The hurricane’s eye and the centeredness of being

A cyclone of wind and rain is hurtling past the Bahamas towards Florida. This convergence of atmospheric fluids has not only a meteorological identity but even a personal name: Hurricane Irma. It therefore has the quality of selfhood, a quality of being; it is a distinct thing or object which not only can be located in time and space but which also can exert an organized, active power in the universe. Irma can threaten lives; Irma can move at this speed or that.

One feature of a thing or object is that it divides the part of the world that is that thing from the part of the world which is not that thing. The maple tree outside my window is not Irma, nor is it a part of Irma. Hurricane José is not Irma, nor is it part of Irma.

In our ordinary experience, things are demarcated by very sharp boundaries between their inwardness (that is, the parts of the world which are that thing) and their outwardness (that is, the parts of the world which are that thing). If I draw a line from here through the trunk of the maple tree, that line will transect through a few yards that are not the maple tree, then, very suddenly, it will pass through a foot or two that is the maple tree, and then continue on infinitely through space which is again not the maple tree. Indeed, it is this setting-off, this demarcation which makes objects object-like. To keep the object and the not-object distinct from one another is inherent in the existential condition of the object’s being.

What of Irma? If we look at a satellite image of Irma careening through the Caribbean, it is easy to naïvely say that there it is: there is Irma the object, the hurricane object. But where does this object begin and where does it end? Certainly the eye and the eyewall are part of it. As we move further from the center however, can we decide where exactly Irma ceases to exist? As its clouds and winds sweep outward and fade into ever-less-powerful rain and mist, where do we place Irma’s edge?

This raises the troubling possibility that there are parts of this world which are neither unambiguously part of Irma’s existential occupation of space nor unambiguously not part of it. Or, in other words, that there is a status of being in between existence and non-existence. If the transect through the maple tree ran no-no-no-yes-yes-no-no-no, the transect through Irma runs no-no-no-sortof-sortof-yes-yes-sortof-sortof-no-no.

We can speak of this fuzzy edge not only spatially but also temporally. At what moment did Irma come into existence? Leaving aside our technical ability to measure and record a distant hurricane, we should at least be able to say that an object either does or does not exist at a given point in time. But here again we are faced with a problem. Right now, on the afternoon of September 8, we can unambiguously say that Irma does exist. Similarly we can unambiguously say that Irma did not exist two weeks ago. But where is the precise moment in time where non-being passed into being? Does such a moment even exist? And if not, does that mean that at some point in time Irma was semi-existent?

Philosophers have wrestled whether the sense of a “vague object” is contradictory or not. The problem lies at the edges, at the spatial and temporal fuzzy boundaries where the object’s existence is indeterminate. This indeterminacy opens the possibility of a non-binary existence, that is, a state between existence and non-existence. One solution is to turn away from the boundary and towards the center: what makes Irma (and José and all hurricanes) more object-like than, for example, a featureless raincloud that blankets the Midwest in the springtime, is that they have an organized form around a center.

This is what Paul Tillich notes when he writes that the qualify of selfhood and the unity of being are found in centeredness. Thinking persons and ultimately God, Tillich maintains, are the apex of centeredness, but he extend the concept to mean any organized object, from an atom upwards. A hurricane, as an organize field of otherwise chaotic fluid forces, comes into objecthood by right of its centeredness.