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.
[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.”
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.”