This really doesn't have anything to do with good or evil, but it has a lot to do with dialogue, and communication, which I feel is crucial as things drift further apart.
David Bohm’s On Dialogue
David Bohm’s background is that of a scientist, not that of a philosopher, and therefore, it could be argued that he has no right to imply that people have lost the ability to communicate. His assumptions are tainted; after all, Bohm is taking a personal disagreement between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr and applying it to a broader context, making sweeping statements about humanity in total based on one petty feud about the fundamentals of physics. What right does he have to make generalizations about the way we approach thought, the way we discourse with one another?
Some of you read the last paragraph and, as a result, took umbrage at my alleged reaction to On Dialogue. However, what if it is not my reaction, but rather your interpretation of what you read that caused your umbrage? Your predisposition based on reactions to Bohm’s book cultivated a response to the above paragraph. Perhaps you feel the same way; perhaps you differ. Personally, I hope you differ, because with that in mind, we can get to the heart of On Dialogue.
Whether or not Bohm expanded the notions of On Dialogue based strictly on the breakdown of dialogue between Einstein and Bohr, it seems evident that this was the impetus. Bohm, who worked with Bohr, watched the two men distance themselves to the point of being unable to speak, simply because they had a difference of opinion on one idea. That’s all, just one simple point of divergence, and as a result, they could not even exchange pleasantries. Two of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, and the hang up of one “fundamental” were too much to overcome. Bohm took note of this and, upon examining it further, formed the basis of On Dialogue and his ideas of communication in general.
Bohm’s key concept was that society’s differing views of the world were not a hindrance, but rather the basis for constructive communication. He believed that if people could overcome certain institutions of thought and their perceptions of thinking, we would begin to see that the clashing of two opposing viewpoints created a third kind of viewpoint, one that distinguished itself and progressed the discussion. If this could be applied on a large scale, humanity could begin to move forward without clinging to outdated notions.
We need to stop for a moment and look more carefully at this. Bohm has certain suggestions for ways to overcome these “blocks” as he calls them, but what does he mean by “blocks”? He feels it is crucial to let go of owning thoughts, but does that no then strip us of who we are? Let us delve further into this.
In The Nature of Collective Thought (chapter three of On Dialogue), Bohm begins to outline certain considerations we ought to make in order to help train ourselves for true dialogue. The first step is to realize that the individual does not own thought, but rather, draws from a pool of collective thought, often referred to as consciousness, building and utilizing knowledge throughout their lives. Knowledge is formed from memory, and vice versa; as we begin to learn, we add certain elements to our notion of the world and self, and begin to cultivate a series of “reflexes”, which assist us to function. Much of this becomes tacit knowledge, or knowledge we inherently use without the benefit of needing to explain it. Bohm cites the ability to ride a bicycle as a key example; once you know how to ride a bicycle, there is no need to consciously discuss it, and accordingly, it is quite difficult to explain to someone who does not know how to ride a bike what is necessary to do it. The tacit knowledge becomes a part of what Bohm calls the “old brain”, or the primitive version of the brain attributed in large part to pre-historic people. The “old brain” is interested only in what is really in front of it, and reacting accordingly. The “new brain”, in comparison, is capable of looking at the world in the abstract; being able to draw images and concepts without the physical presence of the thing. The old brain and new brain had some difficulty as the collective consciousness grew, because tacit knowledge grew confused by conjuring reactions when things weren’t actually there.
Here we enter Bohm’s notion of “thoughts” and “felts”, and the connection between the two. People tend to think that thoughts and feelings are separate entities, and that a feeling reinforces a thought, rather than the thought causing the feeling to happen as a natural process of the body. Consider that a strange feeling in your stomach is not a unique action of the body; but rather that the thought entered the brain and caused a reaction leading to your stomach feeling strange. We will discuss this in detail further along, but first, we must understand what Bohm means by “collective thought”.
Like Pema Chödrön (author of The Wisdom of No Escape), Bohm believes that thought is a unique entity, and that consciousness is something shared by everyone. However, that does not mean that thought is neutral, although it believes it is. Thought and consciousness do not consider the effect they actually have on the beings that use them, because they are not aware that as the pool has been growing, so have certain contradictions. Thoughts change, and ways of approaching thought have changed, and as a result, even though the information is still there, consciousness is shaped by certain dominant patterns that prevent free exchanges of information. These are our “blocks”, or “filters”. Individuals each approach consciousness differently as the “new brain” develops, and accordingly, reaches different avenues of thought to distinct means, creating a set of “assumptions” which dictate how information presented to them is interpreted. In fact, how each individual re-presents this information to themselves and the world alters the information conveyed. This seems to be quite a problem, that each of us has a separate input filter which then changes the information as we represent it. Before we look deeper into how an individual shapes information, perhaps we should address the problem.
Bohm, of course, has something to say about the problems of society and our radical reinterpretations of information, but perhaps the problem itself is how we refer to this. In Bohm’s mind, a problem is not always a problem, at least in the conventional sense. A problem has a practical solution, and can be addressed with study and determination. But society’s “problems” don’t appear to have solutions. How can people who agree that we are all humans with feelings also decide to slaughter innocent children in the name of war? There is no practical solution to his, Bohm argues, because it is not a problem, but rather a paradox. Paradoxes don’t have answers because the paradox is inherently contradictory. Bohm argues that the only way to address a paradox is to be aware of it (Bohm stresses, much as Chödrön does, that awareness is key in overcoming assumptions), and to realize that a paradox is ridiculous and move on. By trying to solve the paradox, the individual only perpetuates the paradox and folds new layers onto themselves. Being able to distinguish a problem from a paradox, Bohm argues, is also not difficult; a paradox will always reveal itself when the observer realizes certain inherent contradictions in their “problem”, and accordingly, the individual can release themselves from the paradox by being aware of it.
Knowing that there is a distinction between what can and cannot be solved is a useful tool in the individual’s quest to observe and relay information in the world, but as we are aware of this key distinction, we must also come to realize a paradox in consciousness that shapes how we react to knowledge and our own assumptions. We are all observers; we intake information from consciousness, and use it to examine the world, but what we often do not realize is that knowledge is being presented through certain filters, and as a result we are not seeing things clearly. Individuals look at information through their assumptions rather than around them, and as a result, those assumptions begin to dictate what information we receive. So, even as we believe we are the ones doing the observing, our assumptions observe us, cutting of certain parts of consciousness and allowing others to pass, obscuring us from a full view of knowledge. The filters that each individual learned while developing tacit knowledge shaped their notion of “self” and that of the observer, and unless we are aware of this, how can we truly observe anything?
For example, how does one observe his or herself? Is it even possible to observe yourself when you are yourself? The distinction between the body and the “self” is another key component to Bohm’s argument, because the way knowledge has changed in the last few millennia reshaped the concept of the body and the thinker. Knowledge redesigned itself to separate thought from feeling, and the idea developed that the person doing the “thinking” is not the same person who feels; that there is a distinction between the physical body and the thinking body. The damage here is two-fold: one, which the thinking entity is separate and is unique in its control and ownership of thoughts, and two, that the body and mind react differently to the same stimulus, and not as one unified reaction.
Key to understanding the problem of “self” is looking carefully at how humanity came to cultivate the notion that “thoughts” and “felts” are different. We have already briefly discussed this, but it is a topic which merits a bit more inspection. If an individual can separate the notion of thought from feeling, than an element of self deception enters the equation. After all, as we’ve come to hone this particular filter, so have we built a system of thought which regards feelings as a means by which our thoughts can be reinforced. Bohm has a suggestion to help assist us in becoming more aware of exactly how our thoughts shape our feelings, one which he calls suspension. The “new brain” has the capability to think in the abstract, and accordingly, we are capable of calling up certain thoughts we know have reactions. Think of something which scared you, or hurt your feelings. What happens? Even though the event is not happening right in front of you, the mind re-presents a chain of events, and your body reacts accordingly. Bohm suggests that what we can do is to let this happen, whether it is pain, fear, or anger, and instead of suppressing it or letting it dominate us, we should instead observe it as it happens. This is not so different from Chödrön’s notion of the tonglen exercise, which suggested breathing the pain of the world in and breathing joy out. Because you can objectively look at the reaction and the connection between thought and feeling, you can return the thought back to consciousness without becoming a slave to it. This is not inherent in our thinking, though. In fact, it runs contrary to much of what we cultivated into assumptions growing up, but we can train ourselves to do it, just as we learned to ride a bike or how to remember our name. The way to think coherently is to treat thought as part of you, instead of a separate entity, and the way to condition yourself is to learn proprioception.
Proprioception, meaning “perceiving one’s self”, is a means by which to be aware of the movements of your body and how they result from and react to thought. Awareness of the body is the first step to realizing that there is no distinction between thought and action, but that the body is connected to the mind, just as the mind is connected to consciousness and to the world. Bohm suggests this is a matter of great subtlety, but that learning how to presuppose thought’s actions on the body and to condition this into a reflex, and thereby tacit knowledge.
As the notion of “self” grew in the collective consciousness, humanity came to develop learning that they uniquely came about thoughts and that, because they alone thought of something, their ownership of ideas were unique and correct. When another person approached with an opposing viewpoint, the natural tendency was to discount the other thought, because it was wrong. After all, it was not your thought, so it cannot be the correct thought. As time passed, more and more of these differing viewpoints entered the pool of thought, along with the notion that “this is my thought, and that is their thought”, and in time, people came to believe that certain humans believed one way, and they believed others, and that difference of opinion must be tolerated, even if it is wrong. This is a key element, in Bohm’s assertion, to the breakdown of pure communication. If individuals could learn to disassociate themselves from owning their thoughts, and realize that a thought part of the larger world, then we would be more willing to share ideas with other people to see where knowledge intersects and grows.
Bohm steps back from the individual in the final chapter of On Dialogue, in an attempt to help bring context to the usefulness of these exercises. He re-presents the notion of participatory thought, a form of thinking supplanted long ago by the notion of literal thought. In the early civilizations, individuals did not exist as such, but considered themselves to be part of the greater whole, one with nature, and connected to the universe. They were free to explore their connectedness because they knew no distinctions and accepted this. As time progressed, and as tribes centralized into societies, a concept of literal thought supplanted participatory thought, because, in medieval times particularly, the lord of a town needed each part of his “town” to perform a different service to help the whole system run efficiently. A side effect of this is the development of last names; for example, the last name Smith was generally a reflection of the job blacksmith, hence, a person’s name reflected their duty.
As this became the dominant form of thinking, literal thought defined the role of each person in relation to their business in the city, and often little else. Literal thought is the dominant form of most business models, and it has come to take the name “objective reality”, making each person literally an object which serves one purpose. Bohm notes that society came to think of itself as an objective reality, which he argues is patently false. Society is the culmination of people working together, not toiling away in a little room for their whole lives.
Bohm stresses the need to reconsider the way that literal thought permeated consciousness and shifted the way that people interact with each other. After all, if we’re only objects, we can accept that we are clearly not the same and therefore our differences of opinion are necessity, and tolerating differences is the only logical course of action. Yet we allow ourselves to ignore one simple fact: we are all human beings, and on that level we are all connected. We are different in some necessary ways (DNA, background, etc) but we are also all human, and we all live in this world. It is simple to objectify a person if you are unwilling to look them in the eye, but that rules out the possibility of true participatory thought. We must be willing to participate with each other, understanding that we are connected by thought and that we all draw from the same pool of knowledge. The participation expands when we look carefully at how we re-present information, both incoming and outgoing.
Bohm then takes a larger perspective, reminding us that we are not simply connected as human beings, but also as societies, and more importantly, cosmically. Every person breathes in air, takes in food, and partakes in the world around us. This world we live in is part of a balancing act, of which we are a part, just as nature and animals and gases making the atmosphere. This extends infinitely both outward and inward, and here Bohm makes a very important note; that knowledge as we know it is vast, and even so, is limited. It can grow as new information is added to the pool, but no matter how much is added to the collective, there remains the unlimited. The unlimited is all of the things knowledge does not and cannot know, extending as far into space as imagination can take us and equally far inward. This is what Bohm means by infinite subtlety; a reminder that vastness is not only “out there”, it is also inside us.
So then, how difficult does all of this sound? Is it something you are willing to condition yourself to? Bohm certainly hopes that, one by one, people will begin to cultivate thought into an open form of discussion, and thereby opening dialogue and advancing knowledge in new directions. But is that possible? As we add new insight to consciousness, we also cloud the existing forms of thought that preceded it, and who is to say the insight will be of benefit? Perhaps it will be a great hindrance; perhaps we will come to look at it as Bohm regards literal thought. Bohm gives us no assurances, only the hope that what we’ve come to regard as “society’s problems” can be seen for what they really are, and that by being mindful of how we engage thought in dialogue, we can overcome certain “blocks” and settle paradoxes once and for all.
On that note, let us look at the first paragraph again. How is it presented? How was On Dialogue re-presented in those opening remarks? How did you re-present the paragraph to yourself? Do you agree; do you disagree? What insight do you draw from in consciousness? This is the basis of good dialogue, and any thoughts that occur to you would be most welcome.