Reality as process

By Thane on Tue 08 November 2011

In doing some background reading for my thesis, a friend of mine gave me a book by David Bohm entitled "Wholeness and the Implicate Order". Esoteric? Definitely. Difficult to read? Incredibly. Worth the effort? Absolutely.

Bohm, as per the Wikipedia entry, was quite an impressive physicist. The idea he put forward was quite simple, although it's presented in quite a difficult way, yet it changes one's perspective on reality completely: what if separation between things (the table and your computer, or perhaps the Pacific Ocean and that mosquito buzzing incessantly around your head between 2 and 3am) is simply an illusion?

In other words, what Bohm is suggesting is that everything, the whole universe, free space included, is somehow all one dynamic process, which he calls the holomovement: an unbroken whole.

The illusion of fragmentation

This is not a completely new concept however (think Eastern and Western mysticism), but the way in which Bohm articulates it and relates it back to Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics certainly is. I will skip the discussion of that though (mainly because I could not understand those chapters - they were far too technical). What I will mention quite briefly is that you should look into the phenomenon of Bose-Einstein condensation. What the Bose-Einstein condensate means to me is this: when you cool matter down to a certain temperature (a few billionths of a degree Kelvin above absolute zero), it condenses into a new state of matter where all of the atoms share the same quantum state, i.e. they occupy the same space and share the same attributes.

Atoms occupying the same space? Surely not! We're taught that no two atoms could ever possibly occupy the same space, because they're tightly-bound little packets of something, and big packets of something (such as groceries) certainly can't all fit into the same space (in my car), so little packets of something also can't occupy each other's space?

Wrong. See the experimental evidence for it here, if you can stomach the physics.

What does this mean for us?

So it at least appears as though fragmentation, or separation, is not necessarily a true feature of this reality. But what does that mean for us in our everyday lives? Let's talk practical philosophy.

Take a look at your hand: if we had to zoom into the very, very fine detail of what's happening in your hand, we would get down to the sub-atomic scale of things. What Bohm is saying is that we don't really know what's happening at that level of detail - we haven't even begun to scratch the surface in terms of understanding the implicate order of the universe, in other words the fundamental laws that govern the ways that things work. This is still as true in 2011 as it was in 1980 when Bohm wrote the book.

Since we don't know what's happening at that scale of detail, do we really know what's happening at a cellular scale? There does seem to be some order there, because we've definitely managed to track what seems to be quite a few repeatable patterns of cellular behaviour (e.g. mitosis), but we don't completely understand what causes that order. Then, zooming out to the scale at which we identify tissue, there are also a variety of processes that seem to be repeatable and relatively stable (e.g. when we cut ourselves, we heal), but since we don't know what's happening in the finer detail, do we really understand what causes that order?

(A side-note on chaos)

Most people have heard about the "butterfly effect". The universe exhibits this strange tendency sometimes, under certain circumstances, to amplify the tiniest little changes into large-scale ones, such as where it might be possible for a butterfly to flap its wings in the United States and cause severe storms in China some weeks or months later - this we call chaos theory.

The relevance of this side-note is this: thinking of your hand again, if we don't understand what's happening at the tiniest scale of detail, and the universe does have this tendency to amplify the tiniest little disturbances into big ones at larger scales of detail, then is it not possible that the random itch you experienced on your thumb the other day was the result of the bubbling up and interacting of a variety of extremely small-scale processes?

How much more so would this affect reality if a super small-scale process bubbled up in your brain to trigger the collision of two thoughts that caused you to ask your co-workers to have a meeting about possibly implementing a new type of incentive scheme in the lower ranks of your company to potentially improve productivity (and perhaps introduce a variety of unintended consequences), potentially changing the way that hundreds of people go about their daily lives?

Let's hope the universe isn't that fickle. We still haven't tackled the issue of free will yet (and won't in this article, or any time soon, because I don't have the foggiest idea of where to start on that one yet).

Thinking about understanding

Thinking about what we understand, if what Bohm is saying is true, then what we understand, i.e. the content of our thought, or knowledge, is also part of the holomovement. That means that the neural wiring in our brains and the activity in that wiring is also part of this unbroken whole - attempting to comprehend itself. What does this mean for those of us trying to understand how everything works? According to Bohm, you would have to be everything in order to understand everything (something I don't see happening to me any time soon).

Not only this, but understanding reality as fragments, i.e. that things truly are separate, is merely a convenient way of thinking about things so our heads don't explode from the sheer detail of what's going on right now.

So, do we give up on trying to understand things? No. Bohm says we need a new way of looking at understanding: we need to be continually perceptive of what's happening around us, and we need to be willing to update our mental frameworks as reality around us changes.

We need to wake up, and stay awake, and refresh the language we use on a daily basis (Bohm goes into great detail about the shortcomings of language - something I hope to write about in relation to organisational dynamics sometime soon).

Towards the mystical

This way of looking at reality seems to make a lot of sense to me. It also fills me again with a sense of awe at the mystery of what's happening around me on a daily basis (see this inspiring interview with Richard Feynman and the related ones). It also reminds me that, despite various promises on the part of people or theory, full control and/or understanding of reality doesn't seem as though it's ever going to be possible, and I need to make peace with that in order to lead a less stressful life.

Other implications (generally practical ones) of this view of reality, which many would call a "process-oriented" view of reality, will hopefully be covered in future articles here.