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The Scientist, the Monk and the Philosopher

Updated: Apr 11

The life and work of David Bohm, brilliant scientist, spiritual seeker and ecological activist


Quantum physicist David Bohm and the Dalai Lama at a conference at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 1990





“If we are to develop new concepts we need to be like children, forming concepts from scratch, and not rely on concepts we were taught.”

David Bohm, quantum physicist



“To a Mahayana Buddhist, there is an unmistakable resonance between the notion of emptiness and the new physics.”

Dalai Lama XIV, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality






The audio version of this blog post





In this installment of old wisdom and new stories for hard times, a somewhat longer post about a genius scientist, fine spiritual seeker, astute philosopher and beautiful human being David Bohm.

With lots of movie material at the end, enough to put Netflix aside for a while.


Here, first of all, is one of the films that will follow, and if you don't have much desire or time to read, you may opt to watch this film first. It contains much of what this blog post is about. It is also a very beautiful documentary about a fascinating subject (quantum physics) and a fascinating human being: David Bohm. According to The New York Times, it is also “the most important film since An Inconvenient Truth”.At the end of this post I share the link again. Enjoy!


Film 'Infinite Potential' - The Life and Ideas of David Bohm (2020)




David Bohm

One of my first introductions to quantum physics was reading the book ‘Wholeness and The Implicate Order’ (1980) by quantum physicist David Bohm, a decade or two ago now. It was not the first time I had been presented with information indicating that our view of the world is obsolete, but it was the first time I was also introduced to a concrete new proposal for worldview or model of the universe.

David Bohm (1917-1992) was one of the leading scientists of the 20th century. Einstein considered him his ‘spiritual son’, and although Bohm does not enjoy Einstein's fame, he belongs in that ‘ranking’ of extraordinarily brilliant minds who shaped the new science in the 20th century. In the book ‘Wholeness and The Implicate Order’, you will find Bohm's main ideas, and in particular his thesis that visible ‘reality’, and everything we find in it (electrons, protons, photons, but also molecules, cells, plants, animals, ecosystems, planets, galaxies,...) are emanations from an underlying field of information, which Bohm called the ‘Implicate Order’. The visible world that we experience as a stable world with a certain degree of predictability and that which we call ‘natural laws’, Bohm called the ‘Explicate Order’. Everything that exists is one and indivisibly connected to everything else through the underlying 'Implicate Order.'

At first glance, this is very similar to Plato's well-known model: the world as a reflection of a 'higher reality,' the metaphor of the cave. But there are important differences: in Bohm's view, visible reality is not just a passive projection, but an interaction takes place between Implicate Order and Explicate Order, between the reality we experience and the underlying field of in-formation. Information about what happens "here" finds its way back to the underlying field, is ‘enfolded’ to the Implicate Order. In that underlying field all information is retained and all 'things' and events are connected.


One of Albert Einstein's many letters to David Bohm (source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/One-of-many-letters-of-support-from-Albert-Einstein-to-David-Bohm_fig3_338585210 )





This view, which was radically different from that of other leading physicists and thus initially met with a great deal of resistance, nevertheless holds true with the mathematics and with concrete observations in experiments, and also offers an explanation for perplexing phenomena such as 'quantum entanglement,' or the connectedness of both elementary particles and more complex systems and even organisms, seemingly beyond time-space causality. And also: since we do not in any way find 'matter' in the world, and what we think of as reality on closer inspection consists only of information, energy, patterns and relationships (which, moreover, do not really seem to exist without an observation taking place) it follows that we can say that visible reality is fundamentally a kind of illusion, more of a thought-process than a 'thing'. And it follows that we as conscious observers form an indivisible unity with that 'reality', and are also a form and expression of it, rather than a kind of isolated outsider who perceives things 'objectively' from the outside. Consciousness thus becomes, rather than a kind of 'side effect' of electrochemical processes in the brain, a fundamental aspect of 'reality,' more fundamental in fact than the idea of 'matter' itself.

Bohm was not the only one who developed ideas in this direction, and his work is also continued by quite a few other quantum physicists, researchers in other fields of science and philosophers, who in turn are exploring new dimensions in this field. But he was one of the great visionaries who thought through the implications of quantum physics in depth and tried to formulate a worldview that based on these new insights could lead to new and better ways of balancing the human presence on this planet with the ecosystems of which it is a part. His extraordinary intellect coupled with his deep human warmth, humility and empathy, made him more than a scientific genius: he was also a messenger, an activist, a selfless seeker of a possible way forward for humanity.

On the Infinite Potential website you can find more information about David Bohm, and about the documentary of the same name that Paul Howard made about his life and ideas. You can also watch the film on this site for free after simple registration on the site. You will also find more information, interviews, and projects that help spread David Bohm's vision further.This is the film at the beginning of this post, and you can also watch it further down in the film section, because I also believe that this documentary is very important and should be available to as many people as possible.



The scientist and the monk

As you become more familiar with the findings of quantum physics, something very special gradually becomes clear: there appear to be very strong similarities between the picture of the world as it emerges in quantum physics and the worldview of the main strains of Eastern philosophy and religion, particularly Mahayana and Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. (Note: neither Buddhism, Hinduism nor Taoism are actually ‘religion’ or ‘philosophy’ as we define those in the Western sense, but I am using those terms for convenience now). These striking similarities, by the way, have been described in detail by another quantum physicist, Fritjof Capra, in the fascinating book ‘The Tao of Physics’, (1975) and by Gary Zukav in ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’ (1979) - a book for which David Bohm wrote an introduction which praised the book and its viewpoints. The founders of quantum physics were already aware of these parallels and their work was actually influenced by Eastern philosophy. Werner Heisenberg visited Rabindranath Tagore in India and had many conversations with him about Indian philosophy, and these conversations helped him see that his pioneering ideas in physics were not so crazy and had a basis in millennia-old human intuitions. Niels Bohr, another pioneer in quantum physics, had a similar experience when he visited China.

And here then is why I am talking extensively about quantum physics in a series of blog posts that were going to be devoted to ‘old news’, or old wisdom for difficult times.

What quantum physics tells us is not only understandable to the average Mahayana or Zen Buddhist, or Hindu, but even self-evident. The world as a kind of illusion or thought, the void as the essential feature of what we perceive, process and connectedness as the essential nature of everything, it could come right out of the oldest scriptures of Buddhism, Hinduism or Taoism.

Hence it is not surprising that David Bohm developed an intense contact with spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and philosopher Jiddhu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). With both he maintained a lifelong warm friendship, developing further ideas from the kinship between quantum physics and aspects of Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. The Dalai Lama was very interested in physics and called David Bohm his ‘science guru’. Throughout their many meetings and conversations, Bohm acted somewhat like the ‘private science teacher’ for the Dalai Lama, who was eagerly learning about physics, biology, cosmology and psychology.


David Bohm and the Dalai Lama.



The Dalai Lama said the following about their longstanding friendship: “Because I have no mathematical background, teaching me modern physics, especially esoteric topics such as the theory of relativity, was not an easy task. When I think of Bohm’s patience, his soft voice and gentle manner, and the care with which he made sure that I was following his explanation, I miss him dearly.”

The practice of meditation, so important in Buddhism, is regarded by Buddhists as a form of empirical science: an investigation into the nature of human consciousness. That aspect of Buddhism is detailed in the superb book ‘The Monk and the Philosopher’, the account of a dialogue between Matthieu Ricard and his father Jean-François Revel (1924-2006). Initially a scientist with a doctorate in molecular genetics, Matthieu Ricard decided to abandon his scientific career and become a Buddhist monk. The above book is a reflection of the dialogues Matthieu had with his father Jean-Francois Revel, well-known French philosopher, author and journalist. Matthieu explains the empirical, scientific side of the practice of meditation, which is not self-evident for his father as a classically trained philosopher. An extremely interesting dialogue for anyone interested in the kinship between science and Eastern philosophy.

But in essence, Buddhism can be regarded as a form of empirical inquiry into the nature and workings of consciousness (rather than as a religion), and this is what also interested David Bohm, since he fully realized that if we want to understand reality, we must consider consciousness itself which tries to understand reality as one and indivisible part of that reality.




The scientist and the philosopher

In addition to the long friendship and exchange of ideas with the Dalai Lama, David Bohm maintained an even more intense contact, friendship and dialogue with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986).

Between 1965 and 1984, they held more than 30 long conversations that were recorded. In these conversations there was an intense exchange of ideas about existence, the universe, time, space, consciousness, the problems caused by the limitations of present human consciousness, and the possibilities of arriving at a broader and higher form of consciousness to make a better world possible. The intelligence and human sensitivity and empathy of physicist David Bohm, and the deep attention and uncompromising thinking of Krishnamurti led to quite extraordinary thought-exercises, which were by no means non-committal. For Bohm and Krishnamurti realized that everything is at stake: if we want to save our world and give our children a future, we must rethink everything, and find a completely new perspective to approach and experience the universe and our existence in a completely different way than we do now. The website ‘The Bohm-Krishnamurti Project’ brings you more info on the decades long dialogue between Bohm and Krishnamurti.


Jiddu Krishnamurti and David Bohm. Photograph by Mark Edwards. Copyright © Krishnamurti Foundation Trust Ltd




Krishnamurti was first, from childhood on, a member of the Theosophical Society in India, and as a ‘chosen one’ was destined for a high position there, but as a young adult he distanced himself from the Society and Theosophical thought. After some intense mystical experiences, he went his own way and developed his own philosophy that was influenced by, but separate from, the broader thought of Hinduism and Buddhism. In his philosophy, he placed great emphasis on the fact that each person must achieve enlightenment for himself, and that no religion or guru can provide it. He saw enlightenment as potentially present in every human consciousness, as also emphasized in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. He stated:

"To be free of all authority, of your own and that of another, is to forget everything of yesterday, so that your mind is always fresh, always young, innocent, full of vigour and passion. It is only in that state that one learns and observes. And for this, a great deal of awareness is required, actual awareness of what is going on inside yourself, without correcting it or telling it what it should or should not be, because the moment you correct it you have established another authority, a censor."

J. Krishnamurti (Freedom from the Known)

David Bohm once said the same thing in different words: “If we are to develop new concepts we need to be like children, forming concepts from scratch, and not rely on concepts we were taught.”


Bohm and Krishnamurti were both very interested in consciousness and the nature of the human mind. And both saw that the fundamental problem facing humanity is in consciousness and thought, or rather its limitations in our present stage of development.


In the words of Krishnamurti:

“Thought cannot solve any human problem, for thought itself is the problem. The ending of knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom is not of time, it is not the continuation of experience, knowledge. Life in time is confusion and misery; but when that which is is the timeless, there is bliss.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti (Source: Commentaries on Living Series I Chapter 83 `Time’)

In the words of David Bohm:

“Now, I say that this system [of thought] has a fault in it — a ‘systematic fault’. It is not a fault here or there but it is a fault that is all throughout the system. Can you picture that? It is everywhere and nowhere. You may say “I see a problem here, so I will bring my thoughts to bear on this problem”. But “my” thought is part of the system. It has the same fault as the fault I’m trying to look at, or a similar fault. We have this systemic fault; and you can see that this is what has been going on in all these problems of the world – such as the problems that the fragmentation of nations has produced. We say: "Here is a fault. Something has gone wrong". But in dealing with it, we use the same kind of fragmentary thought that produced the problem, just a somewhat different version of it; therefore it’s not going to help, and it may make things worse.”

David Bohm (Source: Thought as a System, a book that transcribes a seminar held in Ojai, California from November 31 to December 2, 1990)


The above quote is Bohm's version of Einstein's dictum that "no problem can be solved from the consciousness that created that problem."

The many dialogues between Bohm and Krishnamurti found expression in hours of film and also in book form. Sixteen dialogues that took place in 1980 under the title 'The Ending of Time' were compiled into the book of the same name. When I did a residency in the winter of 2017 at the remote art center Krakeslottet on an island in northern Norway, that book was one of many in my luggage. I was alone most of the time in this isolated and snow-covered old building, built half on stilts above the sea a century ago as a fishing base. It was winter, and so it stormed frequently. Reading the particularly intense dialogues between David Bohm and Krishnamurti while blizzards shook the building on polar nights was an extraordinary experience, to say the least. It was a glimpse of other forms of consciousness, in the midst of that beautiful and also wild nature, which we need to get back in balance with. If we don't find a new way of living in that nature, things don't look good for us.


In the words of Krishnamurti:

"If you lose touch with nature you lose touch with humanity.

If there is no relationship with nature then you become a killer;

then you kill seals, whales, dolphins, and man

either for gain, for 'sport', for food, or for knowledge.

Then nature is frightened of you, withdrawing its beauty.

You may take long walks in the woods or camp in lovely places

but you are a killer and so lose their friendship.

You probably are not related to anything, not even to your wife or your husband."


Jiddu Krishnamurti and David Bohm.





Movies!

In the video fragments that follow, I have tried to select a collection of interviews and talks that provide an accessible and representative picture of Bohm's thinking, his commitment, idealism and activism, and his interactions and dialogues with spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Jiddu Krishnamurti. I guarantee it's better than Netflix. Put your favorite series of the moment on pause, and immerse yourself for a while in what the greatest minds in science and spirituality have to say about the nature of reality and its relevance to our development, evolution and future. For what could be more interesting than humanity's eternal questions? Enjoy!



First, a conversation with David Bohm himself. In the following video you can watch the interview David Suzuki conducted with David Bohm on May 26, 1979 for his well-known program on CBC, The Nature of Things’.

Even though David Suzuki looks like a member of a seventies Motown band, he was himself a respected scientist, doing work in fields such as zoology and genetics. He became known with the aforementioned popular science series for Canadian television, which aired in more than 40 countries. David Suzuki was also an ecological activist, co-founding the David Suzuki Foundation’, which aimed to "find ways to live in balance with the natural world of which we are a part", with a focus on oceans and sustainable fisheries, green energy and climate.

In the 40-minute interview, Bohm and Suzuki touch on many aspects of the new physics in an accessible way - which is not unimportant when it comes to quantum physics. The alienating and ‘weird’ aspects of this new view of the universe pass the review: the impossibility of breaking down the world or universe into ‘particles’, the underlying unity and wholeness of everything that exists, the impossibility of talking about ourselves as independently existing ‘individuals’ and our connection to the entire universe, and reality as the visible ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the underlying quantum field. But they don't just talk about physics and the implications of the new worldview emerging from the latest physics: they also talk about Bohm's interest in religion and philosophy, and the big questions humanity has been asking since the beginning of time. Given Bohm's passion for the moral, ethical and spiritual implications of scientific discoveries for our development, and for the creation of a better world, the conversation also deals with the broader view of the world and the evolution of our consciousness, and the need for faith and activism. The intense interaction with philosopher Krishnamurti is touched on at length, as well as their shared interest in the nature of human consciousness and the difficulties our flawed consciousness causes in the world. Bohm also argues that every individual energy counts in the whole, which is not illogical in a universe where everything is fundamentally one, and that a relatively small amount of people can cause a fundamental change in energy in the common field. In other words, live as if what you do matters, because it does! "There is tremendous energy in people, but they don't allow it to unfold".


With one small caveat to this interview: David Bohm at one point makes the comparison between the human brain and a computer program, an analogy that became very popular in the early days of the computer age. But that analogy has since proved outdated, and Bohm probably wouldn't use it himself now. (Why the comparison of the brain to a computer is misleading and untenable can be read in this fascinating essay by Robert Epstein.) When Bohm uses the word ‘program’, we can replace that word with the word ‘ego-self’. And the ego exhibits many characteristics that seem ‘programmed’, through conditioning, upbringing, habit and social pressure.


In this conversation, David Bohm is his amiable, modest and somewhat shy self. He looks like the stereotype of a somewhat oldfashioned family man but make no mistake: behind this amiable and unassuming man is one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, who like few before him or after him thought through the consequences of their ideas, from all of his human being. Warmly recommended.


Interview met David Bohm door David Suzuki voor CBC, mei 1979




And then again the link to the full film 'Infinite Potential'. If you did not watch it at the start of this post, you can do so now. It is a beautiful and soulful documentary about the life and work of David Bohm. According to The New York Times, it is also “the most important film since An Inconvenient Truth”. You hear and see many of his colleagues and assistants (including heavyweights like Nobel laureate Sir Roger Penrose) discussing and interpreting his ideas, as well as testifying about the beautiful human being that David Bohm was. The film tells the story of David Bohm's growing up in a poor mining town in Pennsylvania, his difficult childhood, his discovery as a ‘physics genius’ by Robert Oppenheimer and later Albert Einstein, his troubles during the hunt for ‘left-wing elements’ under Mc Carthy and his expulsion from the university and later from the country. You will learn about his revolutionary ideas that he first began to develop during his ‘exile’ in Brazil, and his first theory of ‘hidden variables’ in response to the discrepancies between quantum physics and the general theory of relativity. His colleagues and companions tell of the next breakthrough in his thinking and worldview: the development of the idea of the 'Implicate Order,' space as a 'plenum' or 'fullness ' from which visible reality unfolds. We learn about the ensuing notion of the interconnectedness of everything through this underlying field...the role of consciousness in reality, a role that has moved into a whole new perspective with quantum physics, is also discussed. We hear Bohm on the personal implications of these new insights into quantum physics for our self-image as well as our worldview. The Dalai Lama talks about the similarities between Bohm's insights and those of Buddhism. And Anthony Gormley brings the artist's perspective on this new worldview. And much more. Warmly recommended!


Film 'Infinite Potential' - The Life and Ideas of David Bohm (2020)





In the following audio recording of a lecture by David Bohm and dialogue with the audience, Bohm elaborates on why our consciousness in its present form or state of development seems almost doomed to destroy nature. To begin with, he states unequivocally that there is no ‘ecological crisis’: the crisis is exclusively in our heads. Nature cannot be in crisis: leave nature to itself, and everything will inevitably be fine. It only went wrong when man started interfering, trying to control nature from his (limited) human consciousness. The essence of our present state of consciousness is separation from nature and universe, and the consequent need for control and domination. Man sees himself as fundamentally separated from nature, and believes he must bend it to his will. Bohm points out that the problem already presents itself in our use of language. For example, the word ‘the environment’ labels nature as something outside us and alien to us, and that is a fundamental fallacy. We àre nature and it is impossible to define a boundary between us and 'the environment' (one illustration of this is the fact that our bodies contain more bacteria than own body cells). And the phenomenon of 'consciousness' is also part of that nature. And our problem is therefore situated primarily in the way we manifest our consciousness and give it (no) direction .

Bohm also highlights the way in which man always evades the root of the problems and does not seem to want to become aware of the cause of most of our problems.

In the case of our futile 'war on drugs', for example, which after fifty years has yielded no results whatsoever, no one seems to ask the question why so many people feel they need drugs, what is wrong with our society that so many people seem to need some or other form of addiction in order to be able to endure or escape reality. And that issue is no different than that of the ‘ecological crisis’. Warmly recommended!


David Bohm: We Are Bound to Destroy Nature. Audio recording of a lecture and discussion with audience in 1989.






In the following film, we see a dialogue between David Bohm, the Dalai Lama, artist Robert Rauschenberg and economist Stanioslav Menshikov. This panel discussion took place at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1990, during a conference of scientists, spiritual leaders and economists on a new paradigm for a holistic view of the world and its implications for the global economy. The film also includes interviews with the participants in this talk individually. It was with some regret that, as a visual artist, I had to note that the artist in the company, Robert Rauschenberg, was neither the most eloquent nor the clearest-thinking participant in the conversation. But then again, visual thinkers are not always very clear in formulating concepts through the medium of language. He nevertheless remains a great artist with a great legacy.

Still, it turned out to be (of course) an extraordinarily engaging dialogue, in which the participants touched on many topics: the need for a new global awareness of the limitedness of our Earth, a growing awareness of the problems caused by our way of thinking as it has grown over many thousands of years, the way our minds divide everything that is fundamentally one and undivided into countless separate entities (nations, cultures, language groups, genders, beliefs and religions, and so on). Bohm also expounds on his image of the 'Implicate Order' which in his view is the ground of all being, and from which visible reality springs. In that 'Implicate Order' he also sees a kind of intelligence manifesting itself: it is not merely a mechanism or dead order. There is intelligence unfolding in and with visible reality (this view should not be taken as an endorsement of the concept of ‘intelligent design’, which still sees some form of outside ‘creator’ at work. Rather, it represents the notion of intelligence as being inherent property of the organism that is the universe). And Bohm, during the panel discussion, also makes connections between that new vision of 'wholeness' and 'unfolding intelligence' in the observable universe on the one hand, and our possible attitudes that can result from that realization. 'Wholeness' is a possible coherent life attitude and guide for us, and a possible basis for a new attitude toward our living world.

'I don't think consciousness arises in time. It is a potential of the whole universe and will arise between us in relationship rather than separately....Consciousness is an internal relationship to the whole.'

Warmly recommended!



Art Meets Science & Spirituality in a Changing Economy. Documentary and panel discussion in The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1990





And in the following and last excerpt you can watch one of the dialogues between David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti. As mentioned, many of the dialogues between Bohm and Krishnamurti were recorded, and you can find many more of these recordings on Youtube.

The conversations between David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti are slow but intense, requiring sustained attention. You see both men searching for words to name the almost unnameable, and you sometimes feel their frustration because words often fall short. Both thinkers were also acutely aware of the limitations of language, and the way our beliefs (even the outdated ones) are, as it were, ingrained in the structure of our language itself. The scientist and the philosopher each approach the topics of conversation from their own perspective, always trying to arrive at some sort of common ground or understanding, but this is not always easy.

This conversation was part of the aforementioned series of 16 dialogues titled ‘The Ending of Time’. It was the fifteenth conversation in the series, and this installment is titled ‘Can Human Problems Be Solved’? Bohm and Krishnamurti talk about the nature of psychological problems versus technological problems, the nature of the phenomenon of ‘problem’ itself, the limitations of our image of consciousness and its effects on our capacity to deal with our problems, the possibility of a way of communicating that would be neither verbal nor determined by logic, the nature and the importance of real attention in relation to all of the above, and so on. Why do humans seem to make so little progress, and we seem to keep running into the same problems (war, injustice, greed, manipulation, abuse of power, etc). Both men also give silence a chance, and take time to weigh their answers. Not a style of filmmaking that would arouse much enthusiasm among television producers today, but one that we very much need once again: images and speech with a rhythm that lives and breathes like a human being, with silences and pauses, with an honest search for what really matters, rather than for what can ‘entertain’ us.


Dialogue between David Bohm and Krishnamurti, Brockwood Park, 1980




It was a long 'episode' this time, but that was inevitable because the topic is central to my new venture, as well as being complex and layered, with ramifications to all domains of human knowing, feeling and experiencing. So what was touched upon in this blog post will come back often in my blog and project.

In the next installment of 'Old Wisdom and New Stories', more on philosopher Alan Watts (1915-1973), who already had a chance to take a brief appearance in the first installment of the series.


Thank you for reading, and all the best to you!

Filip




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