David Bohm’s Perspective
The human heart aches for wholeness. Perhaps wholeness is what the search for being is all about. It was physicist, David Bohm, who through his books taught me what wholeness is all about. The physicist tells us, the theories of relativity and quantum theory have changed the way we look at the world. With classical physics the world was thought to be composed of constituent parts. What relativity and quantum theory did was give us a view of the world as undivided wholeness where the observer and what was observed are no longer considered as existing separately from each other. The insight we get from quantum theory is that objects can’t be considered as separate and independent from experimental conditions. Thus an electron can manifest the property of a wave or a particle depending on the total situation that exists. When the total context of the process changes new modes of manifestation are possible. It’s the total situation that determines what is manifested. “Because of its atomic structure,” the physicist added, “no object can have a sharp boundry.” It is the idea of pattern, he tells us, which is relevant and that experimental conditions or an object are aspects of the pattern being described.
Our universe is seen as an excitation pattern in a sea of energy. Thus our concept of what matter is has changed. Now matter and energy are seen as sometimes behaving like a particle, sometimes like a wave depending on the context of the environment. With quantum theory, Bohm said, the idea of an “actual and individual object is replaced by a potential and statistical object.” Quantum theory has upset our notions of strict determinism replacing it with the idea laws are only determined statistically. These laws can’t tell us exactly what is going to happen. Quantum theory describes a world where there is non-continuity, non-causality, and non-locality.
Relativity theory also paints a picture of the world as a flux of events and processes. Instead of particles out of which stuff is made, relativity theory shows entities that are more like a pattern of movement. The mathematics underlying it, said Bohm, shows a movement “in which everything, any particular element of space may have a field which unfolds into the whole.” While we can abstract constant patterns from this field of movement, these patterns merge with all other patterns we also might abstract. Einstein’s insight was that the universe was like a field, an unbroken undivided whole with particles as an abstraction from the field, “localized regions in which field is intense.” Hence particles were seen as an abstraction that merge and interpenetrate. Thus with relativity theory the idea that the world consists of “distinct but interacting parts,” is no longer relevant, said Bohm. The universe since quantum theory and relativity theory must be regarded “as an undivided and unbroken whole.” What is primary, the physicist tells us, is the idea of unbroken and undivided movement. “Relativity implies neither point particles nor quasi-rigid body can be taken as primary concepts,” Bohm said. Rather now primary concepts “have to be expressed in terms of events and processes.”
The very notions of ourselves has been changed, according to Bohm, with the self seen as an abstraction from a whole movement “which thus has only a certain relative similarity or constancy of form and pattern of behavior.” “Food, water, air and other things are continuously exchanged between body and its environment through the surfaces of membranes.” He explains the movement of electrons, protons and neutrons under certain conditions create and maintain structure while under different conditions dissolve it. “There is nothing known,” says Bohm, “that does not ultimately dissolve into movement in this way.”
Until quantum theory and relativity theory an idea of order based on the Cartesian grid in which points independently exist in space had resulted in coherent activity and served us fairly well. But Cartesian coordinates, said Bohm, are “appropriate only in a context in which analysis into distinct and autonomous parts is relevant.” This order is a certain aspect of our sense perception and experience, but quantum theory and relativity theory suggest it is a suborder of another order which enfolds it. Bohm calls this other order which the mathematics of quantum theory and relativity theory suggest to him, the implicate order. He explains how everything is related to everything else, the idea of undivided wholeness, by using the notion of the implicate order. Bohm sees our universe as an enfolded or implicate order, as folded inwardly with “everything folded into everything.” “A total order,” he elaborates, “is contained, in some implicit sense, in each region of space and time.” Thus the new order couldn’t be understood in terms of Cartesian coordinates, as in classical physics, - “in terms of a regular arrangement of objects (e.g., in rows) or as a regular arrangement of events (e.g. in a series).” The word implicit describes something different. It comes from the verb “to implicate” which means “to fold inward.” When we talk of an implicit or implicate order we are talking of regions that have “a total structure ‘enfolded’ within it.” To understand what Bohm means by the implicate order we can’t think in terms of Aristotelian logic where A is not equal to B. That logic holds in certain contexts but not when discussing the whole. In the implicate order, Bohm explains, A is equal to B is equal to C is equal to D. In the implicate order there is only transformation.
To help us to understand this Bohm gives us the example of a television broadcast where a visual image is carried by a radio wave. With the metaphor of a radio wave we can get some sense of the implicate order as different from an order based on Cartesian coordinates, get some sense of an order of undivided wholeness. You can’t use Cartesian order to describe the visual image that is carried by a radio signal because a radio wave carries the visual image in an implicate order or undivided wholeness. We can think of the visual image being carried by the radio wave as enfolded in the radio wave and then as being unfolded by a receiver “in the form of a new visual image.”
In the radio wave “the context or meaning that is enfolded or carried is primarily an order and measure permitting the development of a structure,” says Bohm. That structure with a radio wave could be a verbal communication or a visual image. The order of the whole is what is transmitted in the signal that modulates a radio wave. “Such an order and measure can be ‘enfolded’ and ‘carried’ not only in electromagnetic waves but also in other ways (by electron beams, sound, and other countless forms of movement),”Bohm said. Bohm uses the word “holomovement” to describe the undivided wholeness being carried. What the holomovement is, said Bohm, is unspecifiable. We might abstract aspects of it – light, electrons, sound – but in general it is an “unbroken and undivided totality.” It has no particular order or particular measure. It is “undefinable and immeasurable.” We can only abstract aspects of the holomovement in particular contexts, in some measure. We can lift up certain relevant aspects by fixing our attention on them so that particular aspects stand out from the whole. Our perception becomes aware of certain aspects that stand out against the backround that is holomovement. Each aspect can only really be understood in the context of its broader meaning. What we become aware of, says Bohm, “is a kind of intersection between two orders” – the order of some whole movement, the implicate order, and the order of movement of the aspect that we make relevant by attending to it, which Bohm calls the explicate order. One is reminded here of Buber’s saying I-Thou or being happens “in-the-between”.
The implicate order of what is enfolded in undivided wholeness cannot be analyzed into separate and autonomous parts, cannot be described in terms of a Cartesian grid. It can only be unfolded by focusing our attention on some aspect of it. Thus in the radio signal, the total structure of the verbal communication and visual image is present, the implicate order, not in an ordered and measured arrangement that exists as separate aspects, but as a whole implicate order or order of movement. “In the implicate order everything is thus internally related to everything.” Everything contains everything and only when unfolded, in this case by a receiver, are things separated out. The new verbal communication and visual image that is unfolded does not exist autonomously or separate from the implicate order of the radio signal from which it came. We cannot talk of things that are separate and autonomous, rather in the implicate order, in the radio signal, “everything implicates everything.” In any moment the whole implicate order is there. Bohm emphasizes the “total order is contained in some implicit sense in each region of space and time.” What Bohm is saying is every aspect of our world comes out of a more comprehensive implicate order “in which all aspects ultimately merge in the undefinable and immeasurable holomovement.”
The idea Bohm is getting across is of a world that is one. He is challenging us to think in new ways with his new idea of the implicate order, saying it is the implicate order that is primary, not the explicate order, not the separate things of sense perception that unfold from the implicate order which we have taken as primary.
In the holomovement every part enfolds every other part, and each part can emerge from the other as a relatively independent, autonomous, and stable sub-whole. Recent developments in physics point to the mental as well as the physical as different aspects of one reality. Nothing is really a “law unto itself,” said Bohm. It might exhibit “a relative and limited degree of autonomy, under certain conditions and in certain degrees of approximation,” however, this relative autonomy is always further limited by the law of the whole. Any aspect of the whole we study is ultimately related to others we may at first think has no bearing on what we are attending to, what interests us. But although the parts may exist autonomously in the explicate order, the unfolded order, they can only be really understood as parts of a greater whole, the implicate order.
What our fragmentary world views lack is this idea of wholeness as the primary reality, believes Bohm. The notion of wholeness means every part is dependent on every other part. The Buddhist call it dependent arising. We can divide things up when it is useful to us, but division into parts is always abstracted, lifted, from the whole. The whole is the concrete reality.
Bohm contends we can apply the idea of the holomovement to a wide range of our problems. It can show us how to approach ourselves as well as our world because thought and language and feeling and action and consciousness all form an implicate order. For example, every aspect of our mind unfolds every other aspect of the mind, transforms into another. Each aspect of our mind has enfolded in it the other which can unfold from it. Our mind is an unbroken whole with everything enfolded in everything else, not separate elements, not separate functions, but a whole, an unbroken movement. Thoughts, perceptions, feelings, urges, actions, Bohm stresses, are one whole movement, each aspect arising mechanically out of the other. So feelings, actions, and urges, for instance, can arise from thought. Or thought, actions, and urges can arise from feeling. Or thought, feelings, and urges can arise from action. Or thought, feeling, and actions can arise from urges. It’s all one movement. He gives the example of the thought – these people are inferior.
When we think – these people are inferior, we see them as inferior; we treat them as inferior; we have negative feelings about them. Feelings, actions and urges are a function of our thought. You can see this in yourself. The next time you think something, watch the feelings that arise from that thought. Become aware of the thought behind your actions. The next time you feel something, become aware of the thought that arises from that feeling. Become aware of the action that flows from that. The next time you do something, become aware of the thoughts that arise from your actions. Become aware of the feelings that flow from that. It’s all one flowing movement. It’s automatic. It’s mechanical. There are no separate elements, only what we are attending to – all there really is is this constant stream of transformation.
Our creative intelligence can help us to see this. It operates in dialogue with ourselves or others. The problem is our thought is mechanical. Automatic. It operates like a reflex, one thought automatically unfolding another. Our thought, our presuppositions can be a barrier to the free flow of stream, of flux. Each perspective in this book is of the nature of fixed thought. Each a construction, an abstraction, lifted out of holomovement, of the whole. Thought, each perspective, can capture enough of the holomovement to guide our action, but partiality works only part of the time, under certain conditions, in certain contexts. We can never have a complete idea of reality, of stream, of holomovement, of the whole, contends Bohm. We can never achieve truth, but only try to move in that direction. Stream can’t be captured in a fixed concept.
The implicate order cannot be grasped, but it can be unfolded. Bohm tells us, “if any pattern of movement is established and starts to become repetitive that is a kind of disharmony.” One thinks of Karen Horney’s neurotic trends here. Fixed thoughts can create disharmony. Movement moves according to his theory when “something unfolds and has significance and as a result something else unfolds.” Creativity is inherent in this movement, said Bohm. Rigidity, fixed assumptions, fixed thought, is antithetical to creativity, to the natural flow, free play of the mind. The mind works best in a state of undivided wholeness. It’s when we hold rigidly to our thought and try to impose our fixed thought in new contexts where it doesn’t apply that we run into trouble. A person does evil, said Bohm, when he doesn’t realize how his thought is programming him to act in the way he does. Even in defining things, our definitions can get in the way of seeing what’s there. We have a definition for “nation”, for instance, that causes a fragmentary way of perceiving, of experiencing, of acting, that is the souce of our problems. Our definitions can keep us from awareness of the world as an unbroken whole.
We engage in fragmentary thinking as individuals. We engage in fragmentary thinking as a society. And this fragmentation leads to confusion and keeps us from solving our problems. We can’t solve our ecological problems, for instance, without seeing the world as an unbroken whole. We fragment reality when we look at things as separately existent by separating them from the broader context, in which they originate, are sustained, dissolve. Fragmentation is the result of imposing “divisions in an arbitrary fashion without regard to the wider context, ignoring essential connections to the rest of the world.” Our essential illness, concludes Bohm, is our feeling of fragmentation of our existence. Only creative intelligence can remedy this. Not reflexive thought. Not our preconceptions. Not our frozen categories. No program has ever been devised, said Bohm, to handle the stream of all eventualities. Thought introduces differences and distinctions through a process of categorization. The movement of what is is organized by categories, our way of thinking or representing things. One thinks of what Loewald had to say about the importance of organization here. These thinking and distinctions are a way of looking, guiding perception. It doesn’t mean substances and entities actually exist separately, rather this is how we think about them. Things stand out in perception because of thought. Yet there are no dividing lines in reality, no consistent independent entities. It was the philosopher Kant who first pointed out how our experience is shaped by our categories of thought, how we see the world through our categories of thought. Thus thought shapes our perception.
Thinking, Bohm said, is different than thought. Thinking is a movement or activity of the bodily self, the body as information, the body as meaning. It involves electrical and chemical and muscular changes. Fixed thought doesn’t belong to any particular person or place or time or group of people. Your thought is partly a product of your culture, your family, your environment, the past, the thought of countless dead. Bohm compared thought to a program on a computer. Your thought is the program that determines what you feel, what you do. Hence we need to pay attention to it, to see how it unfolds feelings, unfolds actions. We need to see if it is correct, if it is consistent, on the mark. When we look at our thought as a program, we can begin to change our lives. It’s only when we become aware of these programs that they begin to change. That fixed thought changes.
What Bohm is asking us to do is to become aware of thought as a way of looking rather than a true copy of reality. We need to begin to see our world views, as perspectives that fit reality in a limited way. Our theories, our perspectives, our ways of looking can be clear and fruitful in some domains and unclear and unfruitful in others. They give us a way to look at our world, not knowledge of it. Our world views need to change when what we learn and observe calls for change. “To limit our world views by regarding them as absolute truth or as stages of a steady approach to such truth evidently interferes with their proper function, for this tends to prevent the consideration of fundamentally different notions that may be needed to fit new observations and experiences,” said Bohm. Our world views only organize an ever-changing knowledge and experience in coherent ways. Knowledge from experience makes up the core of our reactive thought, our habitual reactions that constitute the fixed features of our mind or our perception. Reactive, automatic, fixed thought isn’t all bad, without it we would have to reflect on every step we take. What is bad is when we take our thought for reality as it is, said Bohm.
The antidote to our reflexive thought, our conditioning, our preconceptions is dialogue. We can have a dialogue with ourselves or others. In dialogue no point of view can be allowed to escape scrutiny. No point of view can be dismissed out of hand. Dialogue gives us a way to look at our thoughts. Others can help us to do that as we help them to look at their thoughts. We engage in dialogue when a spirit of good will and friendship prevails. It is incompatible, said Bohm, with competitiveness, aggressiveness, or contentiousness. Dialogue can’t exist in an atmosphere where we struggle to have our ideas dominate.
In dialogue people suspend their thoughts, their preconceptions, and think together. Thought can get stuck. Thinking anew can get it moving again. This movement occurs when we hold many points of view in suspension and focus our attention on creating a common meaning. To create a common meaning we must listen. Really listening is the first step in working through our problems, said Bohm. What is key is to look at the similarities and differences between perspectives or points of view. How are they similar? How are they different? We need to try to understand what the other person means and be willing to change our own point of view when creative intelligence dictates. To hold fixed views will only produce breaks in communication, said Bohm, or even violence.
For Bohm it is dialogue that can help mankind achieve wholeness. We need a coherent culture, the physicist felt, and dialogue is the way to create it. Dialogue, Bohm said, is the free flow of meaning. In ordinary conversation people argue from their point of view. Creative dialogue works in a different way. Thinking together, the free play of thought, the motility of awareness and attention in dialogue help us to free our minds from rigid categories and form. In dialogue as we hold our own point of view in suspension, our mind can come up with new creative perceptions.
In dialogue we may not have a goal, not know exactly what it is we are looking for. One comes to new hypotheses and ideas through a kind of creative play, where we play around with ideas together realizing the dialogue may or may not lead to new insights. Freedom is what is pivotal here. Free and open perception is what is required. A scientific attitude is what is called for where we look at the facts in an unbiased way regardless of whether what we see gives us pleasure or security. Once new insights are born, we need to unfold their implications. New concepts, new ideas, unfold in a process of looking at the similarities and differences in things. Normally, with fixed thought, we think A is not B. A is separate from B. But with the creative perception that happens in dialogue with ourselves or others, we see connections, perceive an equivalence between different experiences. At first perhaps nonverbally, Stern would speak of a feeling of tendency here. At first we may not have the words to express the connection we perceive. We may not be able to communicate how A and B are similar. Then in a flash of insight we see it. For instance, once scientist saw matter as having a particle nature. Later it was maintained no it had a wave nature. Only gradually in a process of unfoldment were the implications realized and the insight reached that a particle is a wave.
In reading over all the perspectives in this book, we can put each construction into a separate category. But if we look at the similarities among the perspectives and at the differences, we might come to new insights about being. To do that we must suspend our preconceptions that make us the followers of one perspective or another and engage in free dialogue with ourselves or others that can lead to new creative perceptions. Bohm believes the free play of our mind that takes place in dialogue, where assumptions are held in suspension, where many points of view can be considered at the same time, can lead to a new creative surge in our society. Bohm sees creative intelligence as underlying the whole. We cannot think of anything in life, he said, that has not come from creative intelligence. With dialogue, with ourselves or others, we participate in that creative intelligence. We can achieve shared meaning. Bohm said being is meaning. That confused me at first. So I went to my dictionary and looked up the word “meaning.” One definition read – “what is intended to be, or actually is.” With that my search for being ended. Being is what actually is – the whole – this constant movement of folding and unfolding – the implicate order. Our perspectives are abstractions of it – what can be unfolded in the explicate order. Dialogue with myself, with others, with otherness happens at the intersection of the two orders – in-the-between - and can lead to new creative perception.
Bohm, D. (1994). Thought as a System. New York: Routledge.
Bohm, D. (1985). Unfolding Meaning. New York: Routledge.
Bohm, D. (1980). Wholeness and the Implicate Order. New York: Routledge.
Bohm, D. & Peat F. D. (1987). Science, Order, and Creativity. (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Nichol, L. (Ed.). (1996). Bohm On Dialogue. New York: Routledge.
Nichol, L. (Ed.). (1998). On Creativity. New York: Routledge.
Nichol, L. (Ed.). (2003). The Essential David Bohm. New York: Routledge.
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