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Art Meets Science and Spirituality in a Changing Economy: From Competition to Compassion
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Interview with F. DAVID PEAT, a panelist at the even
Interviewer: At which point in your life did you find the work of David Bohm and felt you related to it.?
David Peat: It was around the time I was leaving school and entering university. Right at that time there was a series of programmes on the radio in England in which scientists talked about physics. I was very interested in that. I wanted to know what the latest ideas were, the newest things. The last of these programmes featured David Bohm. I didn’t know who David Bohm was, but he talked in a profoundly different way. Everybody else talked about new ideas, maybe elementary particles, or new forces. What he talked about was the idea of a radical new order in physics. He was talking about topology and things. It was not so much the content of what he said, but the spirit. I felt that this was radically different from anything I had ever heard. He was talking about the need for a new order in science. It wasn’t a matter of having new ideas or theories, but a completely new way of thinking. And that excited me.
This must have been around 1957. Then I went to university but whatever I did was fundamentally unsatisfying because I knew it wasn’t the thing I was after. I didn’t know what it was one should be doing, but I knew that whatever it was I was doing along with the people around me, it wasn’t that thing; it was somewhat mechanical and dull. Finally in 1971, I met David Bohm.
I was in London for a sabbatical year with Professor Roger Penrose, the mathematician. One day I walked over to the physics department and went to the graduate room and saw Bohm there in his tweed jacket. To me he looked like quite an old man, but of course he wasn’t that old. He was talking to one of his students. Then afterwards I went up to him and said, ‘I really have to talk to you.’ He asked me into his office and I returned the next day. Then for the next few months I would go, maybe two or three times a week, and spend the whole afternoon with him until early evening, just talking. So it was a radical encounter.
We talked about physics and then moved on to time. Finally, one day I phoned him up, very excited, and said to him: ‘What we’re talking about doesn’t make any sense, unless we talk about consciousness.’ I didn’t know, of course, that that was his main interest. So we started talking about consciousness. Later on, he suggested we write a book together.
Bohm was saying things that nobody else was saying, seeing science in the way I saw it, which wasn’t just physics, but the whole of life—moving beyond, ever broadening, like throwing a stone in a pond, you don’t know where the ripples are going to stretch to.
I: And how did Bohm’s ideas evolve in your work?
FDP: In different ways. I also had a period of interest in the Native Americans, seeing that other worldview, realizing that so much of the way we see the world is a matter of social and linguistic conditioning. It’s so difficult to see the world in other ways. Now, I think, my interest is turning to artists, who also see the world in other ways. I’m interested in how artists look at matter, how they enter into matter, the alchemical transformations involved. I want to know about it and understand it and so I have to write a book. I wouldn’t say that I have any idea of what it is I’m doing. I’m not conscious of what I’m doing: I just do it.
I give a lot of talks, and I see people who are really individually searching for something. That concerns me a lot because our society doesn’t seem to have a meaning anymore. Individuals are searching. Maybe there is great value in what they do, but I think there is also danger in it. It is either fragmented from the rest of society in an unhealthy way, or it is done by people jumping from one thing to the next. A bit of Buddhism here, a bit of Sufism there, a bit of Native American wisdom and a bit of Celtic mysteries. That worries me a great deal. Because I believe, along with the Native Americans, that we are living in a world of energies and powers. And I think it is very dangerous to play with things like that.
It is a matter of being aware of what it is you are doing, aware of the chain of causality. Stupidity and ignorance seem to be the biggest problem of the human race. With all the good will in the world, if you are stupid and ignorant, you can cause incredible harm. Simply by failing to understand the interconnections. A shared reality is the idea of the connection between things, and to understand the meaning of that, I think, would be to live intelligently and compassionately.
I: What can you say about ‘from competition to compassion’?
FDP: I like that, especially thinking in terms of science. Science has always been based on competition in the Darwinian sense that the best ideas come forward and the other ones die out. Of course individual scientists may have compassion but it’s hard to find a place for compassion in official science—I mean compassion for nature, for the natural world. I have always wondered, can there be room for love, compassion, and concern, and for a moral responsibility? Take the way we look at nature. If we assume nature is objective and dead, then there is no moral dimension to it. The thing is, how could science change to include a shared sort of social way of engaging nature? I am very concerned about that, and I don’t quite know how it is going to come about. But yes, ‘from competition to compassion’—it would be very nice to see that in the sciences.
I: Do you have ideas about an economy of compassion?
FDP: Well I wonder what someone like Ilya Prigogine would say about that. There seem to be systems, like economic systems, that have their own dynamics, that are independent of human operators and what they may wish for. I suspect economics is like that, particularly as things become more and more linked with international networks and computers. It is really about the dynamics of information. I wonder to what extent that system has its own laws? In a sense it is the system that is driving us.
The thing is that we have created it and it is our economics, but if the system exists independent of us, then maybe we have to wonder about how we can change it. Are good intentions enough? Or do we have to have some deeper understanding about how these systems work? Or is it all being subverted by people who play around with the internet anyway. Is it already out of the hands of economics?
I: I think we should give money to people, so that the game can go on and people can do different things.
FDP: That’s an interesting idea, but these are questions to which I feel completely unqualified to respond. I have children and I know that money, for example, for my daughter who has moved to London and has got a job is a major concern, because it is very difficult for her to live. However, more than that I think it is the sense of doing something worthwhile which has now been taken away. In England many of her friends just take the minimum amount of money that the government gives them and spend the day in bed—they have become totally depressed. I am not quite sure if the problem is the money or the whole system, but the greatest tragedy is how it is affecting young people.
If you could feel that you were part of a meaningful society, that what you did had meaning and cohesion, that you were able to be part of a society that has a shared meaning—I think that’s the important thing. What I would be most interested in is to see how our society can have a map. We don’t have a map anymore. We don’t have a way of containing spiritual experiences. Everybody wants to go off on some spiritual journey. They go to a vision quest, or a sweat lodge, or whatever. But they have no way of holding that experience, of processing and containing it anymore. Our society has lost those common symbols. It has lost the map of where it is going. This is what frightens me most.
We are all aware that there has to be change. There has to be a generation of meaning in society. We are all groping for it and we are maybe moving in that direction. Somehow we are seeing the emptiness of our lives and then immediately run to some sort of guru or try to get a spiritual experience. But these things have to be worked through more at the communal level; society as a whole has to be involved and I think artists have a lot to say, because they can highlight things, focus them, put them on the wall for us to see—but not necessarily beautiful things.
I don’t know what role scientists are playing in this, unless you can say they are helping to break down old and mechanistic ways of thinking, in favour of more organic ways. You could say that in the Newtonian view the model was a perfect machine, perfectly reversible, efficient, obeying fixed laws, and now we see that the model is something more organic and cooperative. Now if we could only add, as you say, compassion into that.
I: Compassion, as David Bohm called it, in the sense of feeling together.
FDP: Yes, with passion and love. Maybe, in some ways one could use an alchemical image. We are in a paradoxical situation, which cannot be resolved on a totally rational level. I think it has to be held alchemically, at the right temperature, by everybody. Our natural desire for the last two, three hundred years has been to resolve things, to seek closure, to seek solutions, and I think maybe we have to remain in a state of tension.
I: What do you mean when you say alchemically?
FDP: I was thinking in terms of the alchemical vessel, where you hold the gross and the subtle together, you heat it, and you allow the reaction to take place, but it has to take its own time. This might be an alchemical transformation of society. It requires containment, and that we hold our attention, which is very difficult, because we always want a result attached to it. We have to stay with it, and in that way a transformation will take place, which we can’t do intellectually, or by effort, or individually. If only we can hold it passionately together for the length of time it requires to cook.
I: We don’t know how long that is, maybe one century, but we have to trust?
FDP: I think that trust is a big thing, because you have that with children. You have to trust your children as they are growing up. You can’t make them grow up into anything, all you can do is provide them with containment. Maybe it is the same with our society: we have to grow up.
Governments still place great emphasis on work and reducing unemployment and in this way they attempt to prop up a set of values that have lost their deeper justification. Clearly this entire value system will change in a totally radical way. It is changing right now, whether we like it ore not. Ordinary people are already creating and moving around a vast amount of information in ways that bypass the government and corporations who have traditionally structured their lives. The key lies in the growth of a new society, one that will allow people a sense of participation and obligation. One in which whatever they do has a manifest and intrinsic value. Young people have great energy and potential; we have to discover ways in which this great pool of transformative energy can be used for the common good. Maybe our present economy should give way to a sacred economy based on respect for the whole earth, for all peoples and for the intrinsic worth of the individual.
I: What should be considered most essential in education?
FDP: I think we should be realizing that we have to respect the differences between people and adopt a less monolithic approach to education, where everybody is supposed to learn the same thing at the same time. I have learned the most at the level of human relationships. How can teachers function in the present system, at a human level?
I: Do you know that originally in India a teacher was only allowed one student?
FDP: Yes, it is that sense of valuing a human relationship. The Native Americans say education is a coming-to-knowing. It is a process. You learn by listening to the Elders tell stories and by sitting and watching. When you go to a European-style school you are told: Don’t look around, look at me; don’t listen to anything, except my voice.
For the Natives you are always looking around, listening. Education comes from animals, plants, the stories of the Elders. Then, at some point, you have to make that knowledge your own. In our world we can do experiments to see if we know things, but Indigenous people don’t like to do that, they watch and watch and watch. When they know how it works, they go away and do it in private. Then to own the knowledge they do it in front of everybody else, whatever the skill is—hunting or bead work or whatever.
The big problem with knowledge in our society is that we want to structure knowledge we want to break it up into pieces. And it can’t be structured. We need a new sense of education, a learning that continues throughout life and is not simply structured into a few years at the start if life. Young people are increasingly bored in school when what they learn seems to have no value for their lives or for the sort of society they envision. Schools seem to offer young people no way, no skills with which they can draw their visions into actuality. When it comes to computers, information technology, communications, and the arts, we must acknowledge that youth are far better adapted to the transforming present.
As we seek to teach, we structure and categorize knowledge in ways that may already be outdated. We have to learn to let go of all that. Young people can learn directly and come into relationships with ordinary people in the community who have valuable skills, wisdom and life experience.
The most difficult thing in education is to have trust, to step back and allow the child to develop in his or her own way and have faith in the process. It takes enormous courage to do this, simply to be present for the child, to be comfortable with one’s own set of meanings, without attempting to impose a direction on the other.
The reason why I write books is that, for me, the learning never stops. It is learning by interacting. There is no end to the teachers who will give themselves to you; everybody will teach. So I really think that education should be part of the whole of life, and not just something that happens in school.
I: What other issues would you like initiated and discussed at the meeting?
FDP: I am very interested in a continued dialogue between artists and the scientists. Artists have been traditionally interested in science, for ideas, and of course for technology, but I wonder how and what the scientists can gain from the artists. I think when you see Vermeer, and you think of Newton’s experiments with light, you see the same thing.
Within both art and science there is a certain disposition to question, to seek the truth. Spirituality also seeks truth, yet always in the presence of deep mystery and numinous power. Spirituality accepts the infinite inscape of the world. It seeks spirit in matter. Science asks for closure, ultimate theories, ultimate levels of nature. Art maybe is more concerned with certain ways of being and with the continuation of a historical dialogue through a certain cognitive and visual code. Originally there was such a general vision of the universe. Science, art, and religion were never really separate. I don’t know if it’s an influence in the sense of a translation from one to the other or if we are reaching out from a common source?
I: It’s from a common source I would think.
FDP: If that is true, then I think one wonders if the artist is ahead of them all. When you look historically and think of Monet, breaking up light, which preceded quantum theory, then yes, I think artists have always been ahead. If we looked a little closer at what the artists are doing today, we might see directions, signposts.
One of the questions I’ve been asking the artists I know in the last few months is: Where is the work of art? That is to say, where is it located? Is it the piece, or is it the interaction between you and the work? Where does the piece exist? They say: ‘That’s a good question. At the first level it isn’t within the object itself. It exists in another space altogether.’ But then there is another fear that we have in our society, I am a little concerned that we have forgotten about matter. We have definitely forgotten about the environment. So I am interested in the return of spirit into matter. How does spirit go back into matter and reanimate the material world?
I: Isn’t that what art is always about?
FDP: It often is about that, yes. But sometimes you can see art escaping into the conceptual, away from the material, so I am interested in the movement out of matter into spirit, and then from spirit back into matter, to reanimate, which again is an alchemical image—transforming matter. I was also thinking of Joseph Beuys, and his story about escaping death during the Second World War, the fact and the felt. He was very deeply into matter. He could act on matter as an artist, and then maybe from there move to more conceptual realms of action. In his case, there is a beautiful movement from matter to spirit and back into matter—a constant movement of renewal. Somehow I feel we have to constantly renew ourselves by going back into the material world. If we live in spirit too long, we end up with beautiful things in a destroyed environment. There has to be a movement.
I know many spiritual traditions, like the Sufi tradition and others, hold to the notion that the Great Work evolves in a constant reanimation, a renewing of the material world. You constantly have to be reborn. I have always experienced the material world as a sort of magical inscape. For me the material world is very important and one can’t escape it; perhaps we need that concept actively returning and renewing itself. The balance in the movement between matter and spirit is something that is very important to me.
I have a friend, David, he is a baker, and he makes these loaves, and every day they look the same, but they are always fresh and new; and this is essential renewal, I once said that to him, and he replied: ‘Oh you understand? Actually, I am a very creative person, but nobody understands that because they think, if you are creative, every day the bread would look different, but in fact you create everyday life in recreating it.’
I: So you can see why someone like Andy Warhol claimed that art is everywhere?