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David Bohm

The late David Bohm came to feel that the significance of meaning (which could also be described as the significance of significance) went deeper even than our concluding claim in the "Meaning" post that meaning "may well be the most important factor in human life."

As a physicist who counted among his friends both Einstein and Krishnamurti, Bohm's activities spanned the material and immaterial realms. Toward the end of his life the question of meaning and its relationship to matter and mind became a focus of considerable interest for him.

Bohm characterized the conventional position as holding that the mental and the physical realms are different, though somehow related. In contrast, he considered them inseparable, and saw meaning as the bridge between them. In order to avoid the term psycho-somatic, which he considers introduces the idea of two different kinds of entities, he proposes the term "soma-significance" to emphasize the unity between somatic/physical and significance/mental. In elaborating this relationship Bohm points out that any particular significance is based on some somatic structure, and any somatic configuration has a meaning. In parallel, there is a "signa-somatic" relation through which meaning affects the soma. He gives the example of a shadow seen on a dark night. Depending upon a person's past experience, this may be viewed as merely a shadow or as an assailant. The physical consequences on the human body are very different. If the shadow is perceived to mean danger, adrenaline will be pumped into the blood stream, the heartbeat will increase, blood pressure will rise, a wash of neuro-chemicals will flood the brain, etc. What Bohm wants to show is that "any change of meaning is a change of soma, and that any change of soma is a change of meaning." ("is" or "causes"?)

For Bohm meaning is not something that exists only in the mind. Meaning is being. He says that in order to characterize what sort of person someone is we would have to include how that person behaves under various circumstances, and the way that person behaves stems from what things mean to that person. In the soma-significant and signa-somatic flow, meaning and being become one another.

Bohm's views have taken us from the level of human meaning to the level of neuro-chemical interactions. Remember, though, that he is a theoretical physicist. He takes the investigation down to the quantum level. We will not present his lengthy arguments here but only give a flavour of where his thinking comes to rest. In parallel to what has been said as characterizing a person, if we asked what an electron is, we would also, says Bohm, have to include a description of how it behaves under various circumstances. Different theories of physics give different descriptions. Classical physics considers an electron as a mechanical entity influenced only by external forces and pressures. In quantum theory, though, an electron is said to be able to respond to information and, thus, in this view, the meaning of the information is essential to what the electron is. Drawing on his notion of implicate and explicate orders, Bohm speaks of the particles of matter as the more explicate, somatic level of activity while the Schršdinger wave field is a more implicate, mind-like level. He views this hierarchical pattern continuing to finer and finer levels, where every more subtle somatic level is guided by a finer, more subtle level of information, which is the somatic level for a finer level for a yet finer level beneath. Within this view, even the quantum mechanical laws are only scratching the surface. While the mode of description, again, implies two types of activity, the content of the description makes it clear that Bohm sees them as being the same. What are considered as mental events merge with matter, and vice versa. There is no split between mind and matter; they are two sides of one process. He suggests we might speak of mind-matter, or matter-mind. "Meaning" is the term he uses to connect them when he says, "In this one totality, meaning provides all being and, indeed, all existence."


Bohm, David (1985) Unfolding Meaning, Ed. Donald Factor.

Bohm, David (1989) "Meaning and Information," in The Search for Meaning: The New Spirit in Science and Philosophy, Ed. Paavo PylkkŠnen.