Unfolding meaning

Unfolding meaning

a weekend of dialogue with David Bohm

Unfolding meaning is the record of a significant event. Over a weekend in Cotswold Hills of England, Professor David Bohm discusses with a group of 44 people of various backgrounds his most recent thoughts concerning mind, matter, meaning, the implicate order and a host of others subjects.

Introduction (Donald Factor)

Ideas, concepts and theories are the stuff of thoughts, and thought affects the world in pervasive ways. What we think about reality can alter our relationship to it, just as what we perceive in the world around us can alter our thoughts. With thought we see the world and in a continuing process learn to interact with that world. We can also solve problems, create new products, technologies, ways of dealing with our environment and with another.

Much of what we think remain hidden from our conscious awareness. Within our minds we carry a record of past experience, of lessons learned, of incidents and details long forgotten. Our thoughts are coloured and conditioned by language and culture. Often our thoughts lead to unexpected results.

David Bohm has suggested that thought is, by nature, incomplete. Any thought, idea, theory, is simply a way of seeing. If our thoughts are to be taken final, exact representation of reality, we eventually run up against conditions where they become irrelevant.

The sessions developed an atmosphere of mutual concern for the revelation of deeper insights. A spirit of friendship and respect emerged and quickly grew into a harmonious field where proposals of many sorts could be collectively investigated in safety and allowed to expand into new levels of understanding. A dialogue developed in which each participant was able to put aside his own views and listen to those of others. It became increasingly clear that no point of view was in itself complete, and that a collective process of thought was the means by which understanding could be enriched. This fact became the focus of the group's attention.

Friday evening: The first session

The Implicate Order
A New Approach to Reality

Throughout history there has been a succession of worldviews. Each of these has expressed the spirit of its time and has, in turn, had profound effects on the individual and the society as a whole. The first of these is the Greek notion of the earth at the centre of the universe. Man was thought to be the central importance in this whole system.

In the modern view, the earth is a mere grain of dust in an immense universe of material bodies such as stars and galaxies. The structures built out of them are like parts of a universal machine. This machine does not constitute a whole with meaning. In this view, man is basically insignificant. What he does has meaning only in so far as he can give it meaning in his own eyes.

In this mechanistic view, the world is reduced to a set of basic elements such as particles and fields that extend through space. They are basically external to each other: separate and independent. Therefore the elements don't grow organically as parts of a whole, so they may be compared to parts of a machine.

In an organism parts are affected by changes in other parts, so parts are basically internally related to each other as well as to the whole.

Modern faith in mechanism works in a very important domain, but theory of relativity introduced a number of fundamentally new concepts regarding space, time and matter, which is quite subtle, and the notion of separate and independent particles as basic constituents of the universe had to be given up. The basic idea was the idea of a field that spread continuously through space.

The quantum theory actually overturned mechanism in a much more thorough way in three main features. First, all action is in the form of discrete quanta. Electrons make 'quantum jumps', move from one orbit to another without passing in between. Secondly, matter and energy were found to have a dual nature, they can behave either like a particle or like a field according to how they were treated by the experiment. In mechanism, the nature of each thing should be independent of its context. But organisms are very dependent on their context.

The third point is a peculiar new property called non-locality of connection: particles can be connected at considerable distance. This violates the classical requirement of locality - that only things very close to each other can influence one another.

All these three features deny mechanism. In quantum mechanics, we don't have complete determinism. The laws are only determined statistically.

The basic concepts in quantum mechanics and relativity are quite contradictory. Relativity requires strict continuity, strict determinism, and strict locality. In quantum mechanism, there is discontinuity, non-determinism, and non-locality. But common to both is unbroken wholeness of the universe.

Each worldview holds within itself its basic notions of order. This leads naturally to the question: Is it possible to develop a new order in which the universe is unbroken wholeness? The proposal is that the basic order of universal movement is enfoldment and unfoldment. This means that each part is in a fundamental sense internally related to the whole and all the other parts. The mechanistic idea of external relation is not denied, but it is of secondary significance.

This is called the implicate order. In it, everything is folded into everything. Each part is in a fundamental sense internally related in its basic activities to the whole and to all the other parts. This can be directly experienced in consciousness. The content of consciousness of each human being is an enfoldment of the totality of existence, physical and mental, internal and external. This enfoldment is active in the sense that it enters in a fundamental way into the activities that are essential to what a human being is.

According to the content of his consciousness he acts, whether it is right or wrong. Each person is internally related to other human beings.

We have to see that our worldview is an active part of the world.

Saturday morning: The second session

We inquire because there is something that we do not understand, something is not working out right. Very often we ask a wrong question. It is important to question the question and its presuppositions.

One of our difficulties is that thoughts contain all sorts of presuppositions which limit us and hold us in rigid grooves. We have to get rid of them.

Thought is like a kind of program. The brain was never set up to be aware of its programs. They say there are three brains in us: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain and the more modern cortex or intellectual brain. The first two are suited for survival. When the brain suddenly expanded to produce thought, it did not have the capacity to see that thought made a program. Its actions were determined by that program. It attributed the actions of the program to the 'self'.

The problem is, how to be aware of these programs and is it possible to change the program? Thinking cannot change it because it is too fast. Thought cannot change it because it does not understand it.

Saturday morning: The third session

Soma-significance:The new notion of the relationship between the physical and the mental

Meaning is being given a key role in the whole of existence.

My proposal is that reality has two aspects: the subtle and the manifest. Physical response of the human being is profoundly affected by what physical forms mean to him. A change of meaning can totally change your response.

Most of the meaning is implicit. Whatever we say or do, we cannot possibly describe in detail more than a very small part of the total significance that we sense in a given moment.

The mind has available in principle an unlimited depth of subtlety, and learning can take place at all these levels.

Any fundamental change in meaning is a change in being for us. We could say that we are the totality of our meanings. Most of meanings come from society.

We are puzzled about the whole of life, and we have to see it with a new meaning.

Seeing something intellectually or abstractly will not change your intention. If you really see a new meaning to be true, then your intention will change - unless there is something blocking it.

Every emotion changes the brain. Certain meanings can greatly disturb the brain, other meanings may organize the new state. A change in the mental changes is a change in the physical, and vice versa. Living as we do, we probably have a great deal of subtle brain damage.

Social change requires a socially accepted meaning. According to the meanings accepted, the entire society went, from autocracy to democracy or to communism.

Once the meanings become fixed, the whole thing must gradually go wrong.

Our action toward the whole universe is a result of what it means to us. Nature is experimenting with all sorts of meanings. Anything that has survived for quite a long time is bound to have a tremendous degree of coherence with the rest of the universe.

Rather than to ask what is the meaning of this universe, we would have to say that the universe is its meaning. Similarly, there is no point in asking the meaning of life, as life too is its meaning.

Sunday morning: The fourth session

More on soma-significance meaning, space, time, matter, and memory

We generally see the effect of thought fused with perception. We have the program, and the program affects the seeing. The question is, can we see the program as the program. Thought is constantly trying to find ways of escaping, of avoiding the question. Thought is programmed to constantly bring in thoughts that would be more comforting or pleasant. They may be illusory, they usually are.

Sunday morning: The final session

Religion, wholeness and the problem of fragmentation

One of the many causes of degeneration is the general fragmentation. One of them is science, which is taking a fragmentary form and helping to produce fragmentation. The basic cause is that the content of thought took itself to be in correspondence with a reality other than thought. The divisions in thought were taken to mean objective divisions in external reality.

The basic feeling of religion is the yearning to wholeness. There is man's urge toward wholeness which expressed itself both in science and in religion. Nevertheless, religions came a major source of fragmentation.

I don't think that science and religion are the major causes of fragmentation. More powerful and pervasive is the identification of self as absolutely separate and distinct from others. What is relevant here is not only the individual ego, but also the collective ego in the form of the family, the profession, the nation, the political, religious ideology, and so on.

Fundamentally all human conflicts arise out of the attempt to protect ego interests. It is important to ask why the ego is such a hard nut to crack. Why is the ego, individual or collective, so important? Why people explode into violence and anger when they are insulted personally or even when family, religion, nation or ideology is treated as an outrageous way?

We could say that we are manifestations of the universal and we have to come in contact with this so that we can raise the question of whether we can combine the scientific and religious attitudes raising the question: Can wholeness be the subject of a free and unbiased inquiry? Is it possible for a human being, or a group of human beings, to actually come in contact with this universal energy, or to be aware of that contact? If this really possible then the egotism should go, right?