The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality by William Egginton


Review by Walter Cummins

Emmanuel Kant relished fine wines and gourmet meals. Werner Heisenberg thought profoundly as he strolled through a park in winter. Jorge Luis Borges was devastated when his lover abandoned him for another man. Such gossip is certainly interesting in William Egginton’s presentation, additional evidence that he knows his subjects inside and out. But what does this biographical information have to do with the nature of reality? One answer may be found in the crux of the well-known Einstein-Heisenberg dispute over the path of an electron. Does it, as Einstein devoted decades to trying to prove, follow the laws of classical physics? Or is how it got from point A to point B a mystery of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, a leap of probability beyond any classical explanation?

A central distinction of the difference between Einstein and Heisenberg is found in Heisenberg’s assertion that “things in space and time are, by definition, always in relation to other things and that someone, an observer, needs to put them in that relation.” In Einstein’s world such an observer is unnecessary. In Heisenberg’s an observer is essential.

While a totality of reality may exist, it is beyond human access according to Egginton’s three subjects of this book. We are limited to the partial realities that emerge though our observations, then seek to find ways to fill the gaps in the vastness that eludes us. That’s probably why Egginton offers so much information about the lives of these men as they function in the world as they seek to grasp. Although they possess superior intellects, they illustrate coping with the constraints we all face.

The challenges are dramatic. Egginton captures the tension of the back and forth confrontation between Einstein and his allies and Heisenberg and his. During a conference of the world’s leading physicists, Einstein conjured thought experiments he believed would undermine Heisenberg’s theories, yet each time Heisenberg, with the help of scientists like Niels Bohr, would come back to expose a fundamental flaw in Einstein’s challenge. To his great frustration Einstein cannot win. We humans have no choice but to exist with a narrow understanding of the reality that envelopes us.

According to quantum theory, our observations are constrained. We can measure either the location or momentum of particle—whether we consider its wavelike or particle-like aspects but never both at the same time. Therefore, “we can see different aspects of reality, depending on what we choose to observe; and those aspects complement each other; but we can never grasp the entirety of that reality.” In addition, “In some very deep sense, the measurements themselves determined the world they sought to measure.”

As evidence that a god’s like view of reality is impossible for human, Kant came up with what he called antinomies that result from attempts to describe the transcendent world though pure reason. “Standing on the precipice of this very instant, we stare into the abyss of the eternal” and long to explicate its entirety. The pretense that we can leads us astray. The results are “a set of contradictions in which each statement must be true but both cannot be true”:

Specifically, Kant wrote, we can picture reality as being consistent and continuous, or as being broken into discrete chunks, and we can make perfectly logical and coherent arguments supporting both conclusions <em>even though those conclusions explicitly contradict each other</em>. This happens because we assume something about reality that only comes into play when we <em>observe</em> it.

That wasn’t enough for Kant. Even though the comprehension is beyond us, we must posit the existence of a reality that transcends the moments we can experience. “Kant realized that our knowledge must presume an unconditioned whole and then pull back from it and see itself as conditioned or limited by that whole, when he saw that in a similar way our morality must presume an unconditioned duty.”

Kant argued for the necessity of presupposed moral guidelines for our actions, such as free will that allows us to choose between alternatives and bear responsibility for the consequences of our choices.

Borges shared with Kant a belief in assuming the necessity of an all-encompassing reality but like Kant saw the limitations in our attempts to explicate such a reality; “To have a self, to experience anything at all, required the existence of the vast totality of space around him, of a past preceding him and a future yet to come. And yet that secret, hypothetical object, the inconceivable universe, was destined to remain hypothetical, secret, forever.” Still, we must treat it as if it were real.

We function within an illusion but have no choice because we are forever unable to know the totality of reality:

In short, despite our dearest desires and most desperate dreams, we are finite. That we can only ever understand things in relation to one another means that understanding will always stem from a limited perspective. Our reason propels us to incredible heights—understanding the fundamental components of matter and laws of the universe, seeing almost to the edges of the cosmos and the beginning of time. But it also leads us woefully astray. For the very ability we have to map our world and hence see our way through the dark also treats that map as though it were the world, and hence drapes a new veil over our enlightened eyes.

Still, we can enjoy food and drink, take long walks in nature, and explore our literary imagination. And we can share complex theories that probe as much of the world we can know, aware that the fullness of reality eludes us.