The Still Point of the Turning World

No more will I go all around the world
For I have found my world in you
--From “Around the World” by
Harold Adamson and Victor Young

I would sometimes tell my granddaughter when we got on an elevator that the elevator stayed perfectly still while the floors in the building moved up and down. She is now of an age where she knows when her grandpa is being silly. But is he? We like to think when we move about in the world that we are actually getting somewhere. But no matter how far we go, we always wind up back where we started. Right here.

You may think I am making a rhetorical point. But if you pay close attention to how you actually experience the world, you may discover you are not seeing things the way you think. You think you are in the world, whereas the world you see is entirely within you, every bit of it. Strictly speaking, of course, your perceptions of the world are all processed in your brain, which is entirely within you. But there is more to it than that. The next time you get on an elevator, watch what happens. The doors close. You remain standing in place. The doors open, and you are on a different floor. The world has moved. One way to look at things is that your entire life is passing before your eyes in exactly the same way. You are the still point of the turning world, as T.S. Eliot put it.

You get some sense of what I am talking about in a darkened movie theater. I remember watching an IMAX film years ago about the Grand Canyon. The screen was several stories high, and the audience was seated close. My field of vision was entirely filled with what was happening on screen. In one scene, the camera rushed toward the rim of the canyon and then soared over the edge. Even though I sat motionless in my chair, I had a palpable sense of flying through space. We had been advised ahead of time that if we felt queasy, we could just close our eyes. Although I wasn’t feeling unsettled, I closed my eyes for a moment, and the sensation of flying instantly ceased. If this show within a show could trick me into thinking I had left the ground, what about the show that we normally refer to as reality?

The world we think we are in is framed by steel girders of time and space, which on closer inspection turn out to be altogether less than meets the eye. The seemingly solid material world is mostly empty space, as we all know. Then there is the fact that elementary particles sometimes behave like waves, depending on how they are measured. Finding them at all can be problematic, since they have a habit of being everywhere and nowhere at once. Most perplexing of all, so-called “entangled” particles can communicate over immense distances instantaneously, faster than the speed of light. Since this is impossible, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, some physicists have concluded that the world we think we are in is an elaborate illusion.

Quantum theorist David Bohm likened the universe to a giant hologram in which everything is connected to everything else. Underlying the world of solid appearances, he asserted, is the "unbroken wholeness of the totality of existence as an undivided flowing movement without borders." The reason that particles are able to communicate instantaneously over vast distances is that they are not, in fact, separate entities but part of a single “holomovement” that Bohm believed was the fundamental ground of all matter. Like a holographic image, which can be cut into pieces that each replicates the whole, information about the entire universe is enfolded into every part of it. At a still deeper level of the universe is a cosmic intelligence that supplies information to the whole and gives it meaning.

Quantum physicists like Bohm are on the cutting edge of our understanding of the universe. And yet his insights resonate with ideas that are centuries old. Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher, described the universe as “an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” The thought was not original with him. A century earlier, the Franciscan friar and astronomer Giordano Bruno had embraced Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe, declaring that “the universe's center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere." The thought wasn’t original with Bruno, either. Even before Copernicus, the German cardinal Nicholas Cusanus used the same metaphor to describe a limitless universe without center or circumference. He believed the created order was enfolded in the undifferentiated oneness of God, and each part was a microcosm of the whole. Long before Bohm’s holographic universe, Cusanus was insisting, “Each thing is in each thing.”

Cusanus, who lived in the 15th century, is often described as the first modern thinker, yet he was strongly influenced by far earlier hermetic and Neo-Platonist philosophers. The legendary Hermes Trismegistus was yet another in the long line of sages who appropriated the metaphor of an infinite sphere without center or circumference, and he was preceded by others, among them St. Augustine and Empedocles, a pre-Socratic philosopher. What sets Hermes Trismegistus and his predecessors apart from those who came after is that they applied the metaphor to God himself rather than to the created order.

Obviously, if you believe the created order is enfolded in the oneness of God, as Cardinal Cusanus put it, it may not matter which one is characterized as an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. Even David Bohm blurs such distinctions, although he is a scientist. Bohm tended to play down the metaphysical implications of his theories, denying that the wholeness underlying the observable universe was synonymous with a personal God. Yet if a cosmic intelligence lies at the deepest level of being, giving meaning to the universe, what should it be called? What exactly is an “impersonal intelligence,” which Bohm suggests as an alternative? The only model we have for intelligence in the universe is ourselves, and we are nothing if not personal. If, as Bohm maintains, everything is connected to everything else, then the entity that lies at the deepest level of ourselves must in some way share our essential attributes. If not God, then the universe is governed by something cosmically human.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order
Nicholaus Cusanus, Of Learned Ignorance
Hermes Trismegitus, The Book of 24 Philosophers

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