Outer Inner World

A Conceptual Introduction to what may be Bohmian Dialogue



Dialogue may offer a means of forming a coherent wave of consciousness between a group of people that could ripple through the field of thought and help resolve the incoherence manifesting in the crises that we currently face. This is a bold claim, yet David Bohm worked at the foundations of knowledge in two important respects; he was a theoretical physicist working on quantum mechanics esteemed by Einstein, and he held conversation with Jiddu Khrisnamurti, on, among other things, the nature of consciousness itself. Bohm was thus one of the rare people educated to a high degree in both what we may, for want of better terms, describe as the ongoing project of the Western enlightenment and the spiritual reflections of the East. Given this unique position and his history within physics as an original and heterodox thinker, we should take his work on dialogue, which was collected in 'Thought as a System' very seriously. He was able to consider things abstractly and deeply and may have gleaned insights relevant to us all.

Although there exist primers on dialogue online and in David Bohm's published work, as Bohm points out, when we restate the view of another person, we inevitably bring out features of our own thought that may differ from the original, and in this way we may come to fresh insight about the subject at hand. Indeed already you will have had a response to this writing, or several responses, these may range from casual dismissiveness - "I already know what the word dialogue means", to disinterest, to intrigue, to obsession. You may think that obviously the only way to address our problems is through dialogue, or conversely that there aren't any serious problems anyway etc. It is this space of reflexive responses that we are concerned with exploring here - I invite you to see if any of these reflexive responses are borne out, the hope being that at least some of them will be challenged. There is a tendency in our thought to reflexively defend what we already think against what we could possibly think; at a social scale to form cliques and sub-groups which are ambivalent if not hostile to the views of others. One of Bohm's central claims was that if this process of defensive fragmentation were brought into awareness we may be able to develop more of a sense for when it is occurring, and through this be more open to the insight - that inexplicable flash of fresh awareness - that can transcend and transform it.

This is a propositional map of David Bohm's propositional map of the field of thought and of dialogue. As one moves further into this way of thinking (or way of being) such tentative and recursive statements may become more familiar. Indeed the idea of a recursive propositional structure may be in certain ways more favourable than a concrete statement for reasons discussed below. Reading a map of a map such as this before engaging in what may be Bohmian dialogue could help address Bohm's own concern: 'If I had known what the Bohm dialogue process would become I would stop it all. It may be too late. There is a serious misunderstanding of dialogue in my name.' (David Bohm, 1991).

A short sketch of what may be Bohm's map of the field of thought and insight.

Bohm begins by offering the view that part of the reason for our current crises (climate, financial, war) may be that when we attempt to solve the problems of these crises, we inadvertently use the very tool that has caused the problems in the first place: thought. This would be akin to trying to saw a plank with a hammer: the tool simply is not adequate for the task. In order to truly address such persistent and dangerous incoherence as we now face globally, it may be that a truly radical approach is needed. The root of the word radical is itself the word `root' - a radical change thus means going into the true source, foundation, or root of things, and making a change there. Bohm proposes we do this by probing more deeply into the nature of thought itself, rather than for example concoct new political theories or attempt to form social movements directly.

A refinement of the notion of 'thought'.

This is motivated by several observations about the nature of thought. One is that thought typically tells us that thought merely provides us with information, with a window onto the world, and that then we, the thinker, make decisions and take actions based on that information. Bohm encourages a closer look at this concept - by considering feeling for example, we can see that thought and feeling are not so separable. Indeed that a thought will elicit a feeling and a feeling will elicit a thought, and one can intensify or move the other along. Perhaps thought is not so separated from other aspects of ourselves, such as our feelings and bodies as we may sometimes believe. He gives a well known example of brain damage, in which the physical connection between the feeling centre and the thought centre of the brain was damaged, and both the person's thoughts and feelings began to become erratic, despite there being no damage to those regions directly.

Secondly if we consider any building or object within a building: these are products of thought; though they are inanimate objects their structure and placement is a product of thought. In a certain sense the physical structures inherent in the world around us are no different than the physical structures of memory inherent in our brains (whatever these may be): all part of thought, and in fact not fully separable from thought.

Thought has thus in fact done a huge amount to create what we perceive, all the while telling us that it's merely reporting on things as they are, without changing them in the act of perception. A further example is a company; we tend to think of a company as a real existent thing or structure, just the same as the ground it's built upon, when in fact continuous thought is required for it to exist at all: without the people in the company and those who know of the company continuing to think of it as an existing entity it would cease to exist.

At least part of the physical mechanism for this self-deceptive thought occurring is conditioned reflexes. These are physical and chemical motions that occur in response to certain conditions. The more they are repeated the stronger they tend to become. Moreover a particular reflex could also yield a certain amount of pleasure when activated.

In this way thought could end up in a situation where a reflex has formed, we feel pleasure when the reflex moves, but nevertheless the results of the reflex are in some other way bad for us. The example Bohm gives is flattery: obviously someone who is being flattered does not intend or set out to be taken advantage of. Nevertheless we may feel a warmth when another person flatters us - then reflexively learn to believe what that person says, since it makes us feel good. But then as a result that person could mislead us about some other matter, and being reflexively conditioned to believe what they say, since it tends to make us feel good, we end up being taken advantage of.

In this way Bohm motivates the view that 'thought' is physically recorded in the nervous system, and that what we often think of as original 'thinking' is in fact past memories being reflexively brought to mind by their similarity to the present experience.

An articulation of a 'system' and thought as a system.

Bohm then articulates a view of thought as a system. He defines a system as something where the parts can only be partially distinguished from the whole system - or where they rely on the whole system for their very meaning. For example it would make no sense to talk of a specific department of a given company if the company in question ceased to exist. The concept of that particular company is necessary to give that specific department any meaning at all.

Bohm then articulates further that we may have a systemic flaw in our thought, and that this would provide ample explanation for the current crises. Being a systemic flaw it would pervade the entire system; that is be present in each individual and across collectives, be embodied in physical objects, social structures, conditioned reflexes in each nervous system, arise as particular experienced thoughts in our minds etc. The flaw would exist in these conditioned reflexes and be hidden from us, since these conditioned reflexes are prone to giving rise to the experienced self as a thinker who merely receives information from thought, rather than giving rise to the experience of thought as an interpenetrated transformative system.

We could contrast for example, Tony Judt's understanding of a system: he says in `Ill Fares the Land' that the proper response to the question of changing the system is 'which part of the system, or sub-part, and what systemic solution do we have in mind?' Bohm's sense of systemic flaw here is pervasive, that is it affects every part of the system, it can't be separated out from the system. We can also see here how the notion of holism can be contrasted with reductionism: the appropriate view of thought is holistic, in the sense here more than the sum of its parts. Therefore using only reduction by considering specific parts or sub-parts will not be effective, as the flaw is taken to be holistic, i.e. pervading the whole.

A simple analogy may be a fungal infection in a tree: if the infection is localised to a limb it may make sense to cut the limb off, but if the infection pervades the entire tree that localised approach is pointless. The claim here then is that our thought is addled through with pervasive flaws, as a fungus can grow through a tree, and using any sort of local specific thought to alter it will simply reproduce the same flaw, folding flawed thought back in again on itself, over and over, without ever mending.

Before attempting to offer any sort of solution to the issue Bohm encourages simply observing that it is an issue - by trying to solve the problem we may inadvertently end up perpetuating it. How to address a systemic flaw in thought without using thought itself?

Proprioception and the possibility of proprioception of thought.

One of the key insights of Bohm's approach follows from a closer look at the concept of proprioception. Proprioception refers to the knowledge, or the awareness, that we are moving. We are aware, for any given motion, whether it originated inside us or outside of us. We are aware when we move our arm. When we are sitting there are a number of small adjustments we make that we don't have to think about. Though we don't think about them we are able to observe them if needs be. This proprioception can be developed more or less, depending on the needs of the organism. Ballet dancers and other athletes refine it in one way or another.

This then furnishes firstly the observation that we do not seem to have a proprioception of thought, and secondly the question of whether we could seek to discover or develop such a proprioception. We do not seem to be aware of when we are having a thought, nor whether the thought originated inside of us or outside of us. For example if three friends gathered round a fire in December, and made spooky noises, the concept of halloween may arise, it may in fact arise more or less simultaneously within the three friends. It would be hard to say whether the concept had arisen in any particular person first, or what had happened. Reflexively the combination of a fire, darkness and spooky sounds would cause reflexes to move, these reflexes being moved simultaneously would provide sufficient conditions for the reflex of the concept halloween to move. Yet the participants would not feel any of that happening, they would simply have the thought of halloween.

Bohm offers that we do seem to have one tool that can at least make the reflexes more visible. The experimental method for this is to encourage a reflex to occur, and attempt to describe it precisely as it does so. He suggests that this can be felt in the whole body when the correct words are found. This is said to bring the reflex into conscious attention, as a reflex, rather than where it was previously, hidden from conscious attention as part of how things were. By doing this we can at least be conscious of the reflex.

Furthermore he suggests that there will very often be a hidden assumption of necessity associated with a reflex. This is as it should be: evolutionarily speaking, a reflex should adapt to reality in such a way as to allow us to navigate that reality. Having strong reflexes around phenomena such as gravity is necessary and good, and perhaps it's also necessary and good that we don't have to think about it each time it comes up; so that we able to reflexively avoid walking over cliff edges without having to think about it. However Bohm motivates the view that this has gone beyond its proper, useful bounds, as evidenced by widespread global incoherence, and that a refinement of the reflexes may be needed.

Even gaining an awareness of a reflex through conscious attention and finding the appropriate words may not be enough to change a reflex - many of us are aware of certain reflexes, indeed painfully aware, and yet are still unable to change them. This fact is supporting evidence for Bohm's thrust that we may collectively be in a similar situation to an alcoholic - aware that we are being entirely reflexive, desiring to become un-reflexive and choose otherwise, but unable to do so.

Bohm offers that describing the reflexes in words may give an increased understanding of them, it may update our thought with new thoughts as to specific features that it already contained, but this may still be insufficient to cause any great change. What is needed is creative insight. Consider the features of an insight: it arises all at once in a flash. Bohm gives the famous example of Mozart, that he would perceive a whole composition in an instant, the act of writing it down was simply unfolding the implications inherent in the initial insight. Bohm doesn't explore that but in that case we could I think articulate the complementary nature of reflexes and insight. It may be that a particular set of reflexes may open up the possibility of a particular sort of insight. Without the reflexes gained from writing and playing vast amounts of music, so that complex musical ideas flowed through his head, and became highly reflexive, the insight of entire compositions at once would not have been possible.

Insight appears to touch us in an instant, or outside of time, and afterward things appear very differently. The insight therefore alters the whole thing all at once, the experienced consciousness, the physical reflexes, and then later the external world, as new actions take place based on the insight. Collective insight then, could lead to collective coherence. It is important to understand that as soon as an insight passes it is already part of the reflexive conditioning, and what is being recalled when we speak of past insights is not itself insight, but a conditioned thought of the past insight. Insight is inherently of the moment; this is also why we cannot say for sure that there will be any future insights, the mere fact of their past occurrence not being sufficient to guarantee their future occurrence. There is also the dangerous possibility that an insight could be a product of thought, in some sense posturing as an insight. What this motivates is further attention to the possibility that insights may occur.

Finally Bohm offers that a particular kind of conversing together could potentially lead to collective insight. He calls this dialogue.

A short description of what may be Bohmian Dialogue.

The idea is that we enter into a conversation between 20-40 people, with the aim of observing our thought, in the form of reflexes that may arise, using our intellect and attunement to the bodies of those around us. Unlike what we may term in our culture a `normal' conversation, in which for example there may be an explicit hierarchy, e.g. of one speaker speaking to many, or a workplace gathering where the implicit hierarchy affects conversation, here we intend to remain equals in the conversation.

Bohm takes care distinguishing dialogue from other similar words which it may commonly occur as a synonym for. The main contrast he draws is with discussion - where dialogue connotes something moving through -the root 'dia' meaning 'through' or 'between'- discussion connotes something breaking down -the root being "to break apart".

Nevertheless it is highly unlikely that all participants will speak equally, some being more prone to speak in a group than others. This itself is a topic for dialogue. Also a topic for dialogue is the emergence, or the motion towards, the formation of sub-groups and cliques within the wider group. Bohm's insight that 20 people are needed is based on this observation. In what in our culture we may call the usual run of things, the formation of such sub-groups takes a direction that they may actually avoid speaking together, or at the least, speak to those in the perceived 'in' group in a manner which is different from those in the 'out' group(s). The problem being the lack of collective coherence, and therefore the necessity of collective insight, motivates intentionally creating a situation and allowing the reflexes that cause this to happen to occur, so that we may develop something like a nascent proprioception of thought. Then holding in attention what would usually be unconscious, we may experience some collective insight, which may lead us towards collective coherence. If this collective coherence is achieved anywhere, due to the nature of thought as a system, it will percolate and pervade the system in quite a short time. The swift alteration of global manners in response to covid-19 is an example of how a movement in thought could pervade the whole system quite quickly.

Bohm makes it clear that dialogue may not be at all easy. It may actually be quite frustrating, as no insight may arise, and the reflexive response to one another's deep differences of perspective may be at times even painful. However the argument for Dialogue is that it is something which has not been widely attempted, and what has been widely attempted, a proliferation of states and individualism, does not appear able to respond to the crises we face, such as the climate crisis.

Bohm clarifies that the aim of dialogue is not to convince one another of one opinion or another, but just to be able to state opinions and see them as opinions. If hypothetically all the opinions of each participant were stated, and held in consciousness by each member, then there would be a shared content of consciousness, and this alone may generate some coherence. He gives the example of laser light - in laser light the waves are all coherent, whereas in normal light they are incoherent, and the result is that the laser light can do new things which normal light cannot. So too it may be that if several consciousness' manage to establish a shared meaning, the resulting coherence may do new things which the incoherent pile up of consciousness' could not do.

A List of Forms of Communication which Contrast with what may be Bohmian Dialogue.

A presentation of something, such as a lecture or business presentation. The words are about a specific topic, from one person, or team, to an audience, whereas in a dialog the words are from multiple members of the group, to other members, or the whole group.
The Q&A after such a thing. Although there may be equality, in that anyone can ask a question, typically the one(s) presenting will answer. And the topics of the questions will be restricted to relate to the topic of the presentation.
A conversation between friends/family on most topics. Again there may be an equality here, but there may also be an implicit or indeed explicit hierarchy. Furthermore those who are close may well have evolved to adapt to one another's deepest assumptions; knowing to avoid certain topics as they will be sure to provoke an emotional response.
A conversation between strangers in a bar. In a sense this can become close to dialogue as cultural topics are explored; the lack of persistent repitition of the conversation would distinguish this from dialogue, as would the likely presence of alcohol, as would the fact that the participants are not likely to number 20-40.
A situation where one person more covertly advances an agenda, through subtle passive aggression, or the threat of violence such as, unfortunately, many domestic, business, and public spaces. This kind of tacit power play is very common and is something that could easily occur in a group that set out to perform dialogue. In fact it may well exist as a latent potential in any conversation. Nevertheless it could remain a potential, or be actualised - it may be that with skill and attention we can prevent it being actualised.
A group of people gathered to talk about some specific purpose, other than thought and insight. If there is an agenda there is clearly an assumption about what the group should talk about at that time, which may get in the way of the free flow of meaning.
A debate. Clearly this would be an attempt to disprove someone else's perspective, or sway others to a particular point of view. The contrast with dialogue is that we attempt to state our perspectives while holding them in conscious attention, so that we can see their meaning as fully as possible.
A conversation which was informal, but ended up resembling a debate. Again it would be very possible for a group that began as a dialogue to sway into a debate, and indeed this could then itself become the subject of that the group could enter into dialogue upon.
An analysis in which things are broken down into smaller parts. Though this could form part of a dialogue, if the entire `dialogue' were analysis, it would be discussion, not dialogue.
A negotiation. In a negotiation there is an attempt to alter one's stance to accommodate somebody else's.
Group therapy. In group therapy the intention is to solve some problems, whereas in dialogue the intention is to allow for the free flow of meaning with no specific purpose.
A space primarily for sharing personal problems. Although it may be that a personal topic may be the subject of a dialogue, the purpose is primarily collective and cultural, with shared meaning. Of course this interpenetrates individual experience, including personal problems, so these may be included, but are not the primary subject.

All this said these things could be similar to dialogue. For example two people talking could indeed carefully state their opinions and watch their responses with rapt attention, opening themselves up to creative insight. Dialogue itself then could be similar to further stages of coherence that may emerge from creative insight. Perhaps dialogue could be thought of as a direction in which we might move through collective insight, and also the movement of opening ourselves to creative insight itself.

A short compendium of pieces of science which are relevant to the consideration of Bohmian Dialogue.

All Leader or Leaderless models of flocking.

It has been shown (`An all-leader agent-based model for turning and flocking birds' Emiliano Cristiani, Marta Menci, Marco Papi, arxiv 2020) that a model of birds as entities which must maintain a minimum distance from each other but also have a certain chance of changing direction is sufficient to recover the qualitative dynamics of a flock turning. This is in contrast to the view that a turn in the flock is initiated by a particular leader bird, or a class of leader birds. In fact it may be that each bird is capable of initiating a turn. This is relevant as it motivates the view that collections of biological entities can engage in elaborate, complex, synchronised spontaneous movement. In this case the entities are birds and the movement is flocking, but the suggestion is that such self-organisation may occur elsewhere in nature. For our purposes here the suggestion is that it may occur in dialogue, where the entities are human beings and the arena of motion is insight and thought.

Quantum Entanglement

One of the perhaps surprising results of quantum mechanics is the result that ultimately the separability of particles cannot be maintained. In some sense the metaphysical project of conceiving of the universe as fundamentally consisting of objects which obey certain laws, and of finding the smallest such objects, has run into the face of contradictory evidence. The inseparability of particles is of a particular and specific nature, and detailed explanations of the experiments and the theory can be found elsewhere (e.g. for the lay reader Brian Greene `The Fabric of the Cosmos'). Even though the nature of the non-local effect is subtle and specific, nevertheless it is qualitatively what we would think a non-local effect to be: one thing affecting another, across any distance, instantaneously. The fact this is found in a framework where we attempt to begin with separable and indivisible particles is strong evidence that such a framework may not be wholly valid for the entire universe, or all the aspects of the universe.

It has been said, for example on Bohm's wikipedia page, that he sought to extend quantum non-locality to consciousness. But this is perhaps unnecessary. It's rather that having observed that inseparability is in fact inescapable, even within the most refined reductionist approach we have ever taken, that we then deflate inseparability in our thinking, and instead inflate interpenetration. So rather than search for a quantum non-local effect, we simply adopt as our view that there is a higher, or lower, or more fundamental ground of existence, in which it is the case that things are interpenetrated. And when we apply our thoughts to something like consciousness and the phenomenon of insight, suspend judgement about separability or interpenetration. To take the moral of the story seriously does not require quantum non-locality to be applied to macroscopic phenomena.

Instead of attempting to explain how thoughts give rise to feeling and or vice versa, instead accept that these both spring from a more fundamental ground, in which they are part of an unbroken whole, and that thoughts reveal an aspect of this whole, in a particular way, while feelings reveal another aspect of the whole, in another way.

Finally relating to dialogue it may be that this will reveal other aspects of the undivided whole of thought, feeling, insight and society, in new ways.

The 'hard problem' of consciousness.

The hard problem of consciousness is the fact that it appears difficult, if not impossible, to explain how consciousness might relate to, or emerge from a physical system. Moreover particularly how it might be reducible to a physical system.

Interestingly Bohm's arguments here are both that consciousness is far more reducible than we like to think (in that much of what we fondly think of as original thought is actually the result of essentially mechanical reflexes), but also that consciousness has the potential for transcendent, irreducible insight. In this way, by distinguishing kinds of consciousness, or aspects of consciousness the views are more in keeping with for example the Yogacara view of consciousness than with an idealist or materialist view of consciousness (`A Compositional Model of Consciousness based on Consciousness-Only' Camilo Miguel Signorelli, Quanlong Wang, Ilyas Khan, arxiv 2020).

Bohm's ink droplet thought experiment.

This was one of Bohm's ways of describing an implicate order. If a transparent viscous liquid is placed in a jar with a mechanical stirring paddle, and a droplet of ink placed in the jar, and then the paddle turned round many times, the ink will at first distort and then be drawn out into a very long fine thread. At this point all we would see would be a homogenous shade of liquid, perhaps slightly darker than what we began with. However, if the paddle is turned backwards, and the liquid was viscous enough that no turbulent mixing of the ink particles with the liquid particles occurred, the little thread will retrace its motions, and will reform into a droplet exactly as it started. At the point where it was fully drawn out though, it was still in some sense `there', just not explicitly. It was there implicitly, in the particular order that it was shaped into by the motion of the paddle.

Bohm then extends this thought experiment: imagine that we put many ink droplets in, and turned the paddle a number of times between placing each ink droplet, and furthermore that if placed each ink droplet just slightly to the left of where we placed the last droplet. If we then turned the paddle backwards quickly what we would perceive would not be a sequence of individual ink droplets resolving one after another, but a single ink droplet moving in a line from left to right. Bohm's suggestion is that reality may have this quality; that what we perceive as fixed entities are in fact rapidly unfolding from an implicate order to be made explicate.

As this relates to thought and dialogue the suggestion is that a particular thought is formed of the unfolding of a great many reflexes. But also perhaps that where there may appear to be no order, or nothing, that an appropriate insight may reveal that there is an implicate order, furthermore that the order could be rendered explicate by the appropriate movement. It could be that our crises are in some sense like the jar before the paddle is turned, and that if we only had the appropriate collective insight, a coherent unfolding of an, at the moment invisible, implicate order could be performed.



This is a form of speech or communication in which the thought is felt to move through the participants, in which they experience themselves as equal, in which they attempt to become aware of their conditioning, hold it in attention, and so open themselves to collective insight.


Bohm speaks of incoherence as when we intend to achieve something, but despite this we fail to achieve it. On a small scale we are very often coherent, for example we may intend to prepare and eat some food, and succeed. However on a larger, global scale, for example we do not intend to deplete the fish stocks of the ocean to a point of extinction, and yet this is nevertheless what has happened. Extrapolating we have the climate crises, which we do not intend but are unable to prevent. This is global incoherence.


Insight is not in time, it occurs in a flash, all at once. It affects the whole organism, intellect, reflexes, nervous system, feelings etc. Crucially this can affect the reflexes and the conditioning.


The awareness of our own motion and its difference from other motions. For example when one moves one's arm one is aware of this without any thought of it, or any need to reflect, it appears as a primary feature of awareness. Contrast thought, where we may have a thought without knowing whether it originated within us or elsewhere.


Bohm clarifies and extends the notion behind the word `thought'. He describes what we commonly mean by thought, as a reporting of information about the world to our intellect, which then makes choices based on the information. By contrast he views thought as a conditioned set of reflexes, interpenetrated with and inseparable from the material world and our bodies.


A system is something where each part is only partially separable from the whole, and relies on the whole for its existence. Examples might be a human body, where an organ would soon cease to exist if taken out of the body, and a company, where any department depends on the existence of the company for its meaning.


This is a returning signal upon itself. E.g. when a hammer hits a knee the nervous system reflexively responds with the leg kicking. More subtle reflexes exist - the synaptic connections of the nervous system. Reflexes may be stronger or weaker depending on conditioning. They may also be defensive reflexes in the sense that when they are threatened there is a chemical response and a feeling of pain, and when they are strengthened there is a chemical response and a feeling of pleasure. Reflexes are responsible for much of what we commonly call 'thought' in Bohm's view. There is an extremely strong set of reflexes which gives rise to the experience of ourselves as a thinker separated from our thoughts, and of our thoughts as merely reporting the world as it is to us, rather than actively shaping it.


If all our thought is conditioned there may yet be a possibility of unconditioned awareness. It is important to be aware that it is not certain that there is actually an unconditioned awareness, such a certainty would be a product of thought. Perhaps we can say that when we have an insight, we directly experience the unconditioned, but that immediately thereafter the experience enters the conditioned reflexes. On this view the unconditioned is a potential of reality and of awareness that we can become open to, but it can not be said to certainly exist.