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David Bohm’s Ontological Interpretation Of Quantum Theory – A Simple Summary

Updated on May 25, 2011


“Formulas are means of talking utter nonsense until you understand what they mean.” – David Joseph Bohm, from a 1987 interview

David Joseph Bohm (1917 - 1992)
David Joseph Bohm (1917 - 1992)

A Revolutionary Thinker

David Joseph Bohm (1917 – 1992) was one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of modern times. He was a talented physicist, as well as a cutting edge philosopher— active during the world’s most revolutionary period of scientific discovery. During this period, Einstein’s theory and the quantum theory both were changing the way physicists studied the universe.

Image From Desktopography Project
Image From Desktopography Project | Source

Mechanics Meets Metaphysics

Bohm was a highly skilled mathematician, as well as a deeply informed student of Eastern philosophy. Among his accomplishments was a textbook on quantum mechanics that he wrote. He understood the advanced equations of quantum mechanics backwards and forwards. His thorough understanding of the math, in fact, enabled him to develop a unique interpretation of quantum theory that went against the grain of the usual interpretation.

The Usual Interpretation Of Quantum Theory

  • The mathematics of quantum theory provides absolutely all the information about a system that is possible for us to obtain. The wave function (or state vector) provides this information.
  • The wave function does NOT represent a real wave or any other real entity. The only possible description of nature, thus, is a statistical description, where we can know only probabilities of certain events happening.
  • We can never know all the measureable properties of a system at the same time. To measure one property precisely disables us from measuring another property (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle).
  • Matter exhibits properties of both a particle and a wave, depending on the experimental set up. We can never observe both properties simultaneously – we must simply accept certainty in the measurement of one property, and probability in the measurement of the other property.
  • Reality is indeterminate. We cannot use quantum mechanics to describe objective reality beyond the observer and the observer’s measuring devices.

Image From Desktopography Project
Image From Desktopography Project | Source

Bohm’s Interpretation Of Quantum Theory

  • There are hidden variables for which the current quantum theory does NOT account. Any system, thus, has greater complexity than quantum mathematics can reveal.
  • The wave function corresponds to an objectively real entity.
  • Matter consists of both particles and waves, inseparably connected. The waves guide the particles (somewhat as ocean waves guide their crests).
  • Reality always has deeper layers that exist for new theories to reveal.

David Bohm never achieved (during his lifetime) the popular legendary status of some of his contemporaries, such as Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, and Richard Feynman. He suffered an unfortunate episode with the United States government that resulted in the U.S.A. Congress kicking him out of the country. This setback, plus the established way of doing physics at the time, kept Bohm somewhat removed from the public eye. Even so, he made many professional accomplishments, and he gained a loyal following who professed his genius then, and who continue to profess his genius today.

David Bohm’s Accomplishments

  • attended The Pennsylvania State College (now The Pennsylvania State University), graduating in 1939
  • attended California Institute of Technology for a year
  • transferred to the theoretical physics group under Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught physics and completed his PhD. in 1943
  • became an assistant professor at Princeton University, where he worked closely with Albert Einstein
  • became Chair in Physics at the University of São Paulo, Brazil
  • later worked at the Israel Institute of Technology for two years
  • appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck College University of London in 1961
  • developed a theory of plasmas while at Berkeley, discovering a phenomenon known as “Bohm-diffusion”
  • completed his first book, Quantum Theory in 1951, which was well received by Einstein and others

Bohm authored and co-authored a number of publications, including:

  • 1951. QUANTUM THEORY, New York: Prentice Hall. 1989 reprint, New York: Dover, ISBN 0-486-65969-0
  • 1957. CAUSALITY AND CHANCE IN MODERN PHYSICS, 1961 Harper edition reprinted in 1980 by Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 0-8122-1002-6
  • 1962. QUANTA AND REALITY, A Symposium, with N. R. Hanson and Mary B. Hesse, from a BBC program published by the American Research Council
  • 1965. THE SPECIAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY, New York: W.A. Benjamin.
  • 1980. WHOLENESS AND THE IMPLICATE ORDER, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-7100-0971-2, 1983 Ark paperback: ISBN 0-7448-0000-5, 2002 paperback: ISBN 0-415-28979-3
  • 1985. UNFOLDING MEANING: A Weekend Of Dialogue With David Bohm, (Donald Factor, editor), Gloucestershire: Foundation House, ISBN 0-948325-00-3, 1987 Ark paperback: ISBN 0-7448-0064-1, 1996 Routledge paperback: ISBN 0-415-13638-5
  • 1985. THE ENDING OF TIME, with Jiddu Krishnamurti, San Francisco, CA: Harper, ISBN 0-06-064796-5.
  • 1987. SCIENCE, ORDER AND CREATIVITY, with F. David Peat. London: Routledge. 2nd ed. 2000. ISBN 0-415-17182-2.
  • 1991. CHANGING CONSCIOUSNESS: Exploring The Hidden Source Of The Social, Political And Environmental Crises Facing Our World, (a dialogue of words and images), coauthor Mark Edwards, Harper San Francisco, ISBN 0-06-250072-4
  • 1992. THOUGHT AS A SYSTEM (transcript of seminar held in Ojai, California, from 30 November to 2 December 1990), London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-11980-4.
  • 1993. THE UNDIVIDED UNIVERSE: An Ontological Interpretation Of Quantum Theory, with B.J. Hiley, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-12185-X (final work)
  • 1996. ON DIALOGUE. editor Lee Nichol. London: Routledge, hardcover: ISBN 0-415-14911-8, paperback: ISBN 0-415-14912-6, 2004 edition: ISBN 0-415-33641-4
  • 1998. ON CREATIVITY, editor Lee Nichol. London: Routledge, hardcover: ISBN 0-415-17395-7, paperback: ISBN 0-415-17396-5, 2004 edition: ISBN 0-415-33640-6
  • 1999. LIMITS OF THOUGHT: Discussions, with Jiddu Krishnamurti, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-19398-2.
  • 1999. BOHM-BIEDERMAN CORRESPONDENCE: Creativity and Science, with Charles Biederman. editor Paavo Pylkkänen. ISBN 0-415-16225-4.
  • 2002. THE ESSENTIAL DAVID BOHM, editor Lee Nichol. London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-26174-0. preface by the Dalai Lama


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    • Robert Kernodle profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Kernodle 

      7 years ago

      The Japanese government and military were not innocents, and I bet that a number of civilians who got caught in the breath of "the Sun-goddess" died unfairly.

      The U.S. military considered these deaths an acceptable calculated loss for the greater good, I suppose. ... War can reduce human beings to mere numbers, and these numbers are easier to deal with in the mathematics of casualty assessment. ... It's a tough business and a tough call.

    • Pierre Savoie profile image

      Pierre Savoie 

      7 years ago from Canada

      The Japanese were not innocents, but dangerous fanatics on the order of Islamic fanatics. It was good for the U.S. to show them they were carrying the Sun-goddess in their pockets...

    • Robert Kernodle profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Kernodle 

      7 years ago

      No apologist here, Pierre.

      I was just trying to show how Bohm's association with communist ideals was not unique to scientists working for the U.S. government during this era.

      YOU brought up this point to try to discredit Bohm as a scientist, and I followed up to show that other scientists working for democratic ideals could be equally branded and discredited on this political basis.

      Many of the scientists working on the Manhatten project were from Berkley, and Berkly, of course, was a free-thinking environment, where all government types could be explored.

      I could easily say that YOU are trying to wallpaper the fact that the U.S. is the only country in world history EVER to use the atom bomb in a war. ... How many innocent victims of war did this bomb kill?

      I did not write this hub as a means of focusing on the pros and cons of communism. Had that been my intent, I would have titled it as such.

      This is a very brief article about a unique physicist, who admittedly was unorthodox -- some might even say that he was "tragically creative".

      Bohm got caught in the crossfire of his idealism and the American government's justifiable fear of communism. ... Bohm admittedly held Marx, Stalin and Lenin in high regard, but he later became disillusioned with communism, when he saw the damage it could do.

      I truly believe that if you explore his thinking, then you will see that his sentiments extended to the good of all humankind.

    • Pierre Savoie profile image

      Pierre Savoie 

      7 years ago from Canada

      No, you're trying to wallpaper 130 million deaths by being some sort of apologist for Communism. Anyone tainted with Communist ideas is going to be inherently anti-human, or subject his fellow man to anti-human governance. Communism in any form has crash-landed 70 or so times.

    • Robert Kernodle profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Kernodle 

      7 years ago

      A person could easily argue that Robert Oppenheimer was the real communist culprit [ ], yet he was allowed to remain head of the democracy-dedicated project that developed a weapon of mass destruction responsible for killing untold numbers IN THE NAME OF DEMOCRACY.

      Oppenheimer was Bohm's graduate advisor, who eventually granted Bohm his Ph.D. under bizarre circumstances fueled by the fear of communism, during this very communist-paranoid time.

      Bohm's associations with the word, "communism" via his associatons with people connected with the word, "communism", seem to have got him branded incorrectly.

      Communism is not a black-and-white label. There are degrees of communism, from idealist to other forms.

      Why was Oppenheimer allowed to officially head the bomb project, while Bohm was, in effect, crucified for being associated with Opehnheimer, who used some of Bohm's research to help perfect the bomb?!

      You cannot read the bulk of Bohm's humanitarian philosophy and still believe that he was any sort of threat to democracy whatsoever. And again, let us not forget how many people died from a bomb used in the name of democracy, and let us not forget how many people have died subsequently in the name of democracy.

      Communism has no priviledged place among political systems in terms of how many people have died because of it.

      People, NOT politics, kill other people!

      Politics and religions can be deformed in all manner of ways to distort their original missions.

      Bohm was not such a distorter of truth. He was a champion of truth.

      McCarthy was responsible for a pathological paranoia that did a great injustice against Bohm, who just got caught up in the whole mess as a convenient scapegoat.

      A person has to look at this whole situation with intelligence, and as Bohm said:

      "Intelligence is thus not deducible or explainable on the basis of any branch of knowledge (e. g., physics or biology). Its origin is deeper and more inward than any knowable order that could describe it." --


    • Pierre Savoie profile image

      Pierre Savoie 

      7 years ago from Canada

      McCarthy was ABSOLUTELY right, it turns out. Go read what the head of the KGB wrote about his operations in the United States: Pavel Sudoplatov wrote OTHER TASKS. The full story could only be told when Russia was freed of Communism. If Franklin D. Roosevelt had died earlier, his vice-president would have assumed power and TWO Communists would have ended up in his cabinet! So who's the ignorant one? I suppose you think the Rosenbergs were INNOCENT of giving the nuclear bomb to the Soviets?

    • Robert Kernodle profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Kernodle 

      7 years ago

      Thanks, Stigma31,

      I will incorporate your suggestion.


    • Stigma31 profile image


      7 years ago from Kingston, ON

      Great article, voting up. You may want to actually include some of his accomplishments.

    • Robert Kernodle profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Kernodle 

      7 years ago

      You obviously have no idea of Bohm's full background. Bohm was very in tune to some Eastern philosophies-- this is a known fact. Do your homework on this point.

      I have glossed over nothing about Bohm's political involvements -- these simply were NOT RELEVANT to this brief article. You are being sucked into the same McCarthiest Communist paranoia that falsely accused Bohm and partially ruined his chances of being known in the USA as the brilliant scientist that he was.

      You do so love to tear people down with your snobish shortsightedness. Look at the bigger picture, Pierre. Take off your preudice sunglasses every now and then.

      You said:

      ["Whatever NON-scientific pronouncements Bohm made do not carry the weight of peer-reviewed, verified things. He made some rather crazy pronouncements, ..."

      I say:

      Bohm was regularly published in peer-reviewed journals, so his so-called "NON-scientific pronouncements"(in YOUR terms) now carry quite a bit of weight, even moreso today, after his death.

      Unlike YOU, Bohm was sensitive to the aesthetic side of theorizing, and he showed very effectively that his treatment of quantum mechanics (both his detailed mathematical arguments, as well as his qualitative arguments) could stand beside the orthodox interpretation. He proved the mathematican, Von Neuman, wrong. He presented a very consistent, advanced mathematical case that simply cannot be dismissed.

      As usual, you are full of crap that you try to pass off as intelligence.

    • Pierre Savoie profile image

      Pierre Savoie 

      7 years ago from Canada

      Why do you insist Bohm was a student of Eastern philosophy? Is that to introduce some New Age nonsense later? You also seem to gloss over Bohm's association with Communist politics, which have killed 130 million people so far. That's a significant thing to be glossing over!

      Whatever NON-scientific pronouncements Bohm made do not carry the weight of peer-reviewed, verified things. He made some rather crazy pronouncements, as these quotes will show:


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