Viruses feel like unwelcome visitors, but sometimes they are much more.

Director of Strategy and Policy for the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

I am a twin so you might have thought that what life is teaching me now is a lesson I should already know – two things that look the same may be quite different from each other. This week I have viewed a video clip that could be described as New Age in style and a group of talks which had as their goal the promotion of secular society in New Zealand. The common thread, the thing that made these items initially appear the same, was science. Both were proud to lay claim to scientific word-views. Both claimed scientific methodology sits at the core of what they are about. None the less, there were differences, quite significant ones, and I argue in this blog-piece that they provide a similarity that is worth taking note of.

The video clip was titled, “What the bleep do we know!?” In it the film’s main fictional character, a female photographer, faces personal life questions that allow the issues of ideas about quantum physics and human consciousness to be highlighted and explored. The film incorporates documentary styled interviews with individuals involved in the fields of quantum physics, psychology and spirituality.

The evening of talks, titled “Moving Toward a Secular Society”, had as its guest speaker Sean Faircloth of the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The evening was sponsored by the New Zealand Society of Humanists and Rationalists, and held at the Pipitea Campus of Victoria University, Wellington.

The first step for this blog-piece is to see how these ‘scientific’ based presentations were in fact very different from each other.

“What the bleep do we know!?” has as its thesis the view that there is a connection between quantum physics and human consciousness. The film does have a background and seeks to promote a message. Its authors are students of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. John Gorenfeld, writing in Salon – “‘Bleep’ of faith”, stresses this point because he sees this group as a cult. There are voices who express strong  caution when assessing this film. “What the bleep we know!?” according to these voices is pure junk, pseudo-science and new age psycho-babble.

I am going to make a move that I will call bracketing – put the issue of truth-claims on hold while I focus on other points. It is not about ignoring what is true; sometimes in order to see something we can choose to suspend doubt in order to let an idea be explored. It allows for that idea to be discussed, an idea we might otherwise never allow ourselves to consider.

What the film points to – a shift in how we understand the real – is an observation I can nod my head to. The older view that defines what is real says what sits outside of us is solid, substantial and entirely independent of us – the buildings that surround us, the chair we sit in, the cup of coffee we hold in our hands. The other world, the one we experience as internal, made of perceptions, is fleeting and insubstantial. The new view, the one the film explores, argues how we see and experience things is the really real. It is the contribution the viewer makes that is highly significant. For this perspective the world we see as outside us is linked to our being there in ways that are complex and noteworthy. The makers of “What the bleep do we know!?” argue this marks out and defines the gaze of quantum physics. I nod my head regarding the film’s claims because the older models of the real are limping – they fail to satisfy – there is evidence people are looking for other ways of seeing things.

Schrödinger's cat

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other. (Sourced from Wikipedia.)

Years ago, as a young man, I was introduced to the paradoxical thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat (devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935). I found it a stimulating riddle. Quantum mechanics has this notion of simultaneously occurring events that collapse into one outcome at the point where an observer looks or views how things are. “What the bleep do we know!?” communicates this message,  using the image of simultaneously bouncing basket balls that become one ball at the point when the ball is observed. The riddle or thought experiment’s significance rests for me in how it impacts on how one understands the real. I now see that neither Bohr’s model of the atom nor Newton’s notion of matter satisfies the question “How do things work?” Via the perspectives of quantum physics I am willing to consider as valid models of the real that are experienced by me as counter-intuitive.

“What the bleep do we know!?” does have this interesting turn, it asserts a new and important place for religion and spirituality. The film is not saying traditional science is wrong because of quantum physics – rather it argues the models for science have shifted. The film also argues this is true for religion.  The model for spirituality the film offers is seen as an update, guided by what is said in modern day discussions of quantum physics.

Religion and science are no longer at odds with each other, in a discussion of what we see as real. If a reader wants to follow their nose regarding this question of bringing the worlds of science and religion into one unified space I suggest the philosophical writings of Alfred North Whitehead. His book Process and Reality is a good start. I have read a few of his books and sat in post-graduate classes discussing his ideas. It is a rabbit hole worth going down, if the interest takes you.

The significant difference between this film – “What the bleep do we know!?” and the talk offered by the speakers at the talks “Moving Toward a Secular Society” rests with how religion is viewed. The speakers were not anti-religion; what concerned them were the dangers of indoctrination. The film promoted the message spirituality should be viewed as positive, that it is part of a new way of seeing what is real; the talks “Moving Toward a Secular Society” were a lot less buoyant about the on-going role of religion in society.

It is at this point that my bracketing may need to close, the talkers promoting the move towards a secular society saw ‘being right’ as central, they were very sure they understand sound methodology. They held the view the social and political moves of some religious groups are not just wrong, they are dangerous. They expressed concern at how talks in state schools, promoted and guided by religious groups under the heading of ‘values programs’, are being held after hours when the final bell has gone at the close of a school day. Concern was also expressed about the current New Zealand government’s proposed model for charter schools. Both these examples were presented as threats to a well-functioning secular society.

It is at this point I wish to discuss step two, that is how the film “What the bleep do we know!?” and the talks “Moving Toward a Secular Society” are the same.

The view I offer here owes its epistemological base to sociology. We live inside a post-enlightenment world. Sociology is very much a discipline or body of knowledge that exists because of this feature of modern Western societies and cultures. Capitalism and fundamentalism are both symptoms and defining features of our social fabric. I think, at least for now, we can’t imagine ourselves living inside a social and political space that is not informed by capitalism. Non-capitalist economies are seen as failures. There was a time before capitalism; now that past seems deeply foreign. In a similar way I argue that fundamentalism can’t be banished either, it has become part of who we are as post-enlightenment societies.

We criticize fundamentalism and those who promote it, we plan for its banishment, secular theorists view fundamentalism as a throw-back, a lingering pre-enlightenment world-view, and yet I think these theorists may suffer from a blind-spot.  At this point in time I can’t imagine being in a non-capitalist society, not because I love and support capitalism (it is for me a virus), I just can’t imagine what a society organized differently would look like. In a similar way I think fundamentalism in all sorts of areas of life is very much with us, again not because I support its style and outlook (as with capitalism, for me it is a virus), but I just don’t easily see how it can be banished.

What forms the basis for my claim? Why do I think it has begun to infect the secular movement? Being right, or absolutism, is for me the tell-tale sign one stands before fundamentalism. When we encounter it, that is when a part of who we are is looking back at us.

At the talks “Moving Toward a Secular Society” I asked the question – “I know, in the world of politics, what fundamentalist politics looks like; I know, in the world of religion, what fundamentalist religion looks like; so, if I am to see fundamentalist secularism, what would it look like? Sean Faircloth answered the question saying fundamentalist secularism is an oxymoron – it just can’t happen.

I am not firmly wedded to my current view, but Sean Faircloth’s answer, and indeed the Richard Dawkins Foundation, points to how fundamentalist secularism is not an oxymoron nor is it an impossibility. It is not about who is right; rather it is about watching, listening, paying attention to what is said and done.

Political groups and religious movements see fundamentalism as a threat. They tell themselves, inside their localized discourses, fundamentalism can be resisted and removed. I speculate they are puzzled as why this approach to life – fundamentalism, ever arrived inside our modernity anyway. Fundamentalism does seem to be new and not the continuation of an older view. This bewilderment about fundamentalism’s arrival is a clue to why it has been able to expand. Confusion and the belief this is about them and not about us has allowed this outlook to grow.  Fundamentalism is a window into us, our philosophies, our world views, and our arguments. I am not saying fundamentalism is right; I am saying to gaze into what it claims is to experience ourselves looking back at ourselves.

Fundamentalism has the feature of being confident in its core beliefs: it ‘knows it is right’. Dogma is central to the ‘style’ that is fundamentalism. The speakers at the talks on “Moving Toward a Secular Society” were very concerned about the indoctrination of the young, as well as the way religion and religious groups promote this ‘being sure we are right’. What I did not hear was the insight that such certitude inside the ranks of the secular movement should ring warning bells for those interested in the promotion of secular thought.

I choose to be very careful in what is being claimed here, I am not antisecular, far from it. I value a great deal what it offers, but recent modelling of secular debate suggests fundamentalist secularism is operating. The talks offered by Sean Faircloth and others are worth thinking about.

REFERENCES:

Arntz, W., Chasse, B., & Vicente, M. (2004). What the Bleep Do We Know!? [Marlee Matlin as Amanda; Elaine Hendrix as Jennifer; Barry Newman as Frank; Robert Bailey, Jr. as Reggie; John Ross Bowie as Elliot; Armin Shimerman as Man; Robert Blanche as Bob]. Roadside Attractions (109 minutes).

Faircloth, S., Harrison, P., & Armstrong, D. (2013, 12/04). Moving Toward a Secular Society. In Sean Faircloth Tour [Guest speaker: Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science]. Government Building Lecture Theatre, Pipitea Campus, Victoria University of Wellington: New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists.

Gorenfeld, J. (2004, 17/09). “Bleep” of faith [Film review]. In http://www.salon.com. Salon(Online Story). Retrieved 13 April, 2013, from http://www.salon.com/2004/09/16/bleep_2/

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology [A revision of the Gifford Lectures he gave in 1927-28.]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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5 thoughts on “Viruses feel like unwelcome visitors, but sometimes they are much more.

  1. It seems to me that a core issue here is certainty. I think that Fundamentalism is a meme of certainty. It claims that it knows, and what it knows is right. Secularism, for example, preaches certainty through reasoned thinking and scientific methodology. On the other hand, ‘What the Bleep’ preaches mutability and uncertainty. According to ‘What the Bleep’ there have been discoveries in quantum mechanics that raise questions regarding how much of the universe is in an empirical and definable state. The provocative stance the movie raises is that we live in a world of possibilities and we choose the outcome. It suggests our reality is multi-layered and in a state of flux; mutable pocket universes remolding themselves according to the perceptions of the observer. I don’t think Fundamentalism is new. I think there is a growing cognitive dissonance in society, and that dissonance is the war between certainty and mutability. Now that the pendulum has swung to certainty there is a move on the part of some to embrace mutability. The more we embrace mutability, the stronger the swing of the pendulum back to certainty. Could we be hardwired to live such a binary, dualistic dissonance?

  2. A Freudian slip? In your first paragraph you state that “Both [the video and the talks] were proud to lay claim to scientific WORD-views.” (Emphasis mine.) It reminded me immediately of Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” (English Standard Version (©2001))

    • I know this poster, a very good friend of mine. To keep good humour in the air as it were I point out, your references to biblical texts could position you poorly in the worldviews of other readers. Of course that is why I support your post, I know all too well, the stereo-types need challenging!

      Is my next comment also best lensed through Freud? Your choice of the biblical text “what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” brings up in my mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s words, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

      The riddle now is, do I go into my post and correct the spelling error, or leave it there so as to allow your post to remain understandable? In keeping with my post, “I am not certain.”

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