What my dissertation is about
1. The basic idea
The physicist David Bohm suggests that at the deepest level, physical reality is ordered in such a way that every part contains information about the whole (he calls this ordering principle "implicate order"). My dissertation explores the idea that human reality might be ordered in a similar fashion or, rather, should be. In other words, I suggest that the good life may be measured by the degree to which human experience and society is ordered in such a way that people experience themselves and their neighbors as parts of a larger, coherent whole.
The English poet Willliam Blake expressed this desirable state of affairs thusly:
To see a world in a grain of sand
My dissertation explores what scientific basis there is for this essentially mystical idea. I present supportive evidence from studies of biological morphogenesis, brain order, visual perception, cognitive development, decision making and the social construction of reality. These pieces are brought together into a conceptual model that describes two types of human experience.
One I call the unity experience, which is the experience of a larger wholeness or unity through particular activities or aspects of one's life. The other I call the diversity experience, which is the experience that other people's actions and beliefs are equally legitimate and worthwhile avenues to the same kind of wholeness. The unity experience without the diversity experience leads to absolutism and fanaticism, while the diversity experience without the unity experience leads to relativism and meaninglessness.
The ideal case, which I call the good life, maximizes both experiences at the same time. This is unity-in-diversity, in which one recognize particlars paths to unity and wholeness as complementary to other paths. One has the experience that life coheres and makes sense on the grand scale (the unity experience), while one appreciates that other folks may have found different routes to meaning and wholeness in their lives (the diversity experience).
Just before I entered my doctoral program at University of Pennsylvania in 1981 I read a book by the quantum physicist David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order. I was enraptured. Here was a holism that seemed very different from the systems thinking I had studied in London and was about to go to the States for. It seemed much better: more subtle, more comprehensive, more radical in its complete overthrow of the most central assumptions of Western philosophy and science. I loved that.
After a few years it became clear to me that I wanted to do something with this concept of implicate order. Might it not denote a kind of wholeness that was worth striving for, not just in our knowledge of the world, as Bohm had emphasized, but also in human existence and society as a whole? This was my intuition and I wanted to explore it and flesh it out in my dissertation.
However, I had to express these ideas in a form that would count as the sort of scientific research expected from doctoral work in the very quantitatively oriented business school I attended. This led me into a long and arduous detour in research methodology, but the end result was that I opted for a philosophical dissertation in which I explore a research opportunity, as I called it, rather than a research problem to be solved by the standard empirical procedures. The opportunity I exploited was the one afforded by Bohm’s excellent concept: Can we use it to conceptualize the good? Will it help us look at human experience and social order in a way that allows us, in very general terms, to delineate what is desirable and worth striving for in life and society? The dissertation presents the results of my exploration of this question.
In a word, I use David Bohm’s very holistic concept of implicate order to fashion a view of what the good life ought to feel like. Just as "implicate order" denotes a certain kind of wholeness in the quantum domain, so this kind of wholeness might also characterize human experience under certain conditions. Where these conditions obtain, we find the good life.
By "implicate order" Bohm wanted to denote a kind of order that was very different from the Cartesian order of things that we are so used to. In the Cartesian order the world’s things seem to exist outside of each other. A chair here, a table there, a door over there. Likewise, your regular Cartesian system of coordinates fixes points as occupying different locations outside of each other. It may seem obvious that this is the way the world is. How could a chair and a table be inside of each other?
Yet, this is exactly the order of many non-particulate "things". First and foremost waves. Waves on the surface of an ocean overlap or "superimpose", as its called, so that many of them occupy the same space at the same time. This is what the air inside a concert hall is like, a very complex pattern of superimposed sound waves emanating from all the instruments and spreading out over the entire hall. This pattern of air waves is extremely welll-ordered, as you might convince yourself by listening to the music. From the apparent jumble of sound waves the trained ear is able to pick out dozens of different instruments. So the order of the music is enfolded into the dynamic patter of compressing and decompressing air at a given point in the concert hall.
Furthermore, this is so at every point in the concert hall. No matter where you put your ears you hear essentially the same music. Each part of the volume of air in the hall contains information about the music coming from the entire orchestra. Information in the form of well-ordered sound waves is enfolded or "implicated" into the entire volume of air. The sound waves are not outside of each other, like we experience tables and chairs to be. The wave pattern is thus an implicate (enfolded) order, in contrast to the explicate (unfolded) order of tables and chairs. (The root is plicare, latin for "fold", as in multiplication, folding many times, and ind Danish: en plisseret nederdel, dvs. foldet.)
In my extracurricular readings in graduate school I found many instances of implicate order in biology, neuroscience, consciousness studies and social science. This suggested to me that implicate order was not limited to the quantum-physical world but was evident in the fertilized egg (Brian Goodwin's work), in visual peception (Fergus Campell), brain order (Karl Pribram) and decision making (Rashi Glazer). It seemed as if the primary order of functioning in the body, the senses and the mind might be implicate.
The role of consciousness may be precisely to unravel this complex, overlapping order, where everything is everywhere, and split it up into manageable parts placed in neat categories outside of each other. The buzzing, blooming confusion (as William James called it) that hits our senses is really an implicate order where everything seems to be everywhere. It is unfolded by our senses and consciousness, such that we can handle and manipulate reality. We unfold or construct the categories of our world. The "social construction of reality" that has become such an academically popular theme in recent years is, in these terms, the proces by which our minds transforms the implicate order of the wave-energy (light, sound, etc.) impinging on our senses and create our well-known sensible reality of discrete tables and chairs and categories and concepts out of it.
Human development unfolds the innate potential represented by the implicate order of the fertilized egg. An infant is a fairly undifferentiated mass of movement and perception and associations, and during growth and maturations they are are pinned down and made discrete and localizable. An implicate order is being unfolded, as I describe in Chapter 3 of my dissertation.
The great temptation is to think that the categories produced during this development are out there in reality itself. They are constructed, as Piaget's work showed - only he had little to say about the physics or ontology of a world that allowed such unfoldement or reality construction in the child. This I spend some time covering, in Chapter 2.