Saturday, July 7, 2012

What The Bleep Do They Know?

I suspect most readers of this blog are at least familiar in passing with the film What The Bleep Do We Know!? Almost a month ago, Jason Miller put up a post discussing five things that we need to "escape the gravity of," with #4 on the list being quantum mechanics as some sort of "proof" of magick and/or paranormal phenomena. This is relevant to the film because What The Bleep is probably most responsible for promulgating that particular idea into the popular culture, despite many complaints from the quantum physicists interviewed that their comments were distorted or taken out of context. Jason is in fact 100% correct and What The Bleep is 100% wrong - there's nothing in quantum mechanics that proves anything with respect to magical phenomena. If there were, quantum mechanics has been around a long time and it's established science, so magick would pretty much be established as well by default. That's how science works.

What The Bleep is filled with a lot of additional nonsense as well. Masura Emoto's "water memory" experiments cannot be replicated under controlled conditions and his experimental methods pretty much scream "selection bias." Human emotions do not behave like addictive chemicals - it's the other way around, since drugs are addictive precisely because they interfere with the brain's chemical messenger system. This idea about emotions seems to have been picked up by advocates of the unscientific twaddle that is "behavioral addiction," since according to those folks you can become addicted to (as opposed to, apparently, just liking) anything you happen to enjoy. And then there's this story from the film, which is so full of fail that I barely know where to begin.

One day an Incan shaman was standing on the beach, as he did every morning, looking out past the waves to the horizon. He noticed that the waves were moving strangely. He looked at the waves by his feet, and saw that they too were not behaving as usual. He slowly looked out again towards the horizon, looking for the cause of the strange waves. And then, on the horizon, they appeared - ships of the conquistadors. Recognizing the importance of this, he went back to the city to get the chief and his other aids to look at this strange phenomenon. Of course, word quickly spread, and soon everyone was on the beach, looking at the strange waves, but they could not see the ships. It wasn’t until the shaman described what the ships looked like that people could see them, and then it was as they appeared out of nowhere. Once the people knew what they were looking for, they were able to see it.

I recently encountered this story again cruising the Internet, and it demands a response. Let's start with the basics. Francisco Pizarro did not land on a beach when he encountered the Inca. His first encounter with one of the tribes that was part of the Inca empire was further inland after sailing up the San Juan river in what is now Columbia. So the story pretty much goes off the rails right away. Furthermore, let's think about what it's really proposing - that human beings cannot perceive physical objects with which they are unfamiliar. I shudder to think of what an evolutionary disadvantage such a condition would represent. How would we learn anything? Babies would have no frame of reference with which to recognize objects, and adults would never be able to identify new ones until they were told what to look for. This makes absolutely no sense.

I'll add that even if this bizarre cognitive condition were real, it also assumes that the Native Americans in question had never seen a boat. When a ship is off in the distance it's pretty hard to distinguish from any other kind of boat because looking out over the water it's pretty difficult to judge size and distance. It would have been clear how large the European ships were once they got closer to land, but it would only have been at that point they would have appeared unusual - because all of the meso-american tribes had and used boats. They were much smaller than the Spanish galleons, but they nonetheless should have provided enough of a frame of reference for even the most aphasia-afflicted individual to look out over the ocean and say "wow, those are some big boats!" So even by its own rules the story still falls apart.

If the story has any historical basis at all, it sounds to me like something one of the conquistadors made up in order to convince other Europeans of how primitive the Native Americans were. After all, when the Spanish arrived in the Americas they would have seen a lot of things with which they were unfamiliar as well - but of course there are no stories about them having trouble perceiving those things until they were told what they were, because human brains don't work that way. In order to justify their conquest of the Americas, though, the Europeans leaned heavily on the idea that they were a "superior" and "advanced" culture to which the Native Americans were as little children. This justified everything from looting to religious conversions to mass murder, and had the convenient side effect of enriching the Spanish Empire.

When I first heard about What The Bleep it sounded interesting, but then I made the mistake of going and seeing it when it was in the theaters. Needless to say, I found myself completely underwhelmed. For a magician like myself with a scientific education it was way too easy to sit there and poke holes in everything the movie was saying. Through the practice of magick consciousness can influence physical reality, but the problem with New Age treatments like this film is that they assume if consciousness influence physical reality at all it should follow that consciousness should be able to completely control the physical world in a deterministic manner. When that conclusion turns out to be provably false, its advocates start making up all sorts of excuses for why it doesn't work. If you ever do decide to watch the film, I recommend getting a bunch of friends together and giving it the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, because if there's one thing this movie deserves it's heckling.

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Frater.Barrabbas said...

Hi Scott - Not to be picky, but Pizarro did sail from Panama (on the Pacific ocean) to San Mateo, where he debarked. He did not travel up the Amazon river.

The rest of article is, of course, excellent.

Scott Stenwick said...

You're right about the Amazon - I was mixing up my conquistadors. It was actually the San Juan river in Columbia that I was thinking of, which does empty into the Pacific. The article has been updated to reflect that.

Otherwise, thanks!

The other thing that I didn't even mention in the article is that Pizarro's first expedition in the Americas was in 1524 and his conquest of the Inca didn't happen until 1532. During the intervening 8 years he encountered a number of different tribes exploring the area, some Inca and some not, so it's not like his ships would have been that unfamiliar to at least some of the population by the time of the conquest.

Anonymous said...

Ha, MST3K! We saw it in the theater in Portland where part of the movie was filmed, which has a balcony. As it turned out, we sat up there in the front row making comments (quietly) like the two old guys on the Muppet Show. (I suppose it helped that this movie theater serves really good beer.) It was a fine way to spend an afternoon.

Sonja Garcia Burgos (Aynara Garcia) said...

I propose not take the Pizzaro Example litteraly. Theres much more to see when you don't- As the mind does have his own filters of beliefs.
Babies do recognize whats there, but they also do have a different more unfiltered view of the world. While we as adults are used to believe there exists only one reality, babies are sometimes switching different realities until one becomes solid.
This might sound strange... but well... can't express it more gentle...
What I am getting at is, if you died and believe you are still alive, your mind is going to shut out everything that does not fit the frame until the frame gets a kick so hard, that there is no ground left for it to sustain itself. That goes for every belief conscious or not you might have.

Scott Stenwick said...

I'm not arguing people don't interpret their perceptions based on their beliefs, or that people's beliefs don't influence what they choose to pay the most attention to. Both of those contentions are accurate.

The reason I'm arguing against taking the Pizarro story literally is that the movie does, and it's simply ridiculous to do so. There's no perception researcher in the world who would tell you that somebody who had no idea what a boat was wouldn't be able to physically see it.

They might not have a specific word for it and therefore have trouble explaining it to somebody else, but that's a whole different issue.