Great question. Great movie. Short answer: not much. Made in Portland, and starring the wonderfully expressive actress Marlee Matlin (an Oscar winner for “Children of a Lesser God”), “What the #$*! Do We Know?!” mixes together a fictional storyline with non-fictional expositions of quantum physics, neuroscience, and other findings from the cutting edge of science.
Having written a book about the relation of the new physics and old mystics (“God’s Whisper, Creation’s Thunder,” which I’ve revised and am working to get back-in-print), this was a movie that I couldn’t miss. Unfortunately, lots of other people will. I only found two reviews through the Movie Review Query Engine, and the Salem Cinema seats were mostly empty last Friday night. That’s too bad. This film isn’t perfect—what movie is?—but it has much more entertainment and thought-provocation value than most flicks.
I got to see and hear some scientists whose books I’ve enjoyed: Amit Goswami from the University of Oregon, and Fred Alan Wolf. I agreed with most of what they and others talked about, but the “quantum physics says we create our own reality” theme is a stretch that goes over the edge of even cutting-edge science. Goswami himself says in his first book, “The Self-Aware Universe,” that a universal rather than individual consciousness has to bring reality into manifestation.
If this weren’t the case, the laws of nature wouldn’t bear much resemblance to the utterly dependable laws we are familiar with. In his book Goswami likens the situation to people coming to a four-way intersection and choosing what color the light should turn: red or green. Chaos would result, cars crashing into each other. Obviously, this isn’t the way the universe works. Regularity and order prevail on the macro level where we live and breathe. Only on the subatomic level is quantum unpredictability and uncertainty clearly evident.
In my book I quote Roger Penrose as saying that early on people hoped to find evidence for human free will in the randomness of quantum events. But, says Penrose, randomness is a pretty shaky foundation for free will, which should permit us to do just what we want to do, not take a chance on a roulette wheel of possibilities.
That quibble aside, my main problem with the movie, Laurel and I thoroughly enjoyed the examination of another theme: how our thoughts and emotions form a prism through which we see the world only darkly. Often not how it is, but how we have been conditioned to see it. Breaking that conditioning is what psychotherapy and meditation are all about. Science too, since regular paradigm shifts are necessary to boost scientific understanding out of well-worn ruts and into new paths.
It was Fred Alan Wolf, I believe, who said in the movie that our planet’s religions are out of sync with a modern scientific world view, and that one day they will seem as out-moded as so many other discredited perspectives—such as that the Sun revolves around the Earth. I couldn’t agree more. Mystery, Wolf said, should be embraced, rather than feebly explained away through the superstitions offered up by traditional Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the like (Buddhism seems more in tune with reality to me, but not by much).
Consider: physicists believe that only 4% of the physical universe is made of ordinary matter, with some 21% being composed of dark (unseen) matter and 75% of dark energy (I think I have these percentages right). So how can anyone consider that we know much about the cosmos when we don’t even know what 96% of it is made of, much less how the universe came to be and what the meaning of all this is? Mysteries surround us. Mysteries are us. I’d much rather embrace the reality of mystery than the illusion of religious “answers.”