David Bohm and the Implicate Order

David Pratt

The death of David Bohm on 27 October 1992 is a great loss not only for the physics community but for all those interested in the philosophical implications of modern science. David Bohm was one of the most distinguished theoretical physicists of his generation, and a fearless challenger of scientific orthodoxy. His interests and influence extended far beyond physics and embraced biology, psychology, philosophy, religion, art, and the future of society. Underlying his innovative approach to many different issues was the fundamental idea that beyond the visible, tangible world there lies a deeper, implicate order of undivided wholeness.

David Bohm was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1917. He became interested in science at an early age; as a young boy he invented a dripless teapot, and his father, a successful businessman, urged him to try to make a profit on the idea. But after learning that the first step was to conduct a door-to-door survey to test market demand, his interest in business waned and he decided to become a theoretical physicist instead.

In the 1930s he attended Pennsylvania State College where he became deeply interested in quantum physics, the physics of the subatomic realm. After graduating, he attended the University of California, Berkeley. While there he worked at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory where, after receiving his doctorate in 1943, he began what was to become his landmark work on plasmas (a plasma is a gas containing a high density of electrons and positive ions). Bohm was surprised to find that once electrons were in a plasma, they stopped behaving like individuals and started behaving as if they were part of a larger and interconnected whole. He later remarked that he frequently had the impression that the sea of electrons was in some sense alive.

In 1947 Bohm took up the post of assistant professor at Princeton University, where he extended his research to the study of electrons in metals. Once again the seemingly haphazard movements of individual electrons managed to produce highly organized overall effects. Bohm's innovative work in this area established his reputation as a theoretical physicist.

In 1951 Bohm wrote a classic textbook entitled Quantum Theory, in which he presented a clear account of the orthodox, Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. The Copenhagen interpretation was formulated mainly by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the 1920s and is still highly influential today. But even before the book was published, Bohm began to have doubts about the assumptions underlying the conventional approach. He had difficulty accepting that subatomic particles had no objective existence and took on definite properties only when physicists tried to observe and measure them. He also had difficulty believing that the quantum world was characterized by absolute indeterminism and chance, and that things just happened for no reason whatsoever. He began to suspect that there might be deeper causes behind the apparently random and crazy nature of the subatomic world.

Bohm sent copies of his textbook to Bohr and Einstein. Bohr did not respond, but Einstein phoned him to say that he wanted to discuss it with him. In the first of what was to turn into a six-month series of spirited conversations, Einstein enthusiastically told Bohm that he had never seen quantum theory presented so clearly, and admitted that he was just as dissatisfied with the orthodox approach as Bohm was. They both admired quantum theory's ability to predict phenomena, but could not accept that it was complete and that it was impossible to arrive at any clearer understanding of what was going on in the quantum realm.

It was while writing Quantum Theory that Bohm came into conflict with McCarthyism. He was called upon to appear before the Un-American Activities Committee in order to testify against colleagues and associates. Ever a man of principle, he refused. The result was that when his contract at Princeton expired, he was unable to obtain a job in the USA. He moved first to Brazil, then to Israel, and finally to Britain in 1957, where he worked first at Bristol University and later as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London, until his retirement in 1987. Bohm will be remembered above all for two radical scientific theories: the causal interpretation of quantum physics, and the theory of the implicate order and undivided wholeness.

In 1952, the year after his discussions with Einstein, Bohm published two papers sketching what later came to be called the causal interpretation of quantum theory, and he continued to elaborate and refine his ideas until the end of his life. The causal interpretation, says Bohm, 'opens the door for the creative operation of underlying, and yet subtler, levels of reality' [1]. In his view, subatomic particles such as electrons are not simple, structureless particles, but highly complex, dynamic entities. He rejected the view that their motion is fundamentally uncertain or ambiguous; they follow a precise path, but one which is determined not only by conventional physical forces but also by a subtler force which he calls the quantum potential. The quantum potential guides the motion of particles by providing 'active information' about the whole environment. Bohm gives the analogy of a ship being guided by radar signals: the radar carries information from all around and guides the ship by giving form to the movement produced by the much greater but unformed power of its engines.

The quantum potential pervades all space and provides direct connections between quantum systems. In 1959 Bohm and a young research student Yakir Aharonov discovered an important example of quantum interconnectedness. They found that in certain circumstances electrons are able to 'feel' the presence of a nearby magnetic field even though they are traveling in regions of space where the field strength is zero. This phenomenon is now known as the Aharonov-Bohm (AB) effect, and when the discovery was first announced many physicists reacted with disbelief. Even today, despite confirmation of the effect in numerous experiments, papers still occasionally appear arguing that it does not exist.

In 1982 a remarkable experiment to test quantum interconnectedness was performed by a research team led by physicist Alain Aspect in Paris. The original idea was contained in a thought experiment (also known as the 'EPR paradox') proposed in 1935 by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen, but much of the later theoretical groundwork was laid by David Bohm and one of his enthusiastic supporters, John Bell of CERN, the physics research center near Geneva. The results of the experiment are said to have shown that subatomic particles that are far apart are able to communicate in ways that cannot be explained by the transfer of physical signals traveling at or slower than the speed of light. Many physicists regard these 'nonlocal' connections as absolutely instantaneous. An alternative view is that they involve subtler, nonphysical energies traveling faster than light, but this view has few adherents since most physicists still believe that nothing can exceed the speed of light.

The causal interpretation of quantum theory initially met with indifference or hostility from other physicists, who did not take kindly to Bohm's powerful challenge to the common consensus. In recent years, however, the theory has been gaining increasing 'respectability'. Bohm's approach is capable of being developed in different directions. For instance, a number of physicists, including Jean-Pierre Vigier and several other physicists at the Institut Henri Poincaré in France, explain the quantum potential in terms of fluctuations in an underlying ether.

In the 1960s Bohm began to take a closer look at the notion of order. One day he saw a device on a television program that immediately fired his imagination. It consisted of two concentric glass cylinders, the space between them being filled with glycerin, a highly viscous fluid. If a droplet of ink is placed in the fluid and the outer cylinder is turned, the droplet is drawn out into a thread that eventually becomes so thin that it disappears from view; the ink particles are enfolded into the glycerin. But if the cylinder is then turned in the opposite direction, the thread-form reappears and rebecomes a droplet; the droplet is unfolded again. Bohm realized that when the ink was diffused through the glycerin it was not in a state of 'disorder' but possessed a hidden, or nonmanifest, order.

In Bohm's view, all the separate objects, entities, structures, and events in the visible or explicate world around us are relatively autonomous, stable, and temporary 'subtotalities' derived from a deeper, implicate order of unbroken wholeness. Bohm gives the analogy of a flowing stream:

On this stream, one may see an ever-changing pattern of vortices, ripples, waves, splashes, etc., which evidently 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. [2]

We must learn to view everything as part of 'Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement' [3].

Another metaphor Bohm uses to illustrate the implicate order is that of the hologram. To make a hologram a laser light is split into two beams, one of which is reflected off an object onto a photographic plate where it interferes with the second beam. The complex swirls of the interference pattern recorded on the photographic plate appear meaningless and disordered to the naked eye. But like the ink drop dispersed in the glycerin, the pattern possesses a hidden or enfolded order, for when illuminated with laser light it produces a three-dimensional image of the original object, which can be viewed from any angle. A remarkable feature of a hologram is that if a holographic film is cut into pieces, each piece produces an image of the whole object, though the smaller the piece the hazier the image. Clearly the form and structure of the entire object are encoded within each region of the photographic record.

Bohm suggests that the whole universe can be thought of as a kind of giant, flowing hologram, or holomovement, in which a total order is contained, in some implicit sense, in each region of space and time. The explicate order is a projection from higher dimensional levels of reality, and the apparent stability and solidity of the objects and entities composing it are generated and sustained by a ceaseless process of enfoldment and unfoldment, for subatomic particles are constantly dissolving into the implicate order and then recrystallizing.

The quantum potential postulated in the causal interpretation corresponds to the implicate order. But Bohm suggests that the quantum potential is itself organized and guided by a superquantum potential, representing a second implicate order, or superimplicate order. Indeed he proposes that there may be an infinite series, and perhaps hierarchies, of implicate (or 'generative') orders, some of which form relatively closed loops and some of which do not. Higher implicate orders organize the lower ones, which in turn influence the higher.

Bohm believed that life and consciousness are enfolded deep in the generative order and are therefore present in varying degrees of unfoldment in all matter, including supposedly 'inanimate' matter such as electrons or plasmas. He suggests that there is a 'protointelligence' in matter, so that new evolutionary developments do not emerge in a random fashion but creatively as relatively integrated wholes from implicate levels of reality. The mystical connotations of Bohm's ideas are underlined by his remark that the implicate domain 'could equally well be called idealism, spirit, consciousness. The separation of the two -- matter and spirit -- is an abstraction. The ground is always one.' [4]

As with all truly great thinkers, David Bohm's philosophical ideas found expression in his character and way of life. His students and colleagues describe him as totally unselfish and non-competitive, always ready to share his latest thoughts with others, always open to fresh ideas, and single-mindedly devoted to a calm but passionate search into the nature of reality. In the words of one of his former students, 'He can only be characterized as a secular saint' [5].

Bohm believed that the general tendency for individuals, nations, races, social groups, etc., to see one another as fundamentally different and separate was a major source of conflict in the world. It was his hope that one day people would come to recognize the essential interrelatedness of all things and would join together to build a more holistic and harmonious world. What better tribute to David Bohm's life and work than to take this message to heart and make the ideal of universal brotherhood the keynote of our lives.


  1. David Bohm & F. David Peat, Science, Order & Creativity, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, p. 88. See also 'Consciousness, causality, and quantum physics'.
  2. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Boston, 1980, p. 48.
  3. Ibid., p. 11.
  4. R. Weber, Dialogues with Scientists and Sages: The Search for Unity, Arkana, p. 101.
  5. J. Hiley & F. David Peat (eds.), Quantum Implications: Essays in Honour of David Bohm, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, p. 48.

November 1997. Original article published in Sunrise, Feb./March 1993.