WIE: Why did you feel it was important, at this time, to write a biography of David Bohm
I think it's a useful book in that it helps to put Dave's life in perspective and to bring all his work together, which has never really been done before. Dave had mentioned wanting to have an autobiography written—you know, trying to do it himself, or with help—and after his death in 1992, I talked it over with those who were closest to him. We all felt a concern that other people might jump in too quickly and decided that maybe we should just get one out now.
You see, it does look
as if there are many different strands to Dave's work—the early work on plasmas, his theory of hidden variables, the implicate order and his explorations of new orders in physics; also his work with Krishnamurti, and on consciousness and soma-significance. But when you see his life as a whole, you realize that these are all aspects of a single way of looking at the universe, so they are really not different strands at all. I thought it would be helpful to people to see that, particularly some of the people in physics who are starting to take off with some of Dave's ideas, choosing some and not others. I thought it might be helpful to put them all there together so that people could see the extent to which all of his ideas were integrated—which even people who knew him fairly well didn't necessarily realize.
WIE: His life and work were a coherent whole.
Yes, it seems to me that everything did all tie together and you can't just separate out part of it.
WIE: Is there then an overall message that Bohm's life and work seems to hold for humanity?
Well, in some sense it is
this vision of wholeness—which of course is not new; it's been present in many other philosophies and said before. But I think that each time someone says it, they are renewing it or reinventing it; they are bringing it to their time. And I think that David very much did that for our time. He also stressed the fact that science had fragmented, both within itself, and from spiritual matters and considerations of consciousness and the self. And you can see in the biography that these ideas were expressed through his own struggle. His life was both a personal struggle and a vision, a vision of something transcendent and a personal struggle to reach this condition of wholeness. And now his work, more and more, does seem relevant.
WIE: How do you see spirituality and science coming together in his work?
Well, it's certainly true that in his early days he was suspicious of the organized religions, particularly during his Marxist period—and even afterwards—feeling that they weren't really serving the human race in a very good way. But at the same time there was always present a sense of the numinous, of the transcendent—from his early fantasies as a boy of going off into space and his visions of light, of illumination—the sense of an intensity in the mind, as if the mind could reach some truth that is always lying beyond the edge, that beyond some sort of frontier there's some deeper truth to be perceived. So I think his work was a spiritual search in that
sense, something closer maybe to a mystical search for illumination, for light, for truth. He would often say that you must look for truth, no matter where it takes you; no matter how it looks, you must always face the truth. And in this context I think I should also mention the feeling he had, when he was doing physics, that the universe was inside his body—that he often did feel like a microcosm of the macrocosm. He felt that he could reach truth within his own body, that one could look both outside and inside. So throughout his life there was that sense of direct connection to the cosmos.
WIE: He also seems to have had a sense that larger groups of people could experience life together in that way.
Yes, he used to speak about the different dimensions of the human being—the individual, the cosmic and the social—and particularly towards the end of his life he felt that these three should be integrated, and that then maybe some sort of collective consciousness could emerge. He would sometimes talk about the idea of a river that is polluted. You can try to clean up the pollution around the city, locally, but the important thing is to find the source of the pollution, and in the process of doing that you may discover some sort of new order. He felt that part of that pollution was present in language and that we had to get to the root of that, the origin of it, which could only be done in the context of a group, through some sort of a dialogue.
Bohm and Krishnamurti
WIE: In spite of the fact that Bohm was deeply interested in collaborating with other people, several of his collaborations seem to have ended in some kind of misunderstanding. His association with Krishnamurti is a case in point. How would you describe Krishnamurti's role in Bohm's life? Was that one of his most important relationships?
I think David Bohm would have felt that. Certainly he did say that the two most important encounters in his life were with Einstein and Krishnamurti. He felt something similar between the two men—the great, enormous energy that both of them had, and the intensity, and the honesty. And with each of them he had a deep friendship, but at an impersonal rather than a personal level. I think both men were quite important to him, but certainly with Krishnamurti the dialogues they had went very, very deep.
On the other hand, I have met people who felt that Bohm's thinking was not
profoundly changed by Krishnamurti, that his ideas and ways of working were always of the same order, that being with Krishnamurti merely brought him encouragement and inspiration, and helped him through a very dark period when he was becoming disillusioned about the value of doing science in general. These people seem to feel that Krishnamurti was important to Dave at the time, but that his dialogue groups and all of that, and his later ideas about collective consciousness, didn't come from Krishnamurti.
This is a very difficult issue and maybe only time will tell, when we see things in perspective. Because as well as talking about David Bohm, many people are talking now about Krishnamurti too, within the Krishnamurti Foundation and also outside. They're reevaluating Krishnamurti, asking who he was and what was the significance of his life. People are beginning to face Krishnamurti and to ask questions about him. So it has been difficult for me to get clear answers from people about Krishnamurti and Bohm.
WIE: Did you ever meet Krishnamurti yourself?
Yes. Dave organized two conferences of scientists to meet with Krishnamurti and I went to both of those.
WIE: In the biography you go into some detail about their relationship as a whole, including its conclusion. Could you give a summary of how and why their relationship broke down?
In the biography I just had to go on what people told me, but I had also talked to Dave quite a bit about that. I think that they were building up a great intensity. When those two sat honestly together, openly together, there was a deep intensity between them and Dave did indicate to me that he saw some of the things that Krishnamurti was talking about—some of them directly, and not secondhand.
On the other hand, he did get disturbed by the way that Krishnamurti's image was being fostered by the people around him. Although Krishnamurti said, "Truth is a pathless land. Don't listen to gurus, including the present speaker," people did treat him as a guru and did behave as if he were a guru. And I think that disturbed Dave. He felt there was some sort of incompatibility in this, something paradoxical. He began to wonder about the extent to which Krishnamurti may have been conditioned by his own upbringing and he would ask questions about that.
I think there were also some doubts in his mind about the way the Krishnamurti schools were operating because there seemed to be a lot of conflicts developing in the schools. If people were supposed to be working without all this conditioning, why then were there so many problems? So he had many questions, and I think that on at least one occasion he was in that frame of mind when he met with Krishnamurti. At the same time, I think he had questions about his own life and his own work, and was maybe moving towards one of his bouts with depression.
Krishnamurti, for his part, began to question why David Bohm, if he had seen so deeply the things Krishnamurti spoke about, was so dependent on other people; he seemed to be very dependent on his wife, and on Krishnamurti himself. So it really was a confrontation, in which Krishnamurti asked David to look at the whole nature of himself, and Dave had questions of his own about Krishnamurti. At the end there seemed to be a breakdown between them which was, I think, painful for Dave because he didn't fully understand what had happened or why, and although they did continue to meet, they never again explored things together at the depth they had in the past.
WIE: Do you think that their meetings up to that point had been mostly intellectual, or was there a kind of spiritual depth between them such as one might encounter between a guru and a disciple?
I have talked to many people who were present at the meetings whose words I treat with great respect. And some of them wouldn't have used that image of the guru and the disciple by any means. They would rather use the image of two people exploring together, at a similar level, Dave having very deep insights from physics and a very keen intellect, and Krishnamurti coming from his angle, the two men exploring together, looking together at the same thing. In many cases David Bohm would be helping Krishnamurti to clarify, not so much Krishnamurti's perceptions—he couldn't do that
—but the way Krishnamurti presented them, the language he used and the course of the discussion. Sometimes there were generalizations Krishnamurti would make that Dave would pounce upon and get him to refine.
But it was not only a meeting of two highly energetic minds; there did seem to be, from Dave's point of view at least, a great deal of warmth and love in it too. That he did feel from Krishnamurti, the warmth. So it didn't seem to be the traditional guru/student relationship, more the relationship between two friends and colleagues. Dave said he also felt like that when he talked with Einstein, that the two of them were exploring together and there was no sense of one being superior to the other. And I think many people who worked with Dave felt that too. You were aware of course that Dave was far smarter than you were—he could run rings around you—but when you worked with him you didn't get the sense that Dave was the boss, but that you were exploring together. I think he had a similar kind of relationship with Krishnamurti.
At the same time, some people did feel that when the two of them were together there was some spiritual presence; in fact, people often said that there was an awareness of something powerful in the room. And certainly those public dialogues were very helpful to a lot of Westerners who felt that listening to them was a way to come to Krishnamurti because David Bohm was engaging them in a more Western way than Krishnamurti.
WIE: I brought up the guru/disciple aspect of their relationship because of a particular passage in the biography in which you describe the pressure to change which Krishnamurti began to exert on Bohm after they'd been together for about fifteen years—which would normally be considered appropriate, in that context, to his role as a spiritual teacher. But since you also suggest that Bohm had reservations about what he saw happening around Krishnamurti, maybe it really was more a matter of mutual recrimination.
Again, it's difficult to know. I have talked to people who were in Krishnamurti's inner circle and they tell me that this type of a break happened many, many times. It is as if people sat with Krishnamurti for many years, until at some point he appeared almost to turn on them, or challenge them. Even people who Krishnamurti felt comfortable with and who he would allow close to him, he at some point felt the need to challenge. In that sense, when he challenged Dave about himself and his conditioning, that probably was
very like the guru/student relationship; it had suddenly switched.
WIE: Which may have been rather startling to David Bohm.
From what I gather, yes. But these are difficult things to know about definitively because the people around them all had such strong vested interests. There were some people who felt that Dave was very important to Krishnamurti, and others who would have been happier had Dave not been associated with him. These people felt that he was contaminating Krishnamurti's image, in a sense, that he was pushing Krishnamurti too strongly to speak in a Western, intellectual, rational way, thus losing the poetry. There were some people who felt that—that the poetry was being lost. But then, maybe they didn't see the poetry inherent in David Bohm.
WIE: What were some of the core ideas in Bohm's worldview that made him such an important figure in the movement to unite science and spirituality?
Dave felt that science didn't have to be separate from everyday life, something abstract or having only to do with mechanisms. Rather, he felt that the universe itself was in a sense a mirror of our basic structure as human beings and of our relationship to the transcendent. That was the key that was present in all his thinking. So that when he began to develop his theory of the implicate order, there was a sense that this wasn't just about the structure of matter but also about the structure of consciousness, because everything mirrors itself. Even his earliest work, on plasmas, came about not so much through thinking about atoms and electrons—which of course he did—but about the basic dilemma of the individual and the collective: Can an individual simultaneously have freedom in a society and contribute to that society? He saw that here too, the basic dilemmas of human beings with regard to free will and obligations to society are somehow mirrored in the very structure of the universe. In fact there was a vision he had, I think when he was living in Brazil, in which he saw the universe as a collection of silver balls, each ball reflecting every other ball, itself included—a sort of infinite reflectivity of the universe in which each part is contained in everything else.
WIE: Beginning with his work on plasmas, it seems that as time went on his thought acquired an increasingly cosmic dimension.
Yes, although you could say it had always been that way. Even while he was still in school he was trying to develop a theory about the cosmos based on the idea that it had to include consciousness as well, so right from the beginning he felt that any theory about the universe had to include the human being in it; the human observer had to be part of the theory. It couldn't be an objective theory in the conventional sense—something standing outside of phenomena that doesn't also take account of us, the existential fact of our being. His thought was always cosmic, always all-embracing.
WIE: Why did so many scientists—why do so many scientists even now—seem to have so much trouble accepting or respecting his ideas?
Well, I suppose in some cases it's because people like small little bits of work—"resultlets," as David called them, not results but "resultlets." When Dave did his work he really dealt with ideas, with concepts, and in very broad brush strokes; whereas the fashion in physics today is that it should all be hyper-mathematical, and he always mistrusted mathematics. Mathematics to him was a good tool, but it was a tool and no more. The thing with mathematics, even the most beautiful and elegant mathematics, is that somewhere in there a lot of assumptions have been hidden, and when we speak together, using ordinary language, it's a little bit easier to discover what those assumptions are. Mathematics tends to conceal a lot. He was also suspicious of other aspects of the way physics was being done—for example, all this reliance in particle physics on breaking things apart rather than seeing them in an all-embracing fashion. You see, Dave felt there had been a major revolution in this century in quantum mechanics and relativity, but that our thinking hadn't really caught up with it. In the old order you could fragment things, you could define everything on a Cartesian grid of space and time. Now we needed an entirely new order, and the implicate order, which is inherently infinite, was one of the approaches he was working on. But of course, that's asking too much of physicists. They like to see things small and finite, and Dave was too much of a global thinker, I think, for many of them—except the very good ones, who were sympathetic to Dave because they realized that something new was called for.
WIE: But to most of the fraternity of physicists it seemed that he had gone beyond the bounds of science?
Yes. And it is ironic that now, after his death, his hidden variable work—which is the work that caused so much controversy—is now being picked up on by physicists because they see it as a way of making calculations. To Dave it was a completely new way of looking at quantum mechanics, but they are just using it as a way of making calculations. They have left the meat behind and just taken the juice.
WIE: "Bohmian mechanics," they're calling it?
DP: Yes, the Bohmian mechanics, that's right. That would have shocked Dave somewhat. It's ironic that that's what they have extracted from his theory. But similar things have happened in the past. He and Basil Hiley realized at one point that the new order they were looking for had already been anticipated by mathematicians like Grassman, Hamilton and Clifford. And in that case too, what had happened was that people had left the real deep stuff behind and just extracted some of the facile ways of doing calculations; the truly deep ideas had always been ignored.
WIE: It might help people to put all of this information in context if you could give a concise overview of some of Bohm's most important theories.
DP: Well, one was his theory of hidden variables, which I've just mentioned. He believed that the universe was an infinity of levels, that the universe could never be completely encompassed by human thought. In that respect he differed a great deal from Einstein and there was quite a bit of correspondence between them on this subject. Einstein felt that ultimately there would be a single, unified level that would explain everything, whereas Bohm believed that for each level we'd reach there would be another concealed beneath it, and so we'd never reach the end of it.
This idea also contained an alternative to reductionism because in reductionism you'd discover, say, molecules, and then you'd explain them in terms of atoms, and atoms in terms of elementary particles, and so on; you'd go into smaller and smaller bricks. But for Bohm, the level above and the level below could mutually condition each other. So these were not really independent levels, much as you could say that the human body is made out of organs and cells, but that the cells in turn are determined by the whole order of the body. So the higher conditions the lower, and the lower the higher. He therefore felt that quantum mechanics, which is based on the idea of randomness and indeterminacy at the subatomic level, was just one step on the way to a deeper theory which would include these hidden variables. Like Einstein, Bohm wanted to retain the idea that there was a degree of objectivity at the subatomic level, that things don't have to have human observers around to make them happen; and he was also concerned that quantum mechanics doesn't offer any real explanation of how quantum events actually take place. So he developed a theory that he called first the "causal" and then the "ontological" interpretation of these events. These were essentially a way of trying to explain things in a more rational way, and although they didn't meet with much success in the 1950s, more recently people have come to accept them as another way of looking at quantum mechanics, another approach.
Then there was his theory of the implicate order. The world we seem to live in—the world of classical objects, the world of Newtonian physics—Dave referred to as the "explicate order." He felt that what we take for reality is only one particular level or perception of order. And underneath that is what he called the "implicate order," the enfolded order, in which things are folded together and deeply interconnected, and out of which the explicate order unfolds. The explicate is only, you could say, the froth on top of the milk and the implicate order is much deeper. It includes not only matter, but consciousness; it's only in the explicate order that we tend to break them apart, to see them as two separate things. Dave spent a great deal of time in the last decades of his life trying to find a mathematical expression for this vision of reality.
He also felt there was a need to reintroduce time into physics. Of course time had always been there as a parameter, but not as an actual dynamic entity which makes things move around. That was the work he was doing up to the very end of his life. And his other work of that period, with dialogue groups, was not separate from that because again, he felt that his theory had to include consciousness as well as matter, which led in this case to the idea that there could be a field of information. His ontological interpretation of the quantum theory gives the notion that matter is always responding to such a field. Up to that point we had two levels in nature—matter and energy. And now Bohm in his ontological interpretation introduced a third, which he called "active information"—information as an activity in nature. The electron moves and does these curious things because it is responding to a field of information, an active field. And the human body also responds to an active field—that's how the immune system works. So he introduced this notion of active information as something which is inherent in both matter and consciousness, a collective and non-local phenomenon to which the individual human consciousness, or brain, is capable of responding. He believed it was possible to develop some sort of collectivity if people worked at it together over a period of time, so he developed his dialogue groups based on the idea that it might somehow be possible, through this active information, to produce a transformation in human consciousness. He may have believed that this is what had happened with Krishnamurti—that if you were with Krishnamurti, in the presence of Krishnamurti in a group of people, some change of consciousness took place.
WIE: This was what he was trying to accomplish by himself, after the break with Krishnamurti.
DP: Yes, that's right, by working with these groups. Sometimes he felt very encouraged by them and at other times he didn't. But he did believe it was possible—because in physics you don't always need an enormous amount of energy to effect a large change—that maybe even a few of these small groups could affect human consciousness.