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"What the #$*! Do We Know": popular pseudoscience film reviewed

to Deepra Chopra

? is so popular and bad that it is worthy of discussion!


From Skeptic Magazine, Oct 1st, 2004

Ramtha’s School of Quantum Flapdoodle

a film review by John Olmsted

Amit Goswami

What do you get when you combine bits of quantum physics, brain science and the channeled prophecies of a 35,000 year old god/warrior named Ramtha? The film, What the #$*! Do We Know?, is a fantasy docudrama cult hit that has found national distribution and is playing to full houses across the country.

The film is the latest effort by religious, mystical, and New Age gurus such as Deepak Chopra to cloak their views in the mantel of science. Physicist Victor Stenger coined the term “Quantum metaphysics” where “today’s cosmic mind has been repackaged by an appeal to twentieth century science for its authority.” The cosmic mind in this case is that of J. Z. Knight, who claims to channel a 35,000-year old god/warrior named Ramtha. Because Ramtha instructed her to demand a packet of gold from all who seek his wisdom, she has reaped millions over the past quarter century. The films’ producers, writers, directors, and a number of the stars are members of her Ramtha School of Enlightenment in Washington.

Quantum physics and neuroscience are complex and controversial topics. The film discusses them in twenty-second sound bites mixed with cutting edge graphics. The effect is a blend of riveted attention and confusion that puts the critical mind to sleep, softening up the viewer to ideas that begin with human potential and end with walking on water.

The film opens with writer Fred Alan Wolfe imploring us to “Get into the mystery!” We just have to decide “How far down the rabbit hole do we want to go?” The central premise of the film is that there is no objective reality. The world is nothing more than observer effects. Amit Goswami, an emeritus professor of physics from the University of Oregon, states: “The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies.” Other speakers describe matter as “like a thought, concentrated bits of information.”

With a bit of candor Wolfe states that quantum physics is “subject to a range of debatable hypotheses.” At the center of the debate is how to interpret the fact that at the subatomic level the act of observing electrons has an effect on their properties. Some forms of measurement pick up wave-like effects while others pick up particle effects. If the form of observation has such an effect on reality can we say there is an objective reality at all? In the famous debates between Einstein and Niels Bohr over the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum effects, Einstein was never won over to the notion of the absence of objective reality, stating:

I think that a particle must have a separate reality independent of the measurement. That is, an electron has spin, location and so forth even when it is not being measured. I like to think the moon is still there even if I am not looking at it looking at it.

The idea that consciousness creates reality is at the core of most religions. Objective reality is the unfolding of the spiritual world on the plane of physical existence. In the past it was consciousness of god or gods doing their work on earth in a rich variety of religious mythology. In New Age interpretations you are the god of your own individual world.

Additional bits and pieces of quantum theory are presented in the film, including: superposition theories, direction of time, Boehm’s implicate order, information theory, and others. Most viewers have no time, let alone the science background knowledge, to evaluate the validity of such claims. Quantum theory is used to punctuate religious and political sound bites, such as this one from psychologist Jeffrey Satinov: “Materialism strips people of responsibility, quantum physics puts it squarely in your lap.”

Along with talking heads and computer graphics is a loose drama of a woman in the midst of depression played by actress Marlee Matlin. She’s a photographer who hates herself, gains no pleasure from the world, and seems to be having trouble with her medications.

A chiropractor named Joe Dispenza diagnoses her problems with Ramtha’s version of neuroscience. Dispenza notes that in brain imaging parts of the visual cortex light up during both mental imagery tasks and visual perception. From this he draws the absurd conclusion that we don’t know the difference between what is real and what we imagine. Many different mental functions share cortical areas to carry out the complexity of their tasks. Thought and speech both utilize language areas of the brain. Visions during dreaming that use the visual cortex get reality tested upon waking. There are people who have great difficulty seeing the difference between the real and the imagined. They are suffering from psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, or they have ingested large amounts of drugs or alcohol. If Dispenza is right that we live in an imagined world not grounded in reality, testing his theory on your drive home would lead to a carnage of competing versions of where the road begins and ends.

Matlin’s depression raises problems with the New Age myth that the mind is a like a big department store where we are free to choose any thought or feeling we want. Why would we choose to be depressed? Why don’t we just snap out of it and think happier thoughts?

A major finding of neuroscience is that the conscious “free” mind arises out of powerful unconscious processes. Joseph Ledoux at New York University has shown that the limbic system produces a fear response before we are even aware of seeing the frightful image, like a snake in the grass. Patterns of emotional and cognitive responses to the world are laid down in a complex dialectic of inherited biology, early childhood experiences, and current functioning in the world. How this all produces consciousness is one of the most challenging questions facing brain scientists. The late Francis Crick spent thirty years on the question.

Dispenza tells us that the answer is quite simple. Since we can’t stop feeling and thinking, and an addiction is “something we cannot stop,” then bad thoughts are just a problem of addiction. All we need is Ramtha’s recovery program. Noted cellular researcher Candice Pert appears for a valuable discussion of hormones, peptides, and neurotransmitters in the brain. Since discovering opiate receptors she has since drifted into New Age nonsense. If cells are over stimulated by neurotransmitters they adjust though a process called down regulation. Dispenza tells us that this is the cause of lifelong problems, since the down regulation is passed on in cell division. In a forum on the film this past spring, I had to point out to him that brain cells, unlike other cells in the body, do not divide.

Addictive processes and habits of thought and feeling are both carried out by chemical signaling between neurons. The major difference is that in addiction reward circuits in the brain are hijacked and distorted by rapid elevation of chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins due to drugs injected into the body. There is growing evidence that genes play a role in determining a person’s vulnerability to addiction.

Matlin lifts out of her depression after many drinks and a romantic encounter at a Polish wedding—perhaps the mind really is influenced by the body and the power of interpersonal relations. During her hangover the next morning she is lifted into a state of bliss when reminded of the power of thought as shown by the work of Masura Emoto.

Emoto claims to have proven that thoughts are so powerful they can change the structure of water. His “experiments” consist of taping written words to glasses of water. The next day beautiful crystals appear on jars with words like “love.” We are not told that these are actually ice crystals. In his book, Messages from Water, Emoto claims that water can understand every language in the world, and all their emotional and metaphoric nuances, by picking up on the linguistic vibrations. Water tells us that classical music is good and heavy metal is bad. Water can educate us as to whether religious and political figures are good or bad people. Water is so perceptive that, when played a recording of Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” the water crystal split into two crystals in sympathy.

Another “proof” of the power of thought presented in the film is the so-called “Maharishi Effect.” In 1993, 4,000 meditators gathered in Washington, D.C. under the direction of physicist John Hagelin. Hagelin predicted in advance that the meditations would drive down the violent crime rate in the city by 25 percent that summer. Despite the fact that the murder rate actually rose, Hagelin announced a year later that his analysis proved that the violent crime rate fell just as he had predicted. In his recent book he states that the meditators “function essentially as a ‘washing machine’ for the entire society.”

As with Emoto’s work, there has been no replication by other scientists, no control groups, and no publications in reputable peer reviewed scientific journals to confirm the Maharishi Effect. The end of the film meanders into speculation about god. Knight tells us that Ramtha has arrived to free you from the gods who determine good and evil and punish you in the process. You can have it anyway you want. You are god. You can return to those wonderful days of childhood when the world really seemed centered around you and was created by your fantasies.

In April of this year I invited one of the film’s directors, William Arntz, along with one of his science consultants, Joe Dispenza, to Portland State University. To put the question of free will and responsibility to the test I put up a photo of a child with Downs Syndrome. I asked if this child was free to create any reality he wanted. Was this child responsible for his condition, I queried? Arnzt responded that in fact he is to blame for his disorder—he is paying for transgressions in a previous life. This is the same doctrine of reincarnation and karma that justified the caste system in India. The same logic blames the patient for their cancer.

What begins as promises of freedom of thought soon evolves into demands for correct thought and behavior. As Satinov says in the film: “People ought to be instructed to make different choices.” The source of the correct ideas is the prophet. The promised payoff for adherence to the dogma is freedom from the fears of death, disease, and misery. The fact that these are deep fears that we are all vulnerable to, sets the stage for rampant exploitation and abuse by charlatans and cults. As J. Z. Knight asks, “Have you ever stopped for a moment to look at yourself through the eyes of the ultimate observer?”


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