Dialogue and Coherence

By William van den Heuvel


Sharing meaning

David Bohm once said that society is based on shared meaning, which constitutes the culture. This shared meaning is the "glue" or the "cement" that holds society together. Shared meaning is necessary for society to function properly and for it to survive. David Bohm used the word "coherence" to denote the binding effect of this shared meaning. So, it seems appropriate to investigate somewhat into the nature of coherence.

What is meant by coherence?

"Coherence" comes from Latin co+haerere. The verb haerere means to stick. Hence, coherent means "sticking together". According to my dictionary (Webster), the criteria for something to be coherent is that it shall be consistent, congruent, in accord, logically integrated and clearly articulated, united in action or connected naturally by a common principle.

Coherence and adherence

There are also some other related words, such as adherence and inherence. The word adherent means "sticking at". An adhesive is the sticky stuff that makes one thing stick to another. The other word, inherent, means "sticking in". An inhesive is the innate quality of something, which is the same as saying; it is an inherit property.

Adherence is not the same as coherence. Adherence means one thing sticking to another thing (external hesion); whereas coherence means that something holds itself together (internal hesion). In physics, for instance, cohesion is the binding force by which the molecules of a particular substance are held together, whereas adhesion is the force that holds unlike substances together whose surfaces are in contact.

The binding effect of shared meaning

In a symbolic sense, we could adhere to a plan, an ideology or a leader but that is not necessarilly coherent. In fact, it is usually incoherent. If a society wants to hold itself together it must be coherent, not adherent. It may try to get its cohesion by making people adhere to a political ideology, a national identity or some religious belief system but these are artificial attempts of keeping a society together. A society that is kept together by adhering to something, will ultimately fall apart as long as the coherence is still missing.

Another common trick to prevent the society from breaking up is to provoke an external conflict that threatens the whole community. Political leaders, especially the ones who weren't elected democratically, sometimes resort to this trick when they are loosing control and the people threaten to rebel. The external pressure forces people to stick together. Anybody who still rebels can then be called a traitor.

Coherence may also happen by chance when a natural disaster or some social upheaval occurs: People who were previously ignoring each other, suddenly get their socalled "wego": As a result, they keep together and start helping each other. This is a well-known phenomenon. The common problem or the common danger provides the common factor (the shared meaning) that makes people stick together. So there is a certain amount of coherence in the face of a common crisis. We can also observe this effect in wartimes but, of course, that is a limited notion of coherence because the cohesion is restricted to either side of the conflicting parties: From an overall point of view, mankind has fallen apart in conflicting groups and that is certainly not coherent.

The word coherence seems quite appropriate to point to the binding effect of a common meaning. Only coherent meaning can hold society together. Consequently, incoherent meanings cause the society to disintegrate because the binding effect will then be lost. Any attempt to stop the disintegration by means of force, is not likely to work: The police can only enforce law and order by threatening with repercussions. Such a threat will make people adhere to the rules but that is not inherently binding; when nobody is looking, these rules will be disregarded. On the other hand, too much enforced adherence may well create the common factor that makes the ruled people cohere in the opposite sense of what was intended.

Group coherence

Do we really need a common threat or a catastrophy to make us coherent? The dictionary meaning of the word "coherence" would suggest that dangers and disasters are not necessary ingredients for coherence. We could also be connected naturally by a common principle.

In physics, coherence is "that property of a set of waves or sources of waves in which the oscillations maintain a fixed relationship to each other" (Webster). At first sight, the laser beam looks like a good example of coherence. The powerful effect of the laser beam comes from the light waves being in phase; that is what makes the light ray stay together. This is not the case in a normal light beam: The waves are not in phase and, therefore, the light scatters: i.e. it goes off in different directions and gets weaker with increasing distance. In human society, we can observe a similar effect: People, who are on the same wavelength and in tune (phase), also enhance each other. As a result their energies don't scatter but rather they accumulate.

Several people working together as a team have a much greater power than a number of people who are doing something individually. We can see this happening in nature: e.g. wolves are much more successful when they hunt together as a coordinated pack. We can also observe such packs in human society. A small gang of people can have a tremendous effect (although often a destructive one) because they work together in a coordinated way. On reflection, however, the laser is perhaps not such a good example of what is meant by coherence because it costs of lot of energy to force the light waves to get in phase and this is generally also true with people.

If coherence comes from a natural common principle than it shouldn't have to be enforced. It must come naturally and freely. People will voluntarily stick together when they have a common interest. They are not held together by force but they hold toghether because they all want the same thing. Interest groups may be coherent in themselves (up to a point) but they are likely to run into conflicts with other groups who have different interests. It seems to me that coherence by means of common interest is still not enough. When people form a group, they implicitely separate themselves from anyone who is not in their group and that is not very coherent either.

Universal coherence

Coherence may well work in groups but that doesn't guarantee coherence on the global scale. Is there such a thing as a universal coherence, which is shared by everyone on this Earth, not only by members of a certain group or a nation? If there is one, then it seems well hidden. Let's see if we can find it.

We have seen that the property of cohesion implies a common factor. It is only when we have something in common that we can speak of "congruency, accordance, unification and connection". Presumably, when we have all these things then we also have a binding effect, which is the cohesion. Is that so?

Personally, I find these properties very attractive. I sense a certain amount of dislike against discord, disagreement, disintegration and disjointed, dislodged or disconnected things. Most of these unpleasant sounding words start with the prefix "di". Remember, di means "apart", which comes close to fragmentation. On the other hand, co means "together", which goes in the direction of wholeness. I much prefer co-words, like consistent, congruent, connection, communication or cooperation. This is because I like things to be together and in tune.

I tend to believe that it is natural for people to be together. Personally, I feel much better when people like each other and live together in peace and harmony. Is this just a strange quirk of mine or is this natural? If this is the case with everybody then this could well be the "common principle" by which we (all human beings together) are connected.

Coherence is not only the name of an intellectual concept defined by the dictionary, but could actually be a natural instinct (although a very subtle one). If that is the case, we should feel a natural urge towards coherence. Unfortunately, very few people seem to live coherently. Most people appear to live in conflict with someone or with themselves, or else they have no time or no money. If you have no money to pay for basic needs then you can not be coherent (unless you have someone who supports you). Many people live in extreme situations where they only have a choice between "do or go" or even between "steal or starve".

The natural urge towards coherence can be disturbed very easily: There are other, stronger, instincts that have to do with survival, which takes priority over everything else. When the survival instincts are being activated they throw us back to the level of the hunter/gatherer, except that nowadays these instincts are mostly directed against other people and that turns the "hunter/gatherer" into a killer/thief. Social distress is a di-force, which makes people behave very incoherently. However, I am sure, people in distress would much rather not be in such a situation.

In spite of all appearances to the contrary, I still think there is a natural preference for "co" things. Coherence has a natural attraction. It seems to me, that this natural attraction could well be the co-force, which is the inherit quality of shared meaning leading towards wholeness. So, I like to proceed on the basis that we are all connected naturally by the common principle of coherence. That means, coherence will be there if only we would stop destroying it.

The inadequacy of human awareness

I don't think, people actually intend to destroy their coherence; it happens as an unintended side effect. People strive to secure their income, their home, their food, their safety, their relationships, etc. They will also protect themselves against "hunter/gatherers". I don't see anything inherently wrong with all this. So, why should that lead to incoherence? There must be some other factor, that we haven't noticed yet, but which spoils it all.

It seems to me, that society is a system, which is so complicated that we can not possibly comprehend it. This system is a network of connections and relationships of people and things that depend on each other or build up on each other or affect each other in some other way. The human mind is not capable of dealing with such a high degree of complexity. Our senses are too shortsighted and our knowledge is far too little, which means our mental capacities are totally inadequate to cope with the complexities of modern society. It might have been adequate when we lived in a natural environment; because nature deals with its own complexities. But since we have artificially "improved" our environment, we now have to look after it ourselves, which we are clearly not capable of. This is a serious problem.

It looks to me, we have created something which we can't control. When we try to control it, we usually get unexpected side effects. So, the main problem seems to be the inadequacy of our awareness and consciousness. That sounds like a big problem. What are we to do?

Responsibility and Communication

We can respond strongly to nearby events and short-term effects, which we can see and feel, but we normally respond weakly (or not at all) to far away events and long-term effects. Our ability to respond to something seems to depend on us being confronted with it in an immediate sense. The sense of immediacy can be raised somewhat by seeing news reports on television or by reading the newspapers. However, these media are under control by someone who decides whether or not to show it to us. They tend to show wars, accidents, special events, spectacular things, dramatic happenings or anything else that is worth mentioning. However, the things that matters most are not necessarily "worth mentioning". That means, we all get the same incomplete information and, therefore, we all come to the same distorted conclusions.

What we need is direct information from people who are personally involved or affected. Direct information of this kind is of a different quality; it touches us! However, this requires communication from person to person; not only about what has happened but also why it happened. Why do people do the things they do? What is the reason or the background? It seems to me that we should know what other people think and feel and what they need. What are their beliefs, their opinions and their assumptions? What is important to them and do they know what is important to us? I think, it would help a lot if people knew and understood each other. Without this understanding, people will not be able to respond to each other adequately.

I would like to mention, that I understand the word responsibility as meaning the ability to respond. If we want to be responsible then we must be able to respond. We should be response-able for whatever is going on in the world, not only nearby but also far away. In our shaky society, where everything depends on everything else, far away events may already have affected us before we know that they have happened. So the question should be, how can we increase our response-ability? To be sure, it is always good to increase our knowledge and to improve our awareness but what seems particularly important, in the face of the incomprehensible complexity of the world, is our ability to communicate with each other. Our response-ability could probably be improved by means of personal communication; this will bring more knowledge into our consciousness and it could also extend our awareness. However, the best thing about comunication is that it enables the socalled "flow of meaning".

Dialogue and the flow of meaning

David Bohm pointed out that the definition of the word dialogue is "the flow of meaning between or among speakers". That means, dialogue is precisely the form of communication we need. In that sense, a dialogue meeting could be regarded as a medium for the flow of meaning.

Dialogue appears to be the way to establish coherent meaning and to share it among us. As I understand David Bohm, the point about dialogue is not so much that we should agree with any views or opinions but rather that we should simply know about them. Each participant of the dialogue will offer his or her views, opinions and beliefs. As a result, the group at large will be collecting, as it were, all these views ("hold them in suspension", as he said). That means, each participant now also knows about the views of the others. But the fact that we all know about each others views means that there is a pool of all views in each one of us. We now share a common pool of views, including the ones we don't agree with. That is something new because ordinarily we tend to accept the "right" views and reject the "wrong" ones. But, although we may have a common pool of shared meaning, that doesn't mean it is coherent. We may be sharing meaning but we are not necessarilly sharing coherent meaning. So, where does the coherence come from?


I like to think that just as there is a natural tendency for water to flow towards the sea, there is also a natural tendency of meaning to flow towards coherence. The gravity of the earth will ensure that water will reach the sea all by itself as long as it not blocked anywhere. In a similar way, meaning will also flow towards coherence as long as it is not being blocked anywhere. Meaning can flow between and among us when people listen and respond to each other. That is the essence of dialogue. As long as that is the case, things will be sorted out by the "gravity" of the coherence. Note, that we can't do it ourselves. Any direct attempt to bring about coherence is already incoherent because we would just be imposing our own views, which will always be too limited. The only positive thing we can do is not to stand in the way of the flow of meaning. That means, if we listen and respond to each other without resistence then the coherence will come by itself, almost like a side effect.

Coherence has its own natural attraction (gravity) because that is the way of the least resistence. There seems to be a direct correlation between coherence and non-resistence. Incoherent meanings will cause friction and run into resistence. It costs a lot of energy to sustain incoherent meanings and therefore, they will ultimately disappear (when they run out of energy). On the other hand, coherent meanings cannot be enforced; they must be free to find there own way. Therefore, if dialogue is "the flow of meaning" then the important thing is that it must be free. I.e. not enforced, controlled, restricted or limited in any other way. That means, nobody should try to lead, moderate or facilitate a dialogue. That is because any form of help will only interfere with the flow of meaning. Coherence is not something that can be brought about by human beings; it has to find its own way. In this context, David Bohm once said to me: "If you try to do something you are already doing the wrong thing".

Why doesn't it work?

There may well be some people who have reached coherence. But the question is; if we all have this natural urge towards coherence, why don't we all reach it? In my view, this indicates that the meaning is not flowing freely. I.e. it must be blocked somewhere. Or else, it is being directed in some other direction. It seems to me that, rather than trying to help somebody, we should be looking for the blocks in ourselves. That means, in addition to participating in (unfacilitated) dialogues we should pay close attention to our personal reactions and see where and when we get a sense of resistence or reluctance or when we get irritated and start defending something. So, in addition to listening to each other, we should also listen to ourselves. Each reaction could signal the presence of a block. There shouldn't be any blocks in our minds because they not only interrupt the free flow of meaning but they also interfere with the natural intelligence of the mind itself. The meaning has to flow not only between and among us, but also through us. If we cannot find and dissolve the blocks in ourselves we will continue to resist the flow towards coherence, thereby sustaining the incoherence in ourselves. As a result, we will continue to propagate our own incoherence into the rest of the world. So, it all seems to depend on our ability not to resist the coherence which comes to us from beyond.

Copyright © 1996 by William van den heuvel. All rights reserved. Email: w@david-bohm.net

Update 2007-10-16