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Questioning Reality and Our Place in It

The book Rigor of Angels

Questions surrounding the nature of the universe and the fabric that holds existence together have long intrigued humans. This contemplation is exactly what united celebrated Argentine poet and fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges, piv­otal German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and pioneering German quan­tum physicist Werner Heisenberg.

“Three people you couldn’t think were more different in a variety of ways, all managed through their own ways of thinking about the world to come to a remarkably similar understand­ing about the relationship between the human intellect and the ulti­mate nature of reality,” says William Egginton, the Decker Professor in the Humanities and director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute.

Bill Egginton

[This book] tells a cautionary tale about the danger of assuming reality must conform to the image we construct of it, and the damage that our fidelity to such a seductive ideal can wreak. ”

—William Egginton

In The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality, Egginton probes four central themes: Are space and time infinitely divisible? Is there a supreme, uncon­ditional being? Is there an edge to the universe? Do we choose our own path, or are our choices predeter­mined by our physical environment?

“[This book] tells a cautionary tale about the danger of assuming real­ity must conform to the image we construct of it, and the damage that our fidelity to such a seductive ideal can wreak,” he writes. “Most of all, it sings an ode to the boundless poten­tial of our knowledge, once we have worked ourselves free from the blin­ders imposed by imagined perfection.”

The Stories Behind the Ideologies

Egginton uses narrative nonfiction to explore the book’s main characters, trac­ing their evolution of thought from their childhoods to their triumphs and trib­ulations in relationships and careers.

An incident that greatly influenced Kant was the morning he arrived late to a carriage ride with English merchant Joseph Green. Kant saw Green’s car­riage moving down the road, and despite his gesturing, his friend kept moving.

“Kant was ruminating about ques­tions like, ‘How do we know what the right thing to do is when life is nothing but change and disruption?’” Egginton says. “I think that’s how you can explain this famous affinity that Kant would have for regularity, for structure in life and not simply going with the flow of things.”

Different Perspectives

Kant approached the questions cen­tral to Egginton’s book with a skep­tic’s eye—space and time are not nec­essarily things that exist in reality, but take shape via our own perception; they are “mapping devices,” Egginton says. Borges similarly believed in the subjec­tive interpretative nature of reality, that humans have no way of encountering the world as it is without putting it into this subjective packaging. Heisenberg’s work in quantum physics and his sem­inal uncertainty principle—that it is impossible to simultaneously know the exact position and momentum of a par­ticle—suggests that reality is inherently uncertain and open to interpretation.

So where does that leave the reader, grappling with the nature of the world around them?

“What unifies these three charac­ters is they had an uncommon resist­ance to a very common way of think­ing about the world, that it must exist independently of our ways of measur­ing it,” Egginton says. “I’d like the reader to come away with a kind of skepti­cism as to their own certainty about the way things must be out in the world.”