Thought as a System

David Bohm: 

Thought as a System

Routledge 1992

In Thought as a System David Bohm offers a radical perspective on an underlying source of human conflict and inquires into the possibility of individual and collective transformation. He takes as his subject the role of thought and knowledge at every level of human affairs from our private reflections on personal identity to collective efforts to fashion a tolerable civilization.

In conversation with 50 seminar participants in Ojai, California Bohm rejects the notion that our thinking processes neutrally report on what is 'out there' in an objective world. He explores the manner in which thought actively participates in forming our perceptions, our sense of meaning and daily actions. He suggests that collective thought and knowledge have become so automated that we are in large part controlled by them, with a subsequent loss of authenticity, freedom, and order.

Bohm redefines thought proposing that body, emotion, intellect, reflex, and artifact are on unbroken field of mutually informing thought.

The book is a transcription of a seminar held in Ojai, California from 30 November to 2 December 1990.

Foreword (by Lee Nichol)

We have inherited a belief that mind is of an inherently different and higher order than matter. This belief has nurtured a faith in what we call objectivity - the capacity to observe and report neutrally on some object or event, without having any effect on what we are looking, or without being affected by it. This perspective has given us scientific and cultural world view in which isolated, fragmentary parts mechanically interact with one another.

This view corresponds to 'reality' in significant respects, but we have overextended our faith in the objectivist perspective. Once we make the false assumption that thought and knowledge are not participating in our sense of reality, but only reporting on it, we are committed to a view that does not take into account the complex, unbroken processes that underlie the world as we experience it.

Bohm undertakes an extensive redefinition of thought.

1. Thought is not fresh, direct perception. It is literally that which has been thought - the past, carried forward into the present. It is the instantaneous display of memory, a superimposition of images onto the active, living present.

2. Memory allows us to perform the simplest task, such as getting dressed but is also responsible for various aspects of fear, anxiety or apprehension. So thought is also inclusive of feelings. Not only negative, painful emotions are folded into thought, but pleasurable ones as well. Bohm sees all feelings being thought-related.

3. Thoughts form a structure of neurophysiological reflexes, which become 'hard-wired' in consciousness to such an extent that they respond independently of our conscious choice.

4. Bohm includes human artifacts in his definition of thought. Computer systems, musical instruments, cars, and buildings are illustrations of thought in its fixed, concrete form.

5. Thought and knowledge are primarily collective phenomena. Our common experience is that we have personal thoughts that come from our individual 'self'. This culturally inherited sensibility overemphasizes the role of isolated parts. To Bohm flow of meaning between people is more fundamental than any individual's particular thoughts. The individual is thus seen as a private mixture of collective movements of values, meanings, and intentions.

6. Body, emotion, intellect, reflex, and artifact are to be seen as one unbroken field of mutually informing thoughts. These component interact so that we are compelled to see thought as a system. Our traditional world view of cause and effect does not take into account subtler aspects of thought's activity. This leads to a 'systemic fault' in the whole of thought.

7. Independence and conscious choice appear to be inherent in our actions but we are actually being driven by agendas which run faster than our choice - and are independent of it. Bohm sees the pervasive tendency of thought to struggle against its own creations as the central dilemma of our time. We must not only apply thought but understand what thought is in and around us.

8. Open learning lays the foundation to sensing our thoughts. We have bodily proprioception, we are aware that we walk, sit or eat without having to monitor what we are doing, but we don't seem to have proprioception of thought. The bodily awareness personifies in the image of a 'thinker' - an interior entity who seems to look out to the world, as well as inwardly at emotions, thoughts and so on. This thinker is a product of thought, rather than a transcendental entity.

9. To be aware of the reflexive structure of thought-feeling processes we need insight. To Bohm insight is not the a-ha phenomenon of having grasped some puzzle but active energy, a subtle level of intelligence in the universe at large. Bohm suggests that such insight has the capacity to directly affect the structure of the brain, dispelling the 'electrochemical fog' generated by accumulated reflexes. It has the potential to reorder our thought processes and bring about coherence that is unavailable through thought alone.

10. In a group dialogue, people may be able to detect the flow of meaning passing through the members. There is a possibility of direct insight into the collective movement of thought, rather than its expression in any particular individual. Potential for collective intelligence could lead to a new and creative art form and affect the trajectory of our current civilization.

Friday evening

The world is in a difficult situation and has been for a long time. There are ecological and economic crises and all sorts of religious and racial hatreds. People seem unable to get together to face common problems. Seeing what the world is, raises a question of what is going to happen to the human race. Is there any way out?

People have been dealing with symptoms and solving this or that particular problem. There is something that is generating all problems. The problem is in the way we try to solve our problems. We have to find the source of all these troubles.

The source is basically in thought. The reason we don't see this is that according to our tradition that is a means we try to solve our problems. Our culture prides itself on thought as its highest achievement. There is another side to thinking which is leading to our destruction.

One of the obvious things wrong with thought is fragmentation. Thought is breaking things up into bits which should not be broken up. Nationalism has broken things up, yet the world is all one. People depend on each other. No country is sovereign. The boundary of a nation is invented and established by thought. Nations fight each other and people kill each other. People are split into religious groups, nations, and sections.

It is thought that makes it so: establishing boundaries where really is a close connection and trying to establish unity where there isn't any. We have false division and false unification. Thought is pretending that there is sharp division outside and everything is unified inside. It is not really so.

Fragmentation is though only a symptom. The more general difficulty with thought is that it is very active, participatory. It has produced tremendous effects outwardly and also inwardly in each person. Yet the tacit assumption is that it is just telling you the way things are and that is not doing anything. We assume that there is an 'I' inside us deciding what to do. It is not true. Thought gives us the false information that I control my thoughts. It creates the impression that it is our servant and does what we want, but thought runs you.

Thought creates divisions and then says that they are there naturally. Every religion was invented by people thinking what is right and true.

Another problem with thought is that it divides itself from feeling and the body. They are not different. There is a good physical reason that feelings and thoughts affect each other. It is in the structure of the brain. There is an intellectual center in the cortex, the outer layers of the brain. Deeper down there is an emotional center and between them is a very thick bundle of nerves connecting them. The intellectual center tells whether an emotion is appropriate or not. They are two sides of the same process, but our language separates them. There is no division. There is a profound connection between the state of the body and the way we think.

This false division causes confusion and incoherence. It means that we produce problems without end which have no solution. We did not set up nations in order to suffer endless wars, hate, starvation, slavery but that is what happened. The major problem with thought is that it is doing something and then it struggles against what it is doing. It does not want to know that it is doing it. That is sustained incoherence. There is also simple incoherence because we cannot avoid making mistakes.

Nobody has the intention of producing this sort of situation. We don't realize that it is our deeper, hidden intentions which have produced it. It is thought that produces this kind of incoherence. We are producing situations contrary to our conscious intentions.

Thought is a system including also felt, feelings, state of the body and the whole society sharing thoughts. It is essential not to break that up because it is all one process. Somebody else's thoughts become my thoughts and vice versa. It would be wrong and misleading to break it up to my thought, your thought, my feelings, your feelings. A system means a set of connected things or parts. The parts have very little meaning separately.

A system is constantly engaged in a process of change although there are certain features which become relatively fixed. We call this the structure. We have structures and fixed features in thought as well.

There is a systemic fault, something has gone wrong in the system, but in dealing with it we use the same kind of fragmentary thought that produced the problem, therefore it is not going to be solved.

In science and technology we can get some clear and coherent thought, but when we use science we forget the scientific method and use the knowledge for national or religious purposes. Good intentions are counteracted by another set of 'polluted' intentions.

There is a deeper perception or intelligence that is able to see incoherence. It goes beyond memory. We need insight. Key point is to break the old mold of thought.

Pain is one sign of incoherence, a warning. Our instinctive wish to get rid of pain is not appropriate with thought. Something much more deep and subtle is needed. Our tacit assumption of thought is that 'I' am doing everything and thought is just telling me the way things are.

Saturday morning

The positive and the negative are two sides of one system. Anything positive is implicitly negative and vice versa. If someone wants to engage in positive thinking it's only he is caught up in negative thinking and wants to overcome that. Negative thoughts go into abeyance and don't bother him so much. There is still incoherence. As long as we accept images as realities we are in a trap because you cannot control the images.

Somewhere in the middle of the brain, there are pleasure-pain centers. Every time you stir up pleasure, all the pain centers around also come in to compensate. There is always a mixture of the two. The process gets complex because we introduce words about it, saying something is either pleasurable or painful. You can't separate the two. Therefore the process of pursuing pleasure is not going to work.

It is useful to look at thinking as a system of reflexes. A reflex just operates. We think we are controlling thought and producing thought. That is not so. Vast amount of our thought just comes out from the reflex system. The question is: can you become aware of the reflex character of thought?

Reflexes serve us if they are not too rigid. If they don't work or are incoherent, we can drop them or they may drop themselves.

There is a neurochemical reason for rigid thoughts. A strong thought with a lot of emotion being constantly repeated makes a powerful effect. It produces a defensive reflex. The question is: is it coherent, does it produce the result we intend? It is coherent only when the reflex changes when something changes outside. A species that is not coherent either with itself or with its environment doesn't survive.

Coherence is sensed as harmony, order, beauty, goodness, truth, and all that everybody wants. There is no unique criterion for coherence, but you have to be sensitive to incoherence. Incoherence means conflict, contradiction, and confusion.

The principal thing is to notice that your incoherent actions are reflexes. You are not doing them on purpose. you don't know that you are doing them. Reflex produces the result which you don't want.

How are we going to change the reflexes? Understanding is important, but it will not be enough. Verbal or intellectual understanding has no value. we need to pay attention. If we think of thoughts as reflexes, it will help us to understand the system better.

It is valuable to draw this 'intellectual map' right. Now we have a misleading map that thought and feeling and the chemistry are all different. We need a more coherent map, new kind of thought about thought.

One of the most powerful thoughts people have is the thought of necessity. It is much more than a thought. Something that is necessary is a very powerful force which you can't turn aside. It is something we hold to. The opposite of it is contingency. It means 'what can be otherwise'. These notions are always operating, they have become part of our reflexes.

If you think something is impossible to do, you are saying it can't be done. Therefore, you will not even try. This traps you into making it impossible. On the other hand, you may think something is possible, which is not, and batter your head on a stone wall.

People have different assumptions as to what is necessary or absolutely necessary. That is what we are fighting about. These assumptions prevent dialogue because they create a set of reflexes to defend with absolute force.

The notion of necessity is not only intellectual. It involves everything. All the adrenalin you need will be released when you defend your assumptions of necessity.

The instinct of self-preservation is generally regarded as a very powerful set of reflexes built in by a set of genes, but the notion of absolute necessity will override that every time whether it is your country, your God or your ambition that you give absolute value to.

Notions of necessity move you. You get a feeling of urge. You are impelled (impulse to act), sometimes compelled, propelled or even repelled. You feel there is a 'me' that has the impulse. You don't see that there is a system involving the thought behind the impulse. Our intentions come from the system.

It is important to see that it is all tightly connected. We should draw dotted lines between thinking and feeling and chemistry, not solid lines.

The question is: Is there something beyond the reflex, something unconditioned? If everything is conditioned, there is no way out. The fact that we are able to see new things suggests that there is the unconditioned. Whether we assume that there is the unconditioned or is not, we are stuck. We have to leave room in our thoughts for possibilities. If thought merely sticks to what it knows, it has no way of saying there is no unconditioned.

Our brain is set up to hide our assumptions. It is worth fishing around to put the assumptions into words. Word is the button. We need a correct description of the way we are actually thinking.

Saturday afternoon

To see our system of reflexes we must suspend our reactions. Then we must try to put them into words. Words represent thought, they are a way to bring thought into evidence. Often thought works implicitly without our being aware of it.

We have a picture (in our mind) that there is 'somebody' inside us who is given all this information and then it decides to have the intention to do something based on that. I'm suggesting that it is not so.

We must see that thought is always incomplete. The thought about the table does not cover all about the table. It picks a few points about it. Our thought about it is a simplification or an 'abstraction'.

One way of looking at it is to say that thought provides a representation of what you´re thinking about. An artist makes a picture which represents somebody but is not somebody. Likewise, thought does not provide complete information on the thing it is about.

Everything you think about is connected to reflexes which will involve what you can do with it. That is how thought works. It gives you vast amounts of connected, logically interrelated information. It has tremendous potential for connecting things up.

Thought organizes itself into a very complex, rich structure. We form very abstract symbols. Some are general and some particular. A symbol stands in for the thing. A word is a symbol.

Thought gets into trouble for many reasons. One reason is that the chemistry is too rigid, or there is the thought of absolute necessity.

Thought is always trying to claim that it knows everything. This is a very dangerous tendency, which leads to self-deception. It doesn't leave open the unknown. You must leave room in your thought for something more and something different. For example, religious and political thought often don´t do so, not even scientific thought. A lot of thought is aimed at increasing our security, but there is always uncertainty, there is always the unknown. Our representations are adequate only up to a point. Knowledge is limited because it is only a representation. Knowledge may be adequate, but it is not the thing itself. It is not 'that which is'.

The point is whether reality coheres in our experience. If it does not cohere, then we have to change it. The brain is forming a kind of representation of reality, which is able to guide you properly if it is coherent. It is clear that this is constructed. Representations and appearances can be correct up to a point, or they are illusory. Thought is affecting what you see. You may miss the fact that perception is coming from thought, for instance seeing someone as an enemy.

It is crucial to see this: the representation affects perception. It is a tremendous source of illusion if we lose track of the fact that this is happening. We make the world according to thought, but thought is also affecting perception.

One of our assumptions is that certain kind of thought does not participate - they only tell you the way things are, but it actually does affect our perception. This is a crucial mistake and can be very dangerous.

With the body, we have an interesting thing called proprioception, which means 'self-perception'. If you move any part of your body, you know immediately that you have moved it. The movement resulted from your intention. You don't have to think.

Normally this quality of proprioception exists for the body. We need to see and be aware of the relation between the intention to move and the movement.

Thought is also a movement. It moves from one thing to another. It may move the body or the image we have. We should think of thought as a part of the bodily movement. Our culture has led us to believe that thought and bodily movements are two totally different spheres which are not basically connected. Maybe they are not different. The evidence is that they are intimately connected with the whole system.

If thought is a reflex, it ought to be aware of its own movement. We can be aware how thought produces a result outside ourselves and then maybe we could also be attentive to the results it produces within ourselves. It has to be immediate, or we will never get it clear.

Is such proprioception of thought possible? Can the movement of thought be aware of itself? The basic trouble with thought now is that it participates and is not aware of how it is participating. Could we be aware, that this change of perception came through thought and this change of perception came because the object actually changed?

I may perceive that you became angry to me. That may happen because you actually became angry or I just thought so.

Thought takes itself as very big, but maybe it is just a ripple on the stream. The stream is the stream of consciousness. It has to be aware of itself. The question is: can the stream of consciousness be proprioceptively aware of this ripple that it is producing, just as it is aware of how it moves the body? In our mode of consciousness, this ripple seems to be perceived as everything.

If you could see the activity of thought, you might discover that most of the things we are counting on actually are just nothing. They are produced by thought - the self and society. But memory is not adequate for perceiving the movement of thought. Memory will never perceive the immediate, direct movement of thought.

Sunday morning

When you are sitting in the chair, you are aware of your body touching the chair. You are not really thinking about it or making decisions or choices. We are asking if proprioception could work similarly with thought. You would become directly aware that your thought is affecting your perceptions. When you see something produced by thought, next thought says 'I'm only telling you the way it is´. Thought makes a mistake that is crucial.

Imagination is closely related to proprioception. There are two kinds of imagination. Creative imagination means imagining things that are unknown. Another kind of imagination is called fancy or fantasy. It can be useful to imagine things or ourselves doing or being something, but it can be dangerous when fantasy slips over into apparent perception. Then you are not perceiving the thing imagined but the self that is doing it.

Thought is working as a kind of imagination being infused into your perception. It may resist the evidence of incoherence and lead to problems.

In fantasy, you can create pleasure, pain, and fear from memory similar to what might be produced if it were not memory. You may not see want to know the difference when the memory is nice. You don't want the evidence that it is not real.

By words, you can create fantasies. That is what advertising is doing all the time. Combination of words and images creates fantasies.

Imagination and fantasy are giving a sense of a self that could be very different from your usual sense. You really feel it, experience it. Watching a movie you can get lost in the characters and think that you are one of them. The television image is nothing but a lot of dots of light on the screen, all the things you see in there are really yourself.

That is how you perceive everything. There is nothing but flashing lights. You see people, trees, feel anger, fear, pleasure, but it's all yourself, imagination being into the picture on the screen. Thought does not know that it enters perception. Most of the time you don't need to know. Self-deception arises when we resist seeing that it is happening.

Self-image has several parts. One part seems to be 'somebody' inside at whom you are looking. Another part seems to be 'somebody' who is looking. We have different words for these. The word 'I' stands for the subject, the one who sees, acts, does, who has will. 'I' is the active agent: I will, I see, I choose. I think.

There is also a 'me' to whom it is all done. 'Me' is the object, everything happens to me.

The basic concept of the 'self' unites those two. I and me are two sides of myself. So there are me, myself and I, that is the concept of the self.

People don't know how to resolve the contradiction between 'I am' and 'me'. We are insulted if someone treats us as an object, yet 'me' is, by definition, an object.

When we produce self-image in fantasy, it becomes the thing we are longed for. When the image is punctured it hurts. The image is very powerful. Human affairs are very powerfully dominated by it.

Self-image becomes central and everything is arranged to feed and sustain it. Why do people do this? This structure has actually no basis except thought.

The whole system of thought gives us our identity, our place in the world. Without the system, we would have no identity.

The notion of identity is not very coherent. The basis of it is very ephemeral (temporal). The question is: does the human being exist with a permanent identity? If there is, what would it be?

There is another way of looking at the human being. The ground of any person is really unknown. We ourselves are matter which has come together from all over the world. Materially our ground is really the whole universe.

The matter in us is actual, but our thoughts about it are not. They are representations, they contain forms. The thought about the table contains a form, but the table does not end the way we see it.

In modern physics empty space is full of energy. Each wave in empty space has a certain minimum energy and if you add up all the waves it would be infinite. The total energy in a cubic centimeter of 'empty space' would be more than the energy of all the matter in the universe. So space is full and matter is a small ripple on it.

Similarly whatever is behind the mind, is a vast stream and on the surface are ripples which are thought.

The only reason that this energy does not show is that matter and light go right through it without deflecting. We experience empty space, but it may also be regarded as the fullness of space, which is the ground of all existence. Matter is a small variation on this ground.

We perceive the thing we are representing. What we 'see' is a self, but what we actually have is a whole lot of thoughts going on in consciousness. You cannot touch the self. The attempt to treat the self as an object is just not going to mean anything. The self is unknown and its origin and ground is unknown, but it is constantly revealing itself.

One point is to clear up the thought that we are something limited and known. We cannot be, because nothing can be limited and known, at best it can be an abstraction or a representation. There is always the vast unknown. In physics, there is this almost infinite energy in empty space. That is revealing itself.

This is the creative view of being, rather than the idea of an identity of being.

The search for the ultimate knowledge is a very serious mistake, part of the flaw in the system. It is an incoherent procedure. We have to be open. The source of truth is beyond what thought can grasp. Perception of truth gives rise to thought which can then act in a more coherent way.

Truth is not just floating out there abstractly, but truth actually is. Perception of truth gives rise to thought which can act in a more coherent way.

Truth is not a reflex. It is a creative perception. We need the reflex, but not to be dominated by the reflex. The perception of truth changes the system and produces words, which communicate a new foundation for thought.

Truth is action from moment to moment.

Sunday afternoon

Just as thought separates the self into the subject and object, into the observer and the observed, it also separates people. When people are in communication, in some sense a oneness arises between them as much as inside the person.

In society we have a culture, basically, it is shared meaning. Without that society will fall apart: it is kind of cement that holds society together. There are also many subcultures that share opposing meanings. People have different assumptions and they divide the world. Every assumption is implicitly a reflex and a set of intentions. If they are challenged, a person may jump up with an emotional charge.

Just as it happens with the individual, so it moves out into the group. Each person is affected by other people's thoughts and feelings. If one person is angry, the other is angry. It all spreads.

The dictionary gives three senses of the word 'meaning': significance, value, and purpose. They are connected, related words. If something means a lot to you, it has high value and it makes you want to do it.

Whatever we want to do, we have to start by seeing the significance. What things mean to us, determine the way you act. People are seeing the meaning differently, which is why we can't get together.

We must start from the fact, but personal and collective thoughts and myths are entering perception. We do not see the facts directly.

We have to start from the meaning. We must see the necessity of shared meaning. If we listen to every thought and see its meaning, we begin to establish purposes, which may help bring us towards it. Then there is one mind', because we all have the same content. At that moment difference is secondary.

Our culture tells us that each individual is separate, and therefore we perceive it that way. The body has relative independence, but with the mind, we have become to the notion that it is individual and we don't notice all the plain evidence from which you could infer that it is not.

There is an element of individuality in the actual physical neurochemical process. But the word 'individual' means literally 'undivided'. That might raise the question of freedom. You may have several alternatives which are correct like there are several roads to a certain place.

The new culture will arise first by our seeing the meaning of the whole situation and seeing the value of it.

One of the questions in all this is time. All thought involves time in a way which we don't see. We tend to think that everything exists in time, that time is an independent reality. In a diagram, they draw a line and call it time. There is a point which is now.

We seem also to experience time psychologically. In our culture, we have a tacit assumption that everything exists in time. The notion of time itself is misunderstood. Time is only an abstraction and representation. You imagine the past is behind and the future stretches ahead, but the past is nowhere, the future is nowhere. We seem to be moving from the past toward the future, but that experience isn't making sense. All you have is the present, the now.

The past is mostly invented. You can hardly remember very much of what happened in the past. And the future is an expectation which is seldom realized. You can't count on a physical fact that we will meet at a given time. So psychological time is not so coherent. The moment now is the essence, because the past and future are now.

This ties with thought. The separation of observer and the observed is simply an image and they are in fact one thought process. If the observer wants to observe anger he has already been affected by anger in a distorted way. There is nothing but thought, which has been affected by anger. This requires insight, which would free the whole process.

In the same way, we need to do about time as we deal with anger. We have to begin to see how our experience of time is affected by thought. We see that time would not be there without thought. The liberation from this process of incoherent thought requires bringing in all the questions, including time.

For insight together we need dialogue. Individually a person can have insight, but we need it together.

Thought is constantly trying to grasp things and bring order to them. If psychological time was not there, incoherent things in the process of thought would not occur. That requires insight into the whole thing. That would open the door to freedom, collectively as well as individually to friendship and fellowship and love.