Saturday, December 27, 2008


When I was still teaching, one day a boy approached me looking a little worried and asked me if I could sort something out for him. I asked him what the matter was and he said,

“My parents have always told me that I would go to heaven when I die. But today, Mr Newman said in RE that there was no heaven to go to, that when we die we’re finished and that this world that we see around us is the only world there is.”

“And you’re worried about who’s telling the truth?” I asked.

“Yes. What do you think? You’re the philosopher.”

“Do you think it matters what I think?”

“Not really, but it matters to me what I think and you might have something interesting to say.”

“Well if you’re really interested in what I think, I’d say that you’d be better off ignoring Mr Newman and going along with what your parents say.”


“Because Mr Newman is asserting something that he doesn’t really know to be true. Your parents are doing the same thing; but I assume they love you.”

“Yes, they do.”

“So at least they probably have your best interests at heart and say what they say with love. They want you to have the chance to live for ever. Mr Newman, by contrast, is only interested in debunking people’s deeply held beliefs because he thinks they are held without evidence or reason. He wants to appear wiser or more knowledgeable than they.”

“Is he?”

“No, I don’t think he is. I think you can on balance ignore your teacher and go on believing what your parents tell you.”

“But why?”

For one very simple reason. Neither your parents nor Mr Newman really know what they are talking about, but on balance your parents are liable to be less wrong about things than Mr Newman.”

“D’you think so?”

“Well just think about it: Mr Newman thinks that he is equipped to pronounce upon what sorts of things are in the universe and assert with certainty that some things – like life after death – just can’t exist. Your parents, too, think they can pronounce upon what sorts of things – like life after death – are in the universe; but the difference with your parents is that they are less likely to be wrong than Mr Newman because they think the universe is more complex than it appears to us.”

“Why does that matter?”

“Well, just think about it this way: Mr Newman is convinced, on the basis of what he experiences through his senses and what he thinks with his logical mind, that he can know essential things about the universe; but one has to ask whether this is so. Why should human beings think that they can know essential things about the universe? If you think about what used to be called the ‘Great Chain of Being’, the ‘Web of Life’ or what have you, you can go right down to the simplest creatures at the bottom levels and ask what sorts of things they know about the universe. Imagine an amoeba, for example. It doesn’t know much. It knows about how to move towards nutrient-rich bits of water. It knows how to catch its prey. But that’s about it. Its world is a bit of water and what it knows about that world is pretty limited. What does it know about you, for example?

“Not much.”

“Then if you come up through the levels of complex life, through multicellular organisms, through fish, reptiles, birds mammals and so on, the more complex creatures are still handicapped by limited experience of the world and limited ability to deal with the experience they have. We think that animals are pretty ignorant compared to us. Think of a chimp or a gorilla. What do they know about the dark side of the moon, about nuclear physics, about the moral dilemmas of the modern health service, about the wonders of Bach’s fugues, the mysteries of art and finance and so on? The answer is, nothing at all. So if they, our nearest cousins are so handicapped that they can know nothing of what we as humans take for granted, why should we suppose that on rising to the human level of the web of life, suddenly creatures are not limited anymore and can know everything there is to know about the world? Why do humans suddenly think that they’re not limited at all?”

“So you’re saying my teacher is as limited as a chimp or a gorilla?”

Well put like that it sounds like an insult; but, yes, that’s what I do mean.”

The boy laughed out loud, frankly and with obvious pleasure.

“I guess it’s obvious, if you think about it. There’s no reason why, if creatures are handicapped by their nature, human creatures should not also be handicapped.”

“That’s it. Man is a limited creature, as limited, potentially as a slug, a thrush or a so-called ‘higher mammal’. He is limited in intellect, in perceptual apparatus – i.e. sense-organs – and he is limited in imagination. We’re not so far above the chimps and gorillas as we like to think. We’re pretty close to them. Some of them can do many things better than we can. They can remember better than we can. Some of them can even do maths better than us. But it seems obvious that just as we think of all the non-human animals on this world as limited as far as what they can know is concerned, so we ourselves must be limited.”

“Yes, O.K. but I don’t see that it really helps me to say that Mr Newman is as limited as a chimp.”

“I didn’t say that; and don’t go telling him that I did. I meant simply that all the creatures on this planet from the lowest to the highest are strictly limited in their cognitive capacities and can only know what evolution has equipped them to know.”

“So why should I believe my parents more than Mr Newman?”

“Because it seems to me likely that the universe is far more complex than Mr Newman claims. It’s more likely that it’s as complex as your parents think it is. It seems to me likely that just as we are able to grasp things that our simpler cousins cannot even conceive, so there are probably levels of awareness, consciousness and experience far above what we can know or imagine. It seems to me that there are probably levels of reality far more complex and wonderful than anything we can think of in our limitations. It also seems to me likely that each level is sealed off from the ones above and below it precisely by the perceptual and cognitive abilities of the creatures that inhabit it.”

“By their brains, you mean?”

“Yes, if they have brains.”

“I guess it would be pretty presumptuous of an amoeba to assert that the only world is the one it knows. But it would have to assert that because it cannot know any other world. For it, the world really is as it experiences it.”

“Yes, and the same can be said of humans: it is pretty presumptuous of them to assert that they can know everything there is to know about the world and that their world is the only world there is. It’s pretty presumptuous of Mr Newman to assert that there are no levels of reality above the human level.”

“And my parents? Aren’t they being presumptuous as well?”

“Well maybe, but at least they think that the world is more wonderful than it appears to us. In that I think they are almost certainly right.”

“But that doesn’t prove that they are right to claim that we have the chance of living on after death.”

“No, it doesn’t; but the whole trend of evolution is towards more complex levels of experience and thought. It seems to me entirely reasonable to believe in the possibility of progressing to such more complex levels after the death of our human body. After all, we, ourselves, may be no more than the recycled minds of creatures that were lower down the evolutionary ladder than us.”

“But what could be above us? Angels?”

 “Who knows?”

“But why can’t we see them? Why can’t we examine their brains, to get some idea of the more complex experience they enjoy?”

“Perhaps it’s better we can’t. We’re pretty touchy creatures and we’d feel very intimidated and possibly resentful of creatures who are vastly more intelligent than we are. We don’t like to think that there are more intelligent and wiser creatures than us.”

“Maybe they inhabit another universe, or other universes.”

“Maybe. And maybe their more complex experience and knowledge gives them the ability to move between universes. Or maybe they just have the ability to move between levels of this universe.”

“That’s a very exciting thought.”

“Hold onto it; it might just give you a handle on what your parents mean by being immortal.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Only when I am conscious of being creatively fecundated by the ground of my being, by the intelligence which transcends my own, am I not in despair. I despair of my spiritlessness, which comes upon me all too frequently. I despair of my defining myself - perforce - by my activity, my rational activity because such activity inevitably becomes a prison. I despair, most of all, when I am thrown back on nothing more than my rational awareness in its empirical immediacy. At this latter point, I feel I am buried alive: sentient, conscious, but impotent.

The definition of oneself by less than a universal intelligence is spiritlessness. Of course one can define oneself by reference to such and be unaware of it: one can call it ‘God’, ‘the divine’ one’s ‘creativity’, one’s ‘lucky star’, one’s ‘demon’, and so on. But one is thus defining oneself by reference to an intelligence that transcends that of the individual. The trouble starts here when one tries to arrogate responsibility for these things to one’s conscious ego. Even if one regards these things as somehow objective and apart from one’s self, they are primitive notions and leave the self dissatisfied, or in despair.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are not only the fathers of Existentialism, they also represent the two alternatives remaining to those who try and think themselves into well-being. There are only two possibilities: either one recognises and revels in one’s complete dependence upon that intelligence and that creativity that is not under the control of the ego (‘God’, in the vocabulary of religion), or else one refuses this and in defiance regards one’s own ego as the only source of authority of any kind. The first state is faith, the second is spiritlessness. The first state is serene without being fatalistic; the second state is desperate, frightened and in all probability angry as well. This second state is also temporary, for it only exists while the ego considers itself both rational and opposed to faith.

Kierkegaard said: ‘the whole development of the world tends in the direction of the absolute significance of the category of particularity’. What he meant by this was that the person is destined to discover its unique rootedness in the incomprehensible Creator or else destroy itself in despair.

The ultimate despair, one which has recognised the illusoriness of the ego’s self-regard, is not far from faith, since it is the necessary precursor to faith. The desire for an absolute identity for oneself remains vivid; and yet to see that self as grounded on nothing, neither ego nor intelligent unknown, is the most exquisite Hell a person can enter.

Nietzsche’s biggest mistake was that of the Romantic: he desired to take a step backwards into paganism, after having had acquaintance with a later stage of the evolution of human consciousness (that of the Incarnation). But the simple life cannot be aped: one cannot without self-harm, will to enter a more primitive form of consciousness. Knowing, as he did, the illusoriness of the ego’s self-love, his self had, then, to be grounded on the void, for the void is all that is left to the ego when it renounces its own groundedness in the Creator.

Socially constructed identities have gone. They are no longer possible. The self has to define itself by reference to that which creates both us and everything else.

There is no way in which one can manufacture a self. The self is not determined by an essence, it is true; but it is determined by what the universal intelligence constantly requires that the self shall be. How could this be otherwise when even the 'random' movement of the individual sub-atomic particle is guided at every moment by what the universal intelligence wills it shall be (this is in effect the significance of Bohm’s ‘quantum potential’). That requirement could never be defined by the self; but the self can nevertheless see the direction it has to take in obedience to the universal intelligence.

Where do we begin? We could (or must) begin by positing the Creator. Now if at this point you turn away from me in disgust or disappointment, or even in impatience, then that is possibly because you are a closed mind. I could replace the word ‘Creator’ by a less contentious term, such as ‘nature’, ‘world’, ‘being’ and so on; but my language would lose its force. If you take exception to my use of this word, that reaction is probably due to a failure of the imagination: you are probably operating with stunted, nursery conceptions of what the word means. You are in all probability still wrestling with a Father Christmas conception of the deity. For this reason you are probably incapable of understanding what I have to say. If you leave me here, I bid you adieu.

Philosophers are sometimes hypocrites. They have generally decided on the point they want to make before they get down to write the argument which is to bring them to their conclusion: the conclusion, far from concluding anything, always begins what they have to say. Therefore read their books from back to front, as Nietzsche advises. They argue for a position and pretend to present a conclusion derived by inference from premises. After labyrinthine wanderings through esoteric argument, they arrive at the point they were aiming at, i.e. from which they started. We will have none of this. We posit the Creator and then give our reasons for so doing. We posit a universal religious urge and the real possibility of encounter with the universal intelligence as the satisfaction of this urge.

It is not true that encounter with the Creator can be achieved by a process of cognitive accumulation analogous to the cognitive accumulation that leads us humans to develop our technology. The Creator is discovered by the human mind as a matter of course, if it is allowed to develop naturally and is not deceived by the delusions of knowledge. The atheist, though useful, is really a poor fool who believes things that flatter his own ego. For example, he believes that those who have faith in God have this as a result of cognitive accumulation. It is not surprising, given this, that the atheist is an atheist. The atheist merely proves the point: there is no possibility of faith in the Creator arising as a result of cognitive accumulation. There is, similarly, no knowledge of the self that comes about by cognitive accumulation. The self is discovered by virtue of the undistorted experience of the self. The Creator, likewise, is discovered by experience of the intelligent and creative roots of the self. This is not the same as cognitive accumulation.

The atheist performs a very useful service: he keeps those who have encountered the universal intelligence on their toes. This latter encounter can only remain active, vivid and fertile if it is kept in constant review and under constant criticism. The atheist performs this task for those who have faith. I cannot imagine any worse state of affairs than one in which everyone believed uncritically in some divine being. It would be as bad as the situation in which no-one believed in such a being. The atheist performs the task of maintaining the mental hygiene of those who live in a state of encounter with universal intelligence and he is to be thanked for his service. He pricks the balloon of self-importance that is liable to afflict those who, directly or indirectly, encounter universal intelligence. When the concept ‘God’ is no more than a sort of social cement, its usefulness is exhausted. Worse than that, it is an injurious notion because it creates the illusion of group identity based upon shared cognitive accumulation. Unfortunaltely, the atheist suffers from the delusions of the ego; but that is another story.

Nietzsche detested Socialism because he saw it as the comfortable lowing of the herd. In the final analysis, it is the individual that is the source of all social cohesion and shared value. If – as is the case – the individual identity is intrinsically superior to the group identity (maleness, Englishness, middle-classness, educatedness, socialistness etc.) then ethical values, and therefore social cohesion, can only come from a transcendent source. Humanism is bunk: it tries to derive values from the abstraction ‘man’ or from aspects of group identity. Neither of these is a possible source of values. Not the abstraction ‘man’ because this is either the old essentialism, or it is scientific nonsense, or meaningless abstraction; and not the group-identity values, because these never fit the individual and exist only for the reasons of expediency found by those whose priority is social organisation.

It is for all these reasons that I do not find the idea of the Incarnation, the timeless Creator’s appearance in time, as absurd. If there is a Creator of the universe and if he has, by virtue of his intelligent creativity, produced creatures capable of appreciating and desiring him, then it seems to me anything but absurd that he should so order the process of time, by means of which he has produced these creatures, as to be able to reveal himself within it. Anything else would be divine cruelty of the purest kind.

There is nothing that militates against the notion of an intelligent Creator in the interminable wrangling and conflicts of human groups. Anyone with half an eye can see that there is something profoundly wrong with human beings as human beings; and I am not referring to all the frailties and afflictions to which we are subject. I am referring to something essentially wrong with the state of being human. Man, to abstract and generalise, is unformed, man is guilty, man is riven by contradictions, man is, in a word, imperfect. One only has to consider non-human nature to appreciate this: there is nothing wrong with any of it. No non-human being is a purely transitional being. And yet, man’s unformedness and guilt are precisely his greatness, for without them he would not have any desire to raise himself to a position in which he can comprehend his maker. For man knows that he is unformed. I say ‘raise himself’ merely in order to identify the desire; I mean of course, ‘allow himself to be raised’, for there is little that man can do to raise himself out of his native purblindness. If left to himself, he will simply follow his animal instincts and strive to increase his pleasure.

There is no single truth for everyone, because what we call ‘truth’ is only a means and not an end. The end of the acquisition of truth is an encounter with the universal intelligence; but many who claim to be in search of truth stop short of this ultimate aim and settle for accumulated knowledge. It is absurd to forget that there are mindstyles. A ‘truth’ strikes a mind as illuminating and convincing because the mind in question needs the truth in question. The same truth will strike another mind as absurd. This has nothing to do with the value of the formalism used to express such ‘truths’. Mathematics, logic, computer algorithms - all these are supremely useful and can both generate and express illuminating truths. But the belief that the universe is mathematical, logical or governed by an algorithm is the height of absurdity. It arises from the belief that since these methods can generate illuminating ‘truths’, there must be some ultimate truth at the end of the process of such generation. The chains of inference that give us illuminating ‘truths’, it is believed, has an end in some final proof. But belief is not created by proof; consensus is. Consensus is the lowest common denominator of knowledge; it is akin to the lowing of the herd.

It really is nonsensical to speculate whether mathematics comes out of the nature of mind itself, or whether it comes into the mind from outside, from what we call ‘the world’. Obviously both of these possibilities could be true at once. The formalisms, the symbols and rules of combination etc. come from without, or are suggested by what we observe in the world; the relations at the heart of our formal arguments, however, inhere in the nature of the intellect and come from within. Why is it that we so resolutely refuse to spot the difference in nature and status between form and content? Sometimes we even go as far as denying the validity of the distinction. To understand the difference between the form and the content of one’s creative thought is to see that the former is socially constructed, time-bound and fallible in every possible way, while the latter is simply unassailable. Form can never properly ‘get at’ content, which is why disputes exist.

What we imagine as the end result of long processes of inference – truth, then – is in fact not arrived at by means of those processes, but at best in parallel to them and sometimes in spite of them. It is true that an accumulation of illuminating ‘truths’ can facilitate the achievement of that state that we have called ‘an encounter with the universal intelligence’; but there is no direct connection between the process and the result, as if one were entitled to expect such a result from one’s efforts. The result comes when the futility of inferential thought is recognised and when the inexpressible core of awareness that is established in an encounter with the Creator makes plain the eternal gulf in human thought between form and content.

To believe that one possesses some sort of ultimate ‘truth’ when one has only a series of inferences couched within a particular formal language, is to be in a state of spiritlessness and despair.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


The personal is an epistemological category along with all the others, the empirical, the logical, the mathematical and so on. It is the most complex epistemological category which we are capable of understanding. It is far more complex than the mechanical, the statistical or whatever mathematical category we choose, because it combines intelligence (not to say reason) and unpredictability - in a word, creativity. We do not have to understand the universe mechanically; indeed, if we understand the universe only mechanically, we do not understand it at all; we misunderstand it. We feel obliged to understand it mechanically because of our model-making, tool-making intellect and because of the consensus which we can force on the basis of models that appear to be able to demonstrate their authority mathematically. But let us not confuse issues: the mechanism that we believe in on the basis of these models is a feature of the models themselves and not of that which is modelled. The models do not prove that the universe is a machine; they simply prove that the best models we can make are machines. This confusion of model with what is modelled is at the heart of all the rational confusions that have plagued our civilisation for millennia.
Nothing obliges us to conceive of the universe as a machine except our tool-making intellect. We can conceive of the universe just as well through the category of the personal, as a person, a creative, impenetrable person whom we cannot grasp but whose activities nevertheless can appear to us meaningful, after the event. We cannot, of course, model a person, not even a human person, even though we can still understand what we are talking about.
The universe of science is not creative and unpredictable. The mechanistic universe of science, because it has to be predictable, cannot be creative; it cannot model creativity; and can have no room for creativity within it, precisely because creativity is unpredictable though meaningful. Mechanism implies repeatability; repeatability is the only meaningful property of a mechanistic universe. Creativity and unpredictable intelligence are features not of machines, but of persons. Of course, we can abandon, or claim to abandon any attempt to conceive of the universe as a whole. If we do this we are left with a dissatisfying, patchy universe in which islands of comprehension have no connections with each other and no view of the whole in symbol is possible. No understanding of our position as persons within such a universe can be obtained, precisely because we are persons.
But if we wish to conceive of the universe as a whole, we are almost obliged to use the category of the personal to provide a link between the pieces, because if these pieces are not linked intelligently, they have to be linked mechanically. We certainly have to use the category of the personal if we wish to locate the human personality – our own – within the universe that we inhabit. Of course, we can fall back on the old device of chance or randomness to supplement our mechanism. But no-one is really convinced by this since everyone is aware that this is just a method of smuggling in a kind of god (Fortuna) without admitting the fact in order to account for the rise of creative nova out of chaos. Every advance due to chance then becomes a lucky hit – so many lucky hits in fact in the history of the world as it is known to us that credibility is strained to its furthest limits. Such improbability is diluted and rendered harmless by the appeal to vast reaches of time; and the latest wheeze of proposing that everything possible will in the end happen because there is an infinity of actualised universes, tries to show that improbability is simply a local view of what is actually inevitable.
But with all of these alternatives to the simple postulation of universal creative intelligence, the sense of desperation becomes more and more obvious.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


..No matter!...Never Mind!

An eminent journalist recently said in interview on the radio, “we are all materialists now”. This may in the end be true as long as we understand that what we call ‘matter’ is almost certainly an infinitely more wonderful reality than what our senses suggest to us and an infinitely more complicated phenomenon that we suspect, since it has to include realities that we refer to as ‘minds’. We have decided that ‘spiritual’ entitites are too insubstantial to be taken seriously. But matter may ultimately be no more substantial an entity than unbound light and completely beyond our understanding in sensory terms. Unfortunately, it was clear that what the lady journalist in question meant was, “we are all convinced by the doctrine of eliminative materialism and completely brow-beaten by the thing-ideology.” The truth is that we are not. One should perhaps not really expect any better from fashion-ridden journalists, but one is nevertheless always shocked by such unreflecting dogmatism. We are not all materialists now, if we understand this word ‘materialism’ in the traditional way, simply because materialism, as a metaphysics – particularly the version known as ‘eliminative materialism’ – is deeply confused. We have no clear idea what we mean by the word ‘matter’ and therefore even less idea what we mean by the thesis that the universe is just a collection of chunks of this matter understood to exist exactly as common sense suggests they exist: as a bunch of 3D objects analogous to a bag of marbles. We find this prejudice wherever we go, in every science and even in the arts. It is this prejudice that we need to abolish not only because it is no longer tenable, a mere hangover from a former age, but also because it restricts and damages us. It brutalises us. We can be heuristic materialists and yet assent to the fact – for fact it is – that matter has properties of which our sensory access to the world gives us no conception at all. We can agree that the prime constituents of our experience are material; but the experience itself, and the experience of experience is not. Since this is so, there is no reason at all why matter should not include in its range of manifestations those entities that we, restricted as we are by our senses, call ‘minds’.

Once we come to see what is vulgarly called ‘matter’ as in essence no more than the three-dimensional projection of a reality that is of a much higher dimensionality, the properties of the real stuff of the universe cease to be limited by our senses and by the woefully limited 3D conceptions they impose upon us. Matter can then begin to take on the properties that indeed inhere in it, the properties that have allowed it to support the evolution of life, mind, meaning and all the rest of ‘non-material’ reality.
‘Matter’ is what we call the ‘stuff’ that the world is supposed to be made out of. When you really start to think about what you mean by ‘stuff’, a dizzying abyss of questions and uncertainties opens up in the mind because the commonsense view of what it is, starts to come up against all manner of difficulties. Nevertheless, the best way to proceed is to start from commonsense views of what the world is made out of and then see if such views are tenable or not and if they are not, why not.
The commonsense view of matter is that it is just the things that we see, touch, smell, taste and hear in everyday life. We experience coloured, textured, smelly, tasty noisy stuff in staggering variety. We take the things that are made out of this stuff in our hands and feel them, their texture, their solidity, their weight and so forth. We smell and taste a range of stuffs and with other stuffs we don’t even try this because we know that if we did they could injure us. We listen to the sounds that are emitted when things contact each other. We look at the infinitely fascinating play of light that comes to us from the things that are within the range of our sight. But in all of this, there seems to be nothing mysterious at all. We imagine that the rich profusion of things and the rich variety of experience they give us can nonetheless be reduced to the simple idea of a collection of simple things. We imagine that just as a bag of marbles is a collection of ‘objects’ so the world is composed out of basic objects, fundamental building-blocks, and the world as a whole is just the whole collection of such objects. We imagine that these objects are really no different from the objects that we take in our hands and inspect with our eyes, but that they are so small that we can’t have direct experience of them. And here, the difficulties begin to mount up for this view of the world, because the closer we get with the aid of particle physics to the supposed building-blocks of the universe, the further we get from our everyday conception of what an object is. The fundamental building blocks start to differ radically from the objects of our experience: they are not coloured, sound-emitting, tasty, smelly and textured. On the contrary, they are disconcertingly abstract; and, moreover, they seems to exhibit paradoxical properties.
This notion of the fundamental particles of matter as absolutely hard and just sitting there within the complete emptiness of space is a very ancient idea and has the name ‘atomism’ because the first person to write about matter in this way was Democritus who lived in Greece a few hundred years before the Christian Era and called the fundamental objects out of which he believed the universe to be composed ‘atoms’ because the word means ‘things that cannot be cut into any smaller bits’. He thought that there were only two fundamental aspects to reality, atoms and the void. There was something deeply convincing about this picture because it corresponded to some of our profoundest intuitions; but it must be said that its very ‘obviousness’ was suspect, derived as it was from our everyday sensory experience, or more particularly the experience we have of grasping things in our hands and handling them. For Democritus, the atoms were completely impenetrable, could not be cut into smaller bits and simply ‘fell’ eternally through the infinite void. But they possessed shape, for some had hooks and others had eyes. And as they fell, the hooks caught on the eyes and the resulting ‘clumping’ of the atoms brought about all the varieties of matter we experience from day to day. Now this view of things was O.K. as long as science did not investigate it. Philosophers of course had plenty of objections, but they only had arguments and their arguments could be countered. The strength of Democritus’ conception was that it seemed ‘obvious’ according to the intuitions derived from sense experience. Things however have moved much further on in physics; and experiment, rather than metaphysical argument, has changed the simple everyday intuitions concerning the ultimate constituents of matter beyond all recognition. Although we still talk of ‘atoms’, they are no longer indivisible and the atomic conception that they refer to, the ‘ultimate particle’ conception seems on the wane. Nevertheless, many people still continue to think in terms of ultimate constituents or ‘building blocks’.
Many still imagine these constituents as existing in three dimensions, as taking up space, as lasting through time and as moving around; but that seems to be all they do that resembles the behaviour of everyday objects; and even those things they do in ways that seem completely different from the analogous modes of space-occupancy, duration and motion that we perceive in ordinary objects. The space they occupy seems ill-defined. They seem not to have the sort of continuous existence of straightforward things. And their movements seem at times to have downright occult features such as the ability to be in two places at once and the apparent ability to be in no particular location at all. In every other respect, moreover, they are completely and disconcertingly different from the things of everyday experience and lack altogether that vital property of hand graspable solidity. Nevertheless, most everyday people continue to believe that we can imagine them much as the objects of our daily experience, just inconceivably tiny, indivisible and as located in an empty void that has no properties, because it is a void, i.e. nothing at all.
There is no need to go very deeply into the idea of atomism here, because the best way to explore it is by means of physics, and this is not a work of physics. The aim here, for the moment, is to concentrate upon the odd fact that this notion of a collection of fundamental, indivisible objects strikes us as so easy to understand and so ‘obviously’ the case. When things are obvious to us like this, we do well to take extra care, because we tend in our unguarded moments to be creatures of habit and our habits make us think of the world as obvious, when it is not, when it is only our habits, our repetitive, habitual thought-forms that are obvious. We are always surprised when what is ‘obvious’ to us turns out not to be the case; sometimes we are frightened; sometimes we resist the idea that our habits of mind can be wrong, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. We do ourselves a service, however, in seeing that our habits of mind are just that – habits – and that what strikes us as obvious may be far from being so. Everyone knows that habits can be good or bad; but no-one thinks they correspond to absolute truth about the world.
This sense of the ‘obviousness’ of certain states of affairs is sometimes called an ‘intuition’, a word that implies knowledge by direct contemplation of what is known. Similarly, when ideas are suggested to us that seem to go against what strikes us as obvious, we refer to them as ‘counter-intuitive’ and say “that simply can’t be right.” At this stage, we should concentrate on this intuition that common sense gives us about the world as a collection of three-dimensional objects. In order to examine such an intuition, it is often instructive to raise a problem that seems to make the acceptance of such an intuition impossible, despite the fact that the intuition concerns matters that seem to us completely self-evident and ‘obvious’. So let's take the notion of a thought. Thoughts are other items of our experience that seem to be uncomplicated and obvious: we just have them all the time, they are the essential constituents of what we call our ‘mind’ and they are just there. Some we can will to come into being; over others we have little control; but they all have a fundamentally similar property about them, namely their mental nature or ‘thoughtiness’, and seem to that extent unproblematic. We apparently have no difficulty in telling the difference between what is thought and what is not thought. We just know that the world is made of objects; we just know that minds consist of thoughts; and we just know that thoughts are not objects. Thus we just know that the world is composed of at least two fundamentally different types of entity. Yet this knowledge offends our sense of economy and thus constitutes a difficulty. It also creates insoluble logical problems. Thus we start to question our intuitions.
The difficulty arises when you start to wonder what place thoughts have in a world that is composed entirely and solely of three-dimensional objects or ‘things’ in the sense that ball bearings are things. You only have to compare what you suppose a thought to be with what you suppose an object to be to see that there’s a very great difference between the two, so great that it is even difficult to conceive of the two existing side by side. Imagine looking at a lot of ball bearings and saying, “actually, that’s a thought”. It’s difficult to do even though, in a sense, that’s exactly what they are, because their entire existence when you are looking at them is as an image in your mind. But this is a different issue. Imagine increasing the size of the atoms in your brain until they are as big as ball-bearings. Imagine then wandering around in the mostly empty space that would be represented to you with the odd ball-bearing rushing here and there separated from each other by huge distances, looking for a thought. Imagine looking at all those ball-bearings whizzing around and saying “that’s thought”. Now people have done and still do this sort of thing, but there’s no denying that it’s difficult, so difficult that you have to start denying what is obvious and indulging in all sorts of mental contortions that convince no-one. The problem is not eased by saying that the thoughts are in the complex patterns of movement of all these atoms or ball-bearings. The two, thoughts and things, seem to us fundamentally different. We have an intuitive sense of their difference; a difference that makes the alleged difference between chalk and cheese pale into insignificance. Each of them just doesn’t seem to exist in the same kind of way as the other. Indeed in many ways they seem to be opposite to each other in the sense that the properties of objects seem to be the contrary of the properties of thoughts. And yet, we are so convinced that the thing doing the thinking is the definitely 3D brain, we invariably come back to the conviction that thought must be the activity of that object.
Now if we don’t want to follow Descartes in positing two totally distinct substances, mind and matter, we can, of course, simply say, “well thoughts are just objects, because objects are the only things in the universe and that’s that”. Indeed there are plenty of people who do just that, and the sense of unconvincingness that they and we feel is just put down to our own feeble-wittedness or lack of imagination or something similar. But we can do something different: we can admit that we really do not know what we’re talking about when we say ‘matter’. We can begin to suppose that it might be a far more complex concept that we ever imagine in our everyday ‘atomic’ conception of the stuff that makes up things. We can entertain the thought that our sensory experience of objects, that gives us our idea of three-dimensionality, is simply our particular access to a limited number of aspects of matter. We can begin to suppose that our current notion of matter is maybe just a habit of mind and that the reality is such that mind is intrinsically part of it, not an inconvenience that has to be abolished or explained away because it is not a three-dimensional object like a ball-bearing.
The fact that we have an ‘intuition’ about the difference between thoughts and objects that is as strong as the intuition we have that foreworld is made of objects, doesn’t appear to bother the people who happily announce that mind is just matter. The reason for this is that they happen to place their complete trust in one kind of intuition – the intuition that says the world is just a collection of 3D things – and mistrust the other intuition that says that thoughts are no less real than objects and that they are fundamentally different from objects. The reason for this is principally because it is easier to assert the existence of objects, which appear to be public, and deny the existence of thoughts, which appear to be private, than to try and understand how thoughts fit into a world of objects. Making thoughts fit into the world opens up a panorama – some would say a Pandora’s Box – of possibilities that certain people find threatening and for that reason unacceptable. This is another reason why they prefer to stick to those things they can – if only potentially – see, handle and describe ‘objectively’. But when one gets used to opening up the world and its possibilities, as we have to do if we start to suppose that matter can have mindlike properties, it can lose its menace altogether and become exciting. You just have to have a basic trust in its processes and the imagined threat disappears. After all, these processes have been around for a very long time and they are responsible for our being here, so trusting them would seem to be inevitable. Simplifying the world by excluding certain possibilities has its practical advantages; but oversimplifying it and thinking that one has solved a problem thereby, achieved complete control thereby, is simply daft. It is self-delusion.
Now one of the sets of processes we simply have to trust are those that seem to be intrinsic to our thought. And our thought presents to us two apparently opposite intuitions about reality: an intuition that the world is composed of three-dimensional objects, on the one hand, and an intuition that minds also exist as substantial entities, on the other. Rather than going for the easy solution of supposing one of these intuitions to be completely mistaken, we should instead search for the means to find how they could be compatible with each other. A world in which they are compatible is clearly far more interesting than one in which only one or the other is allowed to be authoritative.
There have been, and there still are people who have essentially said, when looking at objects, “actually, these are just thoughts”. This is another way of solving the problem of comparing thoughts with objects and finding that the two cannot be put together in the same bag. A British philosopher by the name of Berkeley argued this way and in his writing, the world turns into one great thought. When you think about it, this is no less justifiable than imaging the world as one great collection of objects – it merely trusts a different intuition, the intuition that for something to exist, it has to be thought about by some mind. Even if you try to imagine a world without observers to think it, you smuggle yourself into that world as observer by the very act of imagination. The trouble with the ‘objects-only-exist-as-thoughts’ idea is that we also have the intuition that persuades us that objects are essentially distinct from our thoughts about them, that the thought of a bag of priceless diamonds for example is vastly different from a ‘real’ bag of priceless diamonds. Berkeley got round this problem by maintaining that certain thoughts were not just ours, because God was having them all the time and therefore they existed independently of us humans. But at that point he became less than convincing. The deus ex machina is always a rather unsatisfactory device that appears to arise from desperation and creates the impression that a proof has just been produced out of the hat like a conjuror’s rabbit.
So what have we got here? We have confusion, that’s what we’ve got. And it’s not the sort of confusion that can be cleared up with facile solutions such as eliminative materialism which essentially asserts, “the world is just a bunch of ball-bearings and there is clearly no room for thoughts in that”, in order to abolish mind altogether. Some people try to abolish the mind because they have an agenda and an interest in doing so; but that’s another story. We are absolutely persuaded that there are objects and that the world is made out of them. We are absolutely persuaded that the world is a load of ‘matter’. And yet we are also absolutely persuaded that there are thoughts in this world and that they are not made of matter in any obvious sense. Moreover we are persuaded that without a thinker to think of objects, they can not be conceived as existing at all, for even if we imagine a universe from which all thinkers have been abolished, we still locate ourselves within it, thinking it. Result: we are persuaded by our intuitions concerning ‘obvious’ states of affairs that are contradictory. It is as if we were completely persuaded that snow is white and also completely persuaded that snow is black – at the same time.
Now there is no virtue in logical contradiction, but this shouldn’t really bother us too much. Paradoxes can be irritating; but if they persist despite our best efforts, they can become engines of further creative thought that results in unexpected expansion of our awareness. Even in physics today at the beginning of the twenty-first century, one type of theory in use – relativity theory – contradicts another theory in use – quantum mechanics – but both are useful and therefore used together. Furthermore, one conception of the smallest bits of matter sees them as waves and another sees them as particles; and both conceptions have to be used in order to make sense of observations. In the ordinary, everyday, unphilosophical use of our minds, we cheerfully operate on the basis of our intuitions with two contradictory and mutually exclusive theories: the theory of objects and the theory of minds. Nevertheless, once we start to think, we can’t help feeling that there’s something wrong somewhere – probably with our thought. Furthermore, the solutions adopted by one-sided theoreticians, to the problem of the relations of mind and matter, seem to suffer from the fact that we have another intuition that says to us that they cannot be true. They seem too restrictive for us. Our intuition says to us that if someone tells us that a) thoughts are actually three-dimensional things like ball-bearings, or that b) things like ball-bearings are actually just thoughts, we fail to be convinced however clever the arguments are. Indeed, the cleverer the arguments, the further they get from us and the less we are likely to be convinced. When such people start to inform us that our thoughts are simply 'delusions', we begin to ask ourselves whether these people really deserve our attention. 'Delusions'? Who or what is being deluded? To say that I am deluded about my own possession of consciousness is to bring the whole basis of our discrimination between truth and error into futile doubt.
So this brings us to that word ‘intuition’ again. We have to consider that it is our overwhelming tendency just to believe certain things as being ‘obvious’ that is at fault. Perhaps we have to accept that it is the limitations of our thought-processes that are at fault. We believe with complete certainty that the world is composed of three-dimensional things and that matter in general, the stuff of the universe, is just the whole collection of such things. But we also have an intuition of a completely different state of affairs in which minds exist. We have an intuition that tells us that both views cannot be true, because contradiction is an indication of falsehood; yet we have an intuition that tells us that both views are true because they rely on what appears to us to be completely obvious, namely that we have thoughts of objects and that there are objects of which we have thoughts and the two are completely different. There’s something confusing us; and the confusion is not dispelled by adopting some monism, that’s to say, some one-sided theory to the effect that either everything’s just 3D bits and pieces or else everything’s just thought. What could this confusion be? The culprit seems to be intuition; but which one? Whatever seems completely obvious to us is clearly not necessarily the case. Certainty is no guide when an equal and opposite certainty is possible; in pure logic, certainty is an absolute guide ('A = A' is intuitively certain and true); but as soon as logic is applied to experience, our logical intuitions can get us into trouble.
So we ought to stand back a moment from our certainties, from the certainties of common sense, from the certainties of logic, and ask ourselves whether what strikes us as most obvious could not possibly be quite different, i.e. totally non-obvious. Rather than opting for one kind of intuition and ditching the others, we could go for the possibility that all of our intuitions give us some access to reality, but that reality itself is sufficiently complex to allow all of the apparently contradictory notions to be true in some sense. If that is the case, then ironing out the contradictions is a real challenge and one that we should have the courage to rise to without scuttling to take refuge in over-simplifications. But one thing seems clear: if we are able to get beyond our intuitions and achieve a ‘truer’ conception, then we must in some sense not only be ‘beyond’ our intutions, but also able to develop new intuitions that will show up the inadequacy of our old ones. This means that we are not necessarily tied irrevocably to our thought-processes, but in some way able to rise above them. If you think about it, this is a very strange state of affairs. It is as if a computer were able to generate aspects of its software that could from some exterior vantage-point modify that very software. But this seems indeed to be in the nature of the human cognitive apparatus.
So where are we with our intuitions? There seems nothing for it: we have to modify the view of the world that suggests to us all sorts of commonsense notions as if they were absolutely true. There are thoughts and there are objects, hindworld and foreworld, and it seems futile to want to reduce the one to the other. On the other hand, we live in a single world and it would be nice to be able to see that world as made out of some basic stuff and not to have to put up with contradictions. Maybe the word ‘matter’ is a good enough one for designating the fundamental stuff of the universe. The trouble is that our intuition about what this matter is really like gets us into a muddle. We should then consider that matter is perhaps vastly more complex and subtle than our intuitions allow us to imagine. It is possible that the fundamental stuff out of which the universe is made is so complex that it includes in its modes of existence what we call ‘thought’ just as much as properties of apparent three-dimensionality, solidity and all the other properties of things that thought presents to us. If our senses give us access to one set of dimensions (the three dimensions of classical physics), it is just conceivable that our minds give us access to additional ones. The question is, how do we reconcile all these disparate elements in a coherent set of thoughts? The answer may be found in vastly increasing the number of dimensions to reality beyond the three of space and one of time that our intuition gives us.
Once you start to question your fundamental intuitions about the nature of reality, the world starts to get fuzzy and anything seems possible. This is temporarily unsettling and if it worries a person seriously then it may be better for someone like that not to carry on thinking in ways that provoke this worry. The thought that the world is actually not at all what common sense suggests to us that it is, is potentially disorienting. But it is disorienting and unsettling largely because we prefer the familiar to the unknown, the habitual thought to the unfamiliar. When the universe suddenly turns into something unknown, this can be a threatening experience. But it can also be an immensely liberating experience, because one is freed from habit and at liberty to imagine all sorts of possibilities. One is outside of all systems of interpretation and free to try out any thought about the nature of the universe and to see how far it takes you.
This is a potentially dangerous but highly creative state of mind, because all the preconceived notions about the nature of the world, all the beliefs that are ‘obvious’, that people just take for granted and never think to question, suddenly appear to be just beliefs, just ideas: ideas, moreover, that come from other sources than our own thought. They may just be second-hand and conventional ideas. Once you start to realise that your ideas may be second-hand and that you are perhaps just repeating uncritically what you’ve been told, it’s difficult to be satisfied with these thoughts and the urge arises to come up with your own. This is the beginning of all originality in philosophy and although really original ideas require a lot of hard work, coming up with them is one of the most satisfying things one can do as a human being. You may find your ideas resemble those that have already been thought by some philosopher or other, and this may be a disappointment; but at least you will have come by them yourself and it may be comforting to have a kindred spirit. You need lots of imagination to break out of habits of mind, but you also need a convincing and rational technique of persuasion: that’s the challenge of philosophy and reading what others have said is vital to the development of your own technique.
So what do we mean by ‘matter’? The really liberating thought is this: no one, but no one really knows what we mean by the word. The next liberating thought is this: all the various types of understanding of what we mean by ‘matter’ are influenced by aspects of our own nature, by the nature of our eyes, ears, hands, and other sense-organs and by the nature of that complicated bit of hardware that we call our brain. The brain is a remarkable instrument with an astonishing ability to present us with convincing ‘theories’ of what is out there in the world. Our understanding of what we mean by ‘matter’ is almost certainly further influenced by our language and by habits that we have adopted in thinking about what the data of our senses and the interpretations of our brain have suggested to us from early childhood. The point however is this: we have a degree of freedom to put any of these interpretations on hold and to come up with any idea at all about the nature of matter (and any other matter) as long as we are able to give a reasonable account of what we think. That account will be in words if we want to practise philosophy, and the words themselves carry all sorts of pre-conceived notions. So one of the major activities of those who think philosophically is to reflect upon the words we use to say what we think. Reflect, therefore, on the word ‘matter’, reflect on the word ‘solid’ on the word ‘thing’, on the words ‘three-dimensional’, ‘space-occupying’, and so on and reflect on the intuitions that suggest to you that you just ‘know’ what you mean. Then reflect upon those intuitions themselves and ask yourself whether you could not perhaps be misled by them. Why should matter be solid when physics sees it as mainly empty space occupied by the unpredictable motions of indefinable, ungraspable forms of bound energy within it? Why should matter seem to leave no room for mind when the further you penetrate into matter, the more intangible, the more indefinable and abstract it seems? Why should the space in which matter appears to be located have only three dimensions when it seems from the newest research in physics and from the phenomenon of non-locality to have very many more, perhaps up to eleven? Why should we have to believe that the stuff of the universe is the mostly dead, inert material that lies around us like heaps of junk and rubble on waste grounds? Why should we not believe that the stuff of the universe is some marvellous, wonderful, unknown, multi-dimensional, miraculous substance that permits by its very nature all the astonishing beings and events of the world and all the rich experience that we have, that allows minds to come into being and develop, that allows those minds to change the character of the reality they inhabit in fundamental ways, that makes existence a constant entertainment, a constant joy, a constant delight? Why, in a word, do we have to believe that the universe is made out of boring old three-dimensional objects? Why do we have to believe that the world is just a bunch of such things?
Answer: we don’t. We can consider those beliefs to be mere prejudice. We can consider them to be aspects of an ideology, the thing-ideology, that can legitimately be questioned. Once we understand this, we are set free to believe what strikes us as most convincing, though it’s best to give a convincing and informed account of our belief and share it with others, because otherwise we can’t really be sure we have clear ideas. We can in any case only really believe what strikes us as convincing.
Just contemplate for a moment the possibility that the universe is constructed out of an infinitely dimensional unbound light. When you consider the astonishing properties of the bound light that appears to us in the electromagnetic spectrum, its astonishing information-bearing properties, then the possibility that unbound light may be the basis of both mind and matter may strike us as enlightening.
That is the liberation of philosophy; and it can come about by reflecting on a simple idea like that of the nature of a thing. Think about it: what is a thing? Think about thinking about it. Is your thinking completely constituted by the thing? Is the thing just there lying around when no one is watching, or is the thing somehow dependent upon you as thinker for its existence? Do you construct the ‘thing’ by habits of mind that organise the experience of your senses? Is the thing mere foreworld, brute fact? Is it perhaps hindworld, a mere thought? Or is it midworld, more concept or abstraction, more hypothesis or theory than objective existence? Is it a description, but one that we don’t think to question because it appears so obvious? Or is it hyperworld, that is to say something that strikes you as entirely unknown and inscrutable? These matters – matter and so on – matter. Merely speculating in an almost childlike way about the nature of light and dreaming he was running alongside a beam of it brought Einstein to question the view of the universe that people had held for millennia and allowed him to change the world. So perhaps we need to get a little more specific and examine some thoughts about the tiniest bits of matter.
In order to get a handle on the possible confusions associated with our commonsense views of matter, it is useful here to take a look at what the physicist David Bohm has to say about the problems raised by the differences between classical and quantum mechanics. (These remarks are guided to a considerable extent by chapters 4 and 5 of Science, Order and Creativity by David Bohm and David Peat, Routledge London 2000, to which also page numbers refer.) For Bohm, the 3D world of classical physics is merely a limiting case, valid within a limited frame of reference of the much more capacious quantum world. Seeing how the two actually fit together is rendered difficult by our intuitions. The 3D world and its apparently mechanical order is a simple species of order restricted by our imagination. This simple order is enfolded in and unfolds itself out of a deeper and more complex order that he calls the ‘implicate order’. The 3D world accessible to our senses is the ‘explicate order’ and represents only a small range of the many levels of order of the universe. The explicate order is ‘explicit’, that is to say immediately obvious to us; but the implicate order, in which the explicate order is embedded, is ‘implicit’ and much vaster than its obvious counterpart. The implicate order is a much more complex reality than the explicate order since it contains not only the explicate order, but also all the information required to co-ordinate each individual particle in its interactions with the totality of all other particles that we call the universe. The explicate order is contained in the implicate order, just as a one dimensional and two dimensional realities are contained in the world of three dimensions.
But, according to Bohm, this implicate order is in turn contained in a higher dimensional reality that he calls the ‘super implicate order’ which is the level of order governing what kinds of things exist in the universe and what do not. The super-implicate order is the level of order that governs what Leibniz called ‘compossibility’ – that is to say what entities are compatible with all others, and thus, what kind of universe exists. It must be stressed that this is physics and not metaphysics. Bohm was involved in ground-breaking physical research and theory throughout his life and made discoveries that still bear his name. He is relatively unknown because his theories, though firmly based upon current physics, were not considered as ‘useful’ in the generation of new experimental techniques. Bohm’s interest, it is true, developed progressively in the direction of the implications of physical research for the human sciences and into general questions of an almost existentialist nature. Nevertheless, much of his theorising takes off from thought-provoking experimental work of a precise nature in current physics. Of particular interest to him were the so-called ‘two slit experiment’ and the EPR paradox. We shall concentrate for the moment on the first of these.
The two slit experiment was a means of highlighting the uncertainty demonstrated by Heisenberg concerning the nature of sub-atomic particles. The experiment showed that the particles had to be considered both as a wave and as a particle and that no final decision on one side or the other was possible: matter was simply composed out of entities that on one view had to be seen as waves and on another as particles.
Bohm solves the ‘particle-wave duality’ in physics by postulating that the particle is a reality but that it is accompanied by an information-bearing wave, or ‘quantum potential’. At the level of the super-implicate order, all the waves of this ‘quantum potential’, i.e. all the waves of information accompanying all the individual particles in the universe, are co-ordinated in one single information-bearing field. Thus the ‘many worlds’ hypothesis that is apparently allowed by quantum theory – and used by some to account for the fact that we have just this universe and not another – is solved by the super implicate order in that it is the level of order, the information content, if you like, that ‘selects’ the universe we actually observe from the infinity of possibilities and does not require the metaphysical and unverifiable speculation that all of these possibilities are in some way actualised in parallel universes that we can never experience.
It is obvious from this very brief account of the implicate and super implicate orders that they have ‘mindlike’ qualities. There is absolutely no reason why what we experience as mind should not be our own participation in these higher dimensions of order or why perception and awareness should not be the reflection of this higher dimensionality within the world of three dimensions to which we are accustomed.
In order to obtain a closer understanding of these levels of order, it is necessary to take a more detailed look at Bohm’s understanding of one fundamental particle of matter, the electron.
In contrast to quantum mechanics, classical mechanics is to a much greater degree in harmony with commonsense intuitions about the world of matter; but quantum mechanics is universally assented to be the more accurate theory. Many of the differences between the two views of the world are evident in the so-called wave-particle duality that has been adopted by physicists when attempting to understand the electron. In the classical world, the particle presents no problem because it corresponds to largely commonsense intuitions about the nature of objects. In quantum theory, however, the particle has a peculiar, ambiguous presence as a wave or a particle depending on the type of information one requires to extract from any observation. It also has the counter-intuitive property of non-locality and, according to the two slit experiment, the apparent ability to be in two places at once.
Central to Bohm’s interpretation of the quantum theory is the notion of the ‘causal interpretation’ or the ‘ontological interpretation’ of the electron. Essentially this is a view of the electron that does not consider it to be fundamentally ambiguous, as in Niels Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’ (ambiguous because of the impossibility of viewing it both as a wave and as a particle) but that follows more the line of Einstein in considering the particle as a real object. Additionally, Bohm’s interpretation implies no fundamental incommensurability between the measuring apparatus, in the world of classical objects, and the particle, in the world of quantum objects. The electron is fundamentally inseparable from a quantum field which satisfies Schrödinger’s equations just as the electromagnetic field satisfies Maxwell’s equations. Both fields are causally determined. The electron is acted upon by the classical forces (the classical potential V) but also by a ‘quantum potential’ Q. The electron is not however viewed as a classical object, but rather as a very complex entity that is guided by the quantum potential in a very subtle way. The quantum potential Q is independent of the energic strength or intensity of the quantum field, but depends only upon its form, i.e., its information-content. In the Newtonian world, objects are only affected dynamically, that is to say by energic pushes or pulls; but the quantum potential is the same for a very large and a very small wave. Clearly the word ‘causal’ in the phrase ‘causal interpretation’ has a very special meaning, for the influence upon the particle’s trajectory of the quantum potential is by means of information and not energy transfer. The quantum potential is determined by the quantum wave, which contains contributions in information terms from all the other objects in the particle’s environment. The particle can be affected by the quantum potential in the absence of any other forces. Thus an electron travelling through empty space where no classical forces are acting can nevertheless be deflected by the information contained in the quantum potential. The electron moves under its own energy, but the energy is expressed in a particular way thanks to the information in the quantum potential. Furthermore, since the value of Q does not fall off with the falling intensity of the wave, even distant features of the environment can affect the movement in a profound way.
In the double slit experiment, according to Bohm, the electron does in fact go through one or the other of the slits; but the quantum potential as a wave of information can go through both. On the other side of the slit, the scattering pattern does not arise from any wave-particle duality, that is to say from any fundamental ambiguity of the electron, but from the complex effects of the quantum potential that always accompanies the particle. The information contained within the quantum potential determines the outcome of a quantum process. This controlling effect is referred to by Bohm as “active information” (p.93). This means that a form that has very little energy enters into and directs a much greater energy. He gives as an illustration the radio-wave, whose form carries a signal (e.g. a programme). The energy of the sound that is heard by the listener does not come from this wave, but from the electricity running the receiver; and this energy can produce indifferently mere static or meaningful communication. The energy running the receiver is unformed, but takes its form from the information contained in the radio-wave. The difference, then, between something one wishes to listen to and mere irritating noise is not in the energy of the output, but in the information it carries.
The quantum potential carries information and is potentially active everywhere, but only actually active where it enters into the energy of the particle. This means that an electron is a kind of mini-receiver and is a complex entity at least as complex as a radio. This goes against the tradition of physics that assumes that as matter is analysed into smaller and smaller bits, these bits become simpler and their behaviour more elementary. Bohm’s causal interpretation suggests that nature may be far more complex than previously thought. If all particles are affected by information-bearing waves that can act throughout the universe, there appear to be levels of reality unsuspected by our common sense.
To make the notion of a wave of active information more vivid, Bohm gives the example of a radio-controlled ship. Just as the vast bulk of a ship under remote control is manoeuvred by the form alone of a radio wave and not by the energy of the wave (which has the same intensity, whatever the information it carries and could produce with identical energy a successful docking manoeuvre or a disaster), so the electron achieves its trajectory by the information content alone of the wave of quantum potential. The behaviour of the wave of quantum potential is more complex, however, than that of a radio, because it both receives information about the universe as a whole and transmits information concerning the trajectory of the electron in question. According to Niels Bohr’s interpretation of the electron in the two-slit experiment, it passes through both slits at once as a wave and strikes the screen behind the slits as a particle. In Bohm’s view, the particle passes through one slit; but the wave of quantum potential wave passing through both strongly deflects the electrons in a beam to make them strike the screen at some definite point after passing through the slit, even though there is no classical force operating upon them. But this is not because the observer ‘collapses’ the wave function by his observation, ‘selecting’ as it were, one possibility from the myriad possibilities of the quantum state; it is because the wave of quantum potential containing information about the environment ‘informs’ the behaviour of the particle.
The quantum potential wave carries ‘information’ and is therefore potentially active everywhere, but it is actually active only when and where the form of this information enters into the energy of the particle. This is why Bohm sees the electron, or any other elementary particle, as having a complex and subtle inner structure analogous to that of a radio receiver-transmitter and even, on occasion to what we call a ‘mind’. We are a long way here from considering the fundamental building-blocks of the universe as in any way mere simplified versions of everyday three-dimensional objects. So rather than assuming that as matter is analysed into smaller and smaller bits its behaviour grows more elementary, the causal interpretation of the electron that Bohm is proposing suggests that nature may be far more subtle and strange than we have ever thought. (cf. p.190) It almost seems that at the smallest scales, the particles, far from being identical units, are individuals, made unique by their unique location in the universe and by the consequently unique information content of their wave of quantum potential.
Just as a crowd of complex individual people can be governed by very simple statistical laws, whereas the behaviour of its individual constituent members is far richer and more subtle than those laws suggest, so the electron can conceivably be far more complex than the laws of physics suggest. Bohm claims that his interpretation makes sense of the ‘wholeness’ of Bohr’s interpretation, i.e., the inseparability of the observer and his apparatus from the observed phenomenon. The observer does not determine the properties of the electron, but the behaviour of the electron is determined by the information contained in the whole situation in which it is observed.
In a many-particle system this wholeness becomes evident, for the quantum potential becomes a function of all the particles and is independent of the distance between them, since it is the form and not the intensity that counts. Thus strong and non-local connections can exist between particles that are quite distant from each other and give rise to the phenomenon of 'quantum entanglement', what Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'. The non-locality of particles that gives rise to the paradox in the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky experiment could be explained in this way, because “in measuring some property of one of a pair of particles with correlated wave functions, one will alter the ‘non-local’ quantum potential so that the other particle in the entangled pair responds in a corresponding way.” (p.191)
The change in our view of the world consequent upon this new view of the electron is radical. In classical physics the properties of the particle are fixed and determine the nature and behaviour of the whole (which is simply the aggregate effect of the added behaviour of each individual particle). In quantum theory, nothing is determined and it is the observer who ‘collapses’ the wave function in a particular way. In Bohm’s interpretation, neither does ‘God play dice with the universe’, in Einstein’s phrase, nor do we have to postulate the actualisation of all possibilities in an infinity of possible worlds: it is the state of any whole system that determines the information content of the wave of quantum potential accompanying each particle. It is the whole that organises the activities of the parts (for example in superconductivity, where the movements of all particles in the system are coordinated much like a ballet-dance or a flock of flying starlings). Matter therefore behaves more like an organism than like a mechanical device built up of parts each having a pre-determined set of properties.
This wholeness of systems is not, of course, limited to isolated systems such as the observer and apparatus and the observed phenomenon. It can be applied to the universe as a whole. Thus the particle in principle mirrors the universe as a whole, just as every part of the hologram contains the whole picture. The universe thus has at least two distinct aspects for us: its concrete physical aspect and the informational content that co-ordinates it. The first is the explicate order and the second the implicate order. Both of these are regarded as material, though the information is more a particular configuration of energy than an obviously energic phenomenon. The informational content of the universe is its subtle aspect. Indeed, there may be many levels of informational subtlety.
This informational dimension to the universe is the major change that Bohm’s theories brought to thinking about matter in the twentieth century. What we observe as things, and the information that governs the interactions of these things are two aspects of a single whole to which we do not have access through the senses alone. Bohm calls the empirically observable explicate order the ‘manifest’ order because in contrast to the much vaster system of information containing all the potential of that order, that is the ‘implicate order’, it can be handled.
Thus the quantum potential does not require an infinity of superposed worlds, as in Everett’s theory; it is rather a world of information concerning the state of the whole. Since the explicate order is ‘enfolded’ in the implicate order and is ‘unfolded’ from it, so the wave of quantum potential accompanying the individual particle reflects the information of the whole:

“The way in which the separate and extended form enfolds the whole is, however, not merely superficial or of secondary significance, but rather it is essential to what that form is and to how it acts, moves and behaves quite generally. So the whole is, in a deep sense internally related to the parts. And, since the whole enfolds all the parts, these latter are also internally related, though in a weaker way than they are related to the whole.” (p.193)

The question arises as to why particular particles are actualised, why particular forms arise in the explicate order from the implicate. In mechanical terms, this can not be explained, except by the many worlds hypothesis and its assumption that all possibilities are ultimately actualised. Only if one views the whole as determining the nature of the parts can the model be sustained. Thus Bohm concentrates on the notion of a continuous field spread out in all of space, to which the rules of quantum theory are applied. The result is discrete ‘quantized’ values for measurable properties such as energy, momentum, angular momentum etc. Such a field will act like a collection of particles while at the same time having wave-like manifestations such as interference, diffraction etc. In the usual interpretation of the quantum theory, the wave-particle duality is understood only by a mathematical formalism used to calculate statistically the distribution of phenomena through which such a field reveals itself in our observations and experiments. But with the ‘quantum potential’ notion, one can extend a causal explanation to the quantum field theory. Reality will therefore be the entire field over the entire universe. This field will not simply be governed by classical field equations, but also by what Bohm calls the ‘super-quantum potential’ which is related to the entire field as the quantum field is related to the individual particle. As a result, the field equations are “modified in a way that makes them […] non-local and non-linear”. (p.195)
This super-quantum potential explains why particle-like manifestations are actually detected and why such particle-like manifestations are sustained as stable existents. The non-local features of the super-quantum potential introduce the required tendency of waves to converge at appropriate places, while its non-linearity provides for the stability and recurrence of the entire process. Thus the whole theory of explicate order of observable particles and implicate order of quantum potential is coordinated by a super-implicate quantum potential that accounts not only for particle manifestations but also for their actualisation, their creation, sustenance and annihilation. This is how the so-called ‘many-worlds-theory’ is made redundant.
The super-quantum potential depends upon the state of the entire universe and the whole universe not only determines and organises its sub-wholes but also gives form to the so-called elementary particles out of which everything is supposed to be constituted: “What we have here,” says Bohm, “is a kind of universal process of constant creation and annihilation, determined through the super-quantum potential so as to give rise to a world of form and structure in which all manifest features are only relatively constant, recurrent and stable aspects of this whole.” (p.196)
The universe thus constantly and continuously creates and re-creates itself according to the information that governs it as a totality.
The super-quantum field is a super-implicate order. The quantum potential for particles depends upon the wave function of a system of particles. But all such wave functions are forms of the implicate order. The super-quantum potential expresses the activity of a new kind of implicate order in which not only the actual activity of the whole field is enfolded, but also all its potentialities along with the principles determining which of these shall become actual. This super-implicate order stands in a relationship to the implicate order as a source of formative, organizing and creative activity. The super-implicate order combines both the notion of the implicate order as movement of outgoing and incoming waves and the causal interpretation of the quantum theory. The implicate order coordinates the action of particles, but the super-implicate order determines the nature and behaviour of just those particles in that configuration. It determines, if you like, why this world is actualised and not another, which is a problem of quantum theory, scrapping as it does so the ‘many-worlds’ hypothesis as unnecessary.
There may of course be implicate orders above and superior to the super-implicate order, says Bohm, and these may go to an infinity of levels. But the principles of such an implicate order can define the explicate order as a privileged sub-order in which all the elements are relatively independent and externally related. This explicate order may be obtainable from the implicate order as a special and determinate sub-order that is contained within it. This opens up the possibility of the cosmos as an unbroken totality through an overall implicate order. It becomes evident, however, that this final implicate order, if such exists, has many of the features of an organising intelligence. One has to assume that those who observe the behaviour of the ‘matter’ of the explicate order witness the combined effects of incoming and outgoing electromagnetic waves and the interference patterns that are the ‘particles’. Since the decisive influence, however, is not the energy of those waves, but their, form, the information they carry, and since all the particles in the universe are connected to each other in non-local and non-linear ways, we have to assume a more fundamental coordination at the level not of bound light (photons and light-waves) but of undetermined light in which communications are instantaneous throughout the universe. The religious might want to call this coordinating factor ‘God’, but Bohm would not go along with this, since the notion of ‘God’ with all its anthropomorphic overtones is a limitation of what is unlimited.
It is clear from this brief résumé of Bohm’s view of matter that the old view of the world as a collection of three-dimensional objects not only cannot be sustained, but need not continue to dominate our minds and determine the more or less inadequate conceptions we have of the relations between mind and matter. Matter clearly becomes a much richer concept than it has ever been before and carries with it properties that easily accommodate our understanding of minds, making the dogma of elimative materialism out-dated and redundant. Within this scheme of things, three-dimensional objects are mere projections of deeper levels and dimensions of reality in which mind has its proper place. The terms ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are both limiting concepts of a rich and multi-dimensional reality.
This conception of one of the basic constituents of matter calls into question our deepest intuitions concerning the nature of our experience and particularly concerning our belief in the existence of things. Clearly, we could see our bodies as objects of the explicate order, but our minds must show up the properties of the implicate and super implicate orders. Mind and perception, for example could then be considered as the interpenetration of different levels of order or of different levels of dimensionality. But however one extrapolates from Bohm’s theories, they inevitably suggest that the old materialism of the last two centuries or so is dead and that far from being a collection of inert ‘things’, the universe is a dynamic entity coordinated by information in which there is adequate place for intelligence in every process.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


The scientists of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries lacked the imagination to understand the nightmarish nature of what they were supposedly trying to achieve in their ambition to arrive at a definitive understanding of reality: the nightmare of a finite universe, a universe with a hard frontier, so to speak, against which one can knock one’s head. They failed to see, because of their lack of imagination, that such a universe is a coffin in which humanity would lie incapable of further life. They were like children who find uncannily frightening the thought of endless space and time! How cold it feels, how impersonal; let us tame it and cut it down to our size! But this again is the result of a lack of imagination. We cannot function as humans except as we are conscious of our own finite location and enclosed space (our house, our theory, our club, our world). But most of us fail to understand that we also rely psychologically on the location of that comfortable and comforting finitude within an impenetrable and incomprehensible infinity, on which it somehow depends. We cannot bear a finite universe alone and we cannot bear an infinite universe alone: we have to have both. Our intellect is a tension of opposites all of which derive ultimately from the fundamental opposition of infinity and finitude.
If one considers logic to be inherent in the universe – rather than merely in our intellect – and the universe, by that token to be founded on logically necessary principles, then the universe cannot be other than mechanistic and wholly determined. Every possible event has to be the working out of the basic algorithm. It can only be a closed, mechanical system; and moreover it will be graspable by our intellect. If one regards the universe as ultimately rationally comprehensible in mechanical terms, however, one by that belief condemns oneself to the intolerable thought (and if you don’t find it intolerable, you have not experienced the full horror of it) of living in a coffin, of being buried alive for all eternity. One condemns oneself to the sterile and trivial repetition of all things as in Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same. This thought is intolerable and therefore even if it were true, it has to be untrue. An entirely determined universe goes nowhere and does nothing; its apparent movement is mere mechanical repetition; and the sum total of all its repetitions is precisely this: nothing at all happens.
What is the smallest dwelling a man can inhabit? His skull? His cottage? His castle? A club? An empire? A universe?
There are those who would love to shrink us to the size of the space defined by our own skin, our own skull, the matter of our own brain, and nothing more. There are those whose mystical fervour identifies us with an intelligence, or at least a mind, intelligent or not, that envelopes the whole of nature. It is not difficult to see who is mistaken in this debate. An infinite universe, an ungraspable universe, is surely the smallest thing that the self of a man or woman can live in; and even that is not big enough. We need a known universe that arises coherently out of an unknown universe. Any universe which we inhabit has by definition to arise as a function of something that for our experience-dominated cognition has to remain completely abstract. Only thus can we make the notion of a finite universe tolerable: by making it infinite. We want the universe, and we want the universe to be a universe we understand; but in our deepest selves, we want the universe’s inscrutable progenitor even more.


When humanity was just beginning to discover the marvellous capacities of reason and research; when in the first blush of scientific optimism – perhaps in the eighteenth century, though the Ancient Greeks had understood something of the excitement – men began to believe that every possible accomplishment was open to them, a fantasy began to form in their minds that has still not been dissipated to this day, despite many a sobering setback. This fantasy ran something like this: total knowledge of the world is really just a matter of carefully examining what is before our noses, taking what we find and carefully describing what we see. It is just a matter of carefully documenting our experience, for our experience is experience of the world as it is; our experience gives us the world, the whole world and nothing but the world; and once the documentation has been completed, we will be in a position to control what we have completely understood. The fantasy relied upon the totally unfounded belief that our experience gives us unrestricted access to every dimension and level of the world as it is, rather than mere access to a human world bearing all the hallmarks of our limitations. It further relied upon the additional totally unjustified belief that what we had thus understood would remain for ever the same and simply jump to our command like some perfectly docile slave. There are now too many growing suspicions in the minds of those scientists who think about such matters for such beliefs to be seriously maintained by anyone for much longer.
As creatures restricted in space and time, time-bound and space-bound, we can only live in a universe that we cannot, in principle, understand, in a universe in which what we understand floats, as it were, on an ocean of incomprehensibility. It is characteristic of us that we should begin arrogantly to assert that the universe came into being at some precise point in the past in a manner we do not fully understand but that created at that moment both space and time. In doing this, we deny any sense to the word ‘before’ in such a scenario, for if time and space were created at the moment of the so-called Big Bang, there was by definition no before. But only a little imagination is required to see that if time and space in our universe were created at the Big Bang, this does not mean that the Big Bang itself was not dependent upon another wider universe for its existence. We do not like the idea of positing a background universe the nature of which we cannot grasp. Yet it is worth repeating this thought: the universe we know, however well we get to know it, sits within a universe we both do not and cannot know, for most of reality is beyond the range of our experience.
This does not, of course, and should not prevent us from striving to understand everything; but it should remind us as well not to get too attached to the things we believe and claim to know. A completely comprehensible universe – and the avowed aim of science is to render the universe entirely understood – is an intolerable universe; it is a nightmare. It is a nightmare because it elevates the human intellect to the level of an absolute principle in the cosmos and thereby makes that cosmos the product of the human intellect. Since the human intellect is necessarily restricted and capable of only partial understanding we see right away just how nonsensical is the claim of the human intellect to understand all of reality. We see the folly of imagining 1) that the universe we understand is not conjured up by the intellect, but just presents itself to us as it is; and 2) that such an understood universe is identical with the real one, rather than being just one more toy universe to join the long line of such toys that have amused us since our first beginnings. The human intellect does not and cannot understand the whole of reality for the simple reason that its understanding is 1) a subfunction of that same universe and 2) directly dependent on and inseparable from its own ignorance: it is perpetual discovery in which what is to be discovered depends altogether upon what has been discovered without end; and it is perpetual discovery in the sense that perpetual discovery is merely the obverse of perpetual ignorance. There is no terminus to this process. We thrive upon local understanding and detail and we build a coherent account out of this; and this account is directly connected to our practical needs. The fantasy of total knowledge and total control arises quite naturally out of our sense of limitation and powerlessness: we think that the small victories we achieve over our environment are a promise of godlike control over the whole of reality. It is, however, about time we grew up and recognised this fantasy for what it is: an infantile dream of omnipotence. Even if we, as humans, had access to the whole of space, time and matter, we would still have only local understanding because we would be limited by our own intellect. Our limitations mean that out knowledge will be limited for all eternity.
This is a blessed relief. It is the blessed redemption of a life in a changing, ever-changing universe and the perpetual recasting of our knowledge by means of this change! The thought of a universe in which all is understood, by the human intellect, now and for ever, is simply intolerable! Those who pontificate about humanity’s reaching some final frontier of knowledge at which all would be grasped by us simply lack the imagination to conceive of the complexity of the universe upon which our known world bobs like a child’s bathroom duck on a trackless ocean.