Mind, Matter & Active Information

The Relevance of David Bohm’s Interpretation of Quantum Theory to Cognitive Science

Paavo Pylkkänen

Reports of the Dept. of Philosophy, University of Helsinki

In this paper, Pylkkänen’s manages to clarify Bohm’s sometimes nebulous description of active information and its role in both quantum theory and Bohm’s own mind-matter theory.

The mind-matter theory advanced by Bohm in 1990 proposed that information at the mental level reached, via a series of levels, the quantum particles of the brain, and could from there influence the movement of the body. Working in the opposite direction, perception is conceived to begin at the quantum level, and work its way upwards. Neither Bohm nor the author suggest detailed mechanisms for how this process would be accomplished in the brain. This is in marked contrast to some other quantum consciousness theories, such as Orch OR, QBD or the work of Gustav Bernroider.

If Bohm’s scheme were substantiated, it would mean that existing modern physics allowed mental states to be causally efficacious. This is the reverse of much modern thinking in consciousness studies, where the notion that consciousness cannot be causally efficacious is validated by an appeal to physics.

Active information

The author’s analysis concentrates on Bohm’s 1990 paper, ‘A new theory of the relation of mind and matter’, published in Philosophical Psychology. In his approach to quantum theory in this paper, Bohm regards an electron as an inseparable union of a particle and a field, as distinct from the more conventional view that it is either a wave or a particle, but never both at the same time. The field, in Bohm’s view, may be regarded as containing active information similar in function to the information found at the macroscopic level. This idea is suggested to unite mind and matter, and to break away from any concept of dualism.

Active information is viewed as organising the movement of quantum particles, and Bohm sees this organisation as analogous to the way in which he thinks that consciousness guides the body. Bohm advanced the idea of quantum wholeness or the participation of one thing in another, to replace the idea of either reducing mind to matter or visa versa. At the same time, he rejected the idea of consciousness as an epiphenomenon or by-product that could have no causal effect.

A key notion for Bohm was the concept of the implicate order, originally developed when he was trying to understand the relationship between quantum theory and relativity. Quantum theory and relativity as presently understood are not compatible. The implicate order was suggested to be a more fundamental level from which they both arose, and the existence of which would resolve the conflict between them. in the implicate order the whole universe is enfolded in everything and everything is enfolded in the whole universe. This is Bohm’s version of quantum wholeness. Our own experience comprises an explicate or unfolded order, which arises from the implicate order, and which is also seen in classical physics.


Bohm, in common with some other physicists, stresses that reality is comprised of processes rather than things. Matter is not a permanent thing because, unlike energy, it can be created and destroyed. Quantum particles can be destroyed in collisions with anti-particles, with their energy being converted into light quanta. Matter is merely bound energy and can be returned to energy. The universe should be viewed not as a collection of things but as a series of interacting processes. Bohm’s concept of the implicate order is an attempt to express this idea of interlocking processes. The explicate order of the world as we experience it emerges or unfolds from this interlocking process.

The implicate order is also seen as the basis for understanding the mind and the relationship between mind and matter. Both mind and matter are conceived as processes rather than things, so the conventional mind-matter problem, with matter as a thing, but mind not, is dissolved.

However, Bohm admits that all this is vague and lacking even a suggested mechanism, as to how either mind or matter arise from the implicate order, or how they relate to one another. However, he suggests that understanding quantum theory will go a long way towards understanding the implicate order. It is stressed that given that the scientific world view is physicalist, the widespread disagreements over the interpretation of quantum theory, a theory that is fundamental to our understanding of the physical world, means that in fact there is a lack of any clear world view in the core scientific community.

Bohm, in collaboration with Basil Hiley, emphasised a number of problems in quantum theory, notably, the wave particle duality of the quanta and the need to assume something like a wave function collapse, when a measurement is made, or an interaction with the environment occurs, the problem of non-local influences on quantum properties and the lack of a clear picture of the underlying reality of energy and matter.

For most of the 20th century the Copenhagen interpretation, deriving from Neils Bohr, was the quantum orthodoxy. Bohr’s proposal was that the quanta were only mathematical abstractions allowing a prediction of the possible results of experiments. Nothing could be said about the individual quanta. Bohm, however, questioned this view. He proposed that the quanta had a well defined existence, but were accompanied by a quantum field, quantum wave or quantum potential. Given this assumption, it might be possible to dispose of the problems arising in quantum theory. The orthodox view is that the quantum wave is a probability wave, indicating the probability of a particle being found in a particular position, but for Bohm the wave had a real existence, although it still satisfies Schrödinger’s equation.


In particular, Bohm tried to resolve the non-locality problem, in which quantum theory shows that measurement or decoherence of one quantum particle can instantaneously effect the quantum properties of a distant particle, that is out of range of a signal travelling at the speed of light.

Bohm suggested that the concept of active information would allow us to understand non-locality, with the form of the quantum wave shaping the state of the particle. The quantum potential may be seen as a common pool of information or possibly as a configuration of spacetime. The state of a many-body quantum system involves the whole system and cannot be reduced to its individual parts.


Bohm suggested that the activity of the common pool might be apparent in superconductivity. With superconductivity, the wave states of electrons are locked in phase, and are able to move together without encountering resistance. He viewed this ability as a non-local property that might derive from the existence of active information, instructing the particles to move in phase, much as music instructs ballet dancers to move in phase.
Such active information is also viewed as a possible bridge between mind and matter. Active information can be viewed as the underlying reality, both physical and mental, from which both mind and matter emerge. Mind is viewed as a function of a primary, fundamental or given level of the universe. In this scheme, it is no longer a problem for mind to influence matter.

Pylkkänen criticises the active information concept as inadequate in some respects, in that it does not distinguish between the conscious mind and presumably non-conscious processes such as the non-local relationships between quanta.

In defence of what is obviously a very speculative theory, Bohm says that the whole point of science is to begin with some assumptions, and see if you can explain a wide range of phenomena from a few assumptions. This statement is an important confirmation of how the scientific process can be initiated, in contrast to some of the criticisms of quantum consciousness theories. Thus commentators such as Patricia Churchland have seemed to suggest theories such as those of Penrose and Hameroff are ridiculous because they make as yet unsubstantiated hypothesises. But such hypothesis are essential to the development of science.

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