From David Bohm and F. David Peat
Science, Order, and Creativity
New York: Bantam, 1987

In this section it is proposed that a form of free dialogue may well be one of the most effective ways of investigating the crisis which faces society, and indeed the whole of human nature and consciousness today. Moreover, it may turn out that such a form of free exchange of ideas and information is of fundamental relevance for transforming culture and freeing it of destructive misinformation, so that creativity can be liberated. However, it must be stressed that what follows is not given in the spirit of a prescription that society is supposed to follow. Rather it is an invitation to the reader to begin to investigate and explore in the spirit of free play of ideas and without the restriction of the absolute necessity of any final goal or aim. For once necessity and absolute requirements or directions enter into the spirit of this exploration, then creativity is limited and all the problems that have plagued human civilization will surface yet again to overwhelm the investigation.

To begin, it should be noted that many of the ideas to be explored were first investigated by Patrick de Maré, who is a psychiatrist working in England. De Maré has used his wide experience of dialogue in therapeutic groups to support his arguments. However, it is essential to emphasize that his ideas about dialogue are not concerned primarily with psychotherapy, but rather with the transformation of culture, along the general lines that have been indicated in this chapter.

In the first two chapters it was shown how rigid conditioning of the tacit infrastructure of scientific thought has led to a fragmentation in science and to an essential breakdown in communication between areas which are considered to be mutually irrelevant. Nevertheless a closer investigation of actual cases suggested that there is nothing inherent in science which makes such breaks in communication and fragmentation inevitable. Indeed wherever fragmentation and failures in communication arise, this clearly indicates that a kind of dialogue should be established.

The term dialogue is derived from a Greek word, with dia meaning "through" and logos signifying "the word." Here "the word" does not refer to mere sounds but to their meaning. So dialogue can be considered as a free flow of meaning between people in communication, in the sense of a stream that flows between banks.

A key difference between a dialogue and an ordinary discussion is that, within the latter, people usually hold relatively fixed positions and argue in favor of their views as they try to convince others to change. At best this may produce agreement or compromise, but it does not give rise to anything creative. Moreover, whenever anything of fundamental significance is involved, then positions tend to be rigidly nonnegotiable and talk degenerates either into a confrontation in which there is no solution, or into a polite avoidance of the issues. Both these outcomes are extremely harmful, for they prevent the free play of thought in communication and therefore impede creativity.

In dialogue, however, a person may prefer a certain position but does not hold to it nonnegotiably. He or she is ready to listen to others with sufficient sympathy and interest to understand the meaning of the other's position properly and is also ready to change his or her own point of view if there is good reason to do so. Clearly a spirit of goodwill or friendship is necessary for this to take place. It is not compatible with a spirit that is competitive, contentious, or aggressive. In the case of Einstein and Bohr, which was discussed in Chapter 2, these requirements were evidently met, at least initially. However, because each felt that a different notion of truth and reality was involved, which was not negotiable in any way at all, a real dialogue could never take place.

This brings us to an important root feature of science, which is also present in dialogue: to be ready to acknowledge any fact and any point of view as it actually is, whether one likes it or not. In many areas of life, people are, on the contrary, disposed to collude in order to avoid acknowledging facts and points of view that they find unpleasant or unduly disturbing. Science is, however, at least in principle, dedicated to seeing any fact as it is, and to being open to free communication with regard not only to the fact itself, but also to the point of view from which it is interpreted. Nevertheless, in practice, this is not often achieved. What happens in many cases is that there is a blockage of communication.

For example, a person does not acknowledge the point of view of the other as being a reasonable one to hold, although perhaps not correct. Generally this failure arises when the other's point of view poses a serious threat to all that a person holds dear and precious in life as a whole.

In dialogue it is necessary that people be able to face their disagreements without confrontation and be willing to explore points of view to which they do not personally subscribe. If they are able to engage in such a dialogue without evasion or anger, they will find that no fixed position is so important that it is worth holding at the expense of destroying the dialogue itself. This tends to give rise to a unity in plurality of the kind discussed in Chapter 3. This is, of course, quite different from introducing a large number of compartmentalized positions that never dialogue with each other. Rather, a plurality of points of view corresponds to the earlier suggestion that science and society should consist not of monolithic structures but rather of a dynamic unity within plurality.

One of the major barriers to this sort of dialogue is the rigidity in the tacit infrastructure of the individual and society, which has been discussed throughout this book. The tacit infrastructure of society at large is contained in what is generally called culture. Within each society, however, there are many subcultures which are all somewhat different, and which are either in conflict with each other, or more or less ignore each other as having mutually irrelevant aims and values. Such subcultures, along with the overall culture, are generally rigidly restricted by their basic assumptions, most of which are tacit and not open to awareness and attention. Creativity is therefore, at best, an occasional occurrence, the results of which are quickly absorbed in a fairly mechanical way into the general tacit infrastructure.

At present, a truly creative dialogue, in the sense that has been indicated here, is not at all common, even in science.

Rather the struggle of each idea to dominate is commonly emphasized in most activities in society. In this struggle, the success of a person's point of view may have important consequences for status, prestige, social position, and monetary reward. In such a conditioned exchange, the tacit infrastructure, both individually and culturally, responds very actively to block the free play that is needed for creativity.

The importance of the principle of dialogue should now be clear. It implies a very deep change in how the mind works. What is essential is that each participant is, as it were, suspending his or her point of view, while also holding other points of view in a suspended form and giving full attention to what they mean. In doing this, each participant has also to suspend the corresponding activity, not only of his or her own tacit infrastructure of ideas, but also of those of the others who are participating in the dialogue. Such a thoroughgoing suspension of tacit individual and cultural infrastructures, in the context of full attention to their contents, frees the mind to move in quite new ways. The tendency toward false play that is characteristic of the rigid infrastructures begins to die away. The mind is then able to respond to creative new perceptions going beyond the particular points of view that have been suspended.

In this way, something can happen in the dialogue that is analogous to the dissolution of barriers in the "stream" of the generative order that was discussed at the end of the previous chapters. In the dialogue, these blockages, in the form of rigid but largely tacit cultural assumptions, can be brought out and examined by all who take part. Because each person will generally have a different individual background, and will perhaps come from a different subculture, assumptions that are part of a given participant's "unconscious" infrastructure may be quite obvious to another participant, who has no resistance to seeing them. In this way the participants can turn their attention more generally to becoming aware, as broadly as possible, of the overall tacit infrastructure of rigid cultural and subcultural assumptions and bringing it to light. As a result, it becomes possible for the dialogue to begin to play a part that is analogous to that played by the immune system of the body, in "recognizing" destructive misinformation and in clearing it up. This clearly constitutes a very important change in how the mind works.

There is, however, another extremely important way in which the operation of the mind can be transformed in such a dialogue. For when the rigid, tacit infrastructure is loosened, the mind begins to move in a new order. To see the nature of this order, consider first the order that has traditionally characterized cultures. Essentially this involves a strong fragmentation between individual consciousness--"what the individual knows all together"--and social consciousness--"what the society knows all together."

For the individual, consciousness tends to emphasize subjectivity in the sense of private aims, dreams, and aspirations that are shared to some extent with family and close friends, as well as a general search for personal pleasure and security. In society, however, consciousness tends to emphasize a kind of objectivity with common aims and goals, and there is an attempt to put conformity and the pursuit of the common welfare in the first place. One of the principal conflicts in life arises therefore in the attempt to bring these two fragments together harmoniously. For example, as a person grows up, he (or she) may find that his individual needs have little or no place in society. And in turn, as society begins to act on the individual consciousness in false and destructive ways, people become cynical. They begin to ignore the requirements of reality and the general good in favor of their own interests and those of their group.

Within this generally fragmentary order of consciousness, the social order of language is largely for the sake of communicating information. This is aimed, ultimately, at producing results that are envisaged as necessary, either to society or to the individual, or perhaps to both. Meaning plays a secondary part in such usage, in the sense, for example, that what are put first are the problems that are to be solved, while meaning is arranged so as to facilitate the solution of these problems. Of course, a society may try to find a common primary meaning in myths, such as that of the invincibility of the nation or its glorious destiny. But these lead to illusions, which are in the long run unsatisfactory, as well as dangerous and destructive. The individual is thus generally left with a desperate search for something that would give life real meaning. But this can seldom be found either in the rather crude mechanical, uncaring society, or in the isolated and consequently lonely life of the individual. For if there is not common meaning to be shared, a person can be lonely even in a crowd.

What is especially relevant to this whole conflict is a proper understanding of the nature of culture. It seems clear that in essence culture is meaning, as shared in society. And here "meaning" is not only significance but also intention, purpose, and value. It is clear, for example, that art, literature, science, and other such activities of a culture are all parts of the common heritage of shared meaning, in the sense described above. Such cultural meaning is evidently not primarily aimed at utility. Indeed, any society that restricts its knowledge merely to information that it regards as useful would hardly be said to have a culture, and within it, life would have very little meaning. Even in our present society, culture, when considered in this way, appears to have a rather small significance in comparison to other issues that are taken to be of vital importance by many sectors of the population.

The gulf between individual consciousness and social consciousness is similar to a number of other gulfs that have already been described in this book, for example, between descriptive and constitutive orders, between simple regular orders of low degree and chaotic orders of infinite degree, and, of course, between the timeless and time orders. But in all these cases, broad and rich new areas for creativity can be found by going to new orders that lie between such extremes. In the present case, therefore, what is needed is to find a broad domain of creative orders between the social and individual extremes. Dialogue therefore appears to be a key to the exploration of these new orders.

To see what is involved, note that as the above dialogue develops, not only do specific social and cultural assumptions "loosen up," but also much deeper and more general assumptions begin to be affected in a similar way. Among these, one of the most important is the assumption that between the individual consciousness and the social consciousness there is an absolute gulf. This implies that the individual must adjust to fit into the society, that society must be remade to suit the individual, or that some combination of both approaches must be carried out. If, however, the dialogue is sustained sufficiently, then all who participate will sooner or later be able to see, in actual fact, how a creative movement can take place in a new order between these extremes. This movement is present both externally and publicly, as well as inwardly, where it can be felt by all. As with alert attention to a flowing stream, the mind can then go into an analogous order. In this order, attention is no longer restricted to the two extreme forms of individual and social. Rather, attention is transformed so that it, along with the whole generative order of the mind, is in the rich creative domain "between" these two extremes.

The mind is then capable of new degrees of subtlety, moving from emphasis on the whole group of participants to emphasis on individuals, as the occasion demands. This is particularly significant for proper response to the strong emotional reactions that will inevitably arise, even in the friendliest group, whenever fundamental assumptions are disturbed. Because the mind is no longer rigidly committed to the individual or to the social extremes, the basic issues that arise in a disagreement between participants are to a considerable extent "defused." For the assumptions that are brought to the common attention are no longer implied to have absolute necessity. And as a result, the "emotional charge" that is inevitably associated with an assumption that is dear to one or more members of the group can be reduced to more manageable proportions, so that violent "explosions" are not likely to take place. Only a dialogue that can, at the same time, meet the challenge both of uncovering the intellectual content of a rigidly held basic assumption and of "defusing" the emotional charge that goes with it will make possible the proper exploration of the new order of mental operation that is being discussed here.

It is possible to have such dialogues in all sorts of circumstances, with many or just a few people involved. Indeed even an individual may have a kind of internal dialogue with himself or herself. What is essential here is the presence of the spirit of dialogue, which is, in short, the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of a common meaning. It is particularly important, however, to explore the possibilities of dialogue in the context of a group that is large enough to have within it a wide range of points of view, and to sustain a strong flow of meaning. This latter can come about because such- a dialogue is capable of having the powerful nonverbal effect of consensus. In the ordinary situation, consensus can lead to collusion and to playing false, but in a true dialogue there is the possibility that a new form of consensual mind, which involves a rich creative order between the individual and the social, may be a more powerful instrument than is the individual mind. Such consensus does not involve the pressure of authority or conformity, for it arises out of a spirit of friendship dedicated to clarity and the ultimate perception of what is true. In this way the tacit infrastructure of society and that of its subcultures are not opposed, nor is there any attempt to alter them or to destroy them. Rather, fixed and rigid frames dissolve in the creative free flow of dialogue as a new kind of microculture emerges.

People who have taken part in such a dialogue will be able to carry its spirit beyond the particular group into all their activities and relationships and ultimately into the general society. In this way, they can begin to explore the possibility of extending the transformation of the mind that has been discussed earlier to a broader sociocultural context. Such an exploration would clearly be relevant for helping to bring about a creative and harmonious order in the world. It should be clear by now that the major barriers to such an order are not technical; rather they lie in the rigid and fragmentary nature of our basic assumptions. These keep us from changing in response to the actual situations and from being able to move together from commonly shared meanings.

David Bohm and F. David Peat, Science, Order, and Creativity (New York: Bantam, 1987), pages 240-47.

David Bohm's works on the web (external).

The Art of Dialogue: Better Communication in Business and in Life. Interview with William Isaacs, who co-founded MIT's Organizational Learning Center in 1990. He is now a lecturer at the Sloan School of Management and is director of the Institute's Dialogue Project. He is also founder and president of DIAlogos, Inc., a Cambridge company that consults with major companies on organizational learning and author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.

See also books by Peter M. Senge.





Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles