Saturday, November 6, 2010


The genome of every living creature on this planet is a mind-bogglingly complex text of digital information. Our own genome contains more information than the Encyclopaedia Britannica and if written out in full would fill far more library shelves. The improbability of hordes of immortal chimpanzees bashing randomly on typewriters and thereby producing even a single speech of Hamlet is nothing compared to the improbability of our genetic text’s having arisen by chance. So anyone thinking about life clearly has a very large problem to solve, since in our experience, complex and specified information (which is what the genome is) does not arise by accident.

No-one with any imagination can fail to be entranced by Richard Dawkins’ books. Without exception, they all contain masterly descriptions of the most jaw-dropping, improbable, magical yet wholly physical processes. Facts that enthral and amaze are described and explained with impressive literary skill. We have a right to question, however, whether what is offered is science. Given that no-one has the faintest idea how life emerged from non-life, how the vast quantities of encoded digital information in the genome arrived there, and given that these are fundamental questions for an evolutionary theorist, one has to be sceptical of his confident assertions to say the least. Dawkins declares his faith in chance and selection and expresses faith on the subject of life’s emergence: “We’re working on it.” But the Intelligent Design folk also express faith and announce with regard to both emergence and adaptation of life: “God did it”. The bottom line is that neither knows because nobody knows; yet both believe. Their faith is a device for claiming knowledge where there is none. In both cases it is remarkably similar to the old belief in spontaneous generation. Faith in theism or faith in deterministic materialism is still faith. But faith is not science.

Since science is essentially a descriptive method directed towards the representation in ever more precise terms of ever smaller-scale features of the material world, it moves progressively further away from the sort of grand syntheses that were still possible in Darwin’s simpler age, when the cell was thought of as an uncomplicated blob of protoplasm rather than the complex computerised factory that it is. Since Dawkins is still devoted to grand syntheses involving ideas on God, just-so stories about how things came about and so on, without real understanding of the essential facts, it is evident that what we have in his writings is metaphysics masquerading as science. It is metaphysics moreover in which miracles appear to play as prominent a role as they do in ID.

The differences between the Dawkins-style account of the evolution of life on earth and that of the proponents of so-called Intelligent Design (a very ill-chosen notion) are less important than their similarities. The similarities are all to do with an open-mouthed admiration of the staggering and improbable complexity of life and of the information-rich organisation it displays, from the molecular level to the cellular and on upwards to the level of complete organisms. But more importantly, they are both to do with propaganda for a particular world-view.

Both accounts work boldly with massive unknowns where caution would be wiser; so both ultimately postulate a source of miracles in the impenetrable set of evolutionary steps by which information is created in the genome from the first reproducer onwards. This is evident in the ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ that both sides claim in their contemplation of the processes of life, because things that are fully understood do not provoke awe. The differences in the two accounts arise in the attitude each side takes to these unknowns. The Dawkins-style thinkers claim to understand the unknowns (if only ‘in principle’); the ID proponents consciously leave them outside the range of human understanding and put them in some ‘divine’ realm. But both, we cannot stress too much, do not understand what they describe, however much they might believe they do. No-one does. We are thus dealing with miracles in both cases.

For the ID proponents, this source of miracles is a mind – let’s say the mind of some god. Though as Dawkins also allows, it could be some powerful alien intelligence within the universe. Encoded and purposeful information can only be generated by a mind, the ID people argue, and thus the very complicated information in the genome of even the simplest of organisms has to originate in a very complex mind. Now it is important to stress that the ID theoreticians do not claim to understand such a mind – except by analogy with their own – but simply postulate it abductively as the best explanation of the phenomenon. To this extent, their understanding is consciously negative.

The Dawkins-style theoreticians, on the other hand, argue that the information arrives in the genome by strictly materialistic processes that they claim to understand – at this stage ‘in principle’ only, but positively nevertheless. But whereas the ID proponents avoid any claim that they understand the process of information generation, the Dawkins-style theoreticians feign full and positive understanding without qualm. They pretend that we, the human race, are already in possession of a grasp on all the essential material processes involved in the purely random and purely physical steps by which complex information is generated in the genome. They insist that it is only a matter of time before all the actual detail is supplied for a definitive and absolute analysis of the mechanism. In actual fact, they are in a state of ignorance that exactly parallels that of the ID proponents, with this difference: they gloss over their lack of understanding. They therefore believe in a miracle while claiming to have grasped its non-miraculous nature. They have, of course, not grasped anything of the sort. If one refers to a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ with respect to ID then one surely has to refer to a similar ‘evolution-of-the-gaps’ with respect to Dawkins. There is simply no known physical mechanism for information-generation, no known law according to which information can arise from non-information. Those who claim to understand either lie or delude themselves.

Both the Dawkins-camp and the ID camp have no more than belief, more or less strongly held.

In saying of the information in the genome, “God put it there” the ID proponents are satisfied with that because the analogy with their own intelligence seems to provide some measure of understanding. It does not require much intelligence to see that such a view could never satisfy the Dawkins-style scientific mind. Why not? The answer to this involves scientism and the scientistic (not ‘scientific’) ego. Scientism claims that only reductive, naturalistic science produces knowledge. It is in the nature of the scientistic ego not to be satisfied with anything less than a full and complete grasp on the phenomenon concerned in mechanical terms; and it will confidently claim that grasp whatever the state of science. In science we have to have the mechanism, where ‘mechanism’ means material process. We don’t have this in evolutionary theory, but unfortunately, the scientistic ego regularly claims full understanding where it only has belief. A chief difference between the ID proponents and the Dawkins-style theoreticians is this: if you scratch a defender of ID you quickly discover faith; Dawkins and his followers, however, work hard to disguise their faith as science. But on the question as to how information gets into the genome, faith turns out to be providing the answer in both cases. The presence of complex specified information in the genome is a complete enigma.

But those who claim to understand life either do understand or they do not. They cannot have it both ways. But do they understand how the information of the genome got there? No. So why do they claim to understand how life evolved? The scientistic ego wants to claim that it understands everything that it understands by means of its own unaided efforts alone and that any other type of understanding is not understanding at all. The trouble with this is that it can sometimes lead an ego to declare fervently that it understands the miracles it observes when it does not. There is then only a short step from that to dogmatic claims of definitive understanding where one only has an imperfect and provisional model. Some scientific egos have always practised this kind of self-delusion or dishonesty, which is why there has always been scientific orthodoxy of one sort or another that has tried to stifle debate. Such scientific orthodoxy exactly parallels the discredited religious orthodoxy of the past or present.

As an example of this claiming understanding where none actually exists, take Dawkins’ computer model that generates the sentence ‘methinks it is like a weasel’ from a random string of letters, in only 43 steps. Dawkins greets with loud cries of victory the fact that his computer programme homes in on the target phrase so quickly; and he announces that this proves in principle the ability of random processes in nature to come up with complex, coherent encoded information. The most incompetent IT specialist can see in an instant that this is a bit of crude propagandistic mystification. The process is not only not random, it is pre-determined from the start by the target phrase at which the programme aims and by the ‘selection’ principles by means of which similarities to the target phrase in the configuration of letters are retained. It is guided by intelligence. The whole thing is a clumsy set-up and yet vast numbers of people are inveigled into the belief that this constitutes a true model of the process by which information arrives in the genome. This is not understanding, it is belief in miracles masquerading as understanding and bolstered by fraud. Why does Dawkins do this?

The answer to this last question is found in Dawkins’ ego. He wants to claim a full grasp of the phenomenon, whatever the cost. Even at the cost of appearing ridiculous in the eyes of people he should most want to convince, namely the information-theoreticians. But it doesn’t matter: for the ego, it is more important to claim full understanding and play to an adoring crowd of worshippers than actually to understand. That is the nature of the ego, scientistic or otherwise. Self-love, self-regard, pride and vanity will always compel the ego to claim understanding of processes that are not understood. Some scientific egos thus manages to believe in miracles while denying the miraculous, while covering up the miraculous in a veneer of half-understanding. Dawkins may well believe that he does understand where in fact he doesn’t. That, too, is in the nature of the ego and always has been. It is a matter of the personal investment the individual has made in a certain set of ideas that determines the strength of the belief. The step from here to oppressive propaganda is, by the way, a very small one.

So the difference between belief in Dawkins-style evolution by natural selection (so-called ‘neo-Darwinism’) on the one hand, and Intelligent Design, on the other, is not understanding of the scientific detail, which is actually neutral as to any final conclusion. The grasp of factual detail, moreover, is probably equal on both sides despite the mutual vituperation. It is rather the world-view and the personal, ego-driven attitude to the fundamental processes involved that constitutes the core of the difference. Neither the ID people nor those of the Dawkins camp understand the fundamental information-rich processes of life nor how the information got there. No-one does. But both claim a kind of understanding in quasi-mythical terms. The acrimonious conflict – which is a separate issue – arises from the difference of attitude. The ID people are prepared to remain within the realm of analogy (as are all religious minds) and postulate a divine intelligence grasped dimly on analogy with our own intelligence. The Dawkins-style evolutionists want to claim full possession, by their individual ego, of understanding in commonsense materialistic terms, where in fact they only have a set of images. It is a matter of the degree to which the ego is flattered by the belief in question that determines the ferocity with which it is defended.

The ID proponents are willing to leave things ultimately to a universal, non-human intelligence. The Dawkins-style thinkers will accept only what they believe fully to have grasped with the resources of their own rational ego alone. What is it then that allows one side to accept the miracle with a kind of gratitude and leave it at that, but that pushes the other side to claim understanding of the miracle that it does not possess? The answer is religious subservience, on the one hand, and the vanity of the scientistic ego on the other. The religious mind has always been satisfied with analogies; the scientific ego has often rushed to judgment in any claim to understanding. Certain egos will always want to claim absolute finality for their belief, whether religious or scientific. This latter fact is the reason why the history of science, no less than the history of religion, is a history of theories that rule as orthodoxy for a while and are then overturned despite the resistance of the orthodox, as Kuhn has described. The orthodox theories are always overturned by an upcoming generation that sees the shortcomings of the prevailing wisdom and is not prepared to claim understanding where it has only a pleasing model. The orthodox, who are always quick to claim that the theories are not theories but facts, have to die off and disappear physically before their influence gradually wanes.

But let’s be quite clear about understanding: as humans, we only really understand what we ourselves make. We only really understand our technology and our mathematics. We cannot reconstruct the history of the world and of life upon it, so we should recognise that we have only myths and models in the domain of evolution where all is a matter of historical interpretation.

The tussle between the Dawkins-style theoreticians and the defenders of ID is a battle for people’s minds, a battle that strives to convert people to a faith: deterministic materialism, on the one hand, or theism on the other. It is in both cases propaganda. Faith has no place in science and it is no surprise that the faith of the ID defenders is rejected. But so should Dawkins’ faith in naturalism be rejected. Both should be banished by the scientific community. It is really time that a truly scientific consensus rejected both. It is time that it repelled dogmatic figures such as Dawkins with as much vigour as it rejects the essentially religious character of the ID movement. Both damage the scientific enterprise. Neither of these two types of theory does any service to science since both rely on accounts of miracles cloaked in ideology. Science can never be identical with any ideology, be it theism or naturalism, for ideology kills free inquiry. The ID movement, if victorious, would stultify scientific investigation. But so would the Dawkins-style approach. Both claim an understanding they do not have. The ID people should stick to their religious convictions and not claim to be doing science. The Dawkins-camp should abandon their claims to complete materialistic understanding of the miraculous processes they describe and just do the science, going wherever the evidence leads – even if it leads away from naturalism.

One last thought: many a scientific life has been enriched and made more productive by religious sensibility even if this meant developing a scepticism as to the ability of science to provide definitive answers; and every true religious consciousness is rejuvenated by doubt, even if this has occasionally entailed a conversion to atheism as a necessary stage in the growth of consciousness. Great innovators of the past have often demonstrated that science has nothing to fear from religion, nor religion from science. The two have often cross-fertilized each other with great befit to both. They are both doing different things, without necessarily being ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ in Gould’s phrase. Along with poetry, philosophy, art and music they are aspects of the continuing human interrogation of the cosmos; and as yet, this interrogation (thankfully) does not have only one idiom and is not practised in only one register.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Existentialism is one of the main streams of late western philosophy, if not the main stream. Though it has many forms, Existentialism finally lays to rest the old conception of knowledge as the discovery of invariable essences and the articulation of this discovery as ‘absolute truth’. Some in the scientific community have yet to discover the provisional character of truth and continue searching for invariable principles behind the apparent repetitions of nature. But the philosophical foundations of the provisional conception of truth are secure. These are: the absence of any good philosophical reasons for believing that reality is intrinsically a group of repetitious phenomena determined by identifiable essential principles; and the absence of any language not tied to a purely relative frame of reference.

Western science is still mired in the Greek metaphysics that the Existentialists after Kierkegaard and Nietzsche rejected decisively. Anglo-Saxon (largely academic) philosophy has had its nose buried in logical analysis for most of the past century, but this concentration on technical matters, too, was imposed by the same anti-metaphysical tendency that characterised western thought at least from the time of David Hume and Immanuel Kant onwards. The striving to understand precisely what limited set of aims language and logic could be relied upon to achieve was the last remaining clean-up job of the sceptic.

The Existentialist philosophy based itself upon the belief that existence, far from emerging from eternal essences, was itself the origin of the whole notion of essence. No eternal, immutable essence dictates how the existent will turn out. Rather the opposite is the case. It Sartre’s famous slogan: existence precedes essence. What does that mean? Sartre used the phrase with reference to human existence, to the pour-soi. If one extends the principle to nature as a whole (as Existentialism broadly speaking does not) it means that the world, far from grinding through the possible permutations allowed by unchanging laws of nature, makes itself up as it goes along; and man, as a part of the world, does the same. It means that no understanding of human life in terms of any definitions of nature or of the human are possible. It is no longer possible to proceed as if the course of human life was mapped out according to some sort of ‘instructions for use’, set by who knows what agency, God, The Form of the Good, Natural Law, or whatever.

The opposite of the old Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian Essentialism with its insistence upon some sort of pre-existent ‘good’ giving meaning and direction to existence, is the thesis that human life is entirely free of any guidelines whatsoever, entirely free of prescriptions, entirely free of definitions, entirely free of typical characteristics, entirely free of repetitions. Typical physical characteristics are unimportant to the individual who is condemned to create him or herself. Within the Sartrean conception of human life, the individual is obviously all at sea. There is no sense of direction given by the body, since the body is simply a thing, an en-soi, and things have a completely different sort of existence from selves. Things just lie around being things. And Sartre seemed to have believed that naturalistic science gives a full account of these. Theirs is an uncomplicated and unquestioned form of existence. On the mechanistic hypothesis, they are keyed into the universal nexus of physical forces and operate in accordance with them. They have, in fact, no choice in the matter and do not need choice. The mechanical laws of nature look after that and their destiny is all necessity. Sartre’s dualism arises from an uncritical acceptance of the account contemporary naturalistic science gave him of the body and the inability of science to deal with the mind. The absolutely free individual self is utterly incomprehensible in terms of the body and the Sartrean free individual represents no more than an outraged revolt against the iron necessity of the deterministic, scientific account of the body.

Science examines and explains the thing-nature of bodies and pays no attention at all to the self, since the self is not a thing. In scientific terms, the self has no existence, except as an aspect of the body; and therefore it obviously has no meaning. The result is that the self – which is firmly convinced that it exists and not able to be convinced by arguments to the contrary – is obliged to carve out its own conception of meaning for itself. It is obliged to create its own meaning in a world of things that does not cater for it, that has no place for it and that cannot even assent to its existence. In short, the existing self has to create itself and in creating itself, i.e. in existing, it has to arrive by its own efforts at its own nature. It is for these reasons that Sartre announced that existence precedes essence. We as humans exist before we are forced to find out what we are.

The upshot of this philosophy is a pervading sense of non-sense, non-meaning, non-value, non-identity that the great existentialist philosopher Heidegger refers to as Geworfenheit or ‘thrownness’. We are thrown into a universe that has no place for us, that cares not a hang for us and for our preoccupations, that is composed entirely of insensible objects and nothing else and that rolls on according to the laws of physics in complete disregard of the human self.

But as we have been at pains to stress in other contexts, this histrionic-tragic wailing about the lack of meaning has its origin in an unwarranted surrender to and uncritical swallowing of the prevailing mechanistic-deterministic-materialistic ideology of the scientific world-view and the thing-ideology. Obviously, if this mechanistic stuff is taken seriously, if the scientific method (i.e., the sorts of things it allows to exist) is considered to be an ontology rather than merely a procedure, considered to be the way things are in themselves rather than the way we look at them, then any entity that does not fit into its system is made nonsensical by that very fact. This is the characteristic of any codified or systematised scheme of thought that seeks complete internal coherence: it operates by setting the rules for what is to be included and what is to be excluded and proceeds by including what confirms the overall coherence and by excluding what would damage that coherence. We do not need to proceed this way, but as soon as we regard our knowledge as some sort of complete or perfect truth, then we will operate in this essentially totalitarian manner. We will deny the facts in order to save the theory. There is something deeply human about that practice.

Thus the Existentialists, though convinced that the dynamics of the self – from which the philosophy starts – could not be accounted for by the scientific approach to reality, nevertheless accepted the scientific picture of the world in terms of which the self and its dynamics were nonsensical and had no place in the universe. They had no real reason to do this apart from their bowing to the cultural dominance of the scientific approach to reality that had replaced the religious picture of the world. Nietzsche, though aware of the limits of scientific knowledge, was nevertheless brow-beaten in a similar fashion. If the Existentialists had extended the ‘existence precedes essence’ idea to the universe as a whole (by denying the existence of ‘laws of nature’), that would have allowed them to consider nature as a creatively not to say intelligently dynamic whole in which the human has its creative, intelligent place. In ditching determinism on the macrocosmic scale, they would have diffused its consequences for the microcosm. In this way, Existentialism would have found itself closer to Kierkegaard than to Nietzsche.

It never occurred to the Existentialists seriously to question the prevailing naturalistic ideology, even though a perfectly good critique of scientism was present in the writings of the fathers of the movement. It never occurred to the Existentialists that if human existence can be given no meaning and is absurd in terms of the materialistic-mechanistic dogma, then that does not necessarily mean that human existence has no meaning. Logically, it could just as well mean that the latter dogma has no meaning. But harping on the theme of the absurdity of human life allowed the Existentialists the pathos of striking grand tragic poses, allowed them to indulge in the delicious dramatic bravado of the little man against the hostile universe. It allowed a very gratifying defiance: little Sisyphus taking on the bullying gods and beating them by demonstrating the grandeur of his weakness. But like the mechanistic world-view that spawned it, Existentialism was destined to wither away with the changing climate of thought in the post-scientific age. It began to occur to quite ordinary people that the scientific denial of the self and of its dynamics was simply another piece of authoritarian nonsense. It did not have to be believed. Indeed, it couldn’t be believed. The scientists can insist upon their ‘proofs’ until they are blue in the face, if these fail to convince, they fail to convince; and that does not necessarily indicate stupidity on the part of those rejecting those proofs.

So what are the alternatives? How does human existence become more than a simple exercise in mock-heroics? How do we progress beyond the ‘anything goes’ philosophy that urges us simply to make our lives up as we go along and make them into anything at all? The simple fact is that the Existentialists did not fundamentally believe that ‘anything goes’. The movement spawned more sects than Protestantism. They managed to argue for all kinds of very traditional-sounding value systems. They embraced versions of Christianity, Judaism, Socialism and other ethical codes. Even when they professed to reject all traditional value systems, they managed to argue, illogically for the most part, for decency and niceness and helpfulness to others. The basic reason for this is that the nihilism that is never far away from Existentialism can not in fact be sustained. Everyone knows that the Gidean acte gratuit is a piece of pretentious nonsense. It is a sterile adolescent pose. Everyone in the end turns away from a philosophy that intones ceaselessly that ‘nothing has any more value than anything else’. Various spin-offs from nihilism were tried, anarchism, egoism, irrationalism and other intellectual dead-ends; but the human minds craves structure and meaning and will not do without it, will have it whatever the arguments against it. Moreover, the human mind will always conceive of this meaning in terms of integration of the individual existent into a system that transcends, enlarges and subsumes individuality. Human existence was made meaningless in the universe by so restrictive a view of that universe that it could not accommodate the human mind, let alone the human soul. Abolish this system as outdated, and you abolish the principal problems of Existentialism: the divorce between the en-soi and the pour-soi.

And this system is indeed outdated. The thing-ideology was responsible for alienating the human self from the world. It replaced the human self with the fixed, goggling eye of the ‘propertyless observer’ of scientism – i.e. by absolute nonsensical piffle. The mechanistic-materialistic-deterministic dogma with its obsession with three-dimensional objects forced the human mind out of nature except as the ‘objective’ observer (who does not really exist). But this was a piece of self-deceptive fiction. Science has never been driven forward by bloodless, characterless, emotionless observers. It has always been driven forward by the emotions of passionate people, real persons, animated by the desire to slake their curiosity and to find answers in precise terms to all their questions. Human existence is a constant and passionate probing of reality, a constant interrogation of it. Our intelligence is a combination of reason and emotion. We do not probe reality dispassionately like robots; we do it because it is our deepest wish to discover its meaning. The thing-ideology was extremely powerful and influential for many decades and considered to be the definitive answer to this interrogation; but its influence began to wane and with it the problems of Existentialism, the anomalies of existence, began to appear as distortions created by the ideology rather than coherent philosophy.

The thing ideology shut man out of the universe and made everything that renders his life worthwhile, nonsensical. The atomisation of human life, the fragmentation and alienation, the Angst-ridden, sport-, money- and celebrity-obsessed modern psyche was entirely the creation of the thing-ideology. Replace the thing-ideology by a science that views the whole of reality as a co-ordinated and seamless totality, in which man has his place, mind and all, and you get rid, at a stroke, of the so-called problem of existence. Existence means something like ‘standing out from a background’ and that is what happened to man as a consequence of the thing-ideology: he stuck out from the mechanistic universe of things like a sore thumb. It took us some time to realise that the problem was not with man, but rather with the theory. But we have realised that and now existence is looking like having more benign features than we suspected, though we are still terrified of the possibility of disappearing without trace into the dark embrace of matter in death.

It looks as if there is indeed a place for us in the universe, as though we are indeed at home in it. We may not have the old essentialism; but we have our place in the order of things. Our intelligence is conceivably an aspect of the overall intelligence of nature. The mind is part of nature, but it is also in a sense above nature insofar as nature is viewed as a collection of objects. If we ditch our obsessive belief in the primacy of the 3D object, the mind (as indeterminate intelligence) can view itself as transcending the brain (as determined thought). The mind can comprehend itself as part of the universal, undetermined and meaningful movement that is the uninterrupted process of universal creation. We don’t know how this proceeds but we can now begin to avoid all preconceptions and simply accept ourselves as self-conscious aspects of the indeterminate, universal creative process. We are far beyond naturalism, but we are in no danger of falling back into the trap of naïve teleology, arrogantly assuming we understand the ‘goal’ of natural processes. Traditional modes of harmonising mind and world are nonetheless coming back into focus.

Meditation of the ancient Buddhist type, we are beginning to realise, has its own observable regularities, including a powerful ability to re-integrate the mind, to centre it and to focus it. There are forces in the self, we now realise, that are analogous to the self-healing forces of the flesh. Existence is no longer a matter of sticking out like a sore thumb in a world of objects in which we have no place. Existence is now considered to be a process of dynamic interaction with a system – the world – that brought us into being, that is vastly more resourceful that we with our rational intellect will ever be, that can be credited with an intelligence of which ours is only a faint reflection. We must broaden our understanding of intelligence and see it as more than mere rule-following: we should understand it as almost synonymous with indeterminate creative innovation. Existence now is gradually being transformed by the perception that we and our intelligence belong in the world, that we both create it and are created by it in its ceaseless production of novelty. Our job, in these terms, is not to think ourselves up, not to work out the rule for hoisting ourselves by our own bootstraps, but rather to let ourselves be created by the ceaseless creativity of Creation. Intelligently to create and intelligently to be created are one and the same thing. Our crazy desire to dominate the world on the basis of shaky beliefs has turned out to be an unsustainable piece of madness. The old belief in the rational ego as master of the universe and new god on the block has to go.

We are not masters of the universe. How could we be, latecomers to the party that we are? The old idea that man is somehow different from the rest of nature is on the wane. With this old idea went notions of rational domination that could simply not be perpetuated. The idea that the rational intellect was all-powerful and all-dominant, and its methods exclusively and absolutely valid, brought us to the thing-ideology and to the consequent feeling of the absurdity of human life. The new scientific paradigm that is dawning, though it will be as provisional as all others, nevertheless sees scientific knowledge as only one type of knowledge and as being far from absolute in any sense. It sees our knowledge as part of the universal flow, as part of the creativity of the universal flow and it views our intellect, our emotions, the very dynamics of our self as integral parts of the universal, creative, intelligent flow. This is not cruddy mysticism, it is simply the most rational account of the fact of human life as we know it. If it is part of the process of universal creativity that has produced all the wonders of the natural world, then human existence, far from being absurd, is consummately meaningful. But let us not be under any illusion: ‘meaningful’ does not necessarily mean ‘comfortable’. The human subject as finite existent is precisely that: subject. That is to say, the opposite of master. But there is more going on in the subject than we tend to allow ourselves to believe.

Friday, July 23, 2010


The individual loses all significance within a purely mechanical universe; similarly, within a conception of society that is mechanical and that views the social order as primary, the individual is only of significance insofar as he or she contributes to the efficiency of the machine and as such is a dispensable, replaceable component. To consider the individual as having an intrinsic and absolute worth is one of the cultural accomplishments of Christianity that we abandon at our peril.

The essence of anything we talk about is conceived of as its innermost nature, its most important intrinsic characteristic, the necessary and sufficient conditions that define what it is. But this gives us merely a linguistic definition and a few spoken or written sentences do not seem to accomplish what we really intend. We talk of the essence of a flower’s perfume, of beef essence, of ‘essential oil’ of some plant or other, coffee essence, tea essence and the like; but to imagine that some intrinsic humanity can be distilled by an analogous procedure is to trivialise the question. The word ‘essential’ implies a feature without which an entity cannot be, something vital, something indispensable, something that can’t be left out, the most crucial feature of the entity in question and so on. For most of the recorded history of the human race, human beings have been regarded as having an essence in this way, something that encapsulated what it meant to be human, something that captured the human and made it what it was, something like a blueprint for life, imparted to each individual man and woman as a birth-right as he or she came into the world. Humanity has for millennia believed in some sort of ‘soul’ for this purpose. The drama of philosophy at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth centuries derived from the dawning suspicion that not only did the universe not have an essence – something like a moral world order – but neither did the human being.

The contemporary belief at the beginning of the twenty-first century is that the deoxyribonucleic acid molecules at the heart of our cells do the trick. Dawkins’ notion of the selfish gene, as the ‘thing’ that determines absolutely and completely what we as humans are, is just the latest and most inflexible version of the ancient notion of the intrinsic essence of the human and is completely in accord with the primacy of reductive thing-obsessed modes of reasoning in our culture. There is, however, a problem with this kind of pars pro toto definition of what it means to be human, beyond the counter-intuitive thought that our essential being is summed up in a few grains of matter. And it is a problem that has occupied a large section of modern philosophy for most of the last century or so, particularly on the European mainland. Needless to say, it has not been solved.

The Ancient Greek philosophers were the first to put this notion of an ‘essence’ on a firm philosophical footing. Plato with his doctrine of the 'Forms’ argued that each thing in nature corresponds more or less to a non-temporal, non-spatial archetype, or template of which it is a more or less dim reflection or approximation. The form of the daisy or sheep or lion or man is a perfect, abstract ‘idea’ of everything that is implied in the generic word, the form of man is the perfect abstract conception of everything that is implied in the notion ‘man’ and is also a definition of the best possible attributes of the human. Plato’s forms define everything in nature according to their best possible state and therefore carry moral worth as a sort of ideal to which everything can be understood as approximating or striving, or from which everything can be thought of as a falling short. So for example, we, as individual humans may be striving to be perfect, but we are actually degenerate failures.

Thus Plato’s universe is structured according to a fund of ideal templates that define the best possible conception of whatever it is we happen to be talking about. And all real things within our experience fail to make the grade. There is nevertheless in his system a role for everything and everything has its role. This role is intrinsic to the structure of the universe, for all the individual forms are, as it were, gathered together within one dominant form called the ‘Form of the Good’ which is understood as organising and co-ordinating the entire universe as a sort of ideal to which the whole order of nature incessantly strives. So the universe and everything in it has a goal.

Man, in Plato’s system, therefore has a definite role allotted him within all this striving. His role is to conform himself as closely as possible to his form, his essence, by means of a disciplined exercise of reason that leads, ultimately, to an understanding of the form of the good. This means that the nature of human life and the nature of the universe are in close harmony. As in Stuart Kauffman’s vision of nature, Plato’s man is ‘at home’ in the universe, though the similarity does not go much further than that. In Plato’s philosophy, a human being’s job is clear-cut – a little too clear-cut for some: he has to develop those portions of himself that are the ‘best’ aspects of his nature, i.e. his intellect, his reason, his understanding. He has to do this because he is conforming himself ever more closely thereby to his form, that is to say to the set of characteristics that would constitute his most noble realisation. Any departure from the ideal is a moral failing.

Aristotle, profoundly influenced by his teacher Plato, whose best and most eminent student he was, reacted strongly to the notion of an abstract human essence. He developed his biological vision of the world, as we have already seen to postulate a ‘form’ of the human that was not ideal, tucked away in some mysterious ‘supercelestial place’, but rather located firmly within the organism itself, rather like the genome. For Aristotle, the essence of the human, its form, was that inner principle, that inner set of instructions, if you like, which ensured that, given the right circumstances and the right input, the individual being would grow to successful maturity and constitute a well turned-out example of whatever we happen to be considering. Thus a well turned-out tree, for example, would require that the seed – which already contains the organising ‘form’ – should fall into suitable ground, be nurtured by propitious forces, rain, sun, atmosphere, drainage and the like, and be allowed to flourish, that is to say to develop, without hindrance, its set of potentials in the best possible way. Similarly, a human being, according to Aristotle, requires an analogous, though much more complex set of optimum circumstances in order to develop his or her set of functional characteristics in the best possible way. The human being requires – along, of course, with correct nutrition and other sorts of physical nurture – benign and wise habituation or training in youth and the right social structure in adulthood to allow the full development of intellectual capacities. If these things are got right, according to Aristotle, and if the individual human being cultivates ‘virtue’ – or to translate the notion otherwise, ‘excellence’ – then the result will be happiness, that is to say a first-rate human life.

This notion of ‘virtue’ will be the theme of a later section. It is enough to say here that for Aristotle this was not understood as some sort of joyless, dutiful do-gooding, some kind of bloodless, bland, unadventurous preparedness to ‘obey the rules’, as many understand the word in our culture. On the contrary, Aristotle’s theory of human virtue (arête) implied no adherence to rules, but rather meant simply excelling at being whatever you were, and was related in meaning to the notion of ‘aristocrat’. Just as you can have an excellent race-horse, so you can have an excellent human being. The virtuous person, in Aristotle’s philosophy does not robotically obey rules; he or she rather develops every aspect of his or her (though given Aristotle’s prejudices, it was probably ‘his’ rather than ‘her’) abilities and characteristics in the best possible way, as skills, such as to achieve an outstanding performance in all respects. These abilities and characteristics are, of course, set by the form of the human, the human essence, and will, if allowed to develop properly, guarantee the success of the enterprise, as long as the individual does his bit. The fundamental point, however, is this: there is an essence of the human – a blueprint, if you like for an optimum human life – and happiness and success consist in bringing this essence out into the world in the most successful way possible. The successful human being is like an athlete, though his principal prowess is not simply in physical activity, but rather in mental excellence. Aristotle’s aristoi or aretai, his virtuous, that is to say ‘excellent’ human beings, perform habitually a kind of intellectual tightrope act of consummate skill, negotiating with intellectual brilliance the predetermined path of human life, assessing with the virtuosity of masters in their field the opportunities and threats of life, steering a well-judged middle course between excess and deficiency, weighing ends to means with consummate skill enjoying the benefits of respect, eminence, friendship, self-respect and personal wealth that come with all these successes. Of course, Aristotle was an Athenian aristocrat and in many ways his view of humanity is the view of his class. But this aside, the understanding of man according to his essence proved to be a remarkably fertile and appealing idea, one that was adopted by the Christian Church with alacrity and used to bolster its particular view of the good life.

The culture of Europe was built on the understanding of man as a being endowed with a God-given ‘soul’ at birth. This soul, for the Christians, was more than the Aristotelian form, however. It constituted the unique individuality of the person in question, it was God’s property, it came from him and would return to him, in some way or another, when physical life was over. The essence of life on earth was the cultivation of this soul in accordance with divine wishes and intentions. There was a certain optimum kind of life set before us all as a goal to be aimed at, and the Christian Gospel was the recipe for success in the achievement of this goal. This goal was ‘salvation’, by which was meant the final conformity of the soul to God’s will in complete abandonment of those aspects of human nature that were regarded as against divine will and therefore ‘sinful’. Thus any behaviour that, though possible, was not in accordance with divine intentions for the physical attributes that made such behaviour possible was regarded as sinful. Extramarital or homosexual sex, for example, was denounced as sinful precisely because it was not in accordance with ‘nature’, i.e. with what God had set as the ‘natural’ order of human life in which sexual activity was for procreation within stable, monogamous marriage and not for any other purposes. However the principal occupation of the Christian was not so much the cultivation of the Aristotelian virtues of as the development of the specifically Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity which represented the specifically Christian advance on the classical virtues of temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice.

Thus the soul of man, in Christianity, came with a complete set of directives, a kind of ‘Instructions for Use’ that could not be interpreted according to individual wishes and inclinations, but only according to what God had pre-ordained. This model of the human life dominated the entire medieval period and determined the entire nature of the culture and of the social order, which it orchestrated. The progress of the soul through the temptations and pitfalls of earthly life – pitfalls that illustrated its departures from its own perfection – was the prime preoccupation of all authority – at least officially. This notion of the soul determined the hierarchical nature of society and set the shape of human life from cradle to grave. The soul was worthy for salvation or ripe for damnation – both of these outcomes being forms of divine disposition – according to the extent to which it had either lived out its earthly existence in obedience to the divinely created essence and developed the Christian virtues, or gone its own way and cultivated a degenerate caricature of its intrinsic being.

Now whatever one thinks of these sorts of prescriptive attitudes to human life that lay down a ground plan for its optimisation – and there are still plenty of them around in the world – it is undeniable that they give a firm sense of identity, a firm sense of purpose and direction, a firm sense of the meaning of individual existence. The individual is conscious of his or her place in the universal order of things. Where the culture of modern western humanity differs from almost any other culture that preceded it is precisely in this lack of prescription, this lack of clear direction and pre-established meaning. Modern western man does not have a soul to begin with. His body can be defined with reasonable precision, but the soul has been pronounced by his science to be non-existent, because it cannot be weighed, measured or otherwise quantified by means of current naturalistic methods. He does not have an essence either, despite his well-understood genome, because it is impossible to define him with regard to any set of values; and values are what make us human. The genetic definition only prescribes the body-plan, not what is to be done with the life it lives. According to the scientific assessment of man, only the body counts and what the body is capable of is simply a matter of fact rather than of value.

Now this is not what worries us when we talk in terms of seeking meaning and purpose to life. Of course, there is the culture of the body beautiful that seems to suggest that there is a certain optimum physical appearance that can be achieved by everyone; but no-one is convinced by such commercial deceit and media chatter. And anyway, it is impossible to define scientifically. The mind, moreover, desires more than the striking of pretty poses. The meaning of life, if there is such a thing, must be entirely separate from any assessment of bodily dimensions, proportions, coloration, efficiency, fecundity or whatever. It must concern an identifiable link between the individual and the universe in which his or her life is set. One can clearly not talk in terms of this link if the prevailing ideology dictates that the only link between a human being and the world is the fact that the body is a 3D thing located in a universe of 3D things. This ideology declares that the laws of things (physics) govern the body as a thing, but that beyond that, the so-called ‘individual mind’ is a delusion that has no role at all in the universe. Thus so far from setting an essential link between human mind and world, the prevailing ideology suggests that it is almost of the essence of the human – at least of that bit of the human that is called the ‘mind’ – to be alienated, unrelated, lacking identity, a stranger in the universe. Unless some arbitrary social role is adopted. The prevailing ideology has set the way we feel about ourselves at variance with the way we think about ourselves: we feel ourselves to be souls; we think we are things. The result is alienation.

This state of affairs will be examined in a little greater detail in the next section. It is sufficient to emphasise here that the thing-ideology permits definition of the human, and therefore identification of any essence, only in terms of physical and functional characteristics. Since that is the case, the self is entirely shut out from any identifiable role, function or indeed significance. The thing-ideology cannot deal with the self, never mind the soul. The self, as the ‘ghost in the machine’ is condemned to a strange half- or non-existence without status or recognition, condemned to haunt the material world like a disconsolate spook, without home, without goal, without meaning, without value. And what is the reason for this uncomfortable, chilly state of affairs? It is not that the self has been found not to exist; it is simply that the thing-ideology lacks the conceptual equipment even to talk about it.

The staggering fact is that the majority of people in the west, at least of educated people, profess to be convinced by what is for them – in their unprejudiced and honest moments – most clearly false. The denial of the soul is a classic case of something that we humans persistently do with great readiness: denying the presence of the elephant in the room, of arguing ourselves into believing that black is white. The essence of the human cannot, simply cannot be tied exclusively to the body as thing, definable as all things are in terms of its space-occupancy and movement. This is impossible because each human person is entirely convinced of his or her status as a unique mind with a unique identity; and the ideology that declares the human existent to be just a lump of matter is not a good reason to abandon this conviction. It is the discovery of that unique identity that ultimately constitutes the principal aim of most people; and it is the discovery of the related destiny that modern philosophy, in the form of Existentialism, pronounced to be the entire, private responsibility of the individual.

Existence, in this philosophy, is a formless, shapeless business and the craving for meaning on the part of the individual can only be satisfied by rejecting all pre-conceptions, all essences and following the logic of this position to the bitter end. It is this notion of the essential freedom of the self that preoccupied Existentialists from Kierkegaard onwards and it is this notion that links Existentialism to many other great philosophical insights. The human being may legitimately be considered as a body, a thing, and as subject to the deterministic forces of physics. But the human being also has to be considered as a ‘thing in itself’ to use Kant’s phrase and as an essentially free self outside of the spatio-temporal structure of matter. Existentialism ultimately had no conceptual machinery with which to discuss the freedom and non-thinginess of the human; but at least it was aware that if essentialism was to be jettisoned, then the material essentialism that tried to understand human existence in terms of physics and chemistry alone could never produce an intellectually satisfying or indeed cogent account of our lot.

For Jean-Paul Sartre, the contents of the world fell into two principal categories, the ‘in-itself’ (en-soi) and the ‘for-itself’ (pour-soi). The in-itself is the world of everything that is not human: objects, plants, animals; and the for-itself is the human. The en-soi for Sartre pursued an unproblematic existence that is dictated by the essence of whatever it is. A stone cannot help being a stone. A tree will simply be a tree, a pig will spend its entire life being a pig. The essence of these entities dictates entirely the type of existence that they enjoy. Their essence precedes their existence and completely determines it. For the en-soi, however, that is to say for the human being, there is no essence. Existence is a matter of complete and total freedom to be and do absolutely anything at all. Human beings, in Sartre’s philosophy have no dictating, determining essence. There is a divorce between what they are and what they do. What they are is complete freedom. What they do then determines what they become. Thus existence, in Sartre’s famous slogan “precedes essence”. This freedom of the human to act without guidelines, without directions, without prescriptions became the heart of the philosophy of Existentialism. Sartre thus embraced a kind of incomprehensible dualism that derived from Kant’s separation of the world into the phenomenal and the noumenal; but in Sartre’s version, unlike in Kant’s philosophy, there is absolutely no way of bridging the gap between the two. Sartre was completely under the sway of twentieth century naturalism and accepted the mechanical conception of the universe as an ontology and not just as a construction. Within the universal mechanism, the pour-soi, as anomalous freedom is absurd and has to carve out its own meaning with its own resources. Existence became problematic because there was no obvious way in which men and women could decide on one course of action rather than another. Everything was of equal worth or unworth.

It is all very well for evolutionary biologists to pronounce that our body-plan is dictated for us by chance and selection and that a contingent collocation of material particles is what we are. Biology more than any other modern science has a vested interest in seeing human beings as determined objects. We all know that that is not what we are. We all know that the question of our existence remains to be solved and it is not solved by our considering ourselves counterintuitively as things. It is just as intelligent to consider ourselves not as things but as selves, and only selves insofar as we experience in contemplative ecstasy the totality of the cosmos as indeterminate, timeless present. This is only a fuzzy notion if one is obsessed by definitions of 3D things. We, in a materialistic age, think it is intelligent to see our being as that of a thing among things; but it is just as intelligent to see our self as the intelligent link with the whole intelligent movement of the cosmos and of that (universal and individual) intelligence as providing our essence. True, such an essence can not be a 3D thing, as our body is a thing; but what of that? If we do not bow to the thing-ideology, if we do not accept the sterile dualism of the incomprehensibly free mind floating around in the inhospitable machine, then we are free to imagine other possibilities. For example this:

The essence of intelligence is coherent relation. If one considers creative intelligence to be the essential characteristic of the human and if one considers the universe as a whole to be creatively intelligent (by no means a silly hypothesis!), then the relation of the one to the other is clearly essential to our intelligent existence. This is certainly not a relation of objects in space; but why should that be the only relation?

Saturday, February 27, 2010


In the modern human ego, the bundle of survival instincts with which most animals are equipped has been turned into a powerful engine for gaining and keeping power. It is a highly focused, self-regarding and self-reflecting structure devoted, initially by means of language, to detecting and exploiting useful regularity in its environment. Its interest is the maintenance and implementation of those strategies that have proved effective in the past in maximising pleasure and in minimising pain, i.e. what is vulgarly called ‘survival’. It is therefore a highly self-protective structure, brightly-lit and showing a distinct tendency to routine and rigidity. It is bolstered by powerful emotions – self-love, aggressivity, fear of competition, territoriality, possessiveness, craving for dominance etc. – and often tries to characterise and describe some sort of ‘unconscious’ mind – a fluid, shifting, ill-defined non-ego – that is somehow connected to it, but that it controls in principle and that it often sees as essentially inferior. The ego’s attitude to this so-called ‘unconscious’, however, is mainly one of mistrust and nervous wariness. It experiences the non-ego as a threat. This is principally because the ego – particularly in its modern incarnation as the ‘rational ego’ – sees itself as the essence of the mind if not the whole of the mind, and the non-ego, therefore, it sees as an interloper, a competitor of perhaps real, perhaps illusory, but clearly unstructured potential that has to be combated.

Clearly, it is mistaken in this. The simple facts are these: the ego is not the mind, but simply a series of well-established routines acquired by habit and reinforced by self-regard, self-preservation and vanity. Far from being in control of the unconscious, the conscious mind is dependent on what is not conscious for its very existence, just as every sub-system of the universe is dependent upon the configuration of the universe as a whole. And since the ego is only part of the conscious mind, this dependence is decisive. The human mind requires a vastly more capacious conceptual machinery for its self-understanding than that which is applicable to the conscious ego. The ego does not reflect upon itself very much; and the rational ego, insofar as it goes in for self-contemplation, irrationally considers itself as a sort of inexplicable, immaterial hole punched in material reality, lacking any properties and legitimately excluded from science. For despite its modern materialism, the ego is wedded nonetheless to a sort of unadmitted Cartesian dualism. It believes in a world composed of chunks of matter, but sees itself as apart and utterly different from this world, whose inexplicable, propertyless, dimensionless observer it is – a conception incompatible with quantum theory. Needless to say, it is the ego’s own confusion that is at the origin of these misconceptions. The ego’s self-misunderstanding – which even extends to a denial of its own existence – is at the root of the modern misunderstanding of the mind, which, in turn, is the root of our modern alienation.

One of the principal misconceptions that the ego has developed concerning the mind is the counterintuitive belief that it is identical with the lump of neural tissue inside our skulls, that it is in fact a 3D thing. Thoughts, therefore, are also 3D things. To begin to change this erroneous and damaging view of the mind it is necessary to take another look at some of Bohm’s revolutionary views on the nature of matter as he summarised them in an interview in 1986 with Professor Renée Weber of Rutgers University and the University of Washington.

Five issues stand out in this interview: 1) the status of material particles and thus of 'matter' within the nested levels of reality, 2) the delusory nature of the mind-matter distinction, 3) the nature of light, 4) creativity as the essence of the mind, and 5) creativity as the essence of knowledge.

Bohm was convinced that de Broglie’s interpretation of the sub-atomic particle was of vital importance despite its having been neglected (albeit accepted) by mainstream physics. He summarised the interpretation thus:

“It was the idea that basically an electron is a particle (I’ll simplify it very much) and that it has a field around it, a new kind of quantum mechanical field which in some ways is similar to old kinds of field, in some ways different. The key difference was that its activity did not depend on its intensity. That’s like saying that it did not act by mechanical pressure on the particle, but it acted from the information content which carried information about the whole experimental arrangement. So the meaning of an experimental result and the form of the experimental conditions were no longer separable, they were a whole, as even Bohr said. This was immediately obvious in de Broglie’s interpretation, whereas it’s a deep, impenetrable mystery in Bohr’s language.” (The Essential David Bohm p.142 – my italics)

Bohm calls the informational field that organises the implicate order of any material system the “quantum information potential” (p.145) and remarks that this implicate order “actively organizes itself”. (ibid) He points out that “This is crucial to understanding thought and the mind.” (ibid) He sees the neuro-physiological aspect of the brain (which is still ‘enfolded’ relative to what we can ordinarily see) as the implicate order of what we are able to observe (the brain), since the latter is the explicate order of the former; but he postulates a “super-implicate order” which is to the neuro-physiological processes what consciousness is to the these. The brain can be viewed as mere “soma”, mere body, mere matter, or it can be viewed as the “activity of significance”.(ibid) Intelligence is this “activity of significance” which, as the super-implicate order, must be seen as distinct from the explicate order of the body, though fundamentally the two are in a sense one. That is to say that the brain is the explicate order of the super-implicate order of the mind and the neuro-physiological activity is located between the two. Thus we don’t have mind and body as two distinct and separate entities, whose interaction is incomprehensible; we have the one – the body – as the explicate expression of what is implicate in the other – the mind. Thus the brain, far from being the essence of mind, is rather the projection of a more complex order (implicate) within a less complex (explicate) domain.

Bohm is furthermore quite unabashed in extending this fundamental model of nested orders to the universe as a whole, and maintains that in doing this he is doing no more than drawing the implications of the equations of quantum mechanics. He calls his multileveled understanding of reality “soma-significance” (ibid) and insists that far from being dualistic, this is an attempt to see reality as single but as knowable under several aspects, just as a written text can be known as both physico-chemical and according to its non-physical meaning. He sees the whole of material reality as organised and coordinated by meaning. The quantum informational field gives significance to the entire material universe. We as humans merely follow nature in our computers, in which the hardware is organised by information. All of nature, says Bohm, is organised according to the activity of significance (which means more than mere information, because it is active and self-organising). Meaning is thus not separate from matter, it is rather inherent in it as its informational field, its implicate order. He points out that in structuring our computers by information, we are imitating nature, not merely injecting meaning into systems that lack it. Thus, “the super or information-potential is related to the implicate order of matter as the subtle aspects of consciousness are related to the material movements of hormones and electrical currents in the nerves.” (p.146) And further: “The quantum field contains information about the whole environment and about the whole past, which regulates present activity of the electron in much the same way that information about the whole past and our whole environment regulates our own activity as human beings through consciousness. (ibid.) This “active information” – a concept picked up by Polkinghorne and others – is not just thought, as we humans understand it, “though it’s similar.” (ibid.) Furthermore, extending such a notion to the whole universe is not just a disguised reference to God. If one were to extrapolate the idea of implicate orders to an ultimate super- super- super- etc. implicate order, one would still not be talking about God, because one would be still conceiving something limited. The ultimate implicate order is beyond us because “we can not grasp that in thought,” (p.147) Nevertheless, just as people in the past had insight about a form of intelligence that had organized the universe, then personalized it and called it ‘God’, so according to the current state of physics, “a similar insight can prevail today without personalizing it and without calling it a personal God.” (ibid.) Of this intelligence, Bohm agrees that one can propose that it is benevolent and compassionate and not neutral.

The lower levels in this hierarchical conception of the universe are transcended by the higher. The higher level is always “immensely greater and has an entirely different set of relationships out of which the lower level is obtained as a very small part, in an abstraction.” (ibid.) The higher level contains the lower. The lower level is the unfolding of the higher. Where the lower level is linear, mathematically speaking, and unfolds in time, the higher is non-linear and timeless. This means that “the linear organization of time and thought characteristic of the ordinary level will not necessarily be characteristic of the higher level. Therefore what is beyond time may have an order of its own, not the same as the simple linear order of time.” (ibid.)

We impose our order of space and time on the entire order of reality and declare that this is the only order that exists, whereas in Bohm’s terms, “this higher order is not basically the order of space and time, but the order of space and time unfolds from it and folds back into it…” (p.148) The super-implicate order is a somewhat Spinozistic notion that gets us beyond the Kantian conception of an epistemological carapace that our minds can not remove. Since the super-implicate order contains the information content out of which the explicate order unfolds, it contains the order of space and time within it. Time is an “order of manifestation” (ibid.) and, a kind of “flowering” of the implicate order; thus evolution is fundamental to it. The individual moment contains enfolded in it the entire process of evolution and all the moments are present at once in the timeless implicate order. The influence of Einstein is obvious here. This entire timeless order is a temporal implicate order, just as the spatial interconnectedness of all matter is the spatial implicate order. Thus: “consciousness is basically in the implicate order as all matter is and therefore it’s not that consciousness is one thing and matter is another. Rather consciousness is a material process and consciousness is itself in the implicate order, as is all matter, and consciousness manifests itself in some explicate order, as does matter.” (p.148) Since all matter is interconnected and interpenetrating, “the consciousness of mankind is one.” (p.149)

Space, for Bohm, is not the empty theatre of common sense in which separate objects interact externally with each other, as points on an imaginary line; it is rather that which unites us, since all matter is a small wave, a mere ripple, on empty space and space itself is the ground of our existence the line uniting us is not imaginary; it is real. The separate points are mere abstractions. As the reality of space is not the measure of space (the units on the line measure only the wave in space) so the units by which we measure time are not the reality either. Reality is universal flow or holomovement and events and objects are merely abstractions created by the mind. The distinguishing characteristics of what we call ‘events’ or ‘objects’ are put there by the mind and create artificial divisions in what in reality has none. The distinguishing characteristics are aspects of the explicate order, but have no reality in themselves. Reality is the emptiness or rather the “plenum” (p.150) of space and what we call ‘real things’ are no more than tiny ripples within it. The notion of an empty plenum is only difficult if one says that the tiny ripples that are matter are all there is; whereas in fact, the ripples are in space itself which in contrast to the ripples (objects) appears empty to the mind, but in actual fact is full because it contains the potentiality for everything.

Naturally in order to think about the emptiness that is the plenum of space – the timeless, multi-dimensional space – we still use our three-dimensional consciousness. Bohm proposes that meditation is a means of avoiding thinking in three-dimensional terms. This is of course no different from the mystical notion of our being grounded in some infinite substance; but far from being a ‘mysticism’, which implies something hidden, Bohm proposes that this should be called “transparentism” (p.152) because as opposed to obscuring the whole, as our fragmented way of viewing it does, it makes the whole comprehensible. The meaning of transparentism is essentially the same idea as that contained in Kierkegaard’s phrase characterising the religious mind as “grounded transparently in the power that constitutes one”. (ibid.)

In response to the question from his interviewer as to why light has always been used as the privileged metaphor for the groundedness of the individual mind in the totality, Bohm gives the following explanation:

“As an object approaches the speed of light, according to relativity, its internal space and time change so that the clocks slow down relative to other speeds and the distance is shortened. You would find that two ends of the ray of light would have no time between them and no distance, so they would represent immediate contact. (...) You could also say that from the point of view of present field theory, the fundamental fields are those of very high energy in which the mass can be neglected, which would be essentially moving at the speed of light. Mass is a phenomenon of connecting light rays that go back and forth, sort of freezing them into a pattern.

“So matter is, as it were, condensed or frozen light. Light is not merely electromagnetic waves but in a sense other kinds of waves that go at that speed. Therefore all matter is a condensation of light into patterns moving back and forth at average speeds which are less than the speed of light. Even Einstein had some hint of this idea. You could say that when we come to light we are coming to the fundamental activity in which existence has its ground, or at least coming close to it.” (p.152f.)

Thus as the time-bound reality emerges out of the timeless, so matter emerges out of light as a kind of condensation. Pure light has no speed at all; only bound light moves at the ‘speed’ of light. In the depths of the implicate order, the timeless state (pure light perhaps) is the primary reality of which what we call reality is the secondary manifestation. It is analogous to two kinds of music, the second ordinary kind of which emerges disharmoniously, or only with limited harmony, from the first which is never disharmonious. The mystics use the image of light for enlightenment because it is the best expression of the experience of the mind as it leaves the timebound state and enters the timeless, spaceless state. Thus, says Bohm again:

“Light is what enfolds all the universe as well. For example, if you’re looking at this room, the whole room is enfolded into the light that enters the pupil of your eye and unfolds into the image and into your brain. Light in its generalized sense (not just ordinary light) is the means by which the entire universe unfolds into itself.” (p.154) This is no mere metaphor, it is actuality; light is both energy and information, it is “content, form and structure. It’s the potential of everything.” (ibid.) For Christians, there are clear analogies here with the notion of God as light and with the Creation and Incarnation as the ‘kenosis’ or self-limitation of the Creator. Light for Bohm does not move. It has no speed. It simply is. There is no transmission time, no distance between items except in our perception. The ordinary conception of time is analogous to a map such as Mercator’s projection of the world which is good at the Equator, but wrong at the poles, because it represents space there as infinite. Thus the ordinary conception of light with the ordinary space-time holds well enough for ordinary speeds but is as wrong at the ‘speed’ of light as Mercator’s map is at the poles.

Light is the background of everything, it can carry information about the entire universe. It can also, by interactions of different rays, produce particles and all the diverse structures of matter. “The ocean of energy” says Bohm, “could be thought of as an ocean of light. But the information-content may be such as to predispose certain light rays to combine so that they move back and forth rather than moving straight ahead, and thus forming particles.” (p156)

The psychological and spiritual significance of this light-doctrine is that the mind may have a structure similar to that of the universe and the particular forms of mind may be analogous to the particles. Getting down to the ground of the mind might be felt as light, getting into contact with the free, interpenetrating movement of the whole. Just as the ocean is all stirred up at the surface, but peaceful in its depths, so the mind experiences this contact with its ultimate depths as peace and harmony, oneness and timelessness. Since the entire information-content of the universe is a kind of intelligence, it experiences also a kind of love. (Though Bohm does not say this, his interviewer suggests it and Bohm does not demur).

This kind of conception of physicality, of the nature of matter and thus of mind is highly revolutionary and light-years away from either the bone-headed physicalism of the so-called ‘eliminative materialists’ or the dualism of the religious. The reason for this is that for Bohm, the concept ‘matter’ does not imply the 3D objects that we abstract from the entire process of the world, but rather an abstraction from an infinitely more subtle substance composed of nested orders. The mind or even the ‘soul’ and even less the ‘spirit’ is not some subtle thing that moves the perceptible things that constitute the body, some subtle thing that is present throughout the life of the body and perhaps pre-dates it. The mind (as also the soul or spirit) emerges in the course of the history of the body. It may well be that aspects of the mind are the ‘form’ of the body (in the Aristotelian sense) and that the growth and action of the body constitute the realisation of this organising principle. But the history of the body also is the context in which the mind achieves consciousness of itself. The body is the medium in which the mind is grown. There may well be a reciprocal relationship between mind and body. The body clearly has a vital role to play, despite its transience in the development of the mind. This role is limited to the temporal period of its existence. But we do not have on the basis of that to believe that the existence of the mind is temporally co-extensive with that of the body.

Some aspects of the mind do not need extra concepts other than the physical to account for them. The repetitive, mechanical aspects of thought, that are intrinsically linked to repetitive personal memory and to the preoccupations of the ego, are clearly physical processes and one must assume that they dissolve along with the body at the latter’s dissolution into its chemical constituents. Other aspects of the mind, however, cannot be so neatly tied to the body. The creativity of the mind has precisely to do with the transcendence of mechanical thought patterns and constitutes in itself a source of novelty which cannot be associated with any repetitive material pattern at all. It is this latter aspect of the mind that can be seen as immortal and as a likely candidate for the entity that survives the dissolution of the individual body. The creative mind is the focus of all the values and patterns of unique insight that constitute the individual’s ability to perceive the ever-renewed movement of the universe and its constantly changing configuration.

The creative mind is, perhaps, identical with the co-ordinating intelligence that is the centre of the universe’s constant evolution to unique configurations. It is impossible to see how this creative intelligence could be subject to the determinations that make things temporal and transient. It is the repetitious nature of consciousness, (i.e. the ego’s mechanical thought-patterns etc. which are the main constituent of most people’s mind) that are materially determined and destined to dissolve. The same cannot be said about the perceiving intelligence of the individual that constantly delivers new insight into the essentially unknown and unknowable, because ever shifting kaleidoscope that is reality. Such insight is only possible on the basis of an intimate affinity between perceiver and perceived, such that the two are one. The certainty of the insight is thus invincible, indestructible and requires no demonstration.

Only in the communication of insight in the refractory medium of language, with its inbuilt mechanisms and repetitions, does the certainty of the creative insight become damaged and lose its original character. The consciousness in which the insight originally arose, however, has already moved on and left behind any linguistic traces in which former states of certainty may have been expressed. It is this indefinable generator of what is commonly called ‘knowledge’ – but which is no more than an image of intelligence – that we must regard as the candidate for immortality and the ultimate guarantor of the individual’s stake in the universe. Of course, the uncreative, mechanical, algorithm-driven mind, will have a very minor stake if any. This is why the attitude of perpetual contemplation is the same as the attitude of prayer. This is the essence of what Kierkegaard called ‘subjectivity’. The attitude of prayer is essentially the perpetual reaffirmation of the essential rootedness of individual intelligence in universal intelligence. Since the latter guarantees the perpetual, unpredictable evolution of the holomovement, the former, as local contributor to this, is inseparable from it and like it, eternal.

So what of knowledge? For Bohm, knowledge is a dynamic contact between the mind and the reality that generates the mind, and not in any sense a stable body of doctrine encoded in some language or other. Thus knowledge, like the universe, is constant change, evolving awareness, or it is not knowledge. For Bohm, The only authentic contact between the mind and the cosmos takes place when creative intelligence achieves a novel insight on the basis of direct perception of the nature of current reality by means of a harmony established between individual and universal intelligence. This creative insight can be expressed in a work of art or a scientific theory. All other forms of contact are to a greater or lesser degree second-hand or mechanical. When the mind contacts reality through the schemata worked out by other minds – schemata that may in their time have represented a truly creative novum – the result is invariably a kind of mechanical repetition, even when, by logical means, unsuspected inferences may be made from the original insights. Most ordinary science involves inferences of this type. All rule-based thinking can only generate knowledge and truth as conventionally understood – both of which are deemed by those who invent them to somehow ‘correspond’ to reality as such. Inherent in such notions of ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are some kind of attainable absolute. Knowledge is deemed to be definitive certainty and truth to be a sort of reproduction of reality. However, the delusion inherent in this is generated by the ego’s self regard and is quickly discovered by the creative awareness: since reality is constantly evolving in an unpredictable way, no reproduction of it in any medium is possible and no certainty about its definitive state could ever be achieved. Knowledge and truth as understood by the rational ego, and by those who believe in a terminus to the search for understanding, are therefore illusory concepts; only living, immediate, creative insight into the nature of current reality has the sort of value traditionally attributed to knowledge and truth. The notion of ‘definitive’ knowledge is a contradiction. For the ego that sees its repetitions as of the essence of knowledge and that repudiates any ‘mental’ reality that is not circumscribed by its own awareness, such conceptions of knowledge and truth are of course nonsensical. But then, that is the ego's problem.