Today, we are honored to launch a new series of blogs on the unity of science and religion and its application by Barney Leith, a member of the UK Bahá’í community who currently serves on its National Spiritual Assembly. He has been a blogger for several years and currently blogs on Posterous at http://barneyleith.com (an excellent blog, BTW).
Today’s blog, introducing the series, is a meditation on the concept of dialogue in the thought of the physicist David Bohm, known both for his fundamental contributions to the understanding of quantum mechanics, for his concepts of dialogue, and for his wide ranging and pioneering thought on the implications of quantum mechanic on the nature of physical reality (see, for example, his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order).
On Monday, December 27th, Barney Leith’s blog will replace Stephen Friberg’s blog Why We Need Both Science and Religion.
Bohmian Dialogue and Bahá’í Consultation
“Shared meaning,” says renowned physicist David Bohm, “is really the cement that holds society together, and you could say that the present society has very poor quality cement … The society at large has a very incoherent set of meanings.”
Bohm (1917-1992) was concerned at 20th century society’s lack of coherence. The tacit – unspoken – meanings that underpin the cohesiveness of society were becoming, he thought, increasingly fragmented. He believed that creative and genuinely open dialogue would be crucial to establishing coherence of thought and meaning at a time when incoherence could have dangerous consequences for the world.
Bohm’s thinking about dialogue (see, for example, On Dialogue) has some interesting resonances with the Bahá’í concept of consultation and with the direction in which the Universal House of Justice, the Bahá’í community’s world governing body, is encouraging the Bahá’ís of the world to take in understanding what they are doing.
The notion of coherence is at the centre of both Bohmian and Bahá’í understandings.
Human beings have evolved to divide what they perceive into categories and to place value on those categories. Some things are safe to eat, others are not. Some animals are dangerous, others are not. It’s a kind of map of the world’s phenomena that allow us to navigate through life safely.
However, when we mistake our map for reality and reify our categories, our thinking fragments. It becomes more difficult to see all that we do is part of a larger picture.
Bohm argues that dialogue can open up and defragment our thinking. In his model a group of between 20 and 40 people come together without an agenda and without a facilitator. Their purpose is not to resolve problems or make decisions; their purpose is purely to engage in dialogue and, eventually, to arrive at shared meanings.
The process calls for participants to suspend their assumptions – about the world, about other participants – and to listen deeply to what is going on. The challenge in dialogue is simply to allow multiple points of view to exist alongside each other and not to defend one’s assumptions.
True dialogue depends on openness and, as Bohm points out, everyone – including religious people and scientists – is prone to leap to the defence of their assumptions, thus closing off the possibility of dialogue.
Dialogue will also be closed down if participants try to convince and persuade each other of the superiority or truth of what they are saying.
Ultimately dialogue, as Bohm envisions it, leads to coherence of thought amongst those taking part. By coherence he intends that the kinds of fragmentation previously described no longer hold sway and that, “We would be partaking of the common meaning – just as people partake of food together.” We would come to share a common meaning and this would lead to what he calls “a common mind”.
This common mind would not, Bohm thinks, exclude the individual. “The individual might hold a separate opinion, but that opinion would then be absorbed into the group, too.”
Bohmian Dialogue and Bahá’í Consultation
There are interesting parallels between Bohm’s thinking about dialogue and the Bahá’í practice of consultation. Openness, suspension of assumptions, sharing in a flow of meaning, refraining from making cases with a view to persuade or convince others, a focus on reality and coherence are all common features. Both Bohmian dialogue and Bahá’í consultation should lead to a deeper understanding of truth relative to the questions under consideration. Both are non-adversarial processes.
However, there are points of distinction too.
Apart from differences in process – formal Bahá’í consultation works to an agenda and has a chair or facilitator to ensure that everyone has the chance to speak – Bahá’í consultation focuses on action outcomes. It is a process that leads to decision and the meaning of the decision is in the action that it leads to. Without the action, it is not possible to test the decision and to learn from it. One might say that the point of consultation is to align one’s life and actions so that they become coherent with the processes of individual and collective transformation that enable all to engage in building a new global civilisation.