be much better off if you stopped reading this blog right now.)
After having provided some correct (if confused) glimpse into the understanding of the world at the quantum level that modern physics put together, “Blip” proceeds once again with huge leaps of logic, with one of their “experts” telling us with complete assurance that she knows that god cannot possibly be the sort of paternalistic figure typical of classical (read Judeo-Christian-Muslim) religions, because, you see, god “really” is nature itself (a position known as pantheism, much older than quantum mechanics). Moreover, according to the same “expert,” the universe itself is the result (somehow) of consciousness, although it isn't clear if this is god's consciousness or our own (back to Idealism, see above). And so on and so forth with countless other bits of good science mixed with total nonsense.
I'm sorry, but this sort of movie doesn't do any good to anybody. It doesn't really provide a sensible introduction to science, because of the fractured way in which pertinent information is presented; it doesn't stimulate one's curiosity about science because the audience is explictly told that what counts is the mystery, not seeking answers; and it doesn't yield any reasonable insight into the complex and fascinating philosophical implications of modern science's understanding of the world. Too bad, because “Blip” could in fact have done all of the above, in the hands of different writers and “experts.” Wanna give it another try, anybody?