Esteemed Reader: Car Books | July 2024 | Esteemed Reader | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

There are two books that have traveled with me in my car for several years. One is a small, hardback volume that lives in the glove box. It has a dark, handsome cover with a red rectangle enclosing the dramatic, serifed title—On Bullshit. It's a pretty good book about the varieties of nonsense, particularly the twaddle expressed by so-called experts in opaque language to conceal ignorance. I found it in the giveaway box outside a used bookstore and haven't opened it since the first read. The title alone serves as a mnemonic for discernment.

The other book, a worn paperback, is always in the pocket of the car door. I pull it out when I have a few moments to spare. Reading the book is difficult for me because it uses the jargon and syntax of academic science. As my schooling was in literature and philosophy, the language requires a genuine effort of attention. I make this effort for a couple of reasons. I find that assembling meaning out of the dense, technical, and sometimes convoluted sentences arouses a kind of intellectual pleasure. Also, the ideas expressed in the book ring true.

As with On Bullshit, the title gives a good window into the case the book seeks to make, though it is more artful and precise: Wholeness and the Implicate Order by the quantum physicist David Bohm. 

The book begins by naming the problem arising from the splintering of the Western mind's study of the world into innumerable, disconnected specializations. In particular Bohm notes the effect of a fragmented worldview on the psyche of people. It drives us crazy, and indeed a degree of mental illness has come to be considered normal. "The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion." As a scientist, he's got chutzpah in suggesting that precisely the specialized, i.e. fragmented, scientific and academic worldview "has brought about pollution, destruction of the balance of nature, over-population, worldwide economic and political disorder, and the creation of an overall environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most people." 

The probable root cause of so much specialization, and this is my conclusion, not Bohm's, is egoism. Ambitious professionals want to make a name for themselves, and the more areas available for specialization the greater the opportunity to generate arcane theories about how the world works, and the more dung heaps there are for crowing cocks to alight upon. 

But apparently this is not a new situation, as the earliest known version of the story of the blind men and the elephant is at least 3,000 years old. In case you are not familiar, the parable describes the arrival of a mysterious animal outside the gates of a city. The inhabitants are scared, so they send out their group of scientific experts, who also happen to be blind. The experts proceed to grope the creature. The one who feels the ear says the beast is something like an undulating rug; the one who touches the trunk describes it as an awful and destructive pipe; the one who meets the legs says the creature is a mighty pillar. And even all the partial views added together do not yield the whole truth, that the creature is an elephant. 

Bohm's title is itself a subject for pondering. "Wholeness" is an understandable concept. It suggests something complete, which though it may comprise a unit within a larger whole, has a degree of independence. An example would be a cell in a body, and by extension, a body within a species, a species in an ecosystem, an ecosystem in the living body of nature, and beyond. Examples of wholes within wholes seem to go all the way up to the totality of the cosmos, which implies the heretical suggestion that the universe is, itself, a living body. 

"The Implicate Order" is a bit more difficult to understand, as we are not used to considering the word "implicate" in its less common sense. Rather than suggesting incrimination, this latter sense, as defined by Merriam-Webster, and with a different pronunciation, is "to involve as a consequence, corollary, or natural inference." So the implication is that the parts of a system are organized by the pattern of the whole. This is a revolutionary concept in the current specialized worldview which insists that parts magically and accidentally collide to give rise to complex whole systems. 

I carry these two books because they remind me that fixation on disconnected parts yields decontextualized and irrelevant data, aka, bullshit; while seeking to perceive the immeasurable whole yields a sense of a harmonious interrelationship and reveals the meaning and purpose of the parts. 

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