Skip to Content

Postmodern Science and a Postmodern World

By David Bohm

I. Modern Physics and the Modern World

With the coming of the modern era, human beings’ view of their world and themselves underwent a fundamental change. The earlier, basically religious approach to life was replaced by a secular approach. This approach has assumed that nature could be thoroughly understood and eventually brought under control by means of the systematic development of scientific knowledge through observation, experiment, and rational thought. This idea became powerful in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, the great seal of the United States has as part of its motto “the new secular order,” showing the way the founders of the country were thinking. The main focus of attention was on discerning the order of the universe as it manifests itself in the laws of nature. The principle path to human happiness was to be in the discovery of these laws, in complying with them, in utilizing them wherever possible for the benefit of humankind.

So great is the change in the whole context of thought thereby brought about that Huston Smith and some others have described it as the onset of the modern mind.1 This mind is in contrast with the mind of the medieval period, in which it was generally supposed that the order of nature was beyond human comprehension and in which human happiness consisted in being aware of the revealed knowledge of God and carrying out the divine commandments. A total revolution occurred in the way people were aiming to live.

The modern mind went from one triumph to another for several centuries through science, technology, industry, and it seemed to be solidly based for all time. But in the early twentieth century, it began to have its foundations questioned. The challenge coming from physics was especially serious, because it was in this science that the modern mind was thought to have its firmest foundation. In particular, relativity theory, to a certain extent, and quantum theory, to a much greater extent, led to questioning the assumption of an intuitively imaginable and knowable order in the universe. The nature of the world began to fade out into something almost indescribable. For the most part, physicists began to give up the attempt to grasp the world as an intuitively comprehensible whole; they instead restricted their work mostly to developing a mathematical formalism with rules to apply in the laboratory and eventually in technology. Of course, a great deal of unity has emerged in this work, but it is almost entirely in the mathematical formalism. It has little or no imaginative or intuitive expression (whereas Newton’s ideas were quite easily understandable by any reasonably educated person).

A similar current of thought has been developing at the same time in other fields. In philosophy, the trend has been to relinquish any notion that the general nature of reality could be known through some kind of metaphysics or worldview. Existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and others following this line have emphasized instead what is personal and peculiar to each human being. Other philosophers have emphasized language as the main point, and positivists have said that the role of science is nothing more than a systematic and rationally ordered way of organizing our observational data. In art, as in literature and other fields, universal values have also generally been dropped, replaced for the most part by a focus on personal reactions or on some kind of formal structure.

Clearly, during the twentieth century the basis of the modern mind has been dissolving, even in the midst of its greatest technological triumphs. The whole foundation is dissolving while the thing is flowering, as it were. The dissolution is characterized by a general sense of loss of a common meaning of life as a whole. This loss of meaning is very serious, as meaning in the sense intended here is the basis of value. Without that, what is left to move people to work together toward great common aims sensed as having high value? Merely to operate at the level of solving problems in science and technology, or even of extending them into new domains, is a very narrow and limited goal which cannot really captivate the majority of the people. It cannot liberate humanity’s highest and most comprehensive creative energies. Without such liberation, humanity is sinking into a vast mass of petty and transitory concerns. This leads, in the short run, to meaningless activity that is often counterproductive; in the long run, it is bringing humankind ever closer to the brink of self-destruction.

Needless to say, the development described above will have serious consequences for the individual human being, for society as a whole, and for the overall quality of relationships among human beings and between human beings and the rest of nature. Our entire world order has, in fact, been dissolving away for well over a century. This dissolution has tended further to erode all our basic values on which the stability of the world order must depend. Hence, we are now confronted with a worldwide breakdown which is self-evident not only at the political level but also in smaller groups and in the consciousness of the individual. The resort to mindless violence is growing and behind it all is the even more mindless threat of mutual annihilation, which is implicit in our current international situation and which could make everything we are doing quite pointless. I suggest that if we are to survive in a meaningful way in the face of this disintegration of the overall world order, a truly creative movement to a new kind of wholeness is needed, a movement that must ultimately give rise to a new order, in the consciousness of both the individual and society. This order will have to be as different from the modern order as was the modern from the medieval order. We cannot go back to a premodern order. A postmodern world must come into being before the modern world destroys itself so thoroughly that little can be done for a long time to come.

Even though physics is by now a rather specialized profession and even though the question of metaphysics or worldview is discussed seriously by only a few people within this profession, the worldview that physics provides is clearly still playing a crucial role as a foundation for the general mode of thinking which prevails throughout society. That is the worldview that physics provided from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. It is therefore important to ask whether twentieth-century physics actually implies a universe that is beyond intuitive and imaginative comprehension, as well as whether this universe is without any deep meaning, being only something to be computed mathematically and manipulated technically. For example, one of the leading physicists at this time., Steven Weinberg, has said that the more he looks at the universe the less it seems to have any meaning, that we have to invent our own meaning if any is to exist. But, if we find that that is the wrong conclusion to be drawn from recent physics, this discovery may help open the way to the truly original and creative step that is now required of humankind. We cannot go on as we are; we must have something really new and creative. This step cannot be merely a reaction to the breakdown of the modern world order, but it must arise out of a fresh insight that would make it possible to move out of this morass into which we have been sinking.

The possibility of a postmodern physics, extended also to postmodern science in general, may be of crucial significance for this sort of insight. A postmodern science should not separate matter and consciousness and should therefore not separate facts, meaning, and value. Science would then be inseparable from a kind of intrinsic morality, and truth and virtue would not be kept apart as they currently are in science. This separation is part of the reason we are in our present desperate situation.

Of course, this proposal runs entirely contrary to the prevailing view of what science should be, which is a morally neutral way of manipulating nature, either for good or for evil, according to the choices of the people who apply it. I hope in this essay to indicate how a very different approach to science is possible, one that it is consistent and plausible and that fits better the actual development of modern physics than does the current approach.

II. Mechanistic Physics

I begin by outlining briefly the mechanistic view in physics, which was characteristic of the modern view and which reached its highest point toward the end of the nineteenth century. This view remains the basis of the approach of most physicists and other scientists today. Although the more recent physics has dissolved the mechanistic view, not very many scientists and even fewer members of the general public are aware of this fact; therefore, the mechanistic view is still the dominant view as far as effectiveness is concerned. In discussing this mechanistic view, I start by listing the principal characteristics of mechanism in physics. To clarify this view, I contrast it with that of ancient times, which was organic rather than mechanistic.

The first point about mechanism is that the world is reduced as far as possible to a set of basic elements. Typically, these elements take the form of particles. They can be called atoms or sometimes these are broken into electrons, protons, and neutrons; now the most elementary particles are called quarks, maybe there will be a subquarks. Whatever they may be called, the assumption is that a basic element exists which we either have or hope to have. To these elementary particles, various continuous fields, such as electromagnetic and gravitational fields, must be added.

Second, these elements are basically external to each other; not only are they separate in space, but even more important, the fundamental nature of each is independent of that of the other. Each particle just has its own nature; it may be somewhat affected by being pushed around by the others, but that is all. The elements do not grow organically as parts of a whole, but are rather more like parts of a machine whose forms are determined externally to the structure of the machine in which they are working. By contrast, organic parts, the parts of an organism, all grow together with the organism.

Third, because the elements only interact mechanically by sort of pushing each other around, the forces of interaction do not affect their inner natures. In an organism or a society, by contrast, the very nature of each part is profoundly affected by changes in the other parts, so that the parts are internally related. If a man comes into a group, the consciousness of the whole group may change, depending on what he does. He does not push people’s consciousnesses around as if they were parts of a machine. In the mechanistic view, this sort of organismic behavior is admitted, but it is explained eventually by analyzing everything into still smaller particles out of which the organs of the body are made, such as DNA molecules, ordinary molecules, atoms, and so on. This view says that eventually everything is reducible to something mechanical.

The mechanistic program has been very successful and is still successful in certain areas, for example, in genetic engineering to control heredity by treating the molecules on which heredity depends. Advocates do admit that the program still has much to achieve, but this mechanistic reductionistic program assumes that there is nothing that cannot eventually be treated in this waythat if we just keep on going this way we will deal with anything that may arise.

The adherence to this program has been so successful as to threaten our very existence as well as to produce all sorts of other dangers, but, of course, such success does not prove its truth. To a certain extent the reductionistic picture is still an article of faith, and faith in the mechanistic reductionistic program still provides the motivation of most of the scientific enterprise, the faith that this approach can deal with everything. This is a counterpart of the religious faith that people had earlier which allowed them to do great things.

How far can this faith in mechanism be justified? People try endlessly to justify faith in their religions through theology, and much similar work has gone into justifying faith in mechanism through the philosophy of science. Of course, that the mechanism works in a very important domain is given, thereby bringing about a revolution in our life.

During the nineteenth century, the Newtonian worldview seemed so certain and complete that no serious scientist was able to doubt it. In fact, we may refer to Lord Kelvin, one of the leading theoretical physicists at the time. He expressed the opinion that physics was more or less finished, advising young people not to go into the field because further work was only a matter of minor refinements. He did point, however, to two small clouds on the horizon. One was the negative results of the Michelson-Morley experiment and the other was the difficulty in understanding black-body radiation. Now he certainly chose his clouds well: the first one led to the theory of relativity and the second to quantum theory. Those little clouds became tremendous storms; but the sky is not even as clear today as it was thenplenty of clouds are still around. The fact that relativity and quantum together overturned the Newtonian physics shows the danger of complacency about worldview. It shows that we constantly must look at our worldviews as provisional, as exploratory, and to inquire. We must have a worldview, but we must not make it an absolute thing that leaves no room for inquiry and change. We must avoid dogmatism.

III. The Beginning of Nonmechanistic Physics: Relativity Theory

Relativity theory was the first important step away from the mechanistic vision. It introduced new concepts of space, time, and matter. Instead of having separate little particles as the constituents of matter, Einstein thought of a field spread through all space, which would have strong and weak regions. Some strong regions, which are stable, represent particles. If you watch a whirlpool or a vortex, you see the water going around and you see that the movement gets weaker the farther away it is from the center, but it never ends. Now the vortex does not actually exist; there is only the moving water. The vortex is a pattern and a form your mind abstracts from the sensations you have of moving water. If two vortices are put together, they will affect each other; a changing pattern will exist where they modify each other, but it will still be only one pattern. You can say that two exist, but this is only a convenient way of thinking. As they become even closer together, they may merge. When you have flowing water with patterns in them, none of those patterns actually has a separate existence. They are appearances or forms in the flowing movement, which the mind abstracts momentarily for the sake of convenience. The flowing pattern is the ultimate reality, at least at that level. Of course, all the nineteenth-century physicists knew this perfectly well, but they said that really water is made of little atoms, that neither the vortices nor the water are the reality: the reality is the little atoms out of which it is all made. So the problem did not bother them.

But with the theory of relativity, Einstein gave arguments showing that thinking of these separate atoms as existent would not be consistent. His solution was to think of a field not so different from the flowing water, a field that spreads through all space and time and in which every particle is a stable form of movement, just as the vortex or whirlpool is a temporarily stable form that can be thought of as an entity which can be given a name. We speak of a whirlpool, but one does not exist. In the same way, we can speak of a particle, but one does not exist: particle is a name for a certain form in the field of movement. If you bring two particles together, they will gradually modify each other and eventually become one. Consequently, this approach contradicted the assumption of separate, elementary, mechanical constituents of the universe. In doing so, it brought in a view which I call unbroken wholeness or flowing wholeness: it has also been called seamless wholeness. The universe is one seamless, unbroken whole, and all the forms we see in it are abstracted by our way of looking and thinking, which is convenient at times, helping us with our technology, for example.

Nonetheless, relativity theory retains certain essential features of mechanism, in that the fields at different points in space were thought to exist separately and not to be internally related. The separate existence of these basic elements was emphasized by the idea that they were only locally connected, that the field at one point could affect a field only infinitesimally nearby. There was no direct effect of a field here on something far away. This notion is now being called locality by physicists; it is the notion of no long-distance connection. This notion is essential to the kind of mechanistic materialism developing throughout the science of the modern era, the notion of separate elements not internally related and not connected to things far away. The animistic view of earlier times was that spirits were behind everything and that these spirits were not located anywhere. Therefore, things far away would tend to be related. This view was taken to be most natural by astrologers and alchemists. But that view had been turned completely around in the modern period, and the modern view seemed so fruitful and so powerful that there arose the utter conviction of its truth.

IV. More Fully Nonmechanistic Physics: Quantum Theory

With quantum theory, a much bigger change occurred. The main point is that all action or all motion is found in a discrete indivisible unit called a quantum. In the early form of the theory, electrons had to jump from one orbit to the other without passing in between. The whole idea of the continuous motion of particles, an idea at the heart of mechanism, was thereby being questioned. The ordinary visible movement, like my hand moving, was thought to comprise a vast number of quantum movements, just as, if enough fine grains of sand are in the hourglass, the flow seems continuous. All movements were said to comprise very tiny, discrete movements that do not, as it were, go from one place to another by passing through the space in between. This was a very mysterious idea.

Second, matter and energy had a dual nature; they manifest either like a wave or like a particle according to how they were treated in an experiment. An electron is ordinarily a particle, but it can also behave like waves, and light which ordinarily behaves like waves can also behave like particles; their behavior depends on the context in which they are treated. That is, the quality of the thing depends on the context. This idea is utterly opposed to mechanism, because in mechanism the particle is just what it is no matter what the context. Of course, with complex things, this is a familiar fact; it is clear, for example, that organs depend very much on context, that the brain depends on the context, that the mind functions differently in a different context. The new suggestion of quantum theory is that this context-dependence is true of the ultimate units of nature. They hence begin to look more like something organic than like something mechanical.

A third point of quantum theory was the property of nonlocal connection. In certain areas, things could apparently be connected with other things any distance away without any apparent force to carry the connection. This ‘’nonlocality" was very opposed to what Einstein wanted and very opposed to mechanism.

A fourth new feature of quantum physics, which was against mechanism, was that the whole organizes the parts, even in ordinary matter. One can see it doing so in living matter, in organisms, where the state of the whole organizes the various parts in the organism. But something a bit similar happens in electrons, too, in various phenomena such as superconductivity. The whole of chemistry, in fact, depends on this idea.

In summary, according to quantum physics, ultimately no continuous motion exists; an internal relationship between the parts and the whole, among the various parts, and a context-dependence, which is very much a part of the same thing, all do exist. An indivisible connection between elements also exists which cannot be further analyzed. All of that adds up to the notion that the world is one unbroken whole. Quantum physics thereby says what relativity theory said, but in a very different way.

These phenomena are evident only with highly refined modes of observation. At the ordinary order of refinement, which was available during the nineteenth century, there was no evidence that any of this was occurring. People formed the mechanistic philosophy on the basis of fairly crude observations, which demonstrates the danger of deciding a final philosophy on the basis of any particular observations; even our present observations may be too crude for something still deeper.

Now one may ask: if there has been such a disproof of mechanism, why is it that most scientists are still mechanistic? The first reason is that this disproof takes place only in a very esoteric part of modern physics, called quantum mechanical field theories, which only a few people understand, and most of those only deal with it mathematically, being committed to the idea they could never understand it beyond that level. Second, most other physicists have only the vaguest idea of what quantum mechanical field theorists are doing, and scientists in other fields have still less knowledge about it. Science has become so specialized that people in one branch can apply another branch without really understanding what it means. In a way this is humorous, but it has some very serious consequences.

V. Unbroken Wholeness and Postmechanistic Physics

I propose a view that I have called unbroken wholeness. Relativity and quantum physics agree in suggesting unbroken wholeness, although they disagree on everything else. That is, relativity requires strict continuity, strict determinism, and strict locality, while quantum mechanics requires just the oppositediscontinuity, indeterminism, and nonlocality. The two basic theories of physics have entirely contradictory concepts which have not been brought together; this is one of the problems that remains. They both agree, however, on the unbroken wholeness of the universe, although in different ways. So it has seemed to me that we could use this unbroken wholeness as our starting point for understanding the new situation.

The question is then how to understand this wholeness. The entire language of physics is now analytic. If we use this language, we are committed to analyzing into parts, even though our intention may be quite the opposite. Therefore, the task is quite difficult.

What I want to suggest is that one of the most important problems is that of order. World views have always had views of order. The ancient Greeks had the view of the earth as the center of the universe and of various spheres in order of increasing perfection. In Newtonian physics, the order is that of the particles and the way they move. That is a mechanical order, and coordinates are used mathematically to express that order. What kind of order will enable us to consider unbroken wholeness?

What is order? That is a very deep question, because everything we say presupposes order. A few examples: There is the order of the numbers, the order of the words here, the order of the walls, the order in which the body works, the order in which thought works, the order in which language works. We cannot really define order, but we nevertheless understand order somewhat, because we cannot think, talk, or do anything without beginning from some kind of order.

The order physics has been using is the order of separation. Here the lens is the basic idea. If one takes a photograph, one point on the object corresponds to one point on the image. This fact has affected us very greatly, suggesting that everything is made of points. The camera was thereby a very important instrument for helping to strengthen the mechanistic philosophy. It gives an experience that allows everybody to see what is meant by the idea that the universe is nothing but separate parts.

Another instrument, the holograph, can also illustrate this point. The Greek word holo means whole, and graph means to write; consequently, a holograph writes the whole. With the aid of a laser, which produces highly ordered light, the waves of light from everywhere can be brought to one spot, and just the waves, rather than the image of the object, can be photographed. What is remarkable is that in the resulting picture, each part of it can produce an image of the whole object. Unlike the picture produced by a camera, no point-to-point correspondence with the object obtains. Information about each object is enfolded in each part; an image is produced when this enfolded information is unfolded. The holograph hence suggests a new kind of knowledge and a new understanding of the universe in which information about the whole is enfolded in each part and in which the various objects of the world result from the unfolding of this information.

In my proposal of unbroken wholeness, I turn the mechanistic picture upside down. Whereas the mechanistic picture regarded discrete objects as the primary reality, and the enfolding and unfolding of organisms, including minds, as secondary phenomena, I suggest that the unbroken movements of enfolding and unfolding, which I call the holomovement, is primary while the apparently discrete objects are secondary phenomena. They are related to the holomovement somewhat as the vortex, in the above example, is related to the unbroken flow of water. An essential part of this proposal is that the whole universe is actively enfolded to some degree in each of the parts. Because the whole is enfolded in each part, so are all the other parts, in some way and to some degree. Hence, the mechanistic picture, according to which the parts are only externally related to each other, is denied. That is, it is denied to be the primary truth; external relatedness is a secondary, derivative truth, applicable only to the secondary order of things, which I call the explicate or unfolded order. This is, of course, the order on which modern science has focused. The more fundamental truth is the truth of internal relatedness, because it is true of the more fundamental order, which I call the implicate order, because in this order the whole and hence all the other parts are enfolded in each part.

In my technical writings,2 I have sought to show that the mathematical laws of quantum theory can be understood as describing the holomovement, in which the whole is enfolded in each region, and the region is unfolded into the whole. Whereas modern physics has tried to understand the whole reductively by beginning with the most elementary parts, I am proposing a postmodern physics which begins with the whole.

VI. Postmodern Science and Questions of Meaning and Value

We have seen that fragmentary thinking is giving rise to a reality that is constantly breaking up into disorderly, disharmonious, and destructive partial activities. Therefore, seriously exploring a mode of thinking that starts from the most encompassing possible whole and goes down to the parts (sub-wholes) in a way appropriate to the actual nature of things seems reasonable. This approach tends to bring about a different reality, one that is orderly, harmonious, and creative. For this actually to happen, however, a thoroughgoing end to fragmentation is necessary.

One source of fragmentationperhaps the major oneis the belief that our thinking processes and what we are thinking about are fundamentally distinct. In this essay, I have stressed that everything is internally related to everything through mutual enfoldment. And evidently the whole world, both society and nature, is internally related to our thinking processes through enfoldment in our consciousness. For the content of our thought is just the world as we perceive it and know it (which includes ourselves). This content is not just a superficial part of us. Rather, in its totality, it provides us with the ground of all meaning in our lives, out of which arise our intentions, wishes, motivations, and actions. Indeed, even imagining what life could mean to us without the world of nature and society enfolded within us is impossible.

The general way we think of this world will thus be a crucially important factor of our consciousness, and thus of our whole being. If we think of the world as separate from us, and constituted of disjoint parts to be manipulated with the aid of calculations, we will tend to try to become separate people, whose main motivation with regard to each other and to nature is also manipulation and calculation. But if we can obtain an intuitive and imaginative feeling of the whole world as constituting an implicate order that is also enfolded in us, we will sense ourselves to be one with this world. We will no longer be satisfied merely to manipulate it technically to our supposed advantage, but we will feel genuine love for it. We will want to care for it, as we would for anyone who is close to us and therefore enfolded in us as an inseparable part.

Vice versa, however, the idea of implicate order means that we are enfolded in the worldnot only in other people, but in nature as a whole. We have already seen an indication of this fact in that, when we approach the world in a fragmentary way, its response is correspondingly fragmentary. Indeed, it can be said that, as we are not complete without the world which is enfolded in us, so the world is not complete without us who are enfolded in it. It is a mistake to think that the world has a totally defined existence separate from our own and that there is merely an external “interaction” between us and the world. It follows that if we approach the world through enfolding its wholeness in our consciousness and thus act with love, the world, which enfolds our own being within itself, will respond in a corresponding way. This can obviously happen in the world of society. But even the world of nature will cease to respond with degeneration, due to pollution, destruction of forests, and so on, and will begin to act in a more orderly and favorable way.

I want to emphasize this point. Because we are enfolded inseparably in the world, with no ultimate division between matter and consciousness, meaning and value are as much integral aspects of the world as they are of us. If science is carried out with an amoral attitude, the world will ultimately respond to science in a destructive way. Postmodern science must therefore overcome the separation between truth and virtue, value and fact, ethics and practical necessity. To call for this nonseparation, is, of course, to ask for a tremendous revolution in our whole attitude to knowledge. But such a change is now necessary and indeed long overdue. Can humanity meet in time the challenge of what is required? The coming years will be crucial in revealing the answer to this question.


  1. See Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (New York: Crossroad, 1982), esp. chap. 8, “Beyond the Modern Western Mind-set.” ↩︎

  2. See David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980) and other references given therein. ↩︎

Last modified on