Changing consciousness

David Bohm & Mark Edwards


Thought is a very powerful instrument, but if we don’t notice how it works, it can also do great harm...




David Bohm: Every nation has come into existence through some thought that said, “We exist; we declare that we exist, we have our independence”, or else it gradually came to that. Thus, we now have a lot of nations that never existed before – a hundred years ago the world map was utterly different. And yet people are supposed to die for nations, and give up all their possessions for them, and put their children into the army for them and sacrifice everything for them. People forget that the boundaries between nations are created entirely by thinking. As you cross the boundary there is no physical change, and very often the people are not all that different. The difference is entirely due to differences in custom and habit and history that began by their thinking differently. They gradually came to have different languages and to have somewhat different ways of life. Then they said, “Here we have a nation,” and they thought, “We’re all united within our nation – we’re different from all other nations.”

Of course, nations may serve a useful purpose as convenient administrative units, and these may correspond to groups of people with a fairly common culture as well as other common interests. But the importance of the differences between nations has always been enormously exaggerated. Indeed, different nations are fairly closely connected physically, and now in the modern world the connection is much closer. Economically we all depend on one another, and ecologically we’re seeing that, with the change of climate and for other reasons, we will all suffer together when things go wrong. So there are a great many key points at which we are intimately bound together. The idea of national sovereignty denies this and says that each nation can do what it likes. This would only make sense if the nations really were independent of each other. But people are overlooking our interdependence and saying that no one can tell our nation what to do. Yet, for example, in Brazil they are cutting down and burning the rainforests. Some of the Brazilian politicians are saying with resentment that you northern, prosperous people are producing most of the carbon dioxide and you are then blaming us for changing the climate. Who do you think you are to tell us what to do with our Amazon? And we in the north similarly say, who do you in Brazil think you are to tell us what to do with our industries? But talking this way, how can we ever get together to stop all this destructive activity?

This way of thinking has been given a name: fragmentation. The word fragment means to smash, to break up. It doesn’t mean to divide. The parts of a watch could be divided, but they could still make up the whole. However, if you smashed the watch, you would get fragments, parts just arbitrarily broken up. People tend to think of nations as parts, but they are really fragments. If you try to take out one nation from the whole context, trade and all sorts of other connections would be broken. Moreover, people pretend that their nation is more united than it actually is. There are all sorts of divisions within each nation that are often far worse than those between nations.

Fragmentation consists of false division, making a division where there is a tight connection, and also false unification, uniting where there is not unity. For example, I say there is no nation that is really united. There is tremendous conflict within each nation – between the poor and the rich, between the bureaucracy and the people, between one ethnic group and another. So it is a fiction that any nation is united and that one nation is sharply distinct from another. And evidently, if we try to live by fiction, we are going to get into trouble. So it is this fragmentation, this fictional way of thinking, that has created all this trouble and produced the armies and the nuclear bombs and the refugees with all their suffering and also our inability to solve the ecological problems, and economic problems, and so on.

Mark Edwards: I think it is difficult to see that thought can create what appear to be independently real things, things like these divisions. Thought tends to assume that it is only reflecting what is actually there, not producing what is there.

DB: Yes. Of course, there is a kind of thought that is more or less a representation of what is there, like a map. However, thought has a creative function as well, to create what is there. In fact, almost everything we see around us in the world was created from thought, including all the cities, all the buildings, all the science, all the technology, and almost everything that we call nature. Farmland was produced by thought, by people thinking what they’re going to do with the land and then doing it. So without thought we wouldn’t have farms; we wouldn’t have factories; we wouldn’t have ships; we wouldn’t have airplanes; we wouldn’t have governments. Supposing we have a company like General Motors. People have to think to know what they are supposed to be doing – if they all forgot this, the company would collapse and would cease to exist. So thought can take part in creativity. Thought has created a lot of good things. It is a very powerful instrument, but if we don’t notice how it works, it can also do great harm.


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