The Implicate Order

Enfoldment, unfoldment, and the implicate and the explicate.

“Even the Implicate Order is merely a concept. So, even that should turn out to be an appearance. But we say, by bringing in deeper, more penetrating appearances we understand better. And that is all. We are never going to be able to grasp the whole [through concepts].” – David Bohm, Beyond Limits Interview


“On the contrary, when one works in terms of the implicate order, one begins with the undivided wholeness of the universe, and the task of science is to derive the parts through abstraction from the whole, explaining them as approximately separable, stable, and recurrent, but externally related elements making up relatively autonomous sub-totalities, which are to be described in terms of an explicate order.” – David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order

An Introduction

Bohm’s notion of the implicate order is one of his most important contributions which was not separate from the rest of his work. Let us start with one of Bohm’s own introductions to the subject from The Undivided Universe by David Bohm (coauthored with Basil Hiley):

“Qualitative introduction to the implicate order

Our notions of order in physics have generally been tacit rather than explicit and have been manifested in particular forms which have developed gradually over the centuries in a somewhat fortuitous way. These latter have, in turn, come out of intuitive forms and common experience. For example, there is the order of numbers (which is in correspondence to that of points on a line, the order of successive positions in the motion of objects, various kinds of intensive order such a pressure, temperature, colour, etc. Then there are more subtle orders such as the order of language, the order of logic, the order in music, the order of sensations and thought etc. Indeed the notion of order ass a whole is not only vast, but it is also probably incapable of a complete definition, if only because some kind of order is presupposed in everything we do, including, for example, the very act of defining order. How then can we proceed? The suggestion is that we can proceed as in fact has always been done, by beginning with our common intuitive notions and general experience of order and by letting these develop as to extend into new domains and fields of application.

Our suggested next step is to explore how an order appropriate to wholeness can be found in our intuition and general experience. We begin by noting that the ordinary Cartesian order applying to separate points, finds one of its strongest supports in the function of a lens. What a lens does is to produce an approximate correspondence of points on an object to points on its image. The perception of this correspondence strongly brings our attention to the separate points. But as is well know, there is a new instrument used for making images called the hologram which does not do this. Rather each region of the hologram makes possible an image of the whole object. When we put all these regions together, we still obtain an image of the whole object, but one that is more sharply defined, as well as containing more points of view.

The hologram does not look like the object at all, but gives rise to an image one when it is suitably illuminated. The hologram seems, on cursory inspection, to have no significant order in it, and yet there must somehow be in it an order that determines to order of points that will appear in the image when it is illuminated. We may call this order implicit, but the basis root of the word implicit means ‘enfolded’. So in some sense, the whole object is enfolded in each part of the hologram rather being in point-to-point correspondence. We may therefore say that each part of the hologram contains an enfolded order essentially similar to that of the object and yet obviously different in form.”

A Second Introduction

In an interview with Bohm that took place in 1989 Bohm was asked about the implicate order and the following was his initial reply:

"I had the notion that one needs to understand the reality of the process, and that quantum mechanics gave no picture, no notion of what was happening. It merely talked about the result of measurements or observations. From such results you can compute the probability of another observation, without any notion of how they are connected, except statistically. Now I tried to get some idea what might be the process implied by the mathematics of the quantum theory, and this process is what I called 'enfoldment'. The mathematics itself suggests a movement in which everything, any particular element of space, may have a field which unfolds into the would be a hologram. In a photograph, made by a lens, you have a point to point correspondence. Each point in the object corresponds to a point in the image. In a hologram the entire object is contained in each region of the hologram, enfolded as a pattern of waves, which can then be unfolded by shining light through it.

If you look at the mathematics of the quantum theory, it describes a movement of just this nature, a movement of waves that unfold and enfold throughout the whole of space. You could therefore say that everything is enfolded in this whole, or even in each part, and that it then unfolds. I call this an implicate order, the enfolded order, and this unfolds into an explicate order. The implicate is the enfolded order. It unfolds into explicate order in which everything is separated.

So I say that this movement is the basic movement suggested by quantum theory. The best analogy to illustrate the implicate order is the hologram, which I contrast to a photograph. Every part of the hologram contains some information about the object, which is enfolded.

One may now notice that we don’t need this hologram, because each part of space contains waves from everywhere, which enfold the whole room, the whole universe, the whole of everything. In the implicate order everything is thus internally related to everything, everything contains everything, and only in the explicate order are things separate and relatively independent.

...Everybody has many experiences of this implicate order. The most obvious one is ordinary consciousness, in which consciousness enfolds everything that you know or see. It doesn't merely enfold the universe, but you act according to the content as well. Therefore you are internally related to the whole in the sense that you act according to the consciousness of the whole.

The enfolded order is a vast range of potentiality, which can be unfolded. The way it is unfolded depends on many factors. The way we think and so on is among those factors. The implicate order implies mutual participation of everything with everything . No thing is complete in itself, and its full being is realised only in that participation. The implicate order provides an image of how this might take place in physics in various ways. In participation, we bring out potentials which are incomplete in themselves, but it is only in the whole that the thing is complete. This makes it clear that we are not acting mechanistically, in the sense that we would be pushed and pulled by objects in the surroundings, but rather we act according to our consciousness of them so if you are not conscious of them you cannot act intelligently toward them. Consciousness, therefore, is really our most immediate experience of this implicate order.

Ordinarily we aim for a literal picture of the world, but in fact we create a world according to our mode of participation, and we create ourselves accordingly. If we think in our present way, we will create the kind of world that we have created. Then if we think in another way, we might create a different world, and different people as well."


Now let us look at the implicate order from a perspective of meaning:

“Thus, at a certain stage, the child learns how to explore something that is not present to sense perception by displaying it in the imagination. Indeed, we could say that the display of the imagination is similar to that of the senses, in that it is based on selected information, but different in that the information comes from memory and thought, rather than primarily from sense perception. Thus, as Piaget says, the imagination gives a kind of internal imitation of the appearance of an object. For example, from the sensory perception of an object as seen from one view, the imagination may enable the child to picture what it would be like when seen from another angle. Of course, he may be able to test this image by actually moving to the imagined place from which he could see the other view. But before doing this, he may test what he has done internally. Thus, he may compare the image in his mind with his knowledge of similar objects, to see if its implications make sense. If they do not, the detailed content of the intention behind the display of the second view wiII have to alter, until a satisfactory internal image is obtained. This alteration arises from a deeper level of intention, which is concerned with bringing about harmony between the detailed content of the intention behind the display and what actually appears in the imagination. In this way, there can arise an indefinite extension of inward soma- significant and signa-somatic activity, that is relatively independent of the outgoing physical action and incoming physical sensation. Such activity is roughly what is meant by the mental side of experience.

It is possible to look at this whole process in terms of the implicate or enfolded order (which I have discussed elsewhere). For, as indicated earlier, all these levels of meaning enfold each other, and may have a significant bearing on each other. Within this context, meaning is a constantly extending and actualizing structure - it can never be complete and fixed. At the limits of what has, at any moment, been comprehended are always unclarities, unsatisfactory features, and failures of intention to fit what is actually displayed or what is actually done. And the yet deeper intention is to be aware of these discrepancies and to allow the whole structure to change if necessary. This will lead to a movement in which there is the constant unfoldment of still more comprehensive meanings (e.g. as in the case of the failure of Newton's laws which led to Einstein's insight into new meanings for space, time and matter).” – David Bohm, Soma-Significance: A New Notion of the Relationship Between the Physical and the Mental

Bohm’s formulation of the implicate order has deep relevance not only to reconciling and going beyond the contradictions and incompatibilities of quantum physics and relativity by presenting a new notion of order but also our understanding of consciousness and the relationship between mind and matter.

Mind and Matter

For example, consider these quotes from Paavo Pylkkanen’s book Mind, Matter, and the Implicate Order:

“The origin of consciousness in the Bohmian scheme is likely to be in the ‘depths’ of the implicate order rather than in the interactions of mechanical elements in the explicate order.

One way to express the hard problem of consciousness in Bohmian terms is to say that there seems to be nothing within the explicate order that would necessitate or make possible conscious experience. Traditional philosophy of mind and neuroscience often assume that the explicate order is all there is to the physical world, while at the same time seeking to locate consciousness to the physical world. Thus it is not surprising, from the Bohmian point of view, that the hard problem is so acute for these subjects. The key point is that the Bohmian scheme proposes that there is more to the world than the explicate order of matter, namely the implicate order and what may be beyond that. If conscious experience cannot be fully accounted for within the explicate order of matter, then there is no choice but to explore the role played by the implicate order and what may lie beyond it.

In the traditional materialistic scheme, consciousness is an anomaly, a mystery in a mechanical universe. In Bohm's new scheme, which is based on quantum and relativity physics, consciousness exhibits the same implicate order which prevails in both inanimate and animate matter. The Bohmian universe is thus more ‘consciousness-friendly’ than the universe of classical physics and contemporary neuroscience, which are typically mechanistic. However, Bohm's scheme in its current state does not answer all the puzzling questions about consciousness that have been raised in the contemporary debate, such as the hard problem of consciousness. But perhaps it provides one framework in which we may hope to develop better theories in the future.”

This tendency to focus on explicate orders and to ignore or be unaware of implicate orders was considered to be part of a significant incoherence and danger in our thinking and tacit workings that Bohm warned us about this.


It is important to note Jiddu Krishnamurti’s influence on Bohm’s notion of the Implicate Order, as stated by Bohm:

“We had many discussions, you see. I think partly through these discussions, although not entirely, I came to this idea of the Implicate Order. He used to greatly encourage me in that direction. I may have had the idea before in a very germ form.” – David Bohm, Beyond Limits Interview

Beyond the Implicate Order

"I have an idea of an implicate order and beyond that a super-implicate order, and so on -- to orders that are more and more subtle. I say there are many more subtle levels. The word 'subtle' has a root sub-text meaning 'finely woven'. You may think of nets of consciousness that are finer and finer, or we may think of capturing finer and finer aspects of the implicate order. This could go on indefinitely." -- David Bohm

Further Reading

Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Book)

The Undivided Universe (Book)

Mind, Matter, and the Implicate Order (Book)