Vic Stenger

The film Mindwalk, now showing in major theaters, has gotten mixed reviews. Some have seen it as providing an important message for humanity. Others view it as a pretentious bore.
In the film, an American politician, played by Sam Waterston, comes to France after losing his bid to be President. There he and his friend, an expatriate poet played by John Heard, wander into the spectacular fortress of Mont St. Michel in the English Channel. Soon they meet a physicist, played by Liv Ullman, and for the rest of the film they roam around the fortress slack-jawed with amazement at the profound ideas she pours forth: the world is in trouble from overpopulation and pollution; Americans eat too much red meat. Wow! The presidential candidate had not heard about this before!

The problem, according to Ullman, is a crisis in perspective. Humanity still follows the mechanistic reductionism of Descartes and Newton, viewing the world as being like the old clock in the fortress tower. However, a new, holistic physics called systems theory, in which the universe is seen as one interconnected whole, has now supposedly overthrown reductionism. If humanity will only adopt this revolutionary perspective and realize that we are all one with each other, the earth, and the cosmos, then the planet will be saved from self-destruction. What a magnificent thought, the politician gushes. Why don't you come back to the U.S. with me, Professor, and work on my staff? Let's put these new ideas to work for humanity.

Mindwalk was written by physicist Fritjov Capra and directed by his brother Bernt. It is based on Fritjov Capra's book The Turning Point, published in 1982 and to some extent on his earlier book The Tao of Physics, published in 1975. I have discussed Capra's ideas in some detail in my own book, Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (1990).

Capra gives a false impression of the current state of physics. First, physics a long time ago moved away from the mechanistic perspective of Descartes and Newton. The notion that the world is a machine was greatly modified early in this century with the development of quantum mechanics; no physicist today thinks the universe is simply an unwinding clock. Still, quantum mechanics, Einstein's relativity, and all of modern physics remain solidly reductionist in perspective. Even the systems theory that Capra promotes is based on a framework of reductionist physics.

Capra's most far-reaching idea in The Turning Point is left out of Mindwalk. In The Turning Point, Capra suggests that all material systems, from humans to animals, plants, the earth, and the cosmos itself, are part of one gigantic mind. Holistic physics provides him with a paradigm for a cosmic consciousness. We are all one with the cosmos, speaking to each others' minds with ESP, able to break down the barriers of space and time and the laws of physics. We can achieve anything, perform miracles, if we just think we can.

This is, of course, New Age religion. It is barely hinted at when Ullman is asked to explain life. She says, "Life is self-organization." Poet Heard is so overwhelmed by this deep concept that he flops down in the sand, repeating the line over and over: "Life is self-organization." Since by that time half the audience is asleep, perhaps Capra hoped they would get the message subliminally.
But, thank goodness, common sense continues to reign. The three teenagers who sat in front of me in the theater (they were probably forced to go see the film by their teacher) were not convinced. They squiggled and squirmed the whole time, in obvious agony. I suppose there is a holistic message in this. They hated the whole movie. They didn't like a single part.