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David Bohm on Thought, Part 2

The last entry introduced David Bohm's ideas about thought. Bohm referred to thought as a physical, material process, which operates in a mechanical, conditioned fashion. Thought, as he terms it, is not simply mental verbalization, it is a network, "whose content is the total response of memory, including feelings, muscular reactions, and even physical sensations, that merge with and flow out of the whole response."

We can see what Bohm means by the notion of thought as a network, by observing our own experience. Thoughts are intimately bound up in feeling and physical response. For example, as I'm walking down the street I hear a song coming from a cafe. Memory recognizes this song, and with its associative qualities, gives rise to the thought of person X — let's say that the song was a favorite of X. Based on my past experience with X, their recalled memory-image summons strong feelings — neurochemicals instantly course through the body. There is a slight nausea in the pit of the stomach and the pulse has quickened. I fold my arms in a protective, defensive posture against the discomfort. An associative chain of memories of X continues on in the brain.

Let's return to Bohm's broader views and look at what he calls fragmentation, or division. We only have to read the daily headlines to see the consequences of fragmentation writ large. Such conflicts are pervasive on a smaller scale in our daily lives. Bohm sees fragmentation as rooted in thought, so let's examine the relationship of the two. Bohm writes:

Fragmentation is continually being sought out by the almost universal habit of taking the content of our thought for 'a description of the world as it is'. Or we could say that in this habit, our thought is regarded as in direct correspondence with objective reality. Since our thought is pervaded with differences and distinctions, it follows that such a habit leads us to look on these as real divisions, so that the world is then seen and experienced as actually broken up into fragments.... This confusion is of crucial significance, since it leads us to approach nature, society, and the individual in terms of more or less fixed and limited forms of thought, and thus, apparently, to keep on confirming the limitations of these forms of thought in experience. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 4.]

Bohm gives examples of such limited, fragmented approaches:

If one approaches a man with a fixed 'theory' about him as an 'enemy' against whom one must defend oneself, he will respond similarly, and thus one's 'theory' will apparently be confirmed by experience. Similarly, nature will respond in accordance with the theory in which it is approached. Thus, in ancient times, men thought plagues were inevitable, and this thought helped make them behave in such a way as to propagate the conditions responsible for their spread. With modern scientific forms of insights man's behavior is such that he ceases the unsanitary modes of life responsible for spreading plagues and thus they are no longer inevitable. [Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 8.]

When the U.S. president went to war in Iraq, he claimed to be certain that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction." In the two years since the invasion, the U.S. military recovered no such weapons and has given up the search. Although we don't know the content and complexities of the U.S. president's thought process, we can probably conclude that he made the mistake of taking his thought to be "a description of the world as it is." By approaching Iraq from "more or less fixed and limited forms of thought," he kept on, "confirming the limitations of these forms of thought in experience."

We'll take another look at fragmentation in a subsequent entry, by referencing a recent New York Times Magazine article discussing the frontiers of stem-cell research.


David Bohm on Thought

David Bohm on Wholeness

May 3, 2005 | Science | Permalink


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