This interview with David Bohm,
conducted by F. David Peat and John
was originally published in Omni, January 1987
In 1950 David Bohm wrote what many physicists consider to be a model
textbook on quantum mechanics. Ironically, he has never accepted
that theory of physics. In the history of science he is a maverick,
a member of that small group of physicists-including Albert
Einstein, Eugene Wigner, Erwin SchrŲdinger, Alfred Lande,
and John Wheeler--who have expressed grave doubts that a theory
founded on indeterminism and chance could give us a true view of the
universe around us.
Todayís generation of physicists, impressed by the stunning
successes of quantum physics--from nuclear weapons to lasers-are of
a different mind. They are busy applying quantum mechanics to areas
its original creators never imagined.
Stephen Hawking, for example,
used it to describe the creation of elementary particles from
holes and to argue that the universe exploded into being in a
Bucking this tide of modern physics for more than 30 years, Bohm has
been more than a gadfly. His objections to the foundations of
quantum mechanics have gradually coalesced into an extension of the
theory so sweeping that it amounts to a new view of reality.
Believing that the nature of things is not reducible to fragments or
particles, he argues for a holistic view of the universe. He demands
that we learn to regard matter and life as a whole, coherent domain,
which he calls the implicate order.
Most other physicists discard Bohmís logic without bothering to
scrutinize it. Part of the difficulty is that his implicate order is
rife with paradox. Another problem is the sheer range of his ideas,
which encompass such hitherto nonphysical subjects as consciousness,
society, truth, language, and the process of scientific theory
The son of a furniture dealer, Bohm was born in Wilkes-Barre,
Pennsylvania, in 1917. He studied physics at the University of
California with J. Robert Oppenheimer. Unwilling to testify against
his former teacher and other friends during the McCarthy hearings,
Bohm left the United States and took a post at the University of S„o
Paulo, Brazil. From there he moved to Israel, then
England, where he
eventually became professor of physics at Birkbeck College in
Bohm is perhaps best known for his early work on the interactions of
electrons in metals. He showed that their individual, haphazard
movement concealed a highly organized and cooperative behavior
called plasma oscillation. This intimation of an order underlying
apparent chaos was pivotal in Bohmís development.
In 1959 Bohm, working with Yakir Ahronov, showed that a magnetic
field might alter the behavior of electrons without touching them:
If two electron beams were passed on either side of a space
containing a magnetic field, the field would retard the waves of one
beam even though it did not penetrate the space and actually touch
the electrons. This "AB effect" was verified a year later.
During the Fifties and Sixties Bohm expanded his belief in the
existence of hidden variables that control seemingly random quantum
events, and from that point on, his ideas diverged more and more
from the mainstream of modern physics. His books Causality and
Chance in Modern Physics and Wholeness and the Implicate Order,
published in 1957 and 1980, respectively, spell out his new theory
in considerable detail. In the Sixties Bohm met the Indian
philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, and their continuing dialogues,
published as a book, The Ending of Time, helped the physicist
clarify his ideas about wholeness and order.
Recently retired from Birkbeck College, Bohm is now trying to
develop a mathematical version of his implicate-order hypothesis-the
kind of precise, testable theory that other physicists will take
seriously. It is not an easy task, for Bohmís universe is a strange,
mystical place in which past, present, and future coexist. The
objects in his universe, even the subatomic particles, are
secondary; it is a process of movement, continuous unfolding and
enfolding from a seamless whole that is fundamental. To test the
theory of general relativity, Einstein forecast that the sunís
gravity would bend light waves from distant stars; he was correct.
So far Bohm has been unable to find an experimental aspect that
could support his ideas in the same way.
Although recently recovered from serious heart surgery, Bohm
continues to make frequent trips throughout Europe and to the United
States, where he lectures, talks to colleagues, and encourages
students. His ideas have been enthusiastically received by
philosophers, neuroscientists, theologians, poets, and artists.
Bohm was interviewed by John Briggs and F. David Peat, authors of
Looking Glass Universe, over a two-day period near Amherst College
in Massachusetts, where Bohm was involved in a series of meetings
with the Dalai Lama. Additional comments are taken from a previous
interview in England by writer Llee Heflin.
Omni: Can you recall when you first experienced the sense of the
wholeness that you now express as the implicate order?
Bohm: When I
was a boy a certain prayer we said every day in Hebrew contained the
words to love God with all your heart all your soul, and all your
mind. My understanding of these words, that is, this notion of
wholeness--not necessarily directed toward God but as a way of
living--had a tremendous impact on me. I also felt a sense of nature
being whole very early. I felt internally related to trees,
mountains, and stars in a way I wasnít to all the chaos of the
When I first studied quantum mechanics I felt again that sense of
internal relationship--that it was describing something that I was
experiencing directly rather than just thinking about.
The notion of
spin particularly fascinated me: the idea that when
something is spinning in a certain direction, it could also spin in
the other direction but that somehow the two directions together
would be a spin in a third direction. I felt that somehow that
described experience with the processes of the mind. In thinking
about spin I felt I was in a direct relationship to nature. In
quantum mechanics I came closer to my intuitive sense of nature.
Omni: Yet youíve said that quantum mechanics doesnít provide a clear
picture of nature. What do you mean?
Bohm: The main problem is that
quantum mechanics gives only the
probability of an experimental result. Neither the decay of an
atomic nucleus nor the fact that it decays at one moment and not
another can be properly pictured within the theory. It can only
enable you to predict statistically the results of various
Physics has changed from its earlier form, when it tried to explain
things and give some physical picture. Now the essence is regarded
as mathematical. Itís felt the truth is in the formulas. Now they
may find an algorithm by which they hope to explain a wider range of
experimental results, but it will still have inconsistencies. They
hope that they can eventually explain all the results that could be
gotten, but that is only a hope.
Omni: How did the founders of
quantum mechanics initially receive
your book Quantum Theory?
Bohm: In the Fifties, when I sent it around to various
physicists-including [Niels] Bohr, Einstein,
and Wolfgangl Pauli -- Bohr
didnít answer, but Pauli liked it. Einstein sent me a message that
heíd like to talk with me. When we met he said the book had done
about as well as you could do with quantum mechanics. But he was
still not convinced it was a satisfactory theory.
His objection was not merely that it was statistical. He felt it was
a kind of abstraction; quantum mechanics got correct results but
left out much that would have made it intelligible. I came up with
the causal interpretation [that the electron is a particle, but it
also has a field around it. The particle is never separated from
that field, and the field affects the movement of the particle in
certain ways. Einstein didnít like it, though, because the
interpretation had this notion of action at a distance: Things that
are far away from each other profoundly affect each other. He
believed only in local action.
I didnít come back to this implicate order until the Sixties, when I
got interested in notions of order. I realized then the problem is
that coordinates are still the basic order in physics, whereas
everything else has changed.
Omni: Your key concept is something you call
enfoldment. Could you
Bohm: Everybody has seen an image of enfoldment: You fold up a sheet
of paper, turn it into a small packet, make cuts in it, and then
unfold it into a pattern. The parts that were close in the cuts
unfold to be far away. This is like what happens in a hologram.
Enfoldment is really very common in our experience. All the light in
this room comes in so that the entire room is in effect folded into
each part. If your eye looks, the light will be then unfolded by
your eye and brain. As you look through a telescope or a camera, the
whole universe of space and time is enfolded into each part, and
that is unfolded to the eye. With an old-fashioned television set
thatís not adjusted properly, the image enfolds into the screen and
then can be unfolded by adjustment.
Omni: You spoke of coordinates and order a moment ago. How do they
tie in with enfoldment? Do you mean coordinates like those on a
Bohm: Yes, but not necessarily straight lines. They are a way of
mapping space and time. Since space-time may be curved, the lines
may be curved as well. It became clear that each general notion of
the world contains within it a specific idea of order. The ancient
Greeks had the idea of an increasing perfection from the earth to
the heavens. Modern physics contains the idea of successive
positions of bodies of matter and the constraints of forces that act
on these bodies. The order of perfection investigated by the ancient
Greeks is now considered irrelevant.
The most radical change in the notion of order since
came with quantum mechanics. The quantum-mechanical idea of order
contradicts coordinate order because Heisenbergís uncertainty
principle made a detailed ordering of space and time impossible.
When you apply quantum theory to general relativity, at very short
distances like ten to the minus thirty-three centimeters, the notion
of the order of space and time breaks down.
Omni: Can you replace that with some other sense of order?
Bohm: First you have to ask what we mean by order. Everybody has
some tacit notion of it, but order itself is impossible to define.
Yet it can be illustrated. In a photograph any part of an object is
imaged into a point. This point-to-point correspondence emphasizes
the notion of point as fundamental in sense of order. Cameras now
photograph things too big or too small, too fast or too slow to be
seen by the naked eye. This has reinforced our belief that
everything can ultimately be seen that way.
Omni: Arenít the contradictions you have been talking about embedded
in the very name quantum mechanics?
Physics is more like quantum organism than quantum
mechanics. I think physicists have a tremendous reluctance to admit
this. There is a long history of belief in quantum mechanics, and
people have faith in it. And they donít like having this faith
Omni: So our image is the lens, the apparatus suggesting the point.
The point in turn suggests electrons and particles.
Bohm: And the track of particles on the photograph. Now what
instrument would illustrate wholeness? Perhaps the holograph. Waves
from the whole object come into each part of the hologram. This
makes the hologram a kind of knowledge of the whole object. If you
examine it with a very narrow beam of laser light, itís as if you
were looking through a window the size of that laser beam. If you
expand the beam, itís as though you are looking through a broader
window that sees the object more precisely and from more angles. But
you are always getting information about the whole object, no matter
how much or little of it you take.
But letís put aside the hologram because thatís only a static
record. Returning to the actual situation, we have a constant
dynamic pattern of waves coming off an object and interfering with
the original wave. Within that pattern of movement, many objects are
enfolded in each region of space and time.
Classical physics says that reality is actually little particles
that separate the world into its independent elements. Now Iím
proposing the reverse, that the fundamental reality is the
enfoldment and unfoldment, and these particles are abstractions from
that. We could picture the electron not as a particle that exists
continuously but as something coming in and going out and then
coming in again. If these various condensations are close together,
they approximate a track. The electron itself can never be separated
from the whole of space, which is its ground.
About the time I was looking into these questions, a BBC science
program showed a device that illustrates these things very well. It
consists of two concentric glass cylinders. Between them is a
viscous fluid, such as glycerin. If a drop of insoluble ink is
placed in the glycerin and the outer cylinder is turned slowly, the
drop of dye will be drawn out into a thread. Eventually the thread
gets so diffused it cannot be seen. At that moment there seems to be
no order present at all. Yet if you slowly turn the cylinder
backward, the glycerin draws back into its original form, and
suddenly the ink drop is visible again. The ink had been enfolded
into the glycerin, and it was unfolded again by the reverse turning.
Omni: Suppose you put a drop of dye in the cylinder and turn it a
few times, then put another drop in the same place and turn it. When
you turn the cylinder back, wouldnít you get a kind of oscillation?
Bohm: Yes, you would get a movement in and out. We could put in one
drop of dye and turn it and then put in another drop of dye at a
slightly different place, and so on. The first and second droplets
are folded a different number of times. If we keep this up and then
turn the cylinder backward, the drops continually appear and
disappear. So it would look as if a particle were crossing the
space, but in fact itís always the whole system thatís involved.
We can discuss the movement of all matter in terms of this folding
and unfolding, which I call the holomovement.
Omni: What do you think is the order of the
Bohm: It may lie outside of time as we ordinarily know it. If the
universe began with the Big Bang and there are black holes, then we
must eventually reach places where the notion of time and space
breaks down. Anything could happen. As various cosmologists have put
it, if a black hole came out with a sign flashing COCA COLA, it
shouldnít be surprising. Within the singularity none of the laws as
we know them apply. There are no particles; they are all
disintegrated. There is no space and no time. Whatever is, is
any concept we have at present. The present physics implies that the
total conceptual basis of physics must be regarded as completely
inadequate. The grand unification [of the four forces of the
universe] could be nothing but an abstraction in the face of some
I propose something like this: Imagine an infinite sea of energy
filling empty space, with waves moving around in there, occasionally
coming together and producing an intense pulse. Letís say one
particular pulse comes together and expands, creating our universe
of space-time and matter. But there could well be other such pulses.
To us, that pulse looks like a big bang; In a greater context, itís
a little ripple. Everything emerges by unfoldment
holomovement, then enfolds back into the implicate order. I call the
enfolding process "implicating," and the unfolding "explicating."
The implicate and explicate together are a flowing, undivided
wholeness. Every part of the universe is related to every other part
but in different degrees.
There are two experiences: One is movement in relation to other
things; the other is the sense of flow The movement of meaning is
the sense of flow. But even in moving through space, there is a
movement of meaning. In a moving picture, with twenty-four frames
per second, one frame follows another, moving from the eye through
the optic nerve, into the brain. The experience of several frames
together gives you the sense of flow. This is a direct experience of
the implicate order.
In classical mechanics, movement or velocity is defined as the
relation between the position now and the position a short time ago.
What was a short time ago is gone, so you relate what is to what is
not. This isnít a logical concept. In the implicate order you are
relating different frames that are copresent in consciousness.
Youíre relating what is to what is. A moment contains flow or
movement. The moment may be long or short, as measured in time. In
consciousness a moment is around a tenth of a second. Electronic
moments are much shorter, but a moment of history might be a
Omni: So a moment enfolds all the past?
Bohm: Yes, but the recent past is enfolded more strongly. At any
given moment we feel the presence of all the past and also the
anticipated future. Itís all present and active. I could use the
example of the cylinder again. Letís say we enfold one droplet h
times. Then we put another droplet in and enfold it N times. The
relationship between the droplets remains the same no matter how
thoroughly they are enfolded. So as you unfold, you will get back
the original relationship. Imagine if we take four or five
droplets--all highly enfolded--the relationship between them is
still there in a very subtle way, even though it is not in space and
not in time. But, of course, it can be transformed into space and
time by turning the cylinder. The best metaphor might involve
memory. We remember a great many events, which are all present
together. Their succession is in that momentary memory: We donít
have to run through them all to reproduce that time succession. We
already have the succession.
Omni: And a sense of movement--so you have replaced time with
Bohm: Yes, in the sense of movement of the symphony, rather than the
movement of the orchestra on a bus, say, through physical space.
Omni: What do you think that says about consciousness?
Bohm: Much of our experience suggests that the implicate order is
natural for understanding consciousness: When you are talking to
somebody, your whole intention to speak enfolds a large number of
words. You donít choose them one by one. There are any number of
examples of the implicate order in our experience of consciousness.
Any one word has behind it a whole range of meaning enfolded in
Consciousness is unfolded in each individual. Clearly, itís shared
between people as they look at one object and verify that itís the
same. So any high level of consciousness is a social process. There
may be some level of sensorimotor perception that is purely
individual, but any abstract level depends on language, which is
social. The word, which is outside, evokes the meaning, which is
inside each person.
Meaning is the bridge between consciousness and matter. Any given
array of matter has for any particular mind a significance. The
other side of this is the relationship in which meaning is
immediately effective in matter. Suppose you see a shadow on a dark
night. If it means "assailant," your adrenaline flows, your heart
beats faster, blood pressure rises, and muscles tense. The body and
all your thoughts are affected; everything about you has changed. If
you see that itís only a shadow, thereís an abrupt change again.
That is an example of the implicate order: Meaning enfolds the whole
world into me, and vice versa - that enfolded meaning is unfolded as
action, through my body and then through the world. The word hormone
means "messenger," that is, a substance carrying some meaning.
Neurotransmitters carry meaning, and that meaning
the immune system. This understanding could be the beginning of a
different attitude to mind - and to life.
Omni: Descartes held mind and external reality together with God.
Youíre holding the two with meaning.
Bohm: I say meaning is being! So any transformation of society must
result in a profound change of meaning. Any change of meaning for
the individual would change the whole because all individuals are so
similar that it can be communicated.
Omni: What do you think might convince the next generation of
physicists, who seem very skeptical, that the implicate order is
Bohm: The most convincing thing would be to develop the theory
mathematically and make some predictions. A few years ago The New
York Times noted that some physicists were critical of grand
unification theory, saying that not much had been achieved.
Defenders of grand unification theories said it would take about
twenty years to see results.
It seems that people are ready to wait twenty years for results if
youíve got formulas. If there are no formulas, they donít want to
consider it. Formulas are means of talking utter nonsense until you
understand what they mean. Every page of formulas usually contains
six or seven arbitrary assumptions that take weeks of hard study to
Younger physicists usually appreciate the implicate order because it
makes quantum mechanics easier to grasp. By the time theyíre through
graduate school, theyíve become dubious about it because theyíve
heard that hidden variables are of no use because theyíve been
refuted. Of course, nobody has really refuted them.
At this point, I think that the major issue is mathematics. In
supersymmetry theory an interesting piece of mathematics will
attract attention, even without any experimental confirmation.
Omni: If scientists could accept your theory, would it change the
meaning of nature for them? Would it change the meaning of science
Bohm: We have become a scientific society. This society has produced
all sorts of discoveries and technology, but if it leads to
destruction, either through war or through devastation of natural
resources, then it will have been the least successful society that
ever existed. We are now in danger of that.
Where we are going depends on the programs of four thousand five
hundred million people, all somewhat different, most of them opposed
to one another. Every moment these programs are changing in detail.
Who can say where they are going to lead us? All we can do is start
a movement among those few people who are interested in changing the
Omni: Youíve suggested that it may be possible to develop "group
minds." Could they serve as a potential avenue for this change of
Bohm: They could: If we donít establish these absolute boundaries
between minds, then I think itís possible they could in some way
unite as one mind. If there were a genuine understanding of and
feeling for wholeness in this group mind, it might be enough to
change things--though as the external circumstances gain momentum it
becomes harder. This is important, especially if there is a
catastrophe, so that the notion of group minds might remain in the
consciousness of survivors.
Omni: All that seems to imply a radical change in the concept of
Bohm: Yes. The notion of permanent identity would go by the wayside.
This would be terrifying at first. The present mind, identified as
it is with the personality, would react to protect the sense of
personal "self" against that terror.
Omni: That seems to fit in well with your thoughts about death.
Bohm: Death must be connected with questions of time and
When you die, everything on which your identity depends is going.
All things in your memory will go. Your whole definition of what you
are will go. The whole sense of being separate from anything will go
because thatís part of your identity. Your whole sense of time must
go. Is there anything that will exist beyond death? That is the
question everybody has always asked. It doesnít make sense to say
something goes on in time. Rather I would say everything sinks into
the implicate order, where there is no time. But suppose we say that
right now, when Iím alive, the same thing is happening. The
implicate order is unfolding to be me again and again each moment.
And the past me is gone.
Omni: The past you, then, has been snatched back into the implicate
Bohm: Thatís right. Anything I know about "me" is in the past. The
present "me" is the unknown. We say there is only one implicate
order, only one present. But it projects itself as a whole series of
moments. Ultimately, all moments are really one. Therefore now is
In one sense, everything, including me, is dying every moment into
eternity and being born again, so all that will happen at death is
that from a certain moment certain features will not be born again.
But our whole thought process causes us to confront this with great
fear in an attempt to preserve identity. One of my interests at this
stage of life is looking at that fear.