The implications of quantum mechanics (QM) suggest a new worldview that is less destructive and fragmentary than the one that operates at present. This is one of the insights that comes out of Bohm?s physics. Until his death, he worked on an interpretation of quantum phenomena that gives a more coherent view of the nature of matter than either that which informs the fragmentary view or that which comes out of the standard interpretation of QM accepted by mainstream physicists.
It is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to deal with the implications of QM than Bohm, as he spent all his working life as a theoretical quantum physicist who was considered by Einstein as his ?intellectual son?. It is worth pointing out that, although he was a renowned physicist, it was clear to him that understanding the processes of the brain was of ?pivotal? concern for mankind, and endeavours such as science, art and music, while obviously worthwhile, were secondary to understanding the process of thought/feeling. He also felt that many of the conflicts that mankind faces are rooted in the fragmentary nature of our worldview. Lee Nichol?s excellent article (Link Issue #23) covers some of Bohm?s thinking on this.
While it is not possible here to describe in detail Bohm?s interpretation, I would like to look at two key features that form the basis of his understanding of the implications of QM. One is that thought and knowledge are limited and the other is that there is an indivisible connection between the observer and the observed. These are familiar insights that Krishnamurti discussed in his public talks and in discussions with Bohm. They are also the key features of quantum phenomena where Bohm?s interpretation differs from that of mainstream physics, the latter, or Copenhagen interpretation, being due mainly to Niels Bohr (1880-1946). Using these two features, I would like to clarify what this difference is and their significance in the new worldview that Bohm found QM to imply.
Before going into this, it is important to reflect on Bohm?s approach to knowledge and understanding. Taking the concept of theory in science to illustrate this, it was important to him that the concept of theory be understood in its original etymological sense, i.e. as related to the word ?theatre?, thus giving a meaning to theory as, at best, and as far as we know, an accurate but limited and relative way of looking at the world. This understanding is in contrast to the usual view of theory in science as expressing an absolute knowledge about the nature of the material world and its laws. Bohm?s understanding of theory leads to a flexible and open approach to what might be new or different, rather than clinging to an idea or theory because one has mistakenly supposed it to be true knowledge.
Along with this openness, he greatly valued clarity, coherence and fertility in ideas, a fertility that came from seeing learning about ?the infinitely subtle nature of matter? as endless and worthwhile in itself. In contrast, a number of writers have described the Copenhagen interpretation as being sterile, and we will see why when we look at our first point.
Thought and Knowledge Are Limited
It is easy to calculate that when a die is thrown many times the probability of a particular number coming up is 1/6. In a somewhat similar fashion, QM is a mathematical theory that produces probability fractions for possible outcomes of atomic events, and it indisputably does this with great accuracy! QM says nothing, however, about what happens in a single event, it being unpredictable like a single casting of the die. It is here that a significant difference of interpretation occurs between Bohm?s view and Bohr?s. Bohr gave a lot of importance to this unpredictability, not on the basis of the experimental results but rather because of his philosophical background. From this background (Kant, Kierkegaard, etc.), he saw the unpredictability resulting from the quantum world as being beyond the limit of thought and knowledge. He saw thought and knowledge not only as limited but also as having as a specific limit the quantum world. I believe the mass media have mistakenly used unpredictability as a characteristic feature of QM, because it is an easy concept to grasp, featuring as it does in many aspects of people?s lives. Bohr?s view seems to have led to an intellectual sterility, with many mainstream physicists accepting his view that it makes no sense to inquire into a realm that is beyond what is knowable.
For Bohm, thought and knowledge are limited, but the boundary can always be extended in an indefinite way into the ?qualitative infinity of nature?, and his work was to extend knowledge into the quantum world. With Basil Hilley he developed a radical interpretation that he hoped would be a fruitful ?scientific metaphor? that would be considered on its own merits, alongside the other interpretations rather than in opposition to them. But John Bell, perhaps the most respected of quantum theorists who did not accept Bohr?s view either, described Bohm?s as ?the best crafted? of the available interpretations.
Unpredictability is a feature of QM, but Bohm showed that, in itself, it does not entail a new view of matter. Unpredictability is also a feature of die-throwing and, therefore, not something that distinguishes QM from the Cartesian physics of Newton, often viewed as the basis of the fragmentary view.
The observer and the observed
Imagine that you are looking at a cat in your garden. You close your eyes and, instead of a cat, you hear a bird in the cat?s place. You open your eyes and again see a cat, close them and again hear a bird. In other words, it would seem as though your perception is dependent on how you are perceiving. If you found yourself in this situation, you would be very surprised, yet physicists have discovered that context-dependent phenomena do occur at the quantum level. They have found that what they observe depends on how they are observing ? in a way that cannot be understood in terms of the normal division between the observer and the observed.
Bohr stated that if one wasn?t shocked by this phenomenon, then one hadn?t understood the nature of what was going on. Wave/particle duality in the behaviour of fundamental particles is an outcome of this phenomenon, and the uncertainty principle expresses mathematically the ambiguity that results when you treat the observed particle as divided from the observing apparatus. Bohm and Bohr recognised the significance of this and both used phrases such as ?un-analysable wholeness?. Mainstream scientists and the media appear to be uncomfortable with wholeness as an outcome of QM, and have either ignored it or consigned it to the mystical, although a related aspect of this undivided wholeness, non-locality or entanglement, has been experimentally observed, due partly to the work of Bohm and Bell. Bohr recognised its importance but understood it in terms of yin/yang, or what he called ?complementariness?, and in fact used the yin/yang symbol in his coat of arms.
For Bohm, however, this wholeness is the starting point for understanding quantum phenomena and the creative movement behind the material world and living systems. As he pointed out, this wholeness is not to be seen as just an abstract concept, a part that can be abstracted (i.e., pulled out) from the whole, because the whole cannot be so abstracted. Wholeness needs to be sensed as an insight into the unlimited, beyond what thought can grasp. He felt this sense of the unlimited was necessary to bring thought to order. Without this sense, thought represents itself as capable of dealing with everything, which is an incoherence that leads thought into disorder.
To express the sense of something beyond static concepts, he used the phrase ?unbroken wholeness in flowing movement? and developed the notion of a holomovement, a movement of unfolding and enfolding of the perceived world from and to a much vaster and subtler implicate order. This is the infinitely subtle source of all that is, that forms the basis of the holistic worldview that Bohm believed was implied by QM. He felt that such a worldview was necessary to respond to the conflicts caused by the pervading fragmentation.