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Alchemical Transformation: Consciousness and Matter, Form and Information

F. David Peat.

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A text only version of this essay is available to download.

Talk given in Padova Oct 1995 to Club of Budapest

Introduction: Holding the Tensions

In this talk I want to maintain a creative tension between a number of different ideas, not giving in too quickly to the natural impulse to discover new solutions and seek exhaustive definitions. Carl Jung gave the image of the alchemical vessel in which processes of sublimation and purification take place. Psychotherapy provides this same kind of containment whereby tensions and paradoxes are charged with energy until they give way to active transformation. Even nuclear fusion requires the hot plasma to be contained long enough for fusion reactions to take place.

The same is true of scientific and philosophical ideas. David Bohm regretted the speed with which Neils Bohr tried to resolve the tensions inherent in quantum theory. Within a year of Heisenberg's discovery of matrix mechanics Schrodinger produced his wave equation and Bohr and others quickly demonstrated the mathematical equivalence of the two approaches. Yet both approaches do subtly different things - Heisenberg's matrix mechanics, for example, makes no reference to an underlying or background space. If only the two approaches could have been held in tension, emphasizing both their similarities and differences, Bohm argued, then it may have been possible to develop a much deeper theory, one that transcended conventional notions of space-time and allowed for an intimate connection with relativity.

A similar tension exists today between scientific approaches to "consciousness theory" (in which the origin of mind is attributed to objective structures and processes within the brain - albeit some of them being quite novel, such as Penrose's notions of the gravitational collapse of the wave function) and our subjective experiences of consciousness, rare moments of transcendence and those inexplicable occurrences in which the irrational breaks through in dreams, synchronicities, etc. Then there are other phenomena which seem to have a foot in both camps, these include Jung's psychoid which is neither matter nor mind and both, the aforementioned synchronicities and phenomena such as projective identification.

Rather than seeking a quick resolution between the subjective and objective I feel that it is valuable to hold on to the differences and paradoxes and use them as pointers to something deeper. As Wolfgang Pauli put it, now that psychology has discovered the objective within consciousness (Jung's collective unconscious) so too physics must discover the subjective in matter. He also suggested that physics must come to terms with "the irrational in matter".

The problems that face us have been around since the dawn of philosophy but we happen to be in a particularly privileged position today. Science is producing ever more delicate information about processes within the brain. Openness to Eastern meditative traditions brings with it alternative theories of consciousness and subtle matter. Transpersonal psychology addresses the idea of collective mind. Quantum theory and chaos theory help to loosen the appeal of traditional mechanistic theories and reductionistic approaches and, in the process, providing us with new metaphors.

Nevertheless we are still victim to over two hundred years of mechanistic thinking and we work within a language that reflects and supports such a world view. As soon as we speak about mind and consciousness we find ourselves talking about objects, concepts, things, localization in space, separation and movement in time. Yet both quantum theory and Eastern psychology point to timelessness, active process and the ultimate illusion of the personal observer. It is very difficult for us, even now, to fully embrace the quantum paradigm, even the mathematics of quantum theory is still (paradoxically) expressed using space-time coordinates when the same theory predicts the break down of space-time structure. And time itself, as Prigogine points out, has never treated correctly in physics. Up to now it has been used more as an ordering parameter 't', and conveys nothing of the dynamics in which being gives way to becoming.

Locality and Beyond

The central question is: What is it that exists independent of the physical brain? Yet as soon as we attempt to formulate this questions we prejudice the answer through our linguistic concepts of object, location in space and so on. Current "consciousness studies" in the hard sciences assume that mind, or consciousness, emerges out of the physical brain and cannot therefore exist independent of it - although a variety of physical signals can be sent between brains. Our experience of consciousness awareness - scanning the environment and having access to our memories - is certainly conditioned by the state of the physical brain. But to suggest that brain is the sole cause of mind does not logically follow.

Consciousness studies also argue in favour of some sort of quantum mechanical origin for consciousness. I do not find the argument particularly satisfying or logically compelling. In its barest form it proposes that the sort of things done by consciousness (Penrose picks out mathematics) cannot all be reduced to algorithmic processes and therefore mind does not have a mechanical basis. While parts of it may be hard wired it does not totally operate like a computer. Quantum theory, the argument goes, is the other thing that cannot be reduced to algorithmic form. Ergo quantum theory must have something to do with consciousness. From there researchers rush on to theories of quantum tunneling, collapsing wave functions, non-local connections and coherent quantum structures. But a variety of other explanations are possible:

  • That mind was present in the universe ab inito. For example, in the form of a proto mind associated with even the elementary particles.

  • That mind is of a totally different order and makes its liaison with matter via the medium of the brain (The dualism of Popper and Eccles).

  • That both mind and matter (at the quantum level) arise out of some deeper level.

  • Or, to follow Bohm, that mind and matter form an unanalyzable whole which must be addressed through some totally different order of explanation - the Implicate Order. In this case the Cartesian cut is an illusion present only at the Explicate Order of perception and explanation.


We are now well on the road to invoking theoretical explanations and at this point it is important to go back to experience and psychic phenomena.

a. Projective Identification

Projective Identification offers a paradigm case of the tension between physics and psychic experience. Projective identification should be distinguished from Transference, in which the patient "projects" fantasies (for example, involving authority figures) onto the blank screen of the therapist. In projective identification something more akin to a literal pro-jection of psychic material takes place. It may happen that, during a session, the therapist experiences, without necessarily being aware that something unusual is going on, memories, feelings attitudes, associations that lie outside his or her experience. At the time, however, these are indistinguishable from "true memories". It is only later that the therapist realizes that the patient has injected external psychic material into the therapist's mind.

It is very difficult to account for what happens. Clearly some aspect of the patient's psyche - a set of associations or a complex of memories and desires - has fragmented from the self and been projected outwards into the mind of the therapist. In its new location, and for a limited time, it integrates with the therapist's consciousness to produce awareness of new memories and associations. The patient is now able to view what was previously the very painful contents of personal consciousness in an objective way for now it belongs to someone else. The final result, hopefully, is to allow this material to be reabsorbed and reintegrated in a more creative manner.

Projective identification appears to be a strategy used by the mind to produce movement and transform. One thinks of certain chemical reactions which, although energetically advantageous, cannot take place because energy barriers between molecules cannot be overcome. Although chemical transformation is desired it is prevented by internal energy barriers. Using a catalyst, however, molecules adsorb on its surface and "borrow" energy needed to undergo the necessary transformations whereby they can react together. After reacting they are then free to leave the catalyst's surface. In Projective Identification the mind of the therapist may play a similar role, allowing certain complexes to be absorbed into a new psychic location where they new become "free" and undergo transformation. Presumably a healthy mind also possesses a "psychic immune system" which is able to detect such projected material and eventually reject it so that alien memories do not possess the therapist for too long.

Projective Identification forces us in the position that "something" is being projected across space, from one mind to the other. This seems a more satisfying explanation than the assumption that both minds have access to some common pool of consciousness - for something seems to be shot, like the darts of a Medicine Person, from one to another. Of course this does not mean than "mind" as such is projected. It may simply be some sort of encoded information about mental processes, structure and content that projects from one brain to another. Once in its new location this information activates (like a virus) and makes use of mental energy to form a new centre in consciousness.

I suggest that Projective Identification is more common than we assume. It is, for example, the mechanism whereby art (and music) operate in that aspects of the psyche are projected outwards and encoded on the surface of a painting as gestures, masses, shapes colours and everything else that makes up a "visual code". The listener or viewer can also "enter into" the work and gain access to this activity of encoded information which then acts to induce transformations of consciousness. This, I believe, is the meaning of early cave art. It is involves a transformation of consciousness and operates at the level of the psychoid.

b. Mystical States

In such states ego boundaries disappear as the mystic partakes in a transcendental reality, or speaks of having access to ancient knowledge, powerful symbols or alternative realities. Psychiatry may try to explain this in terms of psychic inflation, access to the archetypes or (following Groff) as an inherited body-memory. Mystics suggest that consciousness opens to the ground of all being. The Indian teacher, J Krishnamurti, taught that when the brain dies to thought something else operates that brings about a mutation of the brain's structure and a permanent transformation of consciousness. This suggests quite different mechanisms than Projective Identification in which the mind becomes an aspect of something much larger.

c. Group Mind

The sharing of consciousness, even during dreams, is a well established phenomenon amongst many Indigenous peoples. David Bohm believed that something similar could be achieved through his "dialogue process." Does this imply communication between minds, or the ability of individual minds to move into some deeper, collective domain?

d. Paranormal Phenomenon

There are a variety of anecdotal reports that individuals can practice remote viewing, move objects or have access to other minds. At the moment their scientific status is by no means universally accepted.

e. Synchronicities

During periods of extreme psychic stress experiences, replete with meaning, occur that appear to transcend the boundaries of matter and mind, space, time and causality. Like (d) above they remain anecdotal but are, to my mind, difficult to dismiss. They suggest that mind and matter may be aspects of some underlying reality - Jung's psychoid, Bohm's Implicate order.

Non-local Mind

How are the various phenomena above to be explained? There are two general lines of approach. One argues that something is transmitted, transferred or projected between two minds. The other is that minds are able to partake, dip into, or unfold out of some common underlying ground, and that they are not bound by the categories of space and time.

a. Transmissions

Theories of transmission assume that, in addition to speech, pheromones, visual gestures, touch and possible electromagnetic effects, there exist more subtle forms of transmission.

Yet as soon as one begins with the assumption of interchanges between two spatially located minds then one is firmly based within a mechanical order of space and time. Transmission effects may indeed occur - a sixth sense perhaps - but it is difficult to see how they can account for the richness of the phenomena discussed above.

b. Fields

This is a popular explanation (Langs bi-polar fields) for various non-local effects. But one must remember that a field is in essence a notion from classical physics. A field carries energy and is defined at each point in space. Hence one is still using the language of objects and location. (Admittedly there are also quantum fields but these are also defined at all space-time points and can only be stop-gap notions on the way to a deeper quantum theory)

One could argue that the concept of field can be retained even when one drops the classical notions of space, time, energy and so on. But in such a case one has really given birth to a radically new concept in science, something which is not a field at all.

I am very cautious about using that term "field". It is a short hand way of speaking about what are very vague concepts. It does not really help us understand things in any clearer way. As pointed out above the concept of "field" carries with it too much baggage from classical, mechanistic physics. What is called for is a totally new concept. Maybe if we agree to forgot that world "field" we will be forced to face phenomena themselves and seek some more appropriate concept.

c. Non-local connections

Quantum theory (Bell's Theorem) permits non-local connections and at first sight this is often taken as the mechanism for communication between minds. But these quantum correlations cannot be used to carry signals or information. Neither can quantum connections be invoked to explain paranormal phenomena.

This is not to deny that non-local connections may indeed exist between brains. Or that mind transcends the distinctions of space and time. But this cannot be justified by appealing to Bell's Theorem. It may, however, be useful to propose that Bell's non-local connections are themselves a special case of something more general. Non-locality may, for example, be the direct consequence of global forms, forms that are not defined within space-time. In view of the importance of form in biological systems, in the Jungian archetypes, and as the "form of the wave function", the role of form in consciousness may be a profitable route to explore.

d. Information

Information is another idea attracting a great deal of attention (Laszlo's Psi fields, Sheldrake's morphic fields). Historically physics first dealt with matter, then energy. Maybe at the end of the century we will be dealing with information. Information appears to transcend the divide between subjective and objective, matter and in mind.

The major difficulty with information lies in its ontology. What exactly is the nature of its existence and in what form is it present in mind and matter? If one talks of "fields of information" then one is back again to the old Cartesian world of objects in space and the need for a medium for the transmission of signals. If information is to prove useful then it has to have its own new level of description and its own mode of existence. Clearly information demands mathematical forms that lies beyond the concept of field. Maybe, for example, information is born at the level of prespace.

e. Active Information and Prespace

Bohm's Ontological Interpretation of quantum theory proposes that, at one level, the electron is a particle guided by a quantum potential. At a deeper level the electron is a continuous process of collapse and expansion. At an even deeper level these processes do not take place in space and time but in pre-space represented by something akin to Grassman and Clifford algebras. Grassman originally developed his algebras ( in the 19th century) as a means of describing the movement of thought. When one notes the intimate connection between Grassman algebras, the notion of prespace and information the combination of ideas becomes striking. Pregeometries may turn out to be closely connected to mind.

What Bohm was speaking about in this context was what he called "active information". Bohm proposed that quantum processes are guided by information - not passive information in the form of encoded data but an actual activity of information. Bohm's analogy is to the way subtle information in a television signal impresses itself upon, and thus gives form to, the crude energy entering the electrical plug. In this way a subtle signal produces pictures and sounds. For Bohm, information is an activity that acts on both matter and energy. He also connected the idea of active information to the operation of the immune system, which he saw as a form of intelligence delocalized over the whole body. For Bohm a change of meaning in the mind became a change of actual being in the body.

Yet again the problem arises as to what exactly is the ontological status of active information. How is it to be described? Where does it exist? The whole topic is exciting but requires much work. It is tied to other speculative ideas in quantum theory about structures that exist prior to space and matter.

(As to the encoding of information at the quantum level, important clues may come from the reduced density matrix (a 2-particle form which contains information about the total N-particle wave function). N-particle information is encoded, or enfolded, within the reduced density matrix (as it is in the Green's Function). The N-representability problem deals with the question of how the antisymmetric form of the wave function places restrictions on the form of the reduced density matrix. It should be recalled that quantum non-locality exists precisely because of the anti-symmetric form of the wave function - an antisymmetric form cannot be factorized into subcomponents. Hence there is a deep connection between non-locality, information and the density matrix. A further connection is that N-representability conditions are connected to Grassman algebras (the algebras of exterior forms) and it is precisely these same algebras that seem to hold the key to pre space. Such a rich interconnection of ideas cannot be mere coincidence.)

Prespace algebras, such as the Grassman algebra, begin with a fundamental distinction being made in a featureless ground. Thought is indivisible yet creative perception can distinguish opposite poles in this thought. Once the first perception, or distinction, has been established then the algebra begins to generate itself and, in the process develop structures that may be the precursor of space. In an analogous fashion a thought in the mind is created out of an instant of perception. Once this perception has taken place and the thought is born then it begins to move by a dialectical process - in this way psychological time is born. Both space and thought seem to be born out of an analogous timeless, creative process.

Note: None of this discussion should be taken as suggesting that "this is the way mind is". Rather it is a proposal that languages and formalisms may now exist for discussing the issue of collective mind, languages that are not tied to the categories of space and time. It seems to me more important to seek and refine languages, and mathematical structures in which these issues can be discussed, rather than immediately seeking explications for the physical basis of mind.

In summary, notions of interactions, transmission and fields may go part of the way to answering our questions yet still don't account for the full richness of "collective mind". They remain tied to mechanistic and Cartesian ways of thinking. Of more promise are versions of "information" or "active information" that lie beyond notions of causality, space and time. However, these ideas are very much in their infancy, they are far from clear and require a great deal of sorting out.

Implicate Orders

Discussions of mind and matter always run up against limitations of language and formalism. Much of out thinking and language is based within a world of space, time and causality. Bohm termed this the Explicate Order and proposed that a radically different Implicate, or Enfolded, Order exists. Within this order the duality of matter and mind obtain their resolution. What appear as distinct objects, well separated in space and time are, within the Implicate order, enfolded each within the other. What at one level appears as object at another becomes process.

While personal consciousness appears to be attached to an individual brain and body, Carl Jung proposed the Collective Unconscious which contains material shared by all people in the form of powerful symbols and archetypical forms. Even deeper that the collective lies the psychoid which partakes of both matter and mind while remaining above their distinction. It is at the level of the psychoid that synchronicities occur and at the level of the collective that an archetype may become activated across a whole society. (It is not at all clear if the collective is responsible for the sort of group dreaming experienced by Indigenous peoples - several other explanations could be offered.)

Jung's ideas are seductive, yet again the nature and ontological status of the collective is far from clear. Maybe this is why the shift of gear offered by the Implicate Order is so attractive. Ontology attempts to answer questions about an object's status of existence. But it may not be useful, at this junction, to keep enquiring about the nature of the existence of mind, or information, or the psychoid. It is here that Bohm's Implicate Order offers a new way of proceeding. It is a description and a perception which escapes mechanistic thinking. Questions of transmission, localization and delocalization simply do not arise within the Implicate Order for it lies beyond the categories of space and time. Instead of talking about object we deal in process, we enquire as to how a particular explicate (individual mind/body) unfolds out of the Implicate. Minds become both truly collective and personal by virtue of the continuous process of unfoldment and enfoldment whereby they are united within the Implicate and individuated within the Explicate. Mind and matter are connected because of their essential identity within the Implicate Order.


This enquiry has been conducted on two fronts, discussions with Basil Hiley and colleagues at the Physics Department, Birkbeck College and with Christopher Hauke and other members of the London group of Jungian therapists.

Related Pages:
David Bohm  | Fields in Nature  | Carl Jung | Language &  Linguistics  | Spirit  | Science

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