Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Still Point of the Turning World

As I was looking at the clock on the wall of my office this week a thought occurred to me.

I was never a whiz at math, so most of my meditations in the area of physics tend towards the metaphysical, rather than the scientific. 

As I watched the second hand sweep silently, inexorably clockwise around the circular face of the clock, it occurred to me that the second hand wasn't really moving at all. Why I thought this is unclear, but the more I thought about it, the more peculiar my sense of orientation became.

T.S. Eliot, in one of his Four Quartets--Burnt Norton [1935]--says this--

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

At the still point of the turning world.

Eliot goes on in the poem to discuss the human consciousness of time, and how our sense of an immersion in time defines our place in eternity. 

Supposing that the second hand is not moving at all. That would mean that rather than the second hand moving around, the clock itself was moving around the second-hand. If that were true, we'd expect the shelf the clock is sitting on, and the wall behind it, the building within which the clock sits, and the ground beneath, the earth, the solar system, and everything existing in the universe which we can detect would be moving precisely around the second hand. The second hand might be thus considered the "still point of the turning world".

The solar system, and the galaxy, are often portrayed visually as gyroscopes, as spinning circular or parabolic systems of rotation. Our consciousness of the complexity of movement which this involves is muted by the inertia of its constancy--which is to say we don't think of the earth as spinning, because gravity holds everything down securely enough that it isn't spun off into space. It's possible to be spinning inside one rotation, while inside another (contrary) rotation. It's possible to think of ourselves, each one of us, as being in the cradle of a succession of nested gyroscopic rotations, unaware of our complex travel through space and time.   

Our sense of the movement of any object can only occur in relation to another object. An object, say an asteroid, may be tumbling through space, but we can only say that it is moving at all by being able to see it in relation to our own movement, or the placement of another object in space, which is not moving in exactly the same trajectory. This is a riddle. 

In the mind, we can conceive of the notion of a still point without our actually being able to say with certainty that such a thing exists. To say that to think of a thing is to suggest its existence is the very essence of metaphysical thought. If I posit the stillness of the second-hand on the clock, the possibility that it is not moving may seem logically consistent with what I know about the simplest principles of the physics of phenomena. But I'm not so naive as to think it is actually true. I think that Eliot probably would agree here, that his use of the "still point of the turning world" was nothing more than a small device to demonstrate his sense of the mystery of the interaction between time and consciousness. 

There is no consciousness of time outside of time, so we lack the perspective and objectivity to describe it accurately. Accuracy implies an established increment, and all increments are by their nature relational, that is, scaled to the correspondence of segments, or duration. Without such increments, all duration is fluid. Ultimately, we can't measure time without reference to our experience of the universe, and the vaster that seems, the more limited our own experience of it seems. 

Is it possible that the second-hand is the still point of the turning world? Would anyone be able to prove to me that it isn't? It might take a theoretical physicist some fancy foot-work to do it, and in that event I doubt I'd be able to comprehend the language he'd employ to do so. Definitions and proofs in higher physics may require a consciousness of concepts that are beyond the quotidian apprehension. Oddly, I don't find this frustrating. All that's required of this meditation is that it occurred. Understanding is denied to those who are not standing on the frontier of comprehension. I envy those who can follow the argument, though. They're our true pioneers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All that's required of this meditation is that it occurred.

Indeed. Back to Eliot's poem:

But to apprehend
the point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.