Guest Blog: Barney Leith on Bohmian Dialogue and Bahá’í Consultation

Guest Blog: Barney Leith on Bohmian Dialogue and Bahá’í Consultation

Barney Leith

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.”

David Bohm

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.

Bohmian Dialogue

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.

Universal House of Justice, Haifa, Israel

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.

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6 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Barney Leith on Bohmian Dialogue and Bahá’í Consultation

  1. Great post! Given Bohm’s position on science and religion, it’s apparent that his idea’s on dialogue/consultation would reflect spiritual attributes. Also really liked the terms/phrases used.. “coherence”, “shared meaning”, “a common mind”. Really captures the atmosphere of consultation. Bohm also had a profound understanding of the inner spirit of the Buddha, which makes me wonder what impact the concepts of the Baha’i revelation would have had on him. =)

  2. Fascinating post on an important issue. Neil Mercer is another name to conjure with in this area and his model of interthinking does not lack the practical dimension as the following quote illustrates: ‘Language is designed for doing something much more interesting than transmitting information accurately from one brain to another: it allows the mental resources of individuals to combine in a collective, communicative intelligence which enables people to make better sense of the world and devise practical ways of dealing with it.’ (“Words and Minds”: page 6)

  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    I have wondered how Bohm would have responded to the Baha’i Revelation, had he known about it – even better, had he experienced it as we would now invite him to do.

    I’m intrigued by the model of interthinking and may find myself buying yet another book on Pete Hulme’s recommendation!

    However, experience is teaching me that, even when undertaken by those with many years experience of the process, Baha’i consultation – and dialogue too, I would say – can be supremely challenging. In the case of Baha’i consultation, nine people sit around the table and use a process that probes and challenges our all too human weaknesses, especially our attachment to and our identification with our assumptions and favoured ways of processing and conversing. They can do this for months without any but the most superficial indications of strain and then, suddenly, out of the blue, an issue comes into the frame that fully expose the strains. The result? An emotional and tense episode that can either destroy the foundations of unity or can be an amazing opportunity for learning and moving to a stronger and deeper unity that allows the diversity within the group to flourish and be fruitful.

  4. I find this post very insightful and timely, as I have been working on David Bohm quite a bit recently, both professionally as a philosopher and in my attempts to better understand Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. As is mentioned in the comments above, Bohm was very interested in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy and contemplative practice, and was a long time student of the Indian spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. Bohm clearly believed that reality is fundamentally spiritual in nature, but he was not too interested in the concept of revelation or scripture. In studying Bohm’s analyses of wholeness, dialogue, and social repair, my question has always been “By what process can such transformations be carried out?” Bohm, following in the path of contemporary non-religious Dharmic spirituality, seems to believe that spiritual reality is innately creative and good. When cleared from the obfuscating dust of worldly attachment and the illusion of individuality, the thought goes, a just and healthy social order will spontaneously arise and human beings will manifest their innate nobility. While we share much with Bohm’s vision as Bahá’ís, it is important to note that it is precisely where his vision descends into a “vague and pious hope,” that Bahá’ís step forth into the Divine Plan.

    I am actually just about to set out on an exploration of fragmentary and holistic thinking on my blog, “In the Midst of the Plan: a Bahá’í’s Philosophical Reflections.” Some of you may be interested to check it out: http://inthemidstoftheplan.wordpress.com/

    Warmest regards,
    Ben Schewel

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