David Bohm - On Dialogue (1996)

“A contradiction involves two things that cannot fit together, while a paradox, which appears at first sight to be a contradiction, on closer examination has a resolution.”

David Bohm (1917 - 1992) is one of the most original 20th century thinkers. The Dalai Lama considered him his scientific guru and Einstein called him his spiritual successor. You can find an interview with David Bohm recorded in 1989 at the Nils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen on youtube. It is a good introduction to his scientific work. He is not immediately the most dynamic speaker, but what he says is fascinating. If you were to watch the video, pay attention to his hands as he speaks. It seems as if his thinking is supported by the movement of his fingers and hands. This was 3 years before his death.

Interviewer (I): “Do you find that the kind of ideas that you present are easily understood in an environment like the Bohr Institute?

David Bohm (DB): “I think that scientists find it harder in some ways than many other people because there is still a strong commitment, partly unconscious, to the old atomistic worldview. They have become so used to the way of seeing it that they don’t want to change it. They feel uncomfortable about changing and they feel there is no reason to change. We are doing so well, so why do we need to change? In some sense it looks as if we are doing very well, but if you look at the broader view, it looks very dangerous.”

I: “Do you see a new worldview coming up in the Western world?”

DB: “In a certain part of the Western world, yes. I think a worldview that’s more focused on wholeness and process rather than on analysis into parts and more static constituents.”

I: “But does that come up because we want it or because we are forced to?”

DB: “Ah well, probably both. I think a certain fraction of the people want it. Perhaps they’re tired of the old one. They don’t feel it working. There’s also some evidence for it especially in physics. The evidence comes partly from relativity and partly from quantum theory. Perhaps more from quantum theory than relativity.”


I: “What we can see is the parts rather than the whole?”

DB: “Well in physics we see the parts because that's the way we approach them over the last few centuries. I think our perception is influenced by our way of thinking so that we accept this mechanical way of looking at things. If you went back a thousand or two thousand years I don't think people actually saw the parts as primary. The way we see it depends on the way we think.

I: “But is it a choice? Do we have to choose between the whole and the parts?”

DB: “No. It's a question of whether you have a holistic approach which puts the whole as primary. In classical physics the parts are the primary concept and the whole is only an auxiliary concept which is convenient for when you have many parts working together like a machine. The parts are taken as the basic reality. We place the parts as fundamental while in quantum theory the whole is fundamental. That's, I think, the most basic change it makes. Finally every theory is made up by us and then we're going to see whether we can apply it coherently to reality. I think we can come up with an infinity of different kinds of theories. Some theories are more coherent than others but it's often hard to tell because, when we come to a theory as broad as a worldview, we find it very hard to detect incoherence because the worldview tends to state that things that don't fit are irrelevant. People don’t like to have their worldviews questioned because they have got used to them and feel comfortable with them. Therefore it's very hard to question a worldview.”

I: “In effect that's what you are doing? You are questioning the whole Western worldview.”

DB: “Yes well, I think even all the worldviews need to be questioned: the Eastern and the Western. The West has, in a sense implicit, questioned the Eastern world view. Every worldview, I think, is limited but I think the Western worldview’s limits have not been seen. We need to go to a broader view. Not necessarily back to the Eastern, though it may include some of the Eastern. I think we need a kind of dialogue of these worldviews to go to something beyond.”


I: “In this transition from seeing the “world as parts” to the “world as a whole” - that you think we all need to survive - there are going to be many difficulties. How do you see that transition?

DB: “Well I don't see exactly how it's going to happen. I think that we are faced with these challenges: the danger of nuclear war, the danger of ecological destruction or many other dangers. The fact that our cities are becoming difficult to live in. That the cars will eventually clog them. Up to now people are committed to the view of economic growth but that is just what will destroy the planet. Somehow there has to be a change where we say the desire for material goods has to be more limited which means people will have to find something else in life, right? There is some movement in that way. The question is will it be fast enough. If we had more time I would be much more confident.

I: “What's the most important thing: money or consciousness?”

DB: “Consciousness! Whether money is spent will also depend on consciousness and whether we feel we're part of this one world or whether we all think we are separate. [...] A change of consciousness is needed and the worldview is part of that.”

I: “And what is the most important way that this change in consciousness will come about?”

DB: “I don't know myself. I suppose there are many factors. It's like a stream from many springs. I think one of the most important factors would be to have dialogue of many different kinds of people. Not only East and West or North and South, but, for example, a dialogue among scientists. I think scientists find it very hard to have a true dialogue because they're so committed to their views. They should have dialogues among each other or with non scientists. Even religious people.”

The most intriguing about Bohm is how he builds bridges between quantum theory and thought, among other things. He once said, "Thought is distributed and non-localized just as quantum entities are." His posthumously published book "On Dialogue" really triggered us. 

The tragedy of thinking is that it is not "real thinking" but rather "repeating thoughts". A thought is like a virus that says, "Think me!" Even negative presuppositions - or premises with which we have identified ourselves - such as "I am stupid", "I have no self-confidence",... can be as addictive as positive thoughts. Each time we repeat a thought, a stronger circuit of synapses forms between different neurons. A stronger circuit releases more dopamine!

The current crisis we find ourselves in is a thinking crisis, claims David Bohm. At the root is a misunderstanding of how our thinking works. It is crucial that we pay attention to our thinking itself. There is something wrong with the thinking process itself, on a collective scale. Many of our thoughts are not individual. They have roots in culture and permeate everything and everyone. The depth structure of our thoughts is something communal. That's where we need to look.

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