A SUMMARY OF DAVID BOHM'S PAPER ENTITLED
"SOMA-SIGNIFICANCE: A NEW NOTION OF THE RELATIONSHIP
BETWEEN THE PHYSICAL AND THE MENTAL"

by Donald Factor

Bohm introduces the word, 'soma-significance', to replace 'psychosomatic': a term which, he suggests, implies a dualism, two separate entities - mind and body -which interact. This, he proposes, introduces a split or fragmentation between the physical and the mental that does not properly correspond to the actual state of affairs. In his approach, 'soma', which means body or matter, is connected with 'significance' or meaning. (i.e. the meaning of matter.) Meaning is given the key role, rather than mind or matter as distinct entities. The notion of soma-significance, then, provides a bridge between mind and matter. It relates, simply, to two aspects of one over-all field of reality, to be distinguished only for the purposes of thought.

Meaning, he suggests, is primary, and is fundamentally indefinable. At least explicitly; although we know, tacitly, what we mean when we consider meaning, and this will unfold and change as we consider it. Meaning, and the idea of the implicate order are, thus, closely related. The implicate order can be seen as a way of illustrating how meaning is organized. But, as with the whole idea of the enfolding-unfolding orders of the universe, unbroken wholeness provides the essential perspective.

He further suggests two more aspects: manifest and subtle, which are closely related to soma and significance. but which are clearly relative, since what is manifest on one level may be subtle on another. The flow between various levels of subtle and manifest can be described as the apprehension of the meanings of meaning, a process which, he suggests, may lead on to a grasp of very subtle meanings in a flash of insight.

The emphasis need not only be from the direction of the mental or 'significance' realm, where each physical (somatic) configuration has a significance. They can be approached from the physical side too, here termed 'signa-somatic', where the total physical response of a human being can be seen to be profoundly and actively affected by what physical forms mean to him. For example, if a shadow means an assailant rather than just a shadow, both mind and the chemistry of the body will respond accordingly. But in this view, nothing exists in this process except as a two-way movement between the aspects of soma and significance, as well as between levels that are relatively subtle and those that are relatively manifest.

Ultimately, this process extends even into the environment, linking up the whole of society in one vast web extending even to man's relationship with nature and with the cosmos. All of this flows back and forth between what it means to us, and, possibly, what we may mean to it.

Out of this, there arises the notion of intention, which we sense as a feeling of being ready to act in a certain way. In other words, intention unfolds out of meaning. But most of that meaning remains implicit; we cannot possibly describe more than a small part of the total significance we sense at a given moment. So, meaning and intention are seen to be inseparably related as two sides of one activity.

Intentions are commonly thought of as being conscious and deliberate, but, in fact, one's ability to consciously choose or determine his intentions is very limited. One's intentions are discovered by reflectively observing his own action. In action, what is implicit in what one means, is revealed more fully. One only perceives intentions, not the thing in itself. Thus, intention and action are constantly changing in the act of revealing a fuller perception of the implications of its meaning.

In terms of the implicate or enfolded order it becomes possible to look at the various levels of meaning enfolding each other, and having a significant bearing on each other. Meaning, then, is seen as a constantly extending and actualizing structure -it is never complete or fixed. The implication is that meaning is a dynamic principle capable of an indefinite extension to ever greater levels of subtlety, as well as comprehensiveness. But this can only take place, in human experience, when new meanings are being perceived freshly from moment to moment. Memory, being some kind of a recording, has a kind of stable quality which cannot transform the structure in any fundamental way, and which only has a limited capacity to adapt to new situations. It can only reorganise existing meanings.

Although, it might seem at first sight that somewhere there is a bottom level of meaning, or objective reality, it would appear, upon further consideration, that within any concrete meaning there is always an inherent ambiguity. Any truly 'bottom level' would, necessarily, have to be unambiguous. It would, simply, have to just 'be there', completely independent of what it might mean to us. But even in the realm of science there would appear to be a tight bond between, so-called, fundamental particles or fields, and higher, more complex levels that are more clearly dependent on meaning. Quantum mechanics, for example, is only able to deal with the probabilities of certain events in certain situations; it can say nothing about the behaviour of an individual particle, nor can it even provide an unambiguous concept or picture of what sort of process is supposed to take place in such a measurement. Further, it also implies that no bottom-level of unambiguous reality is possible. So, quantum mechanics, along with the whole field of meaning (and of any consideration of reality) appears to be dependent on a larger context.

Content, according to the dictionary, is the essential meaning - such as in the content of a book. But any specifiable content is abstracted from a wider context which is so closely connected with it that its meaning cannot be properly defined without it; and that context can further be seen as content in terms of a wider context, and so on. So whether a form seen in the night means a 'shadow' or an 'assailant' will depend on such things as what one has heard about prowlers, or, possibly, what one has had to eat or drink, etc. It can be seen, then, that human beings in any given situation contribute to both the content and the context, and that there is, inevitably, an ever more subtle interplay between content and context in any set of meanings. These two aspects, then, are very similar to soma and significance, and to the subtle and the manifest.

Implied in all of this, is the notion that every feature of the universe is not only dependent on its context, but that its grosser aspects are dependent on subtler levels that are closely analogous to soma-significant and signa-somatic activity. This view further implies that everything, including ourselves, is a generalized kind of meaning. Consciousness, along with all of nature, shares a basic over-all process which is an extension of soma-significance. In other words, it might be said that without meaning there would be no consciousness. Therefore, essentially, it is more consistent to say that this meaning is independent of man, rather than that there is an unambiguous 'bottom level' where these considerations have no place.

In principle, it is possible in this way to encompass both the outward universe of matter, and the inward universe of mind. In this approach three basic aspects arise:

Soma, or matter,

Significance, or meaning,

and Energy.

From the point of view of the implicate order, energy and matter are imbued with a certain kind of significance, which gives form to their over-all activity, and to the matter which arises in this activity. The energy of mind, and of the material substance of the brain, are also imbued with a kind of significance which gives form to their over-all activity, and to the material structures that arise therein. So, quite generally, we may say that energy enfolds matter and meaning, while matter enfolds energy and meaning. And the way we find out about matter and energy is by seeing what it means. Thus, meaning enfolds matter and energy, and through this mutual enfoldment, the whole notion obtains unity.

But this symmetry of meaning is not yet complete, because the entire field, as illustrated, must also enfold itself in meaning. In other words, there is the meaning of meaning. Meaning refers to itself directly while matter and energy can only obtain their self-reference indirectly (i.e. by referring to one another, and through meaning.) Therefore, the way is opened to seeing the possibility of a generalised kind of intelligence which can comprehend a whole, including itself, and which is independent of man.

Meaning, though, has always been considered as peculiar to our own minds, and not as a proper part of the objective universe. However, we have seen that whatever meanings we have in 'our minds' are inseparable from the totality of our somatic structures, and, therefore, from what we are. These meanings, though, can be seen to depend on the whole set of meanings operative within us. They have their origins in society as a whole, and are in turn, dependent upon a larger context, and so on. So, if there is a generalized kind of meaning intrinsic to the whole universe, including our own bodies and minds, then the way is opened for an understanding of the whole as self- referent through its meaning for itself.

From this sort of perspective, one can then see that changing meaning can change human lives, along with the whole world. Any transformation in consciousness requires a change in meaning. Each change in meaning becomes, in fact, a change in being. And these changes are not only in the aspect of significance, but also in the aspect of soma. Each perception of a new meaning by human beings, changes the over-all reality in which they live and have their existence, someArial in a far-reaching way. This implies that such reality can never be complete; that meaning is a dynamic principle that has a fundamental role to play in what life actually is. Without this, as soon as one says that a thought corresponds to an object, he has a division - the thought and the object. What is needed is a view in which the thought itself is part of reality.

If we extend this idea of meaning to the cosmos as a whole, we can see that, although human meanings make a certain contribution; the notion of generalised soma-significance implies that the cosmos itself is actively ordered according to a kind of 'objective' meaning in which the whole organises the parts. Meaning is a dynamic factor that contributes actively to reality. Out of this, human beings, along with everything else, unfold. And, as happens with the action of human beings, new meanings may emerge in this over-all order as part of a process of creative unfoldment of generalised meaning.

If meaning is an active part of reality, independent of human consciousness, then to change our perception of meaning requires energy. Any perception of new meaning constitutes a creative act. But only meaning, it would appear, can arouse energy. This energy can be aroused by our perception of incompleteness or contradiction - when the old meanings no longer cohere. Then, the beginnings of the notion of a new meaning might begin to penetrate a person's intentions. The actions unfolding from these intentions will be aimed at decreasing the discrepancy. Then, often, in a flash that seems to take no time at all, a coherent new whole of meaning appears. And each new meaning makes its contribution, both subtly and manifestly, to reality. The point is, then, that once society, the individual, and their relationships are seen deeply (and intellectual understanding is not enough) to mean something different from what they did before, a fundamental change has already taken place. No planning, no act of will, which arises out of a universe of old meanings, can effect the change.

Our civilization has been suffering from what may be called a failure of meaning, as can be seen by people referring for ages to the meaninglessness of life. Here, meaning, signifies value. In other words, a meaningless life has no value; it is not worth living. But, of course, it is impossible for anything to be totally free of meaning. Each thing is its total meaning. The problem has been that the perceived meanings have been very mechanical, and thus, constraining. A new meaning, would be sensed to have a high value that could arouse the energy needed to bring a whole new way of life into being.

Our action toward the rest of the universe is fundamentally the result of the totality of what it means to us. But, here, the suggestion is that everything acts according to a similar principle. Rather than ask, what is the meaning of the universe (in which man, of course, is included)? Or, what is the meaning of life? We have to say that the universe, and life, and man, is its meaning. And this meaning is capable of changing. As this meaning changes, so also does the universe and all that is in it. This does not refer only to the meaning of the universe for us, but more generally to what we have called its 'objective' meaning - its meaning for itself.

For this sort of change to be experienced in human life, a creative perception of new and evermore encompassing meaning is required. One can say that this meaning unfolds from an unlimited, infinite, source. Creativity can be seen as the action of the infinite within the sphere of the finite. But as long as the significance of the finite dominates human consciousness, then he will actually be this finite significance. When mankind truly sees the new meaning - that mankind need not be limited in this way - then he will actually cease to be limited. He will begin to be open to the infinite, and he will be able to act creatively in every phase of life, individual and collective.

If mankind could sustain a perception signifying that the world is an unbroken whole, with a multiplicity of meanings, some of which are fitting and harmonious, and some of which are not, then a very different state of affairs could unfold. For then there could be an unending creative perception of new meanings that encompass the older ones in broader and more harmonious wholes, which would unfold in a corresponding transformation of the over-all reality that was thus encompassed, and only those meanings which allow changes that tend to bring about this harmony would survive.

- 1984 -