"The Secret" - Rhonda Byrne and Drew Heriot (2006)

The Australian documentary film, The Secret, is concerned with self-fulfilment, but the degree to which it reflects the current disturbing drift of our Western culture may be more significant than its explicit subject material. Its full production credits say that it is produced by Rhonda Byrne and Paul Harrington, directed by Drew Heriot, Sean Byrne, Marc Goldenfein, and Damian McLindon, and written by Rhonda Byrne and Hayley Byrne. Although the film can be categorised as a documentary film, it belongs more specifically in the category of self-help and new-age media offerings. Basically, it consists of a series of interviews, occasionally interspersed with a few diagrams, that describe the pseudo-scientific “Law of Attraction”, which has supposedly been secretly understood by various spiritual messengers over the ages and is finally being revealed to the wider world by means of this film. The “Law of Attraction” is simple and basically comes down to this: if you want something, all you have to do is visualize it and believe that you will get it; and then it will come to you automatically. That’s it. You can consult Wikipedia pages on The Secret and the “Law of Attraction”, but you will only get an elaboration on what I have just stated.

From this description you may wonder why I would cover it at all, but there are a few aspects to this particular film that make it stand out and be worthy of further consideration. First of all the film is professionally photographed and, though relentlessly “talky”, has satisfactory production values. In addition, it features a number of well-known or reasonably professional witnesses who supply their testimony (and are presumed to endorse the “Law of Attraction”), including:
  • Jack Canfield, a self-motivation speaker and author well-known for his Chicken Soup for the Soul;
  • John Hagelin, a high-energy physicist with a PhD from Harvard, who has published in the professional physics literature, but who has become interested in consciousness;
  • Fred Alan Wolf, another high-energy physicist (PhD from UCLA), who has been a resident scientist for the Discovery Channel and who, like Hagelin, is fascinated with a possible connection between quantum phenomena and consciousness.
These elements perhaps give the film a certain seductive cachet that adds to the persuasiveness of the message and that has helped generate an enthusiastic reception on the part of many viewers.

Examining the Internet Movie Database Web site (IMDB – http://www.imdb.com), it can be seen that a strikingly high percentage, 34%, of the user ratings are at the highest level of 10. Compare this, for example, to the 10-level ratings of recent films that I would consider to be among the best, Chicago (19%), The Constant Gardiner (16%), Babel (17%), and The Curse of the Golden Flower (13%). Certainly, The Secret has generated a positive response of unprecedented degree. However, note that another 26% of the user ratings are at the lowest possible value, 1, and this degree of dismissal is also highly unusual for the IMDB site: either people love it, or they loathe it. This partitioning into two camps, though, isn’t just a matter of aesthetic taste, which would normally generate a smoother variation between love and hate responses. No, it’s a situation where some people are “buying in” to the film’s message, and others are rejecting it as utter nonsense and charlatanry. For many people it’s not a matter of pretty or not pretty; it’s a case of correct or incorrect.

If you haven’t seen this film and you are a bit cynical, you might wonder why they don’t apply the “Law of Attraction” to finding beautiful girls or to getting rich. In fact, the lecturers in the film do talk about these subjects at length. They tell you that their approach is a sure-fire way to score with members of the opposite sex, and you can also acquire enough money to buy a big house with a swimming pool. You might imagine that this level of materialism would be a turn-off and drive away anyone with a sound mind, but it apparently doesn’t. For many weeks, the book version of this film was the #1 seller on Amazon.com.

The intriguing thing for me about The Secret, though, is not so much whether it is right or wrong (and make no mistake, it is profoundly wrong), but the clear-cut way that it reveals the failure of our educational system, and ultimately of our culture, to understand what is true. We know that all cultures have many stories or theories about the world that are offered to help guide people towards the “true”, and ultimately towards a satisfactory life situation. Some of these stories are mystical or religiously based and cannot be demonstrated as “factual”, but for various reasons we may decide to believe in these theories anyway and feel that they are superior to other, competing theories about the world. But Western culture, particularly during the last four hundred years or so, has developed systems of scientific explanation that can be repeatedly demonstrated by empirical confirmation. This scientific and technical culture has enabled Western societies to build tall buildings, jet planes, and telecommunications systems. But it has not been able to provide empirically testable models that cover all aspects of the world in which we live, and so consciousness, mind, and many other realms of human life lie outside the scope of our scientific model-building. For these other areas of life, we, whether scientists or not, must form our beliefs based on other cultural models that are not completely scientific. Thus we may believe that a god created the universe, even though this cannot be demonstrated scientifically.

Now a key characteristic of our scientific models is its “mechanical” nature – mechanical in the sense of following strict, logical rules, like a machine. These rules are what make the predictability of the models reproducible in various circumstances. Unfortunately though, although many people in our society have been exposed to and have memorised some of these scientific models, they have not been taught or have understood the nature of scientific thinking in general. As a consequence, these people may prize bogus mechanical models without considering their falsifiability and potential for empirical validation.

And this is this precisely where The Secret is not only wrong, but is actually pernicious. It presents its simplistic model, the “Law of Attraction”, as a “scientific” model and insists that its secret is not something associated with mystical or religious belief, but is provably correct. It then goes on to show interviews with quantum physicists and various “philosophers” in order to put a stamp of authority, supposedly scientific authority, on the message. And this is why people who have a some superficial, schoolbook familiarity with science may be more susceptible to The Secret's falsehoods than others.

But couldn’t I be more generous and just dismiss The Secret as harmless nonsense? After all, don’t we delight in telling our children that there is a Santa Claus who will bring them presents every Christmas? Well, the Santa Claus story is not told to adults and is not presented as a scientifically correct model on which to base life decisions. Furthermore, we gradually instruct our children to appreciate the “Christmas spirit”, rather than to focus on selfish and materialistic gains. OK, what about of being positive, of believing in yourself, like Rocky, that discipline and perseverance will pay off? Shouldn’t we permit this film to let us dream a little and say “yes, we can”? No, not when it makes false promises designed to feed greed and avarice and makes unsubstantiated claims that these promises have a scientific backing. If you want to say, “yes, we can”, you need a sound pathway to follow in order to accomplish what you want. I do in fact believe that human mental states associated with love, meditation, and positive thinking can have a real tangible and beneficial effect on our surroundings. But there are at present no empirically reproducible findings (despite claims of qigong practitioners) that establish a sound scientific model in this area. And Sufism, Buddhism, and other spiritual practices and belief systems that can potentially guide us in a positive way are infinitely more sophisticated than the mindless candy of the “Law of Attraction”.

Moreover, The Secret is almost a distillation of why it is misleading to lump many of philosophical belief systems into the single term of “religion”. Here’s why. Throughout human history there have appeared enlightened masters or prophets who have had great insight into the nature of human existence who have attracted devoted disciples. The teachings of these masters are so profound that they are not easily (perhaps not even possibly) expressible in terms of the linguistic categories of our spoken and written languages (which are always founded on down-to-earth human interactions). But despite the inherent difficulties, the attempt is invariably made to document those teachings into a canon, and they wind up being expressed as rules, precepts, and warnings, which over the years lose all contact with the contexts in which they were originally uttered. Thus yet another religion is established that comprises another collection of mechanical rules that have lost the original profound insights of the master. Some of these established religions promise their followers that if they follow the mechanical rules carefully, they will be rewarded in heaven with various materialistic pleasures and beautiful companions. These mechanical, rule-based religions are just a set of behavioural rules, with no real connection to a spiritual foundation and hence somewhat arbitrary, yet these same religions stubbornly assert their preeminence and accommodate no modification once they are solidified. We have a term for the practice of blindly following arbitrary rules based on custom – “superstition”, and we distinguish this from true religion. I argue that the insights of the original enlightened masters, passed on from master to disciple, are what constitute true religion, and that the mechanical, rule-based religions that have followed in their wake are of a fundamentally different nature and are primarily superstitious.

One of the great virtues of the rise of Western science has been the procedures that it has established for empirical validation of new models and theories. Wherever a set of beliefs wanders into the realm of empirical verification, it can be put to the test and, if not confirmed, can be dismissed as false or superstitious. This has enabled scientists to toss astrology into the dustbin, because its predictions are empirically false. Moreover, those belief systems that make unfalsifiable predictions can be dismissed as useless, too – psychoanalysis is a notorious example of this from our cultural past. But, unfortunately, we have a problem in our attempts to provide a common, mass education to our citizens. We are only teaching them to memorize rule-based systems, and not concentrating on the nature of empirical verification and falsifiability. As alarming proof of this, there are studies showing that over 50% of US PhD holders actually believe in astrology.

But there is nothing quite so blatantly wrong-headed as the “Law of Attraction”. This is presented as a scientific theory and supposedly endorsed by quantum physicists. Instead of doing what traditional religions do by taking the profound insights of an enlightened master and reducing them to a banal set of rules, The Secret, with its “Law of Attraction”, dispenses with the religious authority altogether and directly claims to rely on scientific authority. But it doesn’t rely on science, because it can’t. It gives you a simplistic, unfalsifiable rule (unfalsifiable, because if you don’t get what you wanted, you didn’t visualise and believe hard enough) and presents this as hard science. The fact that many college-educated people fall for this absurdity is not only disappointing but also offers a pointer to something profoundly wrong with our educational system and our culture. With a citizenry so ill-equipped to spot fraudulent reasoning, our culture could easily be susceptible to accepting arguments advocating torture and preemptive military strikes on innocent people.


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