To See a World in a Grain of Sand
Holograms and the wholeness of nature.
One summer during grade school, my parents asked me if I’d like to go to “science camp.” A budding nerd, I asked not one single follow-up question. Of course I was going to science camp.
I quickly learned that the camp directors had taken some liberty with both the terms “science” and “camp.” The program included several different modules of varying scientific integrity. The most entertaining was a simulated voyage back to planet Earth from our Martian space station. In practice, this meant building a model spaceship and lobbing it at a small globe.
Some teams built excellent spaceships, only to be lost to the cold abyss of space due to poor hand-eye coordination. As for our ship, Team Captain Chelsea’s legendary softball arm successfully brought us home and split planet Earth along its equator. We were heroes.
But all of science camp’s carnival games were quickly forgotten when we began the hologram module. I had seen those cheap plastic hologram cards before, but this was something different. You brought in a toy or trinket, placed it in the machine, and received a small glass plate containing a ghostly image of your toy. My tiny penguin seemed to be there and not there, mysteriously suspended in another dimension. I took the hologram home, promised myself I would treasure it forever, promptly lost it, and didn’t think about it again until I read Henri Bortoft’s The Wholeness of Nature.
Bortoft, an accomplished physicist and philosopher, is interested in hologram plates as an example of what he calls “authentic wholes.” Most things that we call “whole,” claims Bortoft, are counterfeit wholes. They possess wholeness only until you break them into pieces. A jigsaw puzzle is a good example of what Bortoft means by a counterfeit whole. It is only temporarily whole, contingently whole, but it lacks wholeness as an essential quality.
Fair enough, but what exactly does Bortoft mean by an authentic whole then? This is where the hologram plate comes in. It turns out, if I had snapped my plate in half instead of losing it, I would have been treated to yet another marvel. Looking at each piece separately, I would have seen not half of my poor ghost penguin but the whole penguin, fully present in each half of the plate. I could continue this indefinitely, breaking the plate into smaller pieces and seeing more and more tiny penguins. The images would get fainter, less distinct, but the whole penguin would be present in each and every piece due to the unique nature of the plate.
This is what Bortoft means by authentic wholes — wholes that are themselves present within each of their parts — and he uses this idea to reshape our understanding and experience of the natural world:
“We tend to think of the large-scale universe of matter as being made up of separate and independent masses interacting with one another through the force of gravity. The viewpoint which emerges from modern physics is very different from this traditional conception. It is now believed that mass is not an intrinsic property of a body, but it is in fact a reflection of the whole of the rest of the universe in that body.
Einstein imagined, following Ernst Mach, that a single particle of matter would have no mass if it were not for all the rest of the matter in the universe. Instead of trying to understand the universe by extrapolating from the local environment here and now to the universe as a whole, it may be useful to reverse the relationship and understand the local environment as being the result of the rest of the universe” (p. 6).
Mind-blowing passages like this were the reason I had to reread parts of Bortoft’s book over and over, and Bortoft ironically points to the process of reading itself as another example of authentic wholeness:
“We reach the meaning of the sentence through the meaning of the words, yet the meaning of the words in that sentence is determined by the meaning of the sentence as a whole… The paradox arises from the tacit assumption of linearity—implicit in the logic of reason—which supposes that we must go either from part to whole or from whole to part. Logic is analytical, whereas meaning is evidently holistic, and hence understanding cannot be reduced to logic. We understand meaning in the moment of coalescence when the whole is reflected in the parts so that together they disclose the whole” (p. 8-9).
That requires some unpacking. We’ve seen that authentic wholes cannot be composed of their parts because they are already fully present within their parts, like my hologram penguin. So that begs the question, what exactly is the relationship between the part and the whole here? Isn’t a part, pretty much by definition, something that precedes and contributes to a whole? This view is what Bortoft dismisses as “the tacit assumption of linearity.” It might be true in the world of counterfeit wholes, but we’re interested in the good stuff here.
For Bortoft, a part is a special place in which the whole can be present. “The whole is nowhere to be encountered except in the midst of the parts,” he writes, “It is not to be encountered by stepping back to take an overview, for it is not over and above the parts, as if it were some superior, all-encompassing entity. The whole is to be encountered by stepping right into the parts” (p. 12).
The whole is to be encountered by stepping right into the parts. Something about that line knocked me over. I already appreciated how authentic wholeness was at the heart of hologram plates, the theory of gravity, and even the act of reading. But suddenly the concept felt deeply personal—personal in that troubling way that makes you suspect you’ve been misunderstanding something important for a very long time.
I’ve always been interested in getting the “big picture,” the widest possible lens on a subject. I dove into systems science because it promised abstract concepts that could be applied to nearly everything. But Bortoft seemed to be saying that even a systems approach could be dangerously reductive. Our models and abstract theories might allow us to manipulate nature, but they come at the cost of experiencing its wholeness.
Another good way of thinking about this is through the lens of our relationships. Imagine you had the following two options when getting to know someone: you could either get a broad outline of their life thus far—academic transcripts, past residences, criminal records, etc.—or you could listen to them tell the story of the single most transformative experience of their lives. The first option gives you a comprehensive model, but it’s hollow. The second only gives you a part, but it’s a part in which the whole can be present.
The Talmudic sages have an interesting maxim: Anyone who preserves a single life is considered as if he preserved the entire world. I always considered this to be a poetic way of expressing the value of a human life, but Bortoft’s ideas allow us to read it in a surprisingly literal way. All of us—you, me, Team Captain Chelsea—are tiny human-shaped apertures through which the whole world is reflecting itself.
We can appreciate that reality in a physical sense, marveling at how the same universal laws find expression in our bodies and in distant nebulae, but we can also appreciate it in the hermeneutic or narrative sense mentioned above. The stories that we live are authentic parts of an authentic whole—a universal story that finds expression in our histories, our myths, and the dramatic evolution of the cosmos.
It’s a pretty heady idea, but—in the true spirit of authentic wholeness—it’s an idea we can find wherever we look. As visionary poet William Blake put it:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
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