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?

Well, this movie has been suggested to me enough times that I finally put it on my Netflix queue. What a mistake. I honestly couldn't go past the first hour of play (it's two and a half hours long!), and I found it perhaps the most uninformative, irritating, and at times downright illogical “documentary” I've ever seen.

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?


  1. I haven't seen this movie, but I did follow the IMDB link and read some of the user comments. They're hilarious, and almost unanimously negative. I think if you had read them first you could have saved yourself that hour.

  2. how is it that people, like the "experts" shown in this movie, can pass off old ideas like idealism and pantheism, as fresh, simply by dressing them up with unrelated scientific facts? how come more of the "experts" or their viewers realize that their "profound realizations" are actually rather trite?

  3. I think there were a couple of actual experts, but they were misrepresented by the movie.

  4. "Well, this movie has been suggested to me enough times that I finally put it on my Netflix queue.I honestly couldn't go past the first hour of play (it's two and a half hours long!), and I found it perhaps the most uninformative, irritating, and at times downright
    illogical “documentary” I've ever seen."

    You have nobody but yourself to blame! All you had to do was read the review sections of some of the magazines that you publish in! As I recall, I read an equally critical review in Skeptical Inquiry some time ago:)

  5. They can pass these things off as fresh because nobody studies the old heresies ... so they recycle constantly, and there's always someone who thinks they've never even been thought of before.

    As Brookmyre says in Not the End of the World, we forget "so far" - and we forget "since", too.

  6. I read a hilarious review of this movie from Skeptico a while back that is so very informative that I would like to share it:


  7. grrr... the link didn't quite make it but if you go to his blog (skeptico.blogs.com), you should see it under "Classic Skeptico" posts on the lower right side of the page.

  8. Try Brian Greene's PBS documentary on String Theory or Richard Dawkins Root of All Evil if you want to see a good documentary.
    I also enjoyed the one that paralleled the lives of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, also on PBS, cannot recall the name, "The Question of God" or something like that.

  9. O! Ye (necessary) Skeptics:
    Concerning the movie "What the Bleep...": To find and ascertain whether or not this movie is due any credibility at all, please read(if thou hast the intellectual fortitude) a book by the (very) credible FRITJOF CAPRA, (eminent physicist of his day) "The Tao of Physics". It was written in '75, and I was given a copy in 2000, but DID NOT CARE TO READ IT UNTIL AFTER SEEING THE AFOREMENTIONED MOVIE...Why? Because I knew basically what it was going to say: I knew it was going to drag my poor brain through a lot of mind stretching particle physics, and then tell me....well, read for yourself: if you do not, you have not taken the time to thoroughly research the worthiness of "What the Bleep...", and therefore would not be worthy of any claim to "INFORMED SKEPTICISM".
    You have HEREBY been challenged to earn your own credibility as truly OBJECTIVE SKEPTICS, without which objectivity, you are just a bunch of uninformed naysayers...
    Irreverently Respectful,
    James V.

  10. I would like to think my following comments are the about the key issues of the movie. If not I am sorry to have taken your time.

    Evolution and Conscious Design both help describes the process of our physical experience of living in this universe. Socrates and Plato both suggested that reality was in the “thought or consciousness” behind the physical manifestation. Aristotle their student, said no, reality was what we could weight and measure. This took out “thought” as real or even a force in the post Aristotle physic until very recently with Quantum mechanistic and chaos theory now totally reconsidering the power of consciousness or thought as an active force in physics. Through the process of evolution infinite new possibilities are created for those lost through time. Entropy no longer rules!

    The materialist to show there was no need for a “God” used Darwin theory. What evolution did show was that there does not exist the mythical division between the creation and the creator as an unseen male deity interested only in life on this planet! Almost 90% of the force in the universe is called dark matter or dark energy. I call it pure consciousness affecting the planets and galaxies as this consciousness in us helps us focus our thoughts and desires and manifest them in the material world of our lives as the suggestions in Napoleon Hills book Think and grow rich.

    The ecumenical definition of God is: all knowing, all-powerfulS, and everywhere. This describes a living conscious universe with no separation between God and the material universe. In the movie What the Blip do we know, Some of today’s top scientists suggest that the deeper we look into energy and matter the more it is consciousness that is real and the physical world almost appear as a thought created Star Track style holodeck.
    The first Christian commandment is to love God with all your Heart, Soul, and MIND!!! It is a Christian duty to question all faiths and beliefs. The entire story of the New Testament Gospels is Jesus disobeying the Law and customs of his day in favor of the power of personal morals and ethical choices in a relationship of love with ones neighbors and the world.

    We are living in Eden, but we will starve or go extinct as predators. Evolution has gotten us to being self-conscious beings with memory and a physical body with feet and almost magical hands but now we need to consciously evolve to peaceful cooperative loving gardeners to continue to survive. The answers to today’s problems: energy, clean air, water, food supply, poverty global warming, and over population, are not as difficult to solve as convincing the Rich and Powerful predators amongst us to let us evolve!

  11. I'd like to address the author of this blog: I'd like to ask "What the blip do you know" about these phenomena?
    The documentary is very enlightening. Obviously you completely missed the point. I find that intriguing.


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