THE QUANTUM METAPHYSICS OF DAVID BOHM
the Eye altering alters all.
Blake, The Mental Traveller
David Bohm’s posthumously-published paper on Soma-Significance represents an invaluable legacy, a veritable foundation plan of the immense metaphysical edifice which was taking shape in the author’s mind during the final days of his life. As is also evident in the unfinished collaborative work which Bohm was completing at the time of his death, his thinking was rapidly evolving in the direction of an entirely new paradigm of Mind and Matter pointing the way to the shores of a yet unexplored scientific/philosophical landscape. Perhaps it was somehow decreed that Bohm, like Moses, would be granted only a distant view of the land to which his vision had led him. If so, then it is left for us, as if by Bohm’s magnanimous bequest, to complete his singular voyage of discovery on the vast, uncharted seas of what I will call Quantum Metaphysics.
The Duality of
Mind and Matter
But the proposal
in this paper is that the notion of soma-significance will make possible a kind
of appearance that puts us into a much better contact with the basically unknown
reality than does the duality of mind and matter, with its further division
between actor, action, and that which is acted upon.
Bohm, Psychoscience, 1, 27
The metaphysical problem of
Mind-Matter Dualism is inherent in the classical physics of Isaac Newton and its
philosophical counterpart, the empiricism of John Locke. Under this paradigm,
which has dominated Western thinking for the past three centuries, reality is
essentially viewed as external to and independent of the observer. Indeed, the
observer is reduced to one relatively insignificant facet of a vast universe,
only a miniscule corner of which is imperfectly comprehended by his/her thought
processes. In the universe of Newton and Locke, then, consciousness is at best a
merely subjective epiphenomenon of an objective reality, i.e., Mind is
dwarfed, if not annihilated, by Matter.
This Mind-Matter Dualism had derived its philosophical pedigree from René Descartes, for whom it was a natural corollary to his formulation of the constructs of Space and Time as pure mathematical abstractions. Viewed through the mesh of the Cartesian rectilinear grid, objective reality became not only external but also absolute, following an inexorable code of universal laws from which all outcomes could be positively determined. From this vantage point, human consciousness was shrunk down to the status of a crude tool for discerning a thing from another.
Drawing upon Bohm’s image
of the Mind-Matter relationship as analogous to opposing magnetic poles, one
might well anticipate that the Newtonian-Cartesian endeavor to cut the magnet,
so to speak, by assigning paramount reality to the material pole, would simply
result in a reconstituted opposing mental pole. And in fact the extreme
Mind-Matter polarization of scientific materialism did engender its opposite:
the rise of an equally radical idealism, as espoused by Bishop Berkeley and the
neo-Platonists, which denied that the material world had any reality outside of
the human mind. For, if the materialists could point to Democritus for the view
that matter consists of discrete, localized particles, the opposing school could
is neither soul nor intellect, … but a certain indefiniteness, … it cannot
merit the appellation of being, but is deservedly called non-entity… abiding
without station, of itself invisible, and avoiding the desire of him who wishes
to perceive its nature. Hence when no one perceives it, it is then in a manner
present: but cannot be viewed by him who strives intently to behold it.
It is difficult to resist
savoring the supreme irony here: the anti-materialist metaphysics of Plotinus
uncannily anticipates the quantum mechanics of Newton’s intellectual heirs,
with the foregoing quote being a virtual text-book recital of the theory of Schrödinger’s
wave and Heisenberg’s uncertainty. But perhaps we should not be so surprised,
since radical idealism is founded on Mind-Matter Duality every bit as much as is
its polar opposite, radical materialism. Hence, the dualities of particle-wave
and observer-observable can be seen to follow inexorably from the underlying
split of consciousness away from the natural world regardless of which side of
the rift one proceeds from.
For David Bohm, the polar
dichotomy of Mind and Matter, while being an arbitrary cut in the flow of an
indivisible field of being, was nonetheless useful (in the same way as is the
artificial idea of magnetic poles) as an aid in conceptualizing the ineffable
workings of a deeper subtle level of reality.
Thus, we may accurately say that Bohm bridged the Mind-Matter chasm by going
beneath it, into the subtext of reality from which the manifest is woven.
Underlying the familiar world of manifest reality, or the explicate order
in Bohm’s terminology, he postulated the existence of a non-material realm of
pure information, the implicate order from which unfold all observable
It is important to
understand that Bohm conceived the implicate subtext underlying manifest events
not merely as a useful paradigm for explaining quantum phenomena, but as a
literal description of what is. This boldly ontological approach stands
in stark contrast with the mainstream thinking of 20th Century
physics, which has all but abandoned ontology in favor of a purely
Implicit in the
Newtownian-Cartesian mechanical model of the universe was the ultimate goal of
deriving one equation which would describe all material phenomena. In the 20th
Century, theoretical physicists achieved this goal, in the form of the Schrödinger
Equation, but they found the reality which the equation describes is random,
indefinite, inscrutable, and indivisible to be a far cry from what they had
expected. Virtually overnight, the comforting world of discrete localized
particles had evaporated into an omnipresent phantasmic haze of statistical
probabilities, which an incredulous Einstein referred to as a Gespensterfeld
Reacting somewhat like the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, the mainstream quantum theorists, led by Neils Bohr, endeavored to confine their unseemly creation to the laboratory: accepting Shrödinger’s spectral waveform as a useful mathematical formulation for predicting experimental outcomes, but in the same breath denying that this probability wave actually reflects a quantum reality. Thus under the banner of Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation, the inability of modern physics to put the quantum genie back into an ontological bottle was resolved by throwing away the bottle. At the quantum level, at least, reality was deemed inherently unknowable.
Nonetheless, there remained
a strong attachment among many of Bohr’s colleagues to a more traditional
notion, namely, that the scientific pursuit consists of developing a coherent
model of what is, and not merely an incestuous set of rules for explaining the
results of its own contrived experimental configurations.
For those disinclined to follow Bohr into a metaphysical blind alley, the
alternative inevitably involved revisiting the twin Cartesian pillars of
scientific materialism: Mind-Matter Dualism and Objective (albeit not, after
Einstein, Absolute) Space/Time.
The obvious alternative to the know-nothing approach of the Copenhagen Interpretation was to view the wave function defined by the Schödinger Equation as itself representing, mathematically, a Quantum Reality. But the characteristics of such a quantum realm—indeterminacy, non-locality, a-temporality, universal interconnectedness—are so fundamentally at odds with the attributes of the macroscopic world, that the ontological approach seemingly must engender yet another breach in the fabric of a unified reality, this time in the selection of the appropriate dividing line between the quantum and classical domains. With his characteristic directness, Bohr had severed this Gordian knot by arbitrarily assuming, in the aggregate, a statistical convergence of quantum phenomena on purely classical behavior—the so-called Correspondence Limit. Given this assumption, a macro-scale measuring apparatus may be viewed as purely classical, and the cut between the quantum and classical realms can be conveniently located at the boundary between the experimental equipment and the subatomic particle.
Unfortunately, the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics, as developed by John von Neumann in the early 1930’s, failed to support the supposed existence of a bright line dividing the well-defined attributes of the measuring instrument from the indeterminate potentialities inherent in the Schrödinger wave function. Instead, von Neumann’s mathematical rendering of the universe completely jettisoned the twin Cartesian pillars of classical physics, replacing four-dimensional Space/Time with infinitely-dimensioned Hilbert Space, and emphatically rejecting the paradigm of a divided reality. Hence, the von Neumann formulation demands that all physical processes be described in terms of an infinite array of potentialities, inherently incapable of actualizing without the intercession of a non-physical entity associated with the measurement process—an entity which von Neumann was logically compelled to identify with consciousness. Thus, we have the sublime irony of a rigorous mathematical elaboration of a purely materialistic model of the universe yielding a radically idealistic paradigm: Consciousness creates Reality!
Does quantum ontology then
inexorably drive us to a contra-Copernican revolution, once again assigning to
humanity, or more precisely, to human consciousness, the central place in the
universal scheme? And the problematic implications of the von Neumann
formulation do not end there, because unless we deny the physical existence of
the Universe prior to the biological evolution of human consciousness we are
compelled to define Consciousness more broadly than in the context of the
individual human mind. In fact, we are obliged to at least entertain the
possibility that the Universe is in some sense Conscious a Consciousness which
manifests itself in the undivided Whole, but which also permeates down into the
increasingly finer, subtler levels of reality. Under such a quantum animism,
human consciousness may be seen to emerge from the all-pervading Universal
Consciousness by a process similar to the collapse of a quantum waveform into
the localized form of an observed particle.
is a place where Contrarieties are equally True.
Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The fundamental unity and
interdependence of what Blake styled Contrarieties is a concept which originated
with Heraclitus and Pythagoras and became a central tenet in the alchemy of
Paracelsus: “That which is beneath is like that which is above; and that which
is above is like that which is beneath.”
idealist-materialist poles of conventional philosophy, this esoteric tradition
viewed spirit and matter, light and darkness, time and eternity, above and
beneath as complementary principles, both alike rooted in a divine essence.
Universal intelligence, the alchemists’ deus absconditus, is
hidden and operating in matter, no less than in the realm of consciousness or,
as Blake expressed it poetically:
God is in
the lowest effects as well as in the highest causes.
In this visionary school of
thought, the myth of Osiris, whose divine body was dismembered and scattered
throughout the material world, was the archetype for the influx of Mind into
Matter. Though hidden in Matter, “the Light shineth in the Darkness,” in the
words of St. John’s gospel, conferring Form upon the otherwise watery material
Proceeding from the same fundamental Principle of Complementarity, David Bohm arrives at a remarkably similar paradigm of Mind and Matter, with subatomic particles guided in their movements by active information encoded in a field of quantum potential which communicates with the entire universe. Characteristically, Bohm (1994) chooses his words carefully, explaining the special nuances which he attaches to the notion of information:
“What is crucial here is
that we are calling attention to the literal meaning of the word, i.e.,
to in-form, which is actively to put form into something or to imbue something
It is easy to misconstrue this so-called pilot wave theory as a revival of the familiar certainties of classical physics, with a localized, tangible particle pushed around by a physical energy field. But in his final writings, Bohm takes great pains to explain that the quantum field exerts no force on the particle, and that both particle and field exist only in the implicate order which underlies manifest reality. Indeed, far from reverting to the pre-quantum Cartesian grid of Space/Time, Bohm’s theory for the first time proposes a non-Cartesian ontology of Space/Time which corresponds to von Neumann’s mathematical formulation of Hilbert Space:
“The basic idea is to
introduce a new concept of order, which we call the implicate or the enfolded
order. This is to be contrasted with our current concepts of order which are
based on the ideas of Descartes. The Cartesian grid (extended to curvilinear
coordinates), which describes what is essentially a local order, has been the
one constant feature of physics in all the fundamental changes that have
happened over the past few centuries. In the quantum domain, however, this order
shows its inadequacy, because physical properties cannot be attributed
unambiguously to well-defined structures and processes in space-time while
remaining within Hilbert space.”
What we are proposing here
is that this disparity between physical concepts (e.g., particle/wave,
position/momentum) and the implications of the mathematical equations arises
because the physical concepts are inseparably involved with the Cartesian notion
of order, and this violates the essential content of quantum mechanics. What we
need is a notion of order for all our concepts, both physical and mathematical,
which coheres with this content.
Just as the conventional
photograph may be viewed as a paradigm of the Cartesian order, with its
point-to-point correspondence between image and object, Bohm draws upon the
hologram as the paradigm of his implicate order, in which the entire form of the
object is enfolded within each point of the image.
Thus, “coordinates of Space/Time do not appear discretely in the implicate
order, but are enfolded in a unbroken wholeness, a sort of pre-space, each
dimensionless part of which embraces all of Space/Time.”
The trajectory of a particle through Space/Time can therefore be seen as a
holomovement, i.e., the
sequential unfoldment in Space/Time of a unitary eternal form in pre-space:
persists with a constant form is sustained as the unfoldment of a recurrent and
stable pattern which is constantly being renewed by enfoldment and dissolved by
unfoldment. When the renewal ceases the form vanishes…The notion of a
permanently existing entity with a given identity, whether a particle or
anything else, is therefore at best an approximation…
Although Bohm had only the
opportunity to draw out some of the initial implications of this revolutionary
new paradigm, it is possible to see in the holomovement a sort of cinematic, i.e.,
frame-by-frame, sequential rendering of an implicate subtext which exists
outside of Space/Time or, expressed more figuratively, the progressive
unfoldment of Eternity in Time and Infinity in Space.
Again, the poetic inspiration of William Blake proves amazingly prescient:
do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?
It may perhaps also be discerned that the sequential nature of the unfolding of the holomovement in Space/Time is a logical corollary of Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity (of which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is but a special case). Pursuant to Complementarity, certain groups of physical observables cannot be known at the same Space/Time juncture, because the mathematical operators which correspond to these conjugate attributes do not commute, i.e., the order in which the operators are applied makes a difference. That being the case, the occultation of past events in Space/Time, which is the hallmark of the explicate or manifest order, may be seen as necessary to prevent the violation of Complementarity which would result from the persistent observation of conjugate attributes.
But Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity also dictates that the knowledge of all complementary attributes is essential to render a complete picture of reality. Hence, since opposing potentialities cannot be manifested in the same Space/Time, the complete picture must be presented in installments, so to speak, with each frame disappearing from view before the manifestation of its complementary construct. Accordingly, manifest reality is not continuous, but instead composed of a cinematic progression of avatars from the implicate subtext, each avatar being separated by what Bohm characterizes as a free flight-time related to the Planck time.
The apparent continuity of reality, therefore, must be ascribed to the same sort of persistence of vision which accounts for the illusion of cinematic continuity. This, then, suggests itself as a paradigm for the role of Consciousness, which, like the goddess Isis, voyages through the formless waters of Space/Time, gathering up and reconstructing the dismembered body of Osiris—the undivided Whole of the implicate order:
processes of indefinitely deep inwardness and subtlety can, however, incorporate
the content of memory along with the rest of perception into wholes...
and the Implicate Order
Proceeding along the lines
of Bohm’s rejection of Mind-Matter Duality, it is reasonable to hypothesize
that, just as material phenomena are manifestations of an unfolding implicate
order, so the phenomena of Consciousness may be seen as the unfoldment of a
timeless, space-less, apparently random subtext (apparently, that is, because
the text of this page, viewed as the cumulative occurence of individual letters,
could also be interpreted as a random statistical process). Ultimately, at the
most subtle levels, the implicate orders of the material and psychic universes
are one, but it may be inferred that there are also intervening gradations of
ever-more-subtle levels, in which common pools of information link waking
consciousness with the unconscious, and the individual mind with a collective
The individual psyche erects
the abstraction of selfhood only by severing itself from what Blake describes as
“the scattered portions of his immortal body,” i.e., the seeds of
Universal Consciousness sown ubiquitiously into even the minutest furrows of
Matter. But the infinite potentialities of the scattered portions of Mind which
the Self must define as external will now represent inactive information, in the
same sense as do the un-actualized quantum potentialities of the observed
electron in Bohm’s theory.
Thus, as suggested earlier, individual consciousness may be abstracted from an
underlying pool of consciousness, in the same way as the observed Quantum wave
packet is collapsed from an overall wave function.
The consciousness of self in
turn implies the unconsciousness of those portions of Mind which are not self,
again because it is inherent in all observable phenomena that complementary
attributes cannot be manifested at the same time. Conversely, the experience of
the Unconscious, i.e., the Mind beyond the limits imposed by the limits
of the Self, is the sleep or occultation of consciousness. Just as the form of a
particle is sustained by continually converging and diverging waves unfolding
from an implicate field of quantum potential, consciousness may be seen as an
explicate form sustained by continually converging and diverging waves unfolding
from an unconscious field of psychic potential.
then, like its counterpart, the individual particle of matter, has no continuous
existence, but rather is a continual cinematic unfolding of the infinite content
of the Unconscious or, as Bohm puts it, “the action of the infinite within the
sphere of the finite.”
Thus, during waking hours, the implicate content of the Unconscious ostensibly
random, non-local, a-temporal, thing-less and all-entangled unfolds to sustain,
by continual re-creation, the explicate form of Consciousness. Here, then, is a
paradigm which accounts for that most-enigmatic characteristic of consciousness:
that of being, from instant to instant, continually different, yet (absent
pathology) replicating a constant form.
holomovement consistently to Mind as well as Matter, therefore, compels us to
consider the central role of what Freud called the dream-work in sustaining
healthy consciousness; for the recurrent and stable pattern which unfolds during
waking hours must be renewed during sleeping hours (or daytime rêveries)
by the enfoldment of waking experience into the seamless subtext of the
Unconscious. The alternative to the dream’s enfoldment of waking experience
follows inexorably from the nature of the holomovement: “When the renewal
ceases, the form vanishes.”
Once again, ancient
metaphysical traditions prove uncannily prescient of our emerging formulations.
In Hindu mythology, the manifest world unfolds, like a lotus flower, from the
universal dream of Vishnu:
Vishnu being the cosmic
water itself, the infinite ocean of that liquid life-substance out of which all
the differentiated phenomena and elements of the universe arise, and back into
which they must again dissolve.
Like Bohm’s pilot wave,
which guides and in-forms the path of the electron, the subtextual symbolic
language of dreams informs the conscious mind: “Dream symbols are the
essential message carriers from the instinctive to the rational parts of the
human mind, and their interpretation enriches the poverty of consciousness.”
Since consciousness is
continually re-created out of the implicate order of the unconscious, the
potential for the constantly-regenerated form to disperse or dissociate is
always real and imminent. Based on the holomovement paradigm, we might expect
such dissociation to result from either defective enfoldment of waking
experience arising, e.g., from dream disorders, or defective unfoldment
of the unconscious subtext in waking life. While the former tends to be a source
of pathology in the individual psyche, the latter may also manifest itself as a
disorder in the mass psyche of humanity.
An obvious example of such a
psychic unfoldment disorder on the societal level is what Jung refers to as the
“loss of the primitive psyche,”
a syndrome which effectively cuts modern humanity off from the infinite energy
of the deeper levels of the Unconscious. As David Bohm observed, within the
strait-jacket of the conventional 20th Century persona, the
individual sees the world “a set of disjoint mechanical fragments, one of
which is oneself.” Severed from its link to
the infinite, the psyche shrinks to insignificance in its own perception.
Drained of the energizing penumbra of the Unconscious, the material world takes
on a cold, distant, alien and monotonous cast, devoid of affect or color.
This deadening of psychic
energy or the blockage of its unfoldment reinforces itself in the complementary
process of enfoldment: the lifeless mechanical meaning applied to conscious
experience imprints its rigidity on the subtext of the psyche, so that its
unfoldment in consciousness becomes incompatible with creative perceptions.
Amazingly, the quantum
mechanics of David Bohm led him to the same insight which inspired the visionary
poetry of William Blake: Mankind’s fallen state is a condition of amnesia, a
forgetfulness of our infinite source in the conscious depths of the implicate
order. The reversal of this amnesia, the psyche’s reawakening to its eternal
wellsprings, begins with a radically new mode of perception (Bohm, 1994):
We have seen that man is
potentially infinite. Is man actually finite or infinite? As long as the
significance of the finite is what dominates his consciousness, then he will
actually be this finite significance. But when a human being truly sees
the new meaning that mankind need not be limited in this way, he will
actually cease to be limited. He will begin to open to the infinite, and he will
be able to act creatively in every phase of life, individual and collective.
We may perhaps discern the
approach of a new Millennium, with its archetypal nexus to the cyclical
movements of the implicate order, in the first rays of a dawning new perception
of Mind, a perception in which humanity rediscovers the active power of
Consciousness to transform Reality.
D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley, The Undivided Universe, Routledge, London,
M. Kafatos and R. Nadeau, The Conscious Universe: Part and Whole in
Modern Physical Theory, Springer-Verlag, New York, 1990.
N. Herbert, Elemental Mind: Human Consciousness and the New Physics,
Dutton, New York, 1993.
D. Bohm, Psychoscience, 1, 6-27 (1994).
Plotinus, “Concerning the Beautiful,” Enneads, lib. vi., 3
D. Bohm, Psychoscience, 1, 8 (1994).
D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley, The Undivided Universe, 353-365.
M. Kafatos and R. Nadeau, The Conscious Universe, 44-45.
N. Herbert, Op. cit., 5; M. Kafatos and R. Nadeau, Op. cit., 175-182.
Roger Bacon, The Mirror of Alchemy, quoting the Smaragdine Table
Wm. Blake, Annotations to Lavater, 630.
D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley, Op. cit., 35.
Cf. D.Z. Albert, “Bohm’s Alternative to Quantum Mechanics,” Scientific
American, 58-67 (May 1994).
D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley, Op. cit., 31-40.
D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley, Op. cit., 71, 386.
Wm. Blake, The Four Zoas, VIII.
D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley, Op. cit., 367.
D. Bohm, Quantum Theory, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1951;
Dover Ed., New York, 1989, 158-168.
D. Bohm, “Soma-Significance,” Psychoscience, 1, 26.
D. Bohm and B.J. Hiley, The Undivided Universe, 357.
J. Campbell, The Mythic Image, Bollingen, Princeton, 1974; quoting H.
Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, 165.
C.G. Jung, Man and his symbols, Dell, New York, 1964.
C.G. Jung, Op. cit., 89.
D. Bohm, “Soma-Significance,” Psychoscience, 1, 25.
D. Bohmand B.J. Hiley, Op. cit., 104-106.