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Pattern learning: Wholeness and the implicate order

Global Strategies Project

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1. Illusion of fragmentation

As a theoretical physicist, David Bohm is concerned with the illusory nature of fragmentation (1971, 1976) and the manner in which distinct fragments emerge from wholeness in movement (1980). He sees the perceptual problems with which he deals as being as relevant to a more healthy response to psychosocial fragmentation as to the problems of fundamental physics. The value of Bohm's perspective for understanding healthy individual development has in fact been recently stressed by a physician Larry Dossey (Note 15.3).

For Bohm: "the widespread pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, profession, etc.), which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and 'broken up' into yet smaller constituent parts...considered to be essentially independent and self-existent." (1980, xi).

Attempting to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is then what leads to the growing series of extremely urgent crises with which society is confronted. "Individually there has developed a widespread feeling of helplessness and despair, in the face of what seems to be an overwhelming mass of disparate social forces, going beyond the control and even the comprehension of the human beings who are caught up in it." (1980, p. 2). And yet the seeming practicality and convenience of the process of divisive thinking about things supplies man with "an apparent proof of the correctness of his fragmentary self-world view."

2. Sustaining fragmentation

Basing his investigations on insights from the current state of physics, Bohm focuses "on the subtle but crucial role of our general forms of thinking in sustaining fragmentation and in defeating our deepest urges toward wholeness or integrity". (p. 3). He arrives at the conclusion that "our general world view is itself an overall movement of thought, which has to be viable in the sense that the totality of activities that flow out of it are generally in harmony, both in themselves and with regard to the whole existence." (xii). This view implies that "flow is, in some sense, prior to that of the 'things' that can be seen to form and dissolve in this flow". (p. 11). Thus the "various patterns that can be abstracted from it have a certain relative autonomy and stability, which is indeed provided for by the universal law of the flowing movement". (p. 11).

3. Worldview in development

Of special relevance to the question of human and social development, is that the above-mentioned desirable harmony "is seen to be possible only if the world view itself takes part in an unending process of development, evolution, and unfoldment, which fits as part of the universal process that is the ground of all existence." (xii). This has the merit of grounding the concept of development in movement from which appropriate conceptual and social forms temporarily arise, rather than, as is presently done, starting from some "thing" (e.g. a society, a community, or a person) which has to be stimulated into a process of movement and change that is then called "development" (under certain conditions).

5. Beyond easy remedies

Bohm cautions against the expectations of quick remedies: "To ask how to end fragmentation and to expect an answer in a few minutes makes even less sense than to ask how to develop a theory as new as Einstein's was when he was working on it, and to expect to be told what in terms of some programme, expressed in terms of formulae or recipes...What is needed, however, is somehow to grasp the overall formative cause of fragmentation, in which content and actual process are seen together, in their wholeness". (p. 18).

As he notes, this confronts us with a very difficult challenge: "How are we to think coherently of a single, unbroken, flowing actuality of existence as a whole, containing both thought (consciousness) and external reality as we experience it ?" (x). The approach he suggests requires looking at the challenge in a new way. Instead of aiming for some reflective correspondence between "thought' and "reality as a whole" the process of thinking about reality as a whole can more usefully be thought of as a kind of "dance of the mind" (determining, and being determined) which functions indicatively. (p. 556).

5. Aesthetics of totality

He uses the indicative role of the well-known bee-dance as an analogy (although the element of "alternation" in any such dance should not be overlooked). As with Attali, Bohm emphasizes that "thought with totality as its content has to be considered as an art form, like poetry, whose function is primarily to give rise to new perception, and to action that is implicit in this perception, rather than to communicate reflective knowledge of "how everything is" (p. 63). There can no more be an ultimate form of such thought (or of any principles or programmes to which it gives rise) than there can be an ultimate poem which would obviate the need for further poetic development.

6. Quantum theory and the new order

Bohm explores the implications of quantum theory as an indication of "new order". The questions he raises are also relevant to the emergence of any new psychosocial order. He demonstrates that in the past recognition of new patterns of order has involved attention to "similar differences and different similarities" (p. 115), namely the "irrelevance of old differences, and the relevance of new differences" (p. 141). The radical transformation of understanding brought about by quantum theory, for example, results from recognition of the way in which modes of observation and of theoretical understanding are related to each other. A social science equivalent of this is given in Johan Galtung's demonstration of the impossibility of value-free research (1977), although his purpose is to orient research in terms of development-oriented values.

7. Comprehending the new order

For Bohm, however, comprehending the new order bears some resemblance to artistic perception. He uses Piaget's distinction between assimilation (understanding, render comprehensible) and accommodation (adaptation, fitting to a pattern) as the basic modes of intelligent perception. This artistic perception then begins by "observing the whole fact in its full individuality, and then by degree articulates the order that is proper to the assimilation of this fact." (p. 141) Thus it does not begin with abstract preconceptions as to what the order has to be, which are then "adapted" to the order that is observed.

8. Implicate order

Bohm uses the differences between a lens system (in measurement processes) and a holographic system to show how by use of the former "scientists were encouraged to extrapolate their ideas and to think that such an (analytical) approach would be relevant and valid no matter how far they went, in all possible conditions, contexts, and degrees of approximation."(p. 144). The advances in relativity and quantum theory imply, however, an undivided wholeness in which such "analysis into distinct and well-defined parts is no longer relevant." This is best illustrated by the hologram in which a whole pattern is somehow encoded into each part, no matter how small. The new order appropriate to our time could then be conceived as contained as a totality, encoded in some implicit sense into each region of space and time (p. 149).

He elaborates an entirely new way of understanding order as "implicate", or enfolded, which he contrasts with "explicate" forms that are commonly observed and sought. The simplest example he gives is of a television image, carried by a radio wave in an implicate order, and then explicated by a receiver.

9. Wholeness through movement

In more general terms, Bohm argues that the underlying wholeness in movement (the "holomovement"), noted above, acts like the radio wave to "carry" an implicate order. Under certain circumstances particular things (objects, phenomena, people, nations) can then be unfolded from this dynamic totality by a perceiver, but the holomovement is not limited in any specifiable way at all. As such it does not conform to any particular order and is essentially undefinable and immeasurable. This means that no single theory can capture or contain phenomena on a permanent basis. Rather, each theory will abstract a certain aspect that is relevant only in some limited context, lifting it temporarily into attention so that it stands out in relief (p. 151). Furthermore, any new order within which a multiplicity of such aspects are "integrated" is itself not a final goal (as in efforts at "unified science"), but rather part of a movement from which new wholes are continually emerging (p. 157).

10. Implications for development

This approach is very helpful in opening up ways of conceiving development and new forms of social order. In providing a mathematical description of implicate order, for example, Bohm makes a useful distinction between: transformation, as a geometric rearrangement within a given explicate order, and metamorphosis, as a much more radical change (such as between a caterpillar and a butterfly) in which everything alters, although "some subtle and highly implicit features remain invariant"(p. 160). The former characterizes much development thinking, whereas the subtlety of the latter has hitherto made it appear non-operational or equivalent to catastrophe.

Given Atkin's use of simplicial complexes to describe social organization (see Note 14.1), it is also interesting that Bohm suggests the extension of this technique in terms of "multiplexes" (p. 1667). His argument that phenomena need to be perceived as projections of a higher-dimensional reality for which appropriate algebras are required (p. 188), relates to Thom's concerns with mathematical archetypes (1980).

11. Questioning what develops

The challenge of Bohm's arguments lies in the manner in which they strike at the very root of the meaning of human and social development. His arguments highlight the extent to which both the physical and social sciences continue to rely on a Cartesian framework (if only in the familiar tabular/matrix presentations characteristic of social science papers) at a time when inherent weaknesses in the thinking behind such frameworks have been demonstrated. His most basic point is that the phenomena such as those which are the preoccupation of "development" (peoples, ideologies, groups, societies) are essentially derivative. "The things that appear to our senses are derivative forms and their true meaning can be seen only when we consider the plenum, in which they are generated and sustained, and into which they must ultimately vanish". (p. 192) In this light, the basic flaw in present development thinking is the a priori recognition of certain distinct social entities which it now seems desirable to "develop".

12. Sterility of conventional development

It is precisely this conception (as argued on different grounds by the world-system theorists) which reduces development to "sterile" transformative operations and prevents any metamorphoses (to use Bohm's terms). For it is development which precedes and underlies such explicate social entities as a movement from which they have been unfolded: "what is movement" (p. 203). Metamorphosis thus calls for ways of unfolding new, currently implicate forms from this holomovement, and enfolding into it those which are currently explicate, but are inadequate to the time. This is far removed from mechanistic efforts to "eliminate" undesirable structures and to "build" new ones from their components.

13. Consciousness of development processes

It should not be assumed that this implicate order is an inaccessible theoretical abstraction. Bohm argues that consciousness itself operates by enfolding and unfolding and that "not only is immediate experience best understood in terms of the implicate order, but that thought also is basically to be comprehended in this order". (p. 204).

This creates the possibility for "an unbroken flowing movement from immediate experience to logical thought and back" thus ending the fragmentation characteristic of the absence of any awareness of such movement (p. 203). He argues that movement is itself sensed primarily in the implicate order and that Piaget's work "supports the notion that the experiencing of the implicate order is fundamentally much more immediate and direct than that of the explicate order, which...requires a complex construction that has to be learned" (p. 206).


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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