So what's it all about?
The Sunday Times, 8th May 2005.
film explaining spirituality through quantum physics has
caught the attention of the stars, but fashionable doesn’t
says Bryan Appleyard
Ever since the Beatles adopted, dumped and finally, in
their song Sexy Sadie, abused the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,
celebrity spirituality has been a rocky and exotic road. The
basic setup is, of course, familiar: famous person with lots
of money is stricken by doubt and uncertainty. What, he or she
wonders, is it all about? Along comes an Indian guru, for the
Fab Four, kabbalah, for Madonna, or Scientology, for Tom
Cruise, and all is revealed.
There are two crucial features of this process. The first
is the spiritual emptiness that accompanies fame; second, the
exoticism of the chosen form of salvation. Cliff Richard
became a mainstream Christian; Bob Dylan, for a while, a
born-again American Protestant. But these revelations now seem
desperately unhip. Mere bog-standard Christianity would not do
for the likes of Madonna. It would be like buying jeans at
Which brings me to What the Bleep Do We Know?, an indie
American documentary that opened in one cinema in Washington
State a year ago, and has become spirituality’s latest fashion
moment. It was in the top 25 of the US film charts for 14
weeks. It forms part of a new spiritual wave in Hollywood. A
Spiritual Cinema Circle has been formed by, among others,
Bruce Joel Rubin, writer of Ghost and Deep Impact, Stephen
Simon, director of Indigo, who is now filming The Celestine
Prophecy, and Mark Vicente, co-director of What the Bleep?
Of course, celebs are not alone in wanting something more,
and the Circle is said to have 60,000 members. You join at http://www.thespiritualcinemacircle.com/,
which has a handy check list of the sort of thing that is
currently meant by spirituality: “Life after life; enhanced
powers and sensibilities; reality and time; the magic of
spiritual family; the power of love; visionary romance and
The terms are vague, but, plainly, they don’t just mean: go
to church on Sundays. Rather, they imply that the seeking of
an alternative, transcendent reality, whatever it might be, is
intrinsically a good thing. Spiritually speaking, it’s a case
of whatever floats your boat.
And what is intended to float your boat in What the Bleep?
is weird science. A strange melange of interviews, narrative
and visual effects, it is based on the premise that what is
now happening in cutting-edge science has the power to start a
It has certainly stirred up the celebs. Madonna is onto it,
as is, weirdly, Stephen Hawking. Drew Barrymore less than
lucidly declared: “You know when you get so excited, because
someone has expressed something that you haven’t been able to
put into words? That’s how I felt about this film. The way it
explains how the universe works, or the science of things, or
God. Most of all, I was amazed that it spoke so much about
perception. That everything exists purely in our perception is
such a crazy, druggie, interesting,
intimidating-yet-setting-you-free kind of thought.”
According to its website, What the Bleep? offers “an
expansive view and provides hope, a stairway leading out of
and above the din, and true freedom”.
Essentially, the film makes three points. First, quantum
mechanics — the science of the very small — proves that
reality is not the soulless machine of classical science.
Rather, it is a teeming world of possibilities and
indeterminacy that proves we can be reborn and saved from the
current narrowness of our existence. Second, cognitive science
is proving something similar with its insight that we don’t
live in a given world, but rather create our own. And third,
molecular biology, combined with brain chemistry, suggests
that we may be able to remake our own bodies as centres of
The first point is nonsense. There is no way our big lives
can be remade along the lines of little electrons or photons.
The second point is right, but, if seriously pursued as
therapy on a large scale, could lead to widespread insanity.
The third point is dubious in the extreme. I initially took
the man who advances this idea in the film to be a physicist
who had suffered a nervous breakdown, but he is, in fact, a
chiropractor. In short, the film is as wrong-headed as it is
tedious to watch. However, to regard it as a cultural and
fashionable phenomenon is very interesting indeed.
Science has conventionally been regarded as the enemy of
religion and spirituality. And so, to a large extent, it is.
Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary scientist, never misses a
chance to trash religion, and most of the claims of the church
about the physical world have, over the past 400 years, been
disproved. But the science, particularly the physics, of the
past 100 years has grown progressively more strange. As a
result, the spiritually inclined have seized on these
developments as raising the possibility that science may
actually perform a U-turn and come out on the side of the
It might happen, but why do we want it to? We all get what
Freud called the “oceanic” feeling — a sense that we are
connected to something much vaster than our own little world,
that another reality lies just beyond the one in which we
live, a “third realm” of knowledge to which we have denied
ourselves access. In the past, this has expressed itself
through what we now call conventional religion; now it is
expressed through countless cults, crazes and alternative
These exotic spiritualities attract popularity because they
are different enough to be fashionable and because, compared
with the rigours of religious observances, they are cost-free.
You don’t actually have to do much to feel all dreamy and
significant about quantum theory or cognitive science — and
the Beatles seemed to do little more than chill out when they
hung with the Maharishi.
The big picture, however, is that to be human is to suspect
that there is, indeed, a higher reality, and that the world is
not as obvious and banal as it appears to be. No human society
has been without religion and none ever will be. You don’t
need to stray into the exotic to understand this, you just
have to read our “traditional” philosophy and literature, from
Plato onwards. This may sound like hard work — but, believe
me, it’s nothing compared with getting through the last
mind-bendingly wrong-headed 29 minutes of What the Bleep?
What the Bleep Do We Know About Anything? opens on May