Science, Spirituality, and the Present World Crisis

(Presented at the 12th International Transpersonal Association Conference by David Bohm; this conference ran from June 20 to June 25th, 1992)

Stanislav Grof introduces David Bohm: Good morning again. As I mentioned earlier this morning while introducing Dr. Karl Pribram, one of the reasons why traditional science refuses to accept spirituality as a relevant and legitimate dimension of existence is a mechanical understanding of the brain. However, this in itself has much deeper roots in the mechanistic understanding of the physical universe itself which is based on a marriage between philosophical materialism and the selective views of certain ideas of Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes.

While the pioneers of modern physics have in the first decades of the twentieth century transcended all the essential aspects of the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm this way of thinking still has a firm grip on many other scientific disciplines whose theories were historical derivatives of this paradigm. Such as biology and medicine and then particularly psychology and psychiatry.

Many of us who consider spirituality to be an important dimension of existence would like to feel that this does not automatically exclude us from the ranks of science. I find it very encouraging that many of the great scientists who developed quantum-relativist physics found their own revolutionary contributions to be compatible with deep appreciation of the spiritual or mystical dimension of existence, the prime example being Albert Einstein.

This morning I have the great honor and privilege to welcome among us Professor David Bohm, one of the leading physicists of our time. His theory of holomovement is considered by many to be one of the most creative and imaginative accomplishments in the history of science. Dr. Bohm’s concept of the explicate and implicate order, of the relationship between consciousness and matter, between thought, intellect and intelligence, his outline of the rheomode (which is a form of language that doesn’t use nouns) – they have all have become a source of inspiration for theoreticians from many different disciplines. Although initially conceived as an attempt to solve the many paradoxes of quantum physics, his work has profound implications that extend far beyond the boundaries of this discipline. These include for example, an entirely new understanding of human history, of creativity in general, and of art in science in particular, and of economy and politics.

Since the focus of our conference is the global crisis, I would like to emphasize especially Dr. Bohm’s important contribution to the understanding of the roots of this crisis that he sees in thinking in terms of separateness and of fragmentation rather than wholeness.

Dr. Bohm’s professional career includes studies at the University of California in Berkley, research into physics and philosophy at the Lawrence radiation laboratories in Berkley, he held in posts in Princeton, New Jersey, in Sao Paulo in Brazil, and in Haifa, and is a present Professor of theoretical physics at that Birkbeck College in London.

Among his publications are important books on Quantum Theory and the Special Theory of Relativity, on Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, and on Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Another book written in cooperation with David Peat: Science, Order, and Creativity. I just found that there is another book which is out which was written in cooperation with the photographer Mark Edwards and it is book which is called Changing Consciousness and it is specifically focusing on the problem of ecology.

At a transpersonal conference I cannot leave out Dr. Bohm’s long friendship and intellectual exchanges with Krishnamurti and their inspiring dialogues recorded both in a written form and in the form of video tapes. Dr. Bohm came to Prague from Haifa where he has just received an honorary doctoral degree from Technion which is a technical university in Haifa which is comparable to the American MIT or Caltech. And again, like earlier in relationship to Dr. Pribram I would like to a little more personal disclosure. Dr. Bohm’s family is also from this area. His father came from a town called Mukachevo which was in the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy but is now on the border of Czechoslovakia. It is a great pleasure for me to welcome Professor David Bohm. Thank you.

David Bohm: Many thousands of years ago our culture was not broken into fragments as it is now. At that time science and spirituality were not separated. Since then they have grown far apart. In my view it is important to bring them together.

I will begin by discussing science. Science is basically an abstract sort of knowledge – systematically and rationally organized – aimed at grasping what is general and what is necessary. Newton’s laws provide one of the ideal forms of such knowledge.

Science is also a collective activity and through it people work together to build up a common body of experimentally tested knowledge over time. Science would not mean much without this activity. However, science has in it certain features such as wonder and curiosity which go beyond knowledge. And it has an additional feature which is crucial. Science when done properly acknowledges the fact whether we like it or not. That is, whether it agrees with our deeply held beliefs or not. This openness to acknowledging facts is seldom the case more generally. For example, one would not get very far that way in politics or in most religious organizations.

Such an insistence on a certain kind of honesty is the key point of what I call the scientific spirit. This is a principle that infuses scientific activity. Thus, the very way science has developed has implicitly considerable spiritual significance. It would indeed be extraordinary if this spirit could prevail in the whole of life. I think it would remove a considerable part of our problems.

This brings us to question of spirituality. What is spirit? The word is derived from the Latin word meaning breath or wind like respiration or inspiration. It is suggested by the trees moving with the invisible force of the wind. We may thus think of spirit as an invisible force, the life giving essence that moves us deeply or as the source that moves everything from within. Spirit is therefore not manifest. The word manifest means literally in Latin what can be held in the hand. You cannot hold spirit in the hand. It is subtle. Which is really the opposite of manifest. According to the dictionary the world subtle means highly refined, delicate, elusive, indefinable. The Latin root of the word is in fact subtilis meaning finely woven. We can picture finer and finer nets to grasp reality. But ultimately spirit is so subtle that it passes through all of them. Although unseen and ungraspable it is of key importance.

One important point we connect with spirit is meaning. According to the dictionary the word meaning has three definitions: significance, value, and purpose. If I say it means a lot to me it is the same as high value and if I say I mean to do it is the same as to say that is my purpose. Now significance is simply like a sign that points to something. Value has the same root as valor and valiant and means strong. We sense the value of something by being strongly moved. We could further say that if something is very significant we sense its value and that generates a strong purpose. These are three key features of life and life would have little value if it lacked meaning. For then it would lack significance and we would generate little energy or purpose.

Therefore spirit although its meaning may be very subtle or ungraspable seems to have a tremendous effect. We could indeed say that without significance, value, and purpose life would have little point. A sense of pointlessness or meaninglessness in our society might be at the root of much of the current malaise.

I would add further that meaning is at the root of our whole being. How we act is determined by what everything means to us. A very elementary case is a person walking in a dark place who sees a shadow which suggests that an assailant may be present. This interpretation of the shadow can arose the whole body – the adrenaline, the heart, and everything else. The meaning of the shadow made these changes occur. If we see the meaning as just a shadow all that will vanish. Meanings of much greater subtlety may move us much more. If we are going to face difficult problems and questions we have to see their meaning and have the energy to do it. As we have seen the ultimate source of meaning is subtle and cannot be made manifest. Deeper meanings may [inaudible] the question of spirituality.

The human being has a natural orientation to spirituality. Indeed our ancestors saw spirit in everything and as the ultimate source of everything. Everything was for them alive and each individual was a part of it all. That was a rather natural view. Gradually as civilization developed people moved away from direct contact with nature into farms and cities. Organized religions developed as spiritual activity and replaced nature as the key contact with spirit as well as connecting spiritual needs with the needs of society. Religions generally included a certain kind of philosophy, an overall worldview that was compatible with the basic notions of that particular religion about spirituality.

Later, however, as technology and science developed they split off from religion. A different world view developed that became more and more independent of religion and in more modern times this scientific view began to prevail. Thus, in ancient Greece there was a view that the universe was ordered from the centre of the earth and that spirit became more important as we went out toward heaven with its order of increasing perfection. Everything was highly imperfect on earth while the planets moved in eternal perfect orbits. It was said an object would fall because the natural place for it was to be at the centre of the earth and it was striving to reach that place. Everything had its place and moved according to its place. This idea was carried further in the middle ages. It produced a world view in harmony with the prevailing religion. In modern times this harmony has broken up. The modern view has been that of mechanism and the universe was compared to a gigantic machine (originally clockwork and later the structure of atoms).

This outlook has gone on to regard the human being as a machine and is linked to the development of artificial intelligence. Thus Descartes said that everything was a machine: all animals, the human body, and so on. Only the immortal soul of the human being was not a machine. This perception led to a division of labor between religion and science. Science thereby gained freedom from interference by religion. God created this machine and let it run. Scientists could study the cosmic machine while theologians could deal with the immortal soul of the human being. The scientist could thus feel that the machine was their business which suited their purposes; theologians were happy too because they wanted to fight pantheism which said that there was spirit in nature. They didn’t like that idea for many reasons therefore they were very ready to accept this notion which is just what they needed for their purpose. But then they lost in the long run because science began to probe into what appeared to be the ultimate. Into the edges of the universe and to life and to the body and to intelligence and nowhere did they see this immortal soul. It looked as if we could explain everything as a machine.

This development has led to a view that has had bad effects. For example, Steven Weinberg, one of the leading physicists of our time has said the more we look into the cosmos the less we see any evidence of meaning. There is no place in this for spirit. It is all mechanism. The domain of spirit has receded until it’s gone as far as science is concerned. We may still hold onto the idea of spirit in spite of this, but at the expense at a kind of split in life. For example, when I was at college there was a biology Professor who taught evolution. He had more of fundamentalist views on religion. When asked how he could do this he said on weekdays I teach evolution and on Sundays I have an entirely different view.

Similarly, when we work in society we are actually mechanists. Almost everything that is now is being done in society now is mechanical or mechanistically oriented. But we may try to bring spirituality into other areas on special occasions.

This demonstrates a lack of coherence. Incoherence means it doesn’t hold together. We are working against ourselves and wasting energy and being counterproductive. To have a real meaning in any case requires coherence. Incoherent meanings eventually have no meaning.

That is probably the root of meaninglessness; there are so many meanings around that do not cohere and do not add up to a whole meaning. Modern views on science must be contributing to the current lack of meaning. First of all directly by being mechanistic and secondly indirectly be leading people who want to hold onto spirituality to be incoherent in various aspects of their lives.

But does modern science really force us into mechanism? At present, most scientists seem to believe that this was inevitable. A reasonable argument could have perhaps been made for this in the nineteenth century but since then there has been relativity and quantum theory which were fundamental revolutions. I want to suggest that relativity and quantum theory are more compatible with the non-mechanistic view than with the mechanistic one. In particular, the mathematics of the quantum theory suggest that the basic movement of matter is to be understood as a kind of unfoldment and enfoldment. The mathematics suggest for example a set of waves that unfold from the whole of space into each region and then fold back again into the whole.

Or to put it differently, from a subtle enfoldment in the whole there arises by a process of unfoldment the entire manifest universe with its many different and separated objects. This sort of movement I have called the implicate order in which the existence of each part of the world is constantly sustained by unfoldment from the whole and enfoldment back into the whole. The hologram is an instrument that illustrates this principle.

The key point is then that modern physics implies that in some way, and to some degree, everything is internally related to the whole and therefore to everything else. Another example of internal relationship is to be found in consciousness. For in consciousness we take in everything, it is all in us, and the total content of consciousness determines what we are and how we will respond. We are therefore related internally to the whole and thus to everything else rather than externally and mechanically.

For example if people want to change the course of actions of others, the appropriate way is not to push and pull mechanically (that would be violence). But rather, it is to say something and thus to transmit meaning. If such communication succeeds the listener takes in the meaning of what is said and acts accordingly. It follows from this that something like the implicate order is common both to consciousness and to matter in general. The implicate order may therefore provide a basis for the relationship of the two. Thus, we can see for example that the content of consciousness can in principle enfold the entire material universe. If you are looking out at the sky at night for example.

But in so far as consciousness gives rise to physical action, including communication with others, its content is enfolded in matter and in the consciousness of others. Therefore not only is all matter internally related but so is matter and consciousness and through this all consciousness is also internally related. Of course this does not deny the relative independence of objects as given in classical physics and the relative independence of consciousness of different people.

But more generally not only do our selves and our minds not have the complete externality relationship implied by mechanism, but even physical objects are not completely mechanical when looked at deeply (for example from the electron level). However, the non-mechanical whole including the world and our selves will produce parts that behave in a limited area approximately like a machine. But science can now be understood as showing limits to mechanism which ultimately allow something more subtle such as spirituality to play a key role.

Nevertheless science as we know it cannot by itself give meaning in the deep sense of ultimate significance, value, and purpose. Science of course does have values in it: to acknowledge the fact whether you like it or not is an important value, also science has the purpose of obtaining knowledge and satisfying curiosity. However, this is still a rather limited meaning. Science can interfere with the coherent broader meaning if it is taken in a strictly mechanistic sense. Organized religions can also do this by forcefully imposing beliefs with their implied values and purposes in a mechanical way. Ultimately such views lead to repetitive, mechanical meanings in a way that is not basically different from that which results from the mechanistic point of view in science.

An inquiry into spirituality therefore has to be done in a scientific spirit of acknowledging any fact. Whether we like it or not we are at least looking at it and not simply rejecting it or refusing to look as many do. But can we really do this or will we be too attached to the sense of security that comes from firmly held beliefs.

I happen to know the Dalai Lama and have had many talks with him. I remember once someone asked him suppose science should show that one of the beliefs of Buddhism was not right. He said then we would surely drop it if it is clearly shown. This demonstrates that is possible to have some sort of religious view and not to take your beliefs so firmly that nothing could ever be questioned.

Alternatively, could there be more of a spiritual part in science also. A current notion that is commonly accepted is that science is value free except possibly for truth, honesty, and similar notions. But that is not really so. Thus, Thomas Khun has said that scientists almost unconsciously pick up paradigms in their apprenticeships which have all sorts of values in them. One of the current values is that mechanism is the right way and the only way. Another value is that we want to make everything calculable by some sort of algorithm.

It would be good for scientists to be aware of their values and to examine them in a truly scientific manner. [inaudible] the scientific spirit extend to allow for the examination of the values of science or at least for the frank acknowledge that they are there and that many of them have no necessary basis. In such an approach scientists can detect incoherences in their basic values. This may lead them to want to change some of them.

The importance of values is thus clear. Values have significance behind them. Wholeness is one significance and mechanism is another. If the universe signifies mechanism and the values implicit therein then individuals must fend for themselves. With mechanism individuals are separate and have to take care of themselves first. We are all pushing against each other and everyone is trying to win.

The significance of wholeness however is that everything is related internally to everything else. Therefore in the long run it has not meaning for people to ignore the needs of others. Similarly, if we regard the world as made up of a lot of little externally related bits, we will try to exploit each bit and we will end up by destroying the planet. At present we do not adequately realize that we are one whole with the planet and our whole being and substance comes out of it.

A key part of the general significance is our overall worldview, and such worldviews have profound effects on values. Therefore what we say or assume about these things is not to be taken lightly. An inquiry of this kind clearly has a broader significance for the whole of our culture. To see what this means, I would first point out that culture in my view is shared meaning. Whatever form of culture we see is the sharing of meaning whether this be in science, in art, or spirituality.

What is art? Going back to the derivation of words, the word art is based on a Latin root meaning to fit. It appears in English in words like artifact, articulate, article, and artisan. All this suggests that in earlier times art was not regarded as being separate from life as a whole. But with the general tendency of civilization to fragmentation we have broken things up and have said that art is a special activity. It has very little practical significance and is primarily aesthetic in its value. However, as far as art is concerned I would emphasize that fitting means coherence. In its own way art is generally concerned with making coherent wholes. Many people are looking for holism but not all holistic views are coherent.

For example, Nazism aimed at a kind of totalitarian approach which means whole but it was highly incoherent and it certainly did not bring about good results. It is clear that we are looking for coherent wholeness not just any wholeness.

The artist like the scientist is looking to create a coherent whole but he or she differs from the scientist in that he or she is not looking for general knowledge of what is necessary nor is the artist as a rule building a collective structure of art. Rather artists generally want to create individual works – not necessarily, absolutely so. A given work of art may have a universal significance but it has to be in a concretely, perceptible form experienced in an actual moment or succession of moments. It is not treated by rules or universal laws. So it is not like a scientific theory whose very essence is the aim for universality and necessity. Necessity is perceived in each work of art.

Art has its own internal necessity that is not mainly an abstract, general structure of ideas that an artist might build up over a period of time. The individual work of art therefore can stand by itself whereas scientific theories have to be seen as parts of an overall body of scientific knowledge. It seems to be commonly agreed upon that art may have a deep spiritual significance not only in its content but in the creativity that produces it. We may therefore think of the artistic spirit and ask whether life as a whole could be infused with this artistic spirit as well as with the scientific spirit. That is to say in our actions from moment to moment we would have a perceptive attitude, not mechanical, not repetitious or routine in which we would be moving towards making everything fit, to cohere.

Even science should properly done with this artistic spirit in its actual doing rather than by following rules and formula. I do not think that a science of science would be right nor would it get very far. I think it would be best to call it the art of science. Without the scientific spirit and the artistic spirit we cannot have an overall coherent spirituality. To have incoherent spirituality is not going be helpful. It could be said that science, art, and spirituality are the principle content of culture. There is not a great deal of culture that would not be somehow included in these if they broaden the meaning of these terms like I would to do. As long as these elements are separate we cannot have an overall coherent culture. Since culture is shared meaning we then cannot have a coherent shared meaning. That is to say is our culture will ultimately have little or no meaning. Without meaning our society will fall apart. It will have no value and no purpose.

We can see evidence that society is falling apart throughout the world. Not only that, but the individual cannot be healthy or whole in a culture that is split at its foundations. If individuals lack coherence, significance, value, and purpose they will suffer not only mentally but also physically. And this regards social incoherence and individual coherence feed on each other. Individuals living in an incoherent society tend to become inwardly incoherent and then in turn they help to make up an incoherent society.

The world is now facing a series of crises: political, social, economic, ecological, and spiritual, which threatens the very existence of our civilization and perhaps of the species as well. On the one hand science has opened up enormous possibilities for a creative and happier life for all of humanity.

On the other hand, it has become evident that because of the general incoherence of society and the individual that I just described the further progress of science along its current lines cannot resolve these crises and may indeed tend to aggravate them. Thus for example it seems clear that science cannot make it possible for us to act together with the coherence and general good will needed to provide everyone with an adequate physical and social basis for life and at the same time to avoid destroying the planet through ecological disasters, climate changes, and so on. Nor can it help us deal with the forces of nationalism and religious divisions so these will no longer prevent us from getting together to meet all these problems which are evidently of a world-wide nature.

Clearly this sort of thing will be possible only if there is wide spread sharing of meaning allowing for the creation of a coherent culture which would eventually be planetary. How can a coherent culture come about? I want to suggest that the essential start is to be able to have a dialogue. This way people in different sub-cultures can come together to dialogue to share their meanings, perhaps to emerge with new meanings that would be common. We have to begin with people who are open enough to start the dialogue. We cannot begin with those who don’t want to. We need a place where people could get together merely to talk without trying to solve any problems. Simply to communicate, to share and to see if they could come to a common understanding.

There is no set form or practice to establish communication except to engage in communicating itself and then encounter the problems in trying to do that. Also, if we say we want to communicate but we give first priority to solving a certain practical problem this will limit us. Behind every practical problem there are assumptions that may stop us. Some of the things that we want to communicate may not be compatible with these assumptions. Therefore we say we want to communicate we are not going to first priority to solving any problem.

This reminds me of a story I read many years ago. An anthropologist was studying a North American Indian tribe. He observed they got together in a circle frequently, at twenty to thirty people I suppose, and they would talk. There was no agenda, no decision making, no authority. They would stop talking at a certain point and the anthropologist did not understand the stopping point. However when they stopped they all seemed to know what action to take because they understood each other so well.

We cannot do this now. There are probably too many people but our meetings are much more difficult when we try to get people to really work together. Imagine people all getting together even in one country. We cannot do it even one family much less between countries, cultures, and religions, because we are unconsciously committed from the very outset to doing the opposite. This is the point. It’s not an accident we find this so hard. We try to overcome this commitment. But this means that we are unconsciously resisting the very thing we are trying to do. This resistance is in our memory and in the whole system including our whole culture. And it’s not coherent; it is counterproductive to try to do something and try to hold back at the same time.

I think we have to transform the culture by starting with a nucleus, a small group of people that might make a new culture. Might start to make one anyway. As I said, to do this is not really a practice but a constant situation of learning creatively and communication. As we begin to share meaning we will also share values and develop a common purpose. If everyone understands the same thing we can all work together. If we all see it differently and have different ends we cannot do it. The really trouble is, as I have already said, is that we do not have a coherent culture.

Anthropological studies suggest at earlier times people generally had a more coherent culture. It is essential that we create a coherent culture now. Otherwise I do not think that the human race is very viable. At least, if we try to go beyond the level of the Stone Age. With the arrival of modern technology we have to take this step or we can’t go on. Modern technology is increasing our power by leaps and bounds. Powers to destroy as well as to create. For example with the iron axe we were able to cut down trees at a great rate in Roman times and make deserts out of most of Northern Africa. And now with the chainsaw we could cut down everything within a short time if we wanted to. The point is we must get together to do something intelligent about this. If people cannot talk together how can we do it?

We have to begin with those who understand the point and see its necessity. They are the nucleus. We could call this the microcosm of a larger, coherent culture. If we could establish such a microculture this might spread. However we cannot establish this through an agenda with a definite end in view because this will lead to distortion by the unconscious motives that bring about resistance. For example, the people who thought of establishing socialism made an attempt to confront this problem but all the unconscious motives of self-centeredness resisted it and it never really worked. I think people will sooner or later discover that capitalism does not work either. Just look at our ecological problems. We must really do something different.

If we could establish free communication in which all of these unconscious motives could be explored all of this might change. What we need to be able to do is to talk, to communicate. People in the UN are not discussing the basic issues at all because they are really not negotiable. They are negotiating the small points that people are ready to trade off but we cannot come to a common policy that way.

What is needed is dialogue in the basic sense of this word. Which implies meaning is flowing through and amongst people rather than an exchange where each person is tries to win by making his or her view prevail. Dialogue therefore means creating something new where everybody wins. The basic idea of dialogue is to be able to talk while suspending personal opinions as if you were holding them out in front of you and the group for all to see their coherence or incoherence while neither suppressing them nor insisting on them nor trying to convince or persuade others of their value. Instead we just want to understand.

In a way this is comparable to allowing the scientific spirit to infuse our communication. We need to have a kind of scientific attitude when we talk. That does mean that we are doing laboratory experiments but for the most part we are listening to the opinions of all whether they are pleasing or outrageous. That is the essence of the scientific spirit. We are just listening. We can do it. In this art of dialogue the first priority is to see the whole meaning of everyone without having to making any decision as to who is right and who is wrong. It is more important to see the whole meaning than that any particular opinion should prevail because seeing this will create a new frame of mind in which the consciousness of all has common content. The content being all these opinions at which we are all looking. The other person’s opinion is looked at the same as mine is. It means a common consciousness that is coherent. It is a kind of implicate order where each unfolds into the whole consciousness and the whole into each. With this common coherent consciousness we have a new kind of intelligence capable of thinking together.

Usually people in a group do not think together. Each one has his or her own idea and tries to get it across even though he or she might sometimes accept a part of someone else’s opinion. And thinking together however, one person will have an idea, and it may pass to the next person who will pick it up as though it were their own. It will go on like that almost like one person thinking. The idea does not belong to anybody. This requires complete trust which develops only if we are able to get through all the obstacles to dialogue (these unconscious motives of self-centeredness that I have mentioned).

I do not want to give the impression that this will be straight forward or easy. I think if people see the necessity and are serious about it we can do something. We can have this common consciousness, this intelligence, this fellowship. We have a common bond of impersonal fellowship or participation. This fellowship is one of the more powerful feelings that there is. I read recently that many people used to find something good in war because they experienced a valuable comradeship that they could never get in civilian life. They were ready to go through all the horrors of war to gain this.

But we do not need to have a war to have fellowship or comradeship. That is one discovery we must make. With this common consciousness people could create a coherent culture which implies a coherent mind and body for each individual as well.

What underlies such consciousness is this infinitely subtle spirit which cannot be defined out of which emerges the ultimate meanings in ways in which we cannot see or grasp. This infuses the whole with a coherent but dynamic and creative meaning. This spirit is in some sense one, undivided. It is so subtle that we could say little about it. But it is essential to consider the possibility that is there. If we try to say that it is not there we will go over to mechanism in the end. We will then be left only with material values which cannot move us to the creation of a coherent and meaningful society with a coherent approach to nature. The subtle but dynamic spirit that I have suggested unfolds into many aspects including the scientific, artistic, and religious and would bring about a different way of living both individually and together which would move towards an unbroken whole. It would allow creative freedom to the individual that is not imposed but would arise naturally. People would see the necessity of it and see that it is so much better than the other way. Since wholeness, health, and holiness have the same root and since sanity is basically a similar meaning, it would imply the health of the body, mind and society of course the spirit beyond.