Wholeness and the Implicate Order

A review of Wholeness and the Implicate Order by Rob Mason

In his classic work, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, David Bohm develops a theory of quantum physics which treats the totality of existence, including matter and consciousness, as an unbroken whole.

The notion that reality is to be understood as a process is an ancient one, going back at least to Heraclitus, (535 – 475 BCE) who said that everything flows.

"I regard the essence of the notion of process as given by the statement: not only is everything changing, but all is flux.  That is to say, what is, is the process of becoming itself, while all objects, events, entities, conditions, structures, etc., are forms that can be abstracted from this process. The best image of process is perhaps that of the flowing stream, whose substance is never the same. On this stream, one may see an ever-changing pattern of vortices, ripples, waves, splashes, etc, which have no independent existence as such. Rather, they are abstracted from the flowing movement, arising and vanishing in the total process of the flow.  Such transitory subsistence as may be possessed by these abstracted forms implies only a relative independence or autonomy of behaviour, rather than absolutely independent existence as ultimate substances.

Of course, modern physics states that actual streams (eg. of water) are composed of atoms, which in turn are composed of ‘elementary particles,’ such as electrons, protons, neutrons, etc. For a long time it was thought these latter are the ultimate substance of the whole of reality, and that all flowing movements, such as those of streams, must reduce to forms abstracted from the motions through space of collections of interacting particles.  However, it has been found that even the ‘elementary particles’ can be created, annihilated and transformed, and this indicates that not even these can be ultimate substances but, rather, that they too are relatively constant forms, abstracted from some deeper level of movement.

One may suppose that this deeper level of movement may be analysable into yet finer particles which will perhaps turn out to be the ultimate substance of the whole of reality.  However, the notion that all is flux, into which we are inquiring here, denies such a supposition.  Rather, it implies that any describable event, object, entity, etc. is an abstraction from an unknown and indefinable totality of flowing movement.  This means that no matter how far our knowledge of the laws of physics may go, the content of these laws will still deal with such abstractions, having a relative independence of existence and independence of behaviour. So one will not be led to suppose that all properties of collections of objects, events etc, will have to be explainable in terms of some knowable set of ultimate substances. At any stage, further properties of such collections may arise, whose ultimate ground is to be regarded as the unknown totality of the universal flux.

Having discussed what the notion of process implies concerning the nature of reality, let us now consider how this notion should bear on the nature of knowledge.  Clearly to be consistent, one has to say that knowledge, too, is a process an abstraction from, one total flux which latter is therefore the ground both of reality and of knowledge of this reality. Of course, one may fairly readily verbalize such a notion, but in actual fact it is very difficult not to fall into the almost universal tendency to treat our knowledge as a set of basically fixed truths, and thus not of the nature of process (eg., one may admit that knowledge is always changing but say that it is accumulative, thus implying that its basic elements are permanent truths which we have to discover). Indeed, even to assert any absolutely invariant element of knowledge (such as all is flux) is to establish in the field of knowledge something that is permanent; but if all is flux, then every part of knowledge must have its being as an abstracted form in the process of becoming, so that there can be no absolutely invariant elements of knowledge. Is it possible to be free of this contradiction, in the sense that one could understand not only reality, but also all knowledge, as grounded in the flowing movement? Or must one necessarily regard some elements of knowledge (e.g., those concerning the nature of process) as absolute truths, beyond the flux of process?" David Bohm