“In our experience there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness beyond there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us.”

Alfred North Whitehead (Science and Philosophy, 1948)

“When we look into the depths of the clear sky, what we actually see is an unspecifiable total ground of movement, from which objects emerge. Particular ideas or thoughts coming to the mind may similarly be perceived as being like particular objects that arise from an unspecifiable ground of deeper movement. What we call ‘mind’ may be this deeper ground of movement, but if we think of the particular thoughts as the basic reality, we miss this.”

David Bohm (from a chapter in Cobb and Griffin’s edited volume Mind in Nature: the Interface of Science and Philosophy, 1977)

“There is very little left on the earth that has not been effected by our thinking.”

Bohm (on a panel with the Dalai Lama and others, 1990)

“A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study. It moulds our type of civilization.”

Whitehead (Modes of Thought, 1938)

On Tuesday, I’ll be doing another event for friends of the Cobb Institute, this time joined by plasma physicist Tim Eastman. We’ll lead a discussion on the relationship between David Bohm’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s cosmological visions. I’m sharing some notes below.

First, the obvious: there is a deep congruence in their thinking. Both men emphasized the need to out grow the reductive mechanistic account of the universe that was ushered in by the first wave of scientific geniuses in the 17th century. They were among the first to recognize that the early 20th century quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics demanded a new metaphysics. While both made important contributions to the mathematical physics of their day, they also set to work re-imagining the metaphysics of materialism in search of a more coherent explanation of our cosmological situation. The old mechanistic worldview of 17th century science was based on certain key presuppositions that the new quantum and relativistic paradigms showed to be inadequate. Both Bohm and Whitehead agreed on what the faulty presuppositions were: 1) the notion of “Nature at an instant”; 2) the notion of “simple location; and 3) the notion of the “bifurcation of Nature.” 

Similarities

-Both Bohm and Whitehead want to understand quantum physics as more than just a calculus, but as having profound worldview implications for our civilization. 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, advocates for a shift away from point-instants to moments or events as the primary facts of physical reality. There is no “Nature at an instant.” This implies that space-time measurement is only ever “close enough” and can never be absolutely precise. 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, views each microcosmic moment or event as including the whole cosmos in enfolded or concresced form. There is no “simple location.” 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, rejects the separation of mind and matter. There is a deeper layer of reality, a creative process or holomovement, from which both derive. There is no “bifurcation of Nature.”

-Bohm and Whitehead view novel forms as entering or ingressing into the actual world from an enfolded or unactualized domain of possibilities.

But there are also some important divergences in their respective approaches. 

Differences

-Whitehead’s actual occasions feel, relate to, and take up one another directly (horizontal causality), rather than relating only through the mediation of the implicate order. 

-How are we to make sense of the creative advance of emergent evolutionary value and social order in the concrete physical world? Bohm’s understanding of ultimate reality would seem to privilege the implicate eternal whole over the temporal relations of individuals. Whitehead sought to avoid the reduction of individuals into secondary appearances projected out of a unified higher-dimensional order. He wanted to preserve the possibility for creative action influencing an open-ended future. It is not clear that Bohm’s implicate order leaves room for freedom (which is why Einstein preferred his deterministic rendering of quantum theory).