Existential Detectives and Bad Religion

I ♥ Huckabees,” the new movie from David O. Russell, features Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman as “Jaffe & Jaffe, Existential Investigators.” (I’m always pleased to see my family name in lights.) Not a deeply philosophical movie, but entertaining and intelligent enough. Smarter than, say, this commentary from last weekend’s Guardian by Mike Purton, “Physics and metaphysics”:

A series of scientific experiments in the early 1980s changed forever our understanding of the nature of matter. It is likely that it will also prove to have been the greatest religious discovery of the 20th century.

Physicists call it entanglement, and it describes the state of two or more particles once they have interacted with one another. From then on, irrespective of time and space, a correlation will always exist between them. What happens to one will affect the other – even if they are now at opposite ends of the universe….

We are then reminded that it is this same matter which is both the physical manifestation of spirit and the means to redemptive action. This being so, then the correlation of all matter must also apply to all spirit. Our separateness is an illusion; the reality is an indivisible unity….

With new insights through a religion no longer dependent on blind trust, but grounded instead in knowledge, we are offered a higher purpose. Rather than seeing ourselves as separate individuals, we realise that we are aspects of a beautiful and indivisible whole.

This seems to me a fine sentiment, and could perhaps even lead us into moral action. But it’s got nothing to do with physics, and certainly doesn’t offer “a religion… grounded… in knowledge”. We can choose to use ideas from science as metaphors for the conduct of human life, as was done with Newton’s clockwork universe, with Einstein’s relativity, with Darwin’s natural selection (to sometimes horrible effect), and with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. But really, the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics doesn’t mean that you can’t observe something without changing it, not in the macroscopic world of human-sized objects. Similarly, entanglement, a related idea from quantum theory, doesn’t have anything to say about spirit, about humanity, about the kinds of connections that we have with our fellow-beings. Those are up to us to forge, to recognize, and to ignore at our peril.