Quantum Leaps

An interview with David Bohm

At the age of sixty-seven years, David Bohm is one of the foremost theoretical physicists of our time. He is also one of the most inaccessible. “You want to see Professor Bohm?” asked a student while I waited outside Bohm’s office at Birkbeck College of the University of London. “Everybody wants to see Professor Bohm. I’ve been here for four years, and this is the first time I’ve gotten to talk to him.” To some extent, this fame is due to Bohm’s latest book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, in which he presents his holistic vision of the universe. This work has been acclaimed inside and outside the scientific community.

Bohm’s career track has glittered from the start. He was considered by many to be the most brilliant pupil of Robert Oppenheimer, with whom he obtained his Ph.D. and worked on the Manhattan Project, which built the H-Bomb. His first book, Quantum Theory was praised by Einstein for making sense of an abstruse area of physics that Einstein had always regarded with misgivings.

Since the ’60s Bohm has been associated with the individualistic philosopher Krishnamurti, whose teachings parallel many of Bohm’s discoveries in subatomic physics. Along with neurologist Karl Pribam, he evolved the holographic model of consciousness, which revolutionized scientific thinking about the brain. He is also responsible for many of the ideas currently in circulation about the relationship between science and mysticism.

In the following interview, Dr. Bohm sums up his beliefs on the philosophical and pragmatic consequences of living in a holistic universe.

— Robert Anton Wilson


Robert Anton Wilson: Would you explain the concepts of enfolding and unfolding, which are central to your work?
David Bohm: Certainly. When I talk on a telephone, my speech becomes enfolded as electrical impulses and travels in that form until it arrives at the other end, where it unfolds as speech again. There are countless examples. Genetic information is enfolded in your genes when you are conceived, and it unfolds as your body grows. The apple seed enfolds the information of the apple tree, and so on.

Wilson: Your interpretation of quantum mechanics is that information is continually being enfolded and unfolded in that way through-out nature?
Bohm: Yes. Let me clarify that this is based on the belief that the equations of quantum theory are describing an actual world, a belief that many physicists do not accept. I am saying that if the equations do refer to an actual world, they refer to a world that is a whole and not an assembly of parts. Various people, as early as the ’20s, realized that quantum equations implied some form of holism. But nobody much thought about it, because we were trained that philosophy was a waste of time and we should speak only about actual readings of actual instruments. As a result, the whole teaching of physics has degenerated. It has become mechanical, and this is lamentable. Students are just given the equations and told, “That’s quantum mechanics.” The next generation writes books on that anemic basis, and everybody forgets the urgent philosophical questions that the equations contain. To mention the most obvious implication, ancient Greece, like the Orient, had a holistic cosmology. We were taught that that was obsolete, and that the mechanical cosmology of Newton was better. Now we see in quantum mechanics that we have to think holistically again.

Wilson: Would you explain briefly your concept of the whole and how it relates to the hierarchy of forms?
Bohm: I sometimes use the analogy of a computer game. What you see is the unfolded order—the spaceships, or whatever, that appear on the screen. I call that the explicate order, and it is comparable to what we see around us in the universe. If you ask where it comes from, the answer is that the spaceships are created by circuits within the computer. I call that the first implicate order. If you analyze further, you will find that the circuits behave the way they do because of a program, so I call that the second implicate order. If you go further, you come to the mind of the programmer, which is the third implicate order, and that’s as far as you can go in this model.

Wilson: Going beyond the computer analogy, how many implicate orders do you think there are in the universe?
Bohm: I don’t know. They may be infinite. But however many implicate enfolded orders there may be, they culminate in unity on a higher level. There is a hierarchical order—each order of things is part of a larger order, which is part of a still more inclusive order, and so on. Every defined thing is projected from an undefined whole.

Wilson: Can you bring that back down to an image we can visualize?
Bohm: Certainly. Just think of a wave in the ocean. One type of causality—mechanical causality—will explain the wave by reference to previous waves. The present wave is then the result of all the previous waves. What I am saying is that all the previous waves have been re-enfolded into the ocean, and the present wave is being re-unfolded out of the ocean, so to explain the present wave you need to refer to the past waves and the whole ocean.

Wilson: You often relate this model to the idea of creativity, do you not?
Bohm: Yes. If you look at nature, you will see elaborate and complex forms appear that are not explained by the mere requirement of survival. Each moment is creative—the wave is not merely the result of past waves but of past waves and the ocean, of the explicate order and the enfolded implicate order. What emerges, the new wave, will be heavily influenced by the past waves but not determined by them. According to this model, the possibility of originality and creativity is there every moment. The new wave might be similar to a flash of creative thought in your own mind. What happens in consciousness and what happens in nature are not fundamentally different. The forms of matter are, in their own way, the result of creativity and insight. So, in this model, nature is alive all the way to the depths, as Whitehead would say.

Wilson: Your friend Krishnamurti stresses the creativity of each moment in a way very similar to that.
Bohm: Yes, but he also stresses the burden of the past, the probability that mechanical reactions will just lead to a repetition of the past. The problem that Krishnamurti addresses is that we tend to be dominated by the past, and because of this we resist creativity. His emphasis on being in the present moment is a way of saying, “Let the past die.”

Wilson: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from Krishnamurti?
Bohm: His emphasis on the importance of thought. Most people do not understand how greatly thought influences mankind. Here I want to make a distinction between thinking and thought. The resultant of many acts of thinking becomes the general program called thought, which can be stored in a library or computer or in one’s own brain and then consulted later. Once a thought has been made into a program in that way, you do not have to think it again: you have it in storage. Now, this is a great labor-saving device—all that we see around us as civilization and technology is the result of the thought of past centuries, which we do not have to repeat—but it is also dangerous. If we do not have to think again, if we can just consult old thoughts, then we may become mechanical. This is why Krishnamurti continually warns us against the past. If the danger there isn’t clear, just reflect for a moment on the extent to which war and racial hatreds are maintained by old thoughts from past centuries.

Wilson: How does this relate to your ideas of enfolded and unfolded orders?
Bohm: If you add up the energy of empty space in every part of the universe, you find that is a very large amount of energy indeed. It is far greater, for instance, than the energy that would be unleashed by annihilating all the matter in the universe. So you can say that matter is just a ripple on the vast ocean of energy. Even the so-called big bang from which matter emerged is only a big bang from our point of view; from the viewpoint of empty space, it is just another ripple. All matter is ripples compared to the ocean of energy, and what we know is just a scratching on the surface of the surface of things. What I am saving is that order is basically enfolded in that ocean of energy and cannot be understood solely in its unfolded form as matter. Go hack to the computer game analogy. What we see are the spaceships. The explanation of what we see can only be found in the circuits that we do not normally see, and the program that governs the circuits, and the mind of the programmer.

Wilson: This is rather like Buckminster Fuller’s concept of synergy, the whole that cannot be predicted from the parts.
Bohm: To go back to the ocean metaphor, we all realize, if we think about it, that the waves do not exist apart from the ocean and cannot be abstracted from the ocean. We tend to think, however, that particles can be abstracted from the whole, and then we get into problems and paradoxes. I am saying that the particles are not things at all, not abstracted from the whole, but are likes waves or ripples. We see a particle here and a particle there, and when we try to explain them as isolated things, we find that doesn’t work. So I am saying we have to consider them as related in a way that depends on the whole.

Wilson: Some physicists say that this sounds rather like Plato’s theory of the Ideas behind the material universe.
Bohm: Yes, and it is also rather like Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields, which carry information nonlocally among similar organisms. I agree with Sheldrake and disagree with Plato in that I don’t think of the enfolded order as timeless. It unfolds in the form of matter continually and re-enfolds continually—technically, I call it projection and re-introjection—and I assume that it is acquiring information or doing something akin to “learning” every step of the way.

Wilson: Some popularizers of quantum theory say that this holistic view is badly needed because mechanistic thinking has had bad effects socially. Do you agree with that?
Bohm: No, I think that is an oversimplification. As I said before, the ancient world had a holistic view, but that did not keep them from getting into trouble. Most dictatorships have a holistic view—that’s what “totalitarian” means.
If you take a holistic view and try to apply it everywhere and refuse to think of any alternative, you will make mistakes. In fact, it was the mistakes of the medieval holists that led to the rebellion against them and the rise of mechanistic philosophy in Bacon and Newton. Now I think we see again in our time that the limitations of the mechanistic view are becoming obvious, so we need a new development of holism again. But the problem is never in any particular model per se. The problem is that models are thought, and thought is the past and can prevent us from fresh thinking now. No model is equal to the whole universe, because the only thing equal to the whole universe is the whole universe. No thought can grasp the whole, because thought is a part, not the whole. So we need to use each model where it is useful and replace it, without regret, when it is no longer useful.

Wilson: Would you explain how this relates to holograms?
Bohm: It is not precise; I only use the hologram model as an analogy. What I am saying is that you can get an idea of how the implicate or enfolded order works if you think of how a hologram works. The information in a hologram is in every part. You can take out a very small part of a large hologram and it contains the image of the whole. That is how the parts relate to the whole in my theory of quantum mechanics, and this helps you think of how two seemingly isolated particles can be related to each other and to the whole, since they are parts that contain the image of information of the whole.

Wilson: That’s rather like the medieval hermetic saying, “That which is above is reflected in that which is below.”
Bohm: Yes. There was a very sophisticated holistic philosophy current in Europe before the rise of mechanistic philosophy. As I said, it was the attempt to explain everything holistically that got them in trouble and led to mechanistic thinking as a reaction, just as today it is the attempt to explain everything mechanically that is leading to a revival of holism. It is always an error to think one model will solve all our problems. No thought is able to grasp the unlimited.

Wilson: That is very close to Buddhism. The Buddhists are always saying, “Do not cling to ideas.”
Bohm: Yes. The Buddhists are aware that no view covers everything. Of course, scientific training also teaches us, or should teach us, not to cling to beliefs. We should play with ideas to find what good is in them, but we should not clutch them dogmatically.

Wilson: What effect will the revival of holism have on our culture?
Bohm: Since science has replaced religion as the source of belief in our society, this will have some effect eventually. Every culture is influenced by its metaphysical ideas of order—we can’t think without some concept of order—and thinking of holistic order is going to change many of our recent assumptions. But I don’t believe physics alone will have this effect. First the holistic model has to catch on in biology, for instance—where mechanistic models are still entrenched —and only gradually and later will this permeate our whole culture. I have no doubt that we will have a very different society when people cease to think of all things as separate from each other and acting mechanically.

Wilson: In conclusion, how do you see the relation of mechanism and holism in the real universe —or in actuality, as you would say? Aside from their uses to us as models, I mean, how are they related out there in the actual?
Bohm: Our thoughts about that will change many times, I am sure. The only time thought does not change is when it is frozen or fossilized, as in racism or other fallacies. However, my best guess is that as we go along we will see more and more that these models are not mutually exclusive. We will see, I think, that the universe is like music, and that there are always at least two themes interwoven.

Quantum Leaps
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in the New Age Journal in June 1985.