Meditation Blog : June 2005 Archives

A Different Universe

After discussing David Bohm's thoughts on fragmentation and wholeness here, it was interesting to come across The New York Times' recent review of Robert Laughlin's book "A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down." Laughlin, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, criticizes science's emphasis on reductionism — the dividing of the world into smaller and smaller objects of study. The Times' reviewer describes Laughlin's concerns:

By breaking matter into atoms, subatomic particles and subatomic forces, and by disassembling living organisms into such discrete elements as cells, genes, enzymes and so forth, scientists have learned much about how nature works, and how we can make it do our bidding.

Inevitably, reductionism has been overused. Not everything can be reduced to cosmic nuts and bolts. In the emerging sciences of the 21st century, many researchers are dusting off an old saying: ''The whole is more than the sum of its parts.''

Laughlin's book echoes David Bohm's thoughts twenty-five years prior. In his book "Wholeness and the Implicate Order" (1980), Bohm observed:

Science itself is demanding a new, non-fragmentary world view, in the sense that the present approach of analysis of the world into independent elementary parts does not work very well in modern physics. It is shown that both in relativity theory and quantum theory, notions implying the undivided wholeness of the universe would provide a much more orderly way of considering the general nature of reality.

I haven't read Laughlin's book, but I would guess that his analysis doesn't extend as deeply as Bohm's in its examination of reductionism's roots in thought, and the complementary problem of the psychological fragmentation of the human mind. In a future entry or two, I'll wrap up the discussion of Bohm (whose work is implicitly connected to an inquiry into meditation) for the time-being.

June 26, 2005 | Science | Permalink

David Bohm on Thought, Part 3

In two previous entries (Part 1, Part 2), I introduced David Bohm's views on thought as elaborated in his book "Wholeness and the Implicate Order." Bohm makes a vital point when observing that while our society is embedded in thought, we have paid little attention to understanding the process and structure of thought itself. Bohm writes:

We are ready to give such attention and work in a wide range of fields, scientific, economic, social, political, etc. As yet, however, little or none of this has gone into the creation of insight into the process of thought, on the clarity of which the value of all else depends. What is primarily needed is a growing realization of the extremely great danger of going on with a fragmentary process of thought. Such a realization would give the inquiry into how thought actually operates that sense of urgency and energy required to meet the true magnitude of the difficulties with which fragmentation is now confronting us.

To give an example of fragmentary thought, I'd like to reference a recent article from the New York Times Magazine. The April 10 issue features the story "The Other Stem-Cell Debate," in which the author, Jamie Shreeve, discusses the ethics of injecting animals with human stem cells in order to examine how such cells develop (experimentation in humans is considered unethical).

Driving the surge in chimeric experimentation is the enormous but still untested promise of human stem cells. In theory, stem cells isolated from an early human embryo can transform themselves into virtually any kind of cell in the body, kindling hope that one day they may be transplanted into human patients to provide new tissue wherever it is needed...

The article finds its focus in the question, "How 'human' are chimeric creatures made from human stem cells?" However, I'd suggest that such a question is operating from a fragmentary point of view. Bohm describes fragmentation as:

…a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and ‘broken up’ into yet smaller constituent parts. Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.

The concept of an essential "human-ness", and the categorical cleaving of humans from other forms of life, are examples of distinctions based in our capacity for thought and abstraction.

In chimeric experimentation human cells have been inserted into animals such as grown monkeys, fetal lambs, and mice embryos. There are certainly ethical questions to be raised about such research, but the question of how human these "chimeras" are is a suspect one. Had we experimented by transferring chimp neurons into a mouse brain, would we be asking whether the mouse now had some essential chimp-ness? When pig heart valves were transplanted into Jesse Helms, did we worry that he was partly porcine? The article itself admits that commonality among organisms is pervasive:

That said, all modern genetic research, including the sequencing of the human genome itself, underscores how trivial the biological difference really is between a human being and the rest of life. Ninety-nine percent of our genome is shared with chimpanzees. Thirty-one percent of our genes are interchangeable with those of yeast.

Another concern is voiced by a scientist who co-wrote the Canadian stem-cell guidelines and remarked, "We have to be sure we are not creating beings with consciousness." First of all, such a statement presumes that only humans have consciousness, when as we've noted while discussing neuroscience in earlier entries (2/2/05, 2/3/05, 2/8/05), consciousness may exist in manifold forms. When we hardly understand our own brains and subjective experience, it's presumptuous of us to claim comprehension of the consciousness of other fauna. In any case, concerns about transplanting human consciousness into other beings don't accord with the complexities of biological functioning. As one stem-cell researcher notes:

''Even if I were to make a monkey with a hippocampus composed entirely of human cells, it's not going to stand up and quote Shakespeare,'' Snyder says. ''Those sophisticated in human functioning know that it's more than the cellular components that make a human brain. It's the connections, the blood vessels that feed them; it's the various surfaces on which they migrate, the timing by which various synaptic molecules are released and impact other things, like molecules from the bloodstream and from the bone.''

Continuing to search for what separates us from other animals, the author of the Times article eventually settles on the notion that it comes down to the size of our brain:

If it is not some categorical essentialism that draws a bright line between us and the rest of the animals, surely it is the size and power of our brains. They are the physical address of everything we think of as uniquely human -- our rational thinking, intelligence, language, complex emotions and unparalleled ability to imagine a future and remember the past....''Humanness'' surely resides in the emergent layers building the vastly complex architecture of the human brain.

Drawing a "bright line" between humans and animals based on brain size is just another kind of "categorical essentialism." And again, why fall back on the concept of "humanness"? Like a Platonic form, it has no grounding in the realm of science. Certainly the human animal has a distinguishably complex brain, but such a fact does not imply that humans are apart from the rest of life. And despite the author's assertion, scientific research indicates that thinking, intelligence, language, emotion, and memory are not exclusively human attributes. As to differences in the brain, a biological anthropologist interviewed for the article suggests they are a matter of degree and not kind:

...[Deacon] says that there is little evidence for the sudden appearance of some new thing — a uniquely human gene, a completely novel brain structure in the hominid lineage — that sets us distinctly apart. Obviously, there has been an overall increase in brain size. But the telling difference is in more subtle shifts in proportion and connections between regions of the brain, ''a gerrymandering of the system'' that corresponds to a growing reliance on the use of language and other symbolic behavior as a means of survival.

The key point here is that humans, relatively speaking, have a highly developed capacity for abstract thought. Abstraction allows us to conceive of ourselves as materially different from nature, but thinking does not make a thing so. This brings us back to David Bohm, who emphasizes: is crucial that man be aware of the activity of his thought as such; i.e. as a form of insight, a way of looking, rather than as a 'true copy of reality as it is'.

As mentioned in the beginning of this entry, we act in the world to a great degree through the filter of our thinking. Faced with dilemmas, we turn again and again to thought to resolve them. Yet, we remain unaware of the extent to which our problems originate in the fragmentary tendencies of thought itself. Here we've used the example of an article on stem-cell research to illustrate how preconceived notions frame the questions we ask. In a subsequent entry we'll further explore David Bohm's response to the challenges of fragmentation.


David Bohm and Wholeness

David Bohm on Thought

David Bohm on Thought, Part 2

June 8, 2005 | Science | Permalink


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