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Quantum Romanticism: The Aesthetics of the Sublime in David Bohm’s Philosophy of Physics

According to Kant, aesthetic experience is central to mediating the relationship between humans and the world. Through aesthetic judgement we experience the harmonious working of our rational faculties, and then project that harmony outwards onto the empirical world, wherein we perceive in objects the formal unity that we discover in ourselves. While this harmony can impress upon us the intelligibility and purposiveness of nature, at other times we are overcome by nature’s infinite greatness and renounce the attempt to understand it. Judgements of the sublime in particular reveal our inner metaphysical infinitude, sensed as a moral absolute within us or an aesthetic intimation of the same. Whereas beauty is recognised through an accordance of imagination and understanding, which generates a feeling of peace and harmony, recognition of the sublime requires completion by reason, whereupon imagination’s insufficiency is overridden by reason’s capacity to conceive of totality as a whole, evoking a feeling of unity and oneness that highlights what Kant calls our supersensible or noumenal self.

Thus, we do not remain passive in the presence of totality but transcend the province of the senses and appreciate the grandeur of nature as a grandeur of the mind; in Knox’s words, ‘…a grandeur born of Reason and the consciousness of moral worth1.’ Ultimately, for Kant, it is this supersensible aspect that is sublime.

In this essay I suggest that similar sentiments can be discerned within the discourse of contemporary physics. Especially in the popular literature, much of the writing on quantum theory and cosmology reflects an aesthetic appraisal of the sublimity of nature that revives the Romanticist link between nature and aesthetics first established by Kant in theCritique of Judgement. In particular, the sublime may provide the aesthetic justification for the transcendent impulses that sometimes accompany discussions of one of the central tenets of quantum physics—the idea that ‘the physical world is one unbroken, undissectable, dynamic whole2.’

The impact on the imagination of ideas stemming from physics is demonstrated by a burgeoning literature that testifies to the enduring capacity of quantum mechanics to constantly initiate speculation that far exceeds its instrumentalist efficacy. Ever since the realisation in the mid-1920s that nature, in Heisenberg’s words, could ‘…possibly be as absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments3,’ quantum mechanics has introduced some of the most far-reaching ideas in contemporary metaphysics. Overturning the classical view of a rational and mechanistic world having an objective existence ‘out there,’ independent of the observer, quantum theory challenges assumptions of an intuitively imaginable and knowable order in the universe and continues to raise deep and unresolved questions regarding the nature of reality and our place notion within it.

Prominent amongst those engaging with such questions is the theoretical physicist David Bohm, who has developed a distinctive and idiosyncratic philosophy founded on the proposition of an undivided universe. Based on his understanding of quantum mechanics, Bohm’s holistic conception of an ‘implicate order’ governing all phenomena goes beyond physics to embrace the whole of life. Although his views are not shared by the majority of physicists, Bohm’s ideas are often acknowledged by those seeking in science an alternative worldview that endorses our connectedness with nature as a whole. Characterised by themes of transcendence and order, of the whole and the parts, the infinite and the finite, these discussions disclose a longing for unity with a realm beyond the world of appearances that has historically preoccupied all metaphysical inquiry. Why quantum physics, in particular, should stimulate such non-physical speculation is a question that may be more readily understood in aesthetic terms as a response to the ineffable that accords with Kant’s rationale for the sublime.

As Kant pointed out, our conception of the infinite universe as a unified whole is inextricably tied to the awareness of our own finite existence. In demonstrating the depth and intensity of cognitive experience, the sublime, with its emphasis on the supersensible, elicits the awareness of our potential to rise above the limitations of finite phenomenal existence and to apprehend a transcendent, noumenal realm. While in rational terms this may be seen as the triumph of reason over sensibility, imputations of a transcendent reality beyond sensory reach point to that other field to which both the discourse of the sublime and the discourse of physics have historically turned for authentication: theology. Permeated by an implicit theism governed by the inscription on the Western mind of the transcendental status of infinity—both mathematical and metaphysical—physics and the sublime are each characterised by the ancient desire for knowledge of the One. Indeed, the belief that the study of the laws of physics is an act of communion with God, a sacred union between mind and nature via mathematics, recurs throughout the line of rational thought leading from classical physics to the intangible mathematical entities of today. At the same time, the tradition of the sublime has its origins in the mysterium tremendum associated with religious experience. The influence of the Christian mystical tradition can be discerned in the Romantics’ echo of the Pseudo-Dionysius’ assertion that the sublime experience reveals God. Described by Knox as a feeling of ‘spiritual rehabilitation,’ the exultant inner spark elicited by the sublime renders it first and foremost a tradition of spiritual inquiry, as Voller puts it, ‘an aesthetically founded quest devoted to recovering intimations of the divine4.’

Against this backdrop, physics’ relationship to the sublime is embedded within a framework defined by Romanticism. While in a descriptive sense the sublime may only apply to the supersensible, its aesthetic experience can be evoked by natural phenomena and for the Romantics the sublime manifested through contemplation of the spectacles of nature, where awe and admiration at the overwhelming power and majesty of nature elevated the soul beyond the world of the commonplace. At the same time, the natural sublime established the significance of inner space wherein the immeasurability of physical space was metaphorically linked to the infinitude of our supersensible faculty. By providing a substitute for Christian cosmology displaced by the new sciences, the 18th century sublime countered the anxieties elicited by the apparent withdrawal of God from human affairs by associating the infinite universe with the majesty of the divine, an aesthetic response wherein the boundless universe came to signify the infinite power of God. The experience of the infinite, then, serves as a correlation of transcendence, the spatial or temporal enactment of consciousness in search of that which is beyond itself, the ‘other’5.

The regulative metaphors of Romanticism’s understanding of the world are reappearing through the terms in which physics is perceived today. To contemporary romantics, physics reveals that ‘…the cosmos is a seamless unity—the One—which contains within itself, in potential form…all that which is possible or impossible, all that is or might be6.’ Indeed, the encounter with the unpresentable in physics is driving a shift to the poetic margins of the discourse and beyond, whereupon a kind of literary romanticism inflects much non-technical writing on quantum theory as physicists attempt to come to terms with a new level of description in which everything is interconnected in an unvisualisable whole. Whilst the wave-particle duality defies the imagination, in quantum field theory material substance dissolves into a formless void of ephemeral quantum interactions, a dynamic network of vibrating energy patterns in which all points of the cosmos are connected via the quantum foam. The view that the underlying structure of the universe is field-like rather than particle-like, along with the Copenhagen assertion that any observation of atomic phenomena involves an interaction with the agency of observation that prevents an independent reality being ascribed to either of them, has led to the embodiment in physics of metaphysical themes attributed to the feature of ‘wholeness’ of quantum phenomena, and the inseparability of subject and object, which are instituting a dramatic reappraisal of how we describe the universe.

And with each new discovery, the quotient of accessible sublimity in physics is continually being enlarged. While holism in one form or another has always been a tenet of modern physics, the implications of non-locality stemming from Bell’s Theorem and the 1982 Aspect experiments attest to a whole that ultimately has no definable parts, since science can only correlate relations between particulars. The realisation that the whole cannot be represented as a sum of its parts has disclosed an unexpected limit to scientific knowledge that sees ontological and metaphysical speculation interacting with other areas of thought. Consequently, the appeal to terms used in transcendental, theological and mystical discourses by physicists and philosophers attempting to ‘explain’ quantum mechanics and its epistemological implications to the wider audience not only indicates just how entangled physics and metaphysics are but also confirms John Wheeler’s observation that, not content with insights into nature, we are demanding of physics some understanding of existence itself.

However, the separation of theory and experiment that characterises physics today means that it attempts to speak on behalf of all aspects of human endeavour at a time when it has reached its empirical limits. Insofar as it deals with the ‘real,’ the fact that quantum theory cannot account for the ontological status of its constituent entities and, in its orthodox interpretation, can make no assertions about what is ultimately real has resulted in its enlistment in aid of all sorts of metaphysical positions. At the same time, the increasing separation of the objects of physics from the realm of the real is resulting in the crystallisation of a distinctive sphere of experience within physics itself—that of the aesthetic.

Specifically, aesthetics manifests in our attempts to make sense of the world, in our efforts to discover, or indeed, createmeaning as imaginatively participating perceivers. Such a bias is particularly evident in David Bohm’s outlook. Indeed, Bohm articulates a position that might be termed ‘quantum aestheticism.’ Throughout his career, Bohm was preoccupied with understanding the meaning of quantum mechanics. Dissatisfied with the conventional mechanistic formulations of physics, in which all phenomena are viewed in a strictly external relationship to one another, he challenged prevailing orthodoxy by formulating an alternative theory to the Copenhagen Interpretation that seeks to restore what he felt was the natural symmetry between humans and the world. Although Bohm’s ‘ontological interpretation’ of quantum mechanics remains controversial, of interest here is the interplay not only between physics and metaphysics in his views but between physics and aesthetics, manifest in his desire to establish a coherent meaning for the whole. Observing that ‘physics is more like quantum organism than quantum mechanics,’ Bohm calls for a reinstatement of meaning and value into the scientific worldview and extends his ideas on physics into a range of previously non-physical areas such as perception, language, creativity and society to propose a unity of all human experience in which consciousness and the creative imagination are intrinsic features of the whole.

Although by no means representative of mainstream thinking in physics, Bohm occupies a central niche in a discourse sometimes referred to as ‘post-quantum metaphysics.’ Characterised by a combination of science and metaphysics, of explanation and speculation, of the rational and the mystical, this discourse, with its focus on nature and beyond, discloses a romantic longing to embrace the whole of experience while at the same time acknowledging that the universe may remain forever inconceivable and our knowledge always incomplete.

Bohm’s position is predicated on non-locality’s inference of the undivided wholeness of the universe but also conditioned by the awareness that this wholeness as a totality is unpresentable. As he puts it, physical theories ‘…are not “descriptions of reality as it is” but, rather, ever-changing forms of insight, which can point to or indicate a reality that is implicit and not describable or specifiable in its totality.’ To regard our theories as truth rather than as a way of viewing the world reinforces a fragmentary picture of the world, he says, leading to the illusion that the world is constituted of separately existing ‘atomic building blocks.’ Bohm advocates that we adopt a new form of insight in which the world is viewed as an ‘undivided whole, in which all parts of the universe…merge and unite into one totality7.’

In acknowledging the existence of an indivisible whole that may forever lie beyond the reach of observation and measurement, physics enters the realm of the sublime. According to Kant, the sublime is a feeling generated by a confrontation of the mind with an object that defies assimilation by the senses, an object that threatens to overwhelm our perceptual and imaginative capacities. Such is the cosmos. Nevertheless, the aim of physics is to incorporate all parts of the universe, from the elementary particles within atoms to the largest astronomical structures, into a single conceptual framework. Indeed, the goal, in Einstein’s words, is nothing less than a theory ‘…whose object is the totality of all physical appearances,’ whereupon ‘…the whole of physics would become a complete system of thought8.’ In attempting to present a totality that we are unable to comprehend as a totality at the level of the senses but which we can comprehend at the level of thought, physics implicitly encodes within its discourse the aesthetic spark of the sublime. That is, by endeavouring to encompass this complex totality within a single conceptual framework, physics provides a mechanism whereby our inability to assimilate this totality at the sensory level is overridden by an awareness that we can assimilate it in rational terms. Such a capacity enables us to feel the scope and superiority of our rational nature. This is the source of our aesthetic pleasure. Or, as physicist Paul Davies puts it: ‘The ability of physics to unify the strange and bewildering world about us cannot fail to be profoundly inspiring9.’

Bohm’s inspiration is manifest in his ‘implicate order’ hypothesis—a new generative order emerging from discoveries at the quantum level which he claims has significance extending far beyond physics to an understanding of unity in all areas of life. Developed to explain the mysterious phenomenon of particle ‘entanglement’ stemming from the EPR paradox, where two particles issuing from the same source appear to instantaneously ‘communicate’ with each other after being separated by vast distances, Bohm’s theory proposes the existence of a deeper realm of unobserved sub-quantum forces underlying and acting upon the quantum field, a hidden dimension of infinite depth that ultimately gives rise to the material space-time universe. In this view, interactions between sub-atomic particles, although they manifest in discrete units, are more like dynamic and interlinked structures which are grounded in the whole from which they unfold. It is a conception in which all phenomena are interrelated. Relying on analogy as much as any formal schema for its description, Bohm invokes the idea of a hologram to describe the implicate order as ‘a vast dimensionality, a much richer sort of reality,’ wherein each point in space-time is not only connected to every other but contains every other via a constant process of enfolding and unfolding that he calls the ‘holomovement.’ This movement is described by the mathematics of quantum theory, he says, ‘…an unbroken and undivided movement of waves that unfold and enfold throughout the whole of space.’

By its very nature the implicate order is an abstract and elusive concept. It is, in essence, an aestheticised model of reality in which everything is enfolded within an infinite totality; an attempt, in terms of the sublime, to represent the unrepresentable. Reversing the reductionist view that the whole is the sum of its parts, Bohm proposes instead that the whole is fundamental and that the parts, the ‘explicate order,’ are the result of the enfolding of the underlying implicate order, the primary framework of reality. For Bohm, the idea that the world is one dynamic and undivided whole has now been established in physics and as this new order of a whole and undivided totality replaces the old order of separation traditionally utilised by science it will become the basis for a new worldview—a synthesis of science, art and spirituality that can enable the establishment of a common and unified culture.

In evoking a hidden synthesis which supposedly reveals the inner connection between things, developments in physics are said by some commentators to be contributing to our rediscovery of the ‘aesthetic and spiritual meanings of nature’ and our connectedness to a ‘creative and mysterious universe10.’ Indeed, Bohm sees physics as confirming the intuitive sense of unity with nature as a whole that he felt as a child: ‘When I first studied quantum mechanics, I felt again that sense of internal relationship—that it was describing something I was experiencing directly…11.’ Characterised by themes of longing and fulfilment, the Romanticist belief that a communion with nature can provide direct access to intuitive truth now finds expression in physicists’ holistic accounts of an interconnected universe.

This discourse also confirms that an abiding influence in modern metaphysics remains Kant’s vision of a finite humanity cast into an infinite world yet exalted by the infinitude of freedom, wherein our conception of the infinite universe as an all-encompassing unified whole is bound to the poignant self-consciousness of the finitude of our own existence. The desire for a sense of unity in the face of the unpresentable accords the subject a central role in the creation of meaning and Bohm’s comments express that same tension between our awareness of finitude and our status as rational beings that characterises the Kantian sublime. And while Kant declared science incapable of solving the problems of metaphysics, since science deals only with the world of appearances, the world of phenomena and not the world of noumena or things-in-themselves, Bohm is transforming metaphysical problems into problems of physics.

Bohm wants to restore objective reality to the conventional understanding of quantum mechanics. Rejecting the non-realist inferences of the Copenhagen Interpretation, Bohm insists that the wholeness implicit in a reality structure founded on quantum discontinuity, context-dependent form (the wave-particle duality), and non-locality is actual, it matters, and it warrants serious investigation. He contends that the experimental implications of quantum mechanics have been suppressed in favour of a commitment to mechanism, despite being philosophically inconsistent with the experimental facts, and that as the nature of reality dissolved into something indescribable physicists abandoned any attempt to grasp the world as an intuitively comprehensible whole and instead restricted themselves to developing a workable mathematical formalism. He asserts that because the structure of reality implied by 20th century physics is enfolded within the whole it is thus available to human experience. As such, wholeness is more than a theoretical notion for Bohm, it is a field of meaning, a living totality that includes us as active participants.

Any conception of reality, however, that is expressed in terms of a dynamic, seamless continuum in which the observer is an active participant cannot be entirely understood by reason alone but requires mediation via the aesthetic imagination. As in the Romanticist view of the world as an infinite text in which our interpretations derive from our ‘sympoetic’ readings of it, Bohm regards the question of the meaning of a given set of facts and equations in physics as finally an aesthetic one, involving modes of appraisal and perception that are ‘…basically artistic in nature.’ The key to understanding in science lies in recognising the significance of those acts of creative imagination that accord meaning to the interpretation of data, he says: ‘Physics is a form of insight, and as such it is a form of art12.’

For Bohm, the aesthetic considerations of science extend to the very fabric of experience. In an echo of Schelling’s contention that nature and art are the product of the same activity, one that is aesthetic in essence (the only difference between them being that with the world the creative activity is unconscious whereas with art it is conscious), Bohm declares that not only is scientific inquiry itself richly aesthetic, but ‘fundamentally, all activity is an art…art is present everywhere’; even the idea of the cosmos (derived from the Greek ‘order’) is ‘an artistic concept really.’ And holding that imaginative insight is a prerequisite in the search for truth, he asserts that the perception of new relationships in quantum mechanics hinges on a process of creative discernment that not only informs scientific methodology but dissolves any distinction between art and science. Consequently, the unity between these ‘different but complementary’ modes of experience reveals a harmony that enables insights into questions of meaning and value that are ‘…at the basis of humanity’s process of assimilating all experience into one dynamic and creative totality.’

That Bohm should embrace physics in order to explore the meaning and value of existence is consistent with the Romanticist elevation of nature as a means to self-reflection, wherein the individual is not only the source of reason but also the source of creativity. In opposing Newtonian reductionism and the empiricist concentration on the part at the expense of the whole, the Romantics applied the ‘union of the senses and imagination’ to those questions on which science was largely silent: value, aesthetics and the unity of all things. Influenced by Schelling’s metaphysical natural philosophy, which combined Kant’s transcendental idealism with the belief that transcendental ideas had an objective existence in nature, the aesthetic contemplation of nature was thought to restore a fragmented humankind to unity, reintegrate sense and feeling with reason and relocate the individual in an organic relationship with their environment. Kant’s link between natural science and aesthetics as quests for order that lie beyond the bounds of sense found acceptance in the belief of Goethe and others that aesthetic appraisal involves a re-enactment of the processes of creation through which one may intuit the “inner ground of nature13.’

In claiming that the holistic implications of quantum physics signal a new and creative mode of human thinking, Bohm is extending themes that have informed the relationship between philosophy and aesthetics in the modern period into the discourse of quantum mechanics. In its ability to satisfy our desire for meaning, Bohm sees science as a symbol of the morally ‘good’ in much the same way the Romantics regarded aesthetic appraisal; both modes of experience reveal intimations of the transcendental in the purposiveness and intelligibility of nature. The capacity of science to assimilate what he calls the ‘structural relationships of existence’ enables insights into coherent ‘essential relationships; that can illuminate nature as a whole. Our appreciation of this coherence, he says, produces feelings of harmony, oneness and beauty, which parallel the state of the universe as a unified totality.

Bohm’s belief in an infinite and harmonious universe imbued with a hidden order belies an implicit aesthetic of the sublime that finds expression in his notion of the holomovement—the infinite and unlimited fundamental ground of all being. Characterised by themes of unity and separation, order and fragmentation, Bohm’s description of the holomovement evokes a conception of the sublime in which the field of the finite, tangible to the senses, is suspended within the field of the infinite, beyond space and time and the current conceptual grasp of physics. Enfolding the implicate order within the wave structure of the universe-in-motion, Bohm’s holomovement refers to a level of reality concealed below the level of experience, an unknowable and indescribable sea of energy that cannot be defined explicitly but can only be known implicitly. Although not present to perception, this ‘undivided wholeness in flowing movement’ may be sensed like the vastness of space is sensed, says Bohm, as an emptiness or nothingness. The holomovement is a universal flux that is prior to the things which form and dissolve in it and in which we are like that which we observe, merging ultimately with the universal field movement. In this flux, mind and matter are not separate substances. Such a totality collapses any distinction between thought and reality, he says, enigmatically declaring ‘…that reality is no thing and…also not the totality of all things.’

Rather than covering some limited, measurable and completely knowable domain, the project of physics is, observes Bohm, ‘…an indefinite and unending unfolding into a measureless unknown.’ Here, issues of ‘totality’ in science intersect with Kant’s theme of the limit to reason, where the idea of an absolutely unknowable reality beyond the world of experience—the realm of the noumenal, or ‘thing-in-itself’—induces the sublime awareness that something transcends the mind’s capacity to grasp it. Inferences of ultimate unknowability in science require that all differentiated systems in nature be supplemented, in theory and fact, by other systems. And while each of the systems isolated in the study of nature is in some sense a whole, no single system, except the entire universe, can fully realise the cosmic order of the totality. As such, the unbroken and undivided whole cannot be limited in any specifiable way, says Bohm: ‘It is not required to conform to any particular order, or to be bounded by any particular measure…the holomovement is undefinable and immeasurable.’

In occasioning imaginative representations that strive after something which lies beyond the bounds of experience, Bohm’s philosophy of science demonstrates that the quest for the absolute possesses universal characteristics. His metaphysical notion of an underlying unbroken wholeness, of ‘that-which-is,’ has resonated with theologians who, seeking in science a confirmation of their own view of the world, have interpreted the holomovement as an aspect of the transcendent features of nature that correspond to a divine presence, or as the pure consciousness of God. From a physicist’s perspective, Jack Sarfatti combines Bohm’s holographic universe with Wheeler’s proposition of a participatory universe to propose a union of mind and universe as one immense, cognitional multidimensional projection space in which the wavefunction of the universe provides the mechanism for communion with God.

Here, at the poetic extremes of quantum speculation, science intersects the spiritual via the aesthetic perception of the infinite in the finite. Appeals to the theological and the ineffable are a particular mark of the confluence of physics and mysticism that characterises much popular quantum conjecture. Claims that quantum mechanics affirms the creative potential of human consciousness to apprehend a transcendent domain or to glimpse the essential nature of things are, in aesthetic terms, the contemporary expression of the human subject’s elevation above the world of the senses. From the enlistment of Eastern spiritual philosophies as heuristic aids in understanding the holistic inferences of physics to a gnostic desire to apprehend and experience the absolute, in quantum mysticism the romantic sublime surfaces in Neoplatonic mode, conspiring with notions of ekstasis and a unity beyond the realm of the material that reflects a desire not to apprehend the universe as real but, as Plotinus put it, ‘one living organism14.’

Bohm himself was a follower of Krishnamurti, and although he does not explicitly endorse the worldview of quantum mysticism his writings are a common reference for those outside science who do. However, Bohm’s metaphysics come with a unique and authoritative warrant. Bohm’s ontological interpretation of quantum mechanics, also known as the ‘hidden variables’ theory, is considered the main alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation and some argue that, but for historical contingencies, it might have become dominant among physicists. Seeking to synthesise opposing positions in contemporary physics, the Bohm-Vigier causal theory has been enlisted into the so-called ‘post-quantum’ attempt to locate a theory of consciousness within physical reality. With its inferences of a quantum force in the form of a pilot-wave, Bohm’s theory provides an alternative interpretation of non-locality that goes beyond the pragmatic applications of conventional quantum mechanics, which might, according to its advocates, enable the unification of mind with matter15.

Post-quantum mechanics introduces the contemporary paradigm as a product of consciousness. In post-quantum holism there can be no separation between the mind and its object. In this picture, the cosmos emerges as the ultimate feedback loop; the universe itself is conscious, with human consciousness ‘participating’ in this dynamic as an intrinsic feature. The awareness that there is a limit to our ability to fully apprehend physical reality means that acts of cognition can no longer be viewed in classical terms as representations or images of independently existing facts; instead the physical foundation for the activities of the brain must now be viewed as intimately connected with the whole.

The problem remains, however, that science conditions us into an awareness of the existence of this whole yet cannot affirm its existence in strictly scientific terms16. A world that is a dynamic, living whole cannot be represented as a sum of its parts; the reality itself can never be finally disclosed, defined, or described by physical theory, only inferred. Thus, physics has brought us to the threshold of knowledge concerning the existence of the undivided whole, yet we cannot cross that threshold in terms of consciousness. Any experience of reality in which the human is to be regarded as a part of the whole can only be mounted in mystical terms, or what Einstein referred to as ‘cosmic religious feeling.’ Or, in other words, the feeling of the sublime. That is, although the extent of this whole revealed by physics cannot be comprehended in terms of sense-perceptions or images, it can be conceptualised as an infinite totality wherein reason prevails over that which overwhelms the senses. As Bohm’s writings demonstrate, this affirmation of rational comprehension overcomes the possibility of alienation and becomes instead a source of satisfaction, a confirmation of unity with the cosmos through which the limitations of embodiment are felt to be transcended.

Paradoxically, it is our awareness of the limitations of our capacities that provokes our awareness of what lies beyond them. Here, Kant accords aesthetic experience a revelatory status, the implication being that it enables us to view ourselves in relation to a transcendent, noumenal, reality where the grandeur of the world and the inexpressible order that allows us to know it is revealed, along with an awareness of our limitations in the face of the ineffable. Judgements of the sublime, in particular, elicit a harmony between the world and our cognitive and creative capacities that not only forms the basis for the unity of the human subject as a whole but signals a metaphysical link between the phenomenal and the noumenal, a link that cannot be translated into reasoned argument but can only be felt.

However, we should not mistake this transcendent exaltation for the real thing. In light of the delusion, or ‘subreption’, by which the subject mistakes the natural for the ideal, Kant cautioned that the sublime has no objective status, it does not exist externally in nature, but only in the mind. Whereas a mystical experience can be described in terms of satori, that instant intuition of the whole as a totality that signals the union of the individual with the Godhead, the limits imposed by our faculties on experience require that judgements of the sublime entail the rational discernment in the face of the infinite that the experience is one of desire for that which is beyond experience—a desire for an absolute ‘other,’ expressed as (but not representing) a phenomenologically present but ideal and transcendent reality that can never be attained but only morally or aesthetically intimated.

In pointing to a realm beyond the reach of human powers of knowledge and description, the sublime is epistemologically transcendent in that it denotes the object of experience while leaving open the question of its existence. The aesthetic significance of the experience, then, is determined in terms of the mind’s relation to the object as one of unattainability, the presentation of which signifies an absence that has historically been taken as a metaphor for ‘God,’ ‘the soul,’ or ‘the Absolute,’ etc. In other words, the sublime concerns not the ‘real’ as such, but only the limitations of our attempts to grasp it. Hence, for Kant’s ‘object of nature’ we may substitute any object (a physical theory, for instance), if the failure to assimilate the object as a whole determines the mind to regard this inability as a sign of the mind’s relation to a transcendent order of being17.

Physics too, insofar as it deals with the real, seems to have constructed its own Ideal realm, a conceptual realm beyond experimental verification where understanding is achieved only via arcane mathematical procedures. Upholding the dualistic conception of reality as abstract disembodied ideas in a domain separate from and superior to that of material objects, physicists often disclose a Platonic mathematical idealism in their talk of touching something universal and eternal in a realm beyond the senses. As such, the Western metaphysical dream of a divine and timeless reason permeates both the discourse of physics and the aesthetic of the sublime; the identification of each with a transcendental presence, an ultimate legislating principle originating outside space and time, has proven irresistible18.

In an era sceptical of the claims of essentialist aesthetics, the transcendent aspect of the sublime is its main problematic. However, the endemic theologising and mysticism in physics, while equally problematic, suggests that the response to the unpresentable possesses universal characteristics. Here, the sublime’s enthusiasm for the absolute as the theme for any given representation renders it the appropriate aesthetic for quantum metaphysics. As Bohm’s writings attest, judgements of the sublime highlight the active role of the imagination, enabling a differentiation of the sublimity of our moral being from the aesthetic experience of it while at the same time reinforcing our sense of sublimity because we detect its traces in the aesthetic judgement of formless nature. In articulating the phenomenology of our response to a mode of being that can only be mounted in aesthetic terms, the rational credentials of the Kantian sublime afford an ontological nuance to the transcendent impulses accompanying physics’ dematerialisation of the physical world. The truth is no longer ‘out there’ but, as Bohm demonstrates, the interiorisation of the infinite relocates the locus of transcendence to the quantum vacuum within, thus confirming Wheeler’s observation: ‘Never in all our exploration of nature have we come upon a domain more mysterious and more inspiring of thought than the quantum. Nothing sounds stranger, nothing is more revelatory…[1]9.’

The penetration of matter by physics has revealed the universe to be not a collection of objects but, as Davies puts it, ‘…an inseparable web of complicated energy patterns in which no one component has reality independently of the entirety; and included in the entirety is the observer20. In its inexorable progress from the visible world into the invisible and on into an increasingly theoretical realm illuminated by the intellect alone, quantum physics is catalysing a contemporary sublime which finds its expression in the metaphysics of physicists such as David Bohm. As the philosopher Paul Crowther has written, the sublime springs from ‘finite being’s struggle to launch itself into and articulate the world21.’ Bohm’s implicate order reflects this same ‘primal urge’ into transcendence, that desire to create or discover meaning in the face of the unpresentable which is made vivid in the experience of the sublime.


1 Knox, I. The Aesthetic Theories of Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer. The Humanities Press, New York, 1958, p. 58.

2 Harris, ‘Contemporary Physics and Dialectical Holism,’ in Kitchener, R. (ed) The World View of Contemporary Physics. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1988, p. 158.

3 Heisenberg, W. Physics and Philosophy. Harper, New York, 1958, p. 42.

4 Voller, J. ‘Neuromanticism: Cyberspace and the Sublime’, Extrapolations 34, Vol. 1, 1993, p. 18.

5 Voller, ibid, p. 19. See also Tuveson, E. ‘Space, Deity, and the Natural Sublime’, Modern Language Quarterly 12, Vol. 1, 1951, p. 22.

6 Jones, R. Physics as Metaphor. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1982, p. 4.

7 Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes of Bohm are taken from his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge, London, 1980. See also Bohm, D. and Peat, F. D. Science, Order, and Creativity. Routledge, London, 1987; Bohm, D. and Hiley, B. The Undivided Universe. Routledge, London and New York, 1993; Peat, F. D. Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm, Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1997. For an edited collection of Bohm’s writings on the implicate order see Nichol, L, The Essential David Bohm, Routledge, London, 2003; and for an overview of Bohm’s aesthetics see Lee Nichol’s compilation, On Creativity, Routledge, London and New York, 1998.

8 Einstein, cited in Barrow, J. Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991, p. 89.

9 Davies, P. Superforce. Unwin Hyman Ltd, London, 1985, p. 1.

10 Jencks, C. The Architecture of the Jumping Universe; A Polemic: How Complexity Science Is Changing Architecture and Culture. Academy Editions, London, 1995, p. 23. Also quoted in Coyne, R. Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism and the Romance of the Real. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 105.

11 Peat F. D. and Briggs J. Interview with David Bohm, Omni, January 1987, accessed at www.fdavidpeat.com/interviews/bohm/htm. p. 2.

12 Bohm (1979), quoted in Davies, P. God and the New Physics. J. M. Dent and Sons, London, 1983, p. 129.

13 Cunningham, A. and Jardine, N. (eds), Romanticism and the Sciences. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, p. 90.

14 Plotinus, quoted in Turnbull, (ed), The Essence of Plotinus, (1948), p. 80, cited in Coyne, R. Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism and the Romance of the Real. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 55.

15 See for instance, Stapp, H. P. Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1993.

16 See Kafatos, M. and Nadeau, R. The Conscious Universe; Part and Whole in Modern Physical Theory. Springer Verlag, New York, 1990.

17 See Sircello, G. ‘How is a Theory of the Sublime Possible?’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Fall 1993, pp. 542-550; Marvick, L. Mallarmé and the Sublime. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1986, p. 3, 157; Weiskel, T. The Romantic Sublime; Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1976, p. 23.

18 See Rotman, B. Ad Infinitum; The Ghost in Turing’s Machine. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1993, p. 57.

19 Wheeler, J. A. ‘Law Without Law,’ in Medawar and Shelley (eds.) Structure in Science and Art. Excerpta Medica, Amsterdam, 1980, p. 145.

20 Davies, (1985), op cit, p. 49.

21 Crowther, P. The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art. Clarendon, Oxford, 1989, p. 167.