Insight and discovery, and our place in the universe

William Egginton, author of "The Rigor of Angels." Photo by Xandi Waystone

Reality check

by Bondo Wyszpolski

“The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality,” by William Egginton (Pantheon, 338 pp, $32)

The subtitle should immediately clear the house, but those who remain are in for a ride. William Egginton has corralled three pilgrims from different disciplines, and shows how each of them trekked up the mountain we call Reality. Or, to put this another way, the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), and Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), strange bedfellows though they may seem, each in his own way contributed to the undermining of metaphysical prejudice.

Okay, what does that mean? Basically, there’s the reality we’re wired to see and imagine and a reality that’s very different, one which we’re not wired to see. It’s comparable to an optical illusion, where your eyes tell you one thing but your reason tells you something else. Or as Heisenberg himself put it, “we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

Keep that in mind, because many of the theories and concepts explicated by these three gentlemen may require two things, our suspension of disbelief coupled with the fact that, no matter how smart we think we are, all of us eventually end up banging our heads on the ceiling of our limitations. That includes Einstein, of course, a guest artist of sorts who is also interwoven through these pages. But everyone deserves a shot at illumination. As Egginton notes, “To deprive a human being, any human being, of the opportunity to cultivate his or her own mind was to undermine the free use of reason that Kant believed an essential part of being human.”

“The Rigor of Angels,” by William Egginton

“The Rigor of Angels” is somewhat like a novel that toggles between one character’s viewpoint and another’s, with a summation that attempts to tie them all together. And so, through this three-pronged attack, so to speak, Egginton presents and explores with us some big questions, such as is time and space divisible, is there a Supreme Being in the house, do space and time have limits or boundaries, and do we really have free will.

Borges delved into many of these subjects by way of his fictions, but for all of the ink that he receives here he’s somewhat of a minor player (I was more intrigued by his relationship with María Kodama, whom he first met when he was 50 and she was 12: later they became companions, colleagues, and eventually married). On the other hand, Kant wrote several volumes that, while difficult for the layman to read, opened countless doors which other philosophers — and even physicists — have been walking through ever since. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that Kant was to suffer political persecution for his ideas, which concerned the world as it is and our naive interpretation of the world, and that’s another door, one that leads to, among other things, religious fanaticism.

And so, because this is a book that peers into concepts of the incredibly small in addition to the unimaginably large, Heisenberg is most likely, by default, at the top of Egginton’s pyramid. Heisenberg tended to be vague in his explanations, but one of them, simplified, posited “a wavelike reality of fields underlying our world of solid objects in space and time. One that really existed and that followed classical mechanical laws, in which substances moved and changed in space and over time, and only appeared as discrete particles to our limited senses.”

There’s one thing in particular that Heisenberg is known for, and Egginton describes it succinctly: “This, in a nutshell, is the uncertainty principle: you can know a particle’s position or its momentum, but you can’t know both.” You can see one or you can see the other, but both can’t be seen at the same time. Since all of this is at the subatomic level, we have to take the physicists’ word for it. Complicating this further is the supposition that the observer contaminates the observation and that also, perhaps, and again on the subatomic level, the object being observed seems to “know” that it’s being observed. One may think of the commonplace belief that water takes longer to boil if you’re watching it. Or perhaps, to fit this into an even smaller nutshell, we can’t be in two places at once.

At the heart of all this is quantum mechanics which can be hard to get one’s head around, although, as Egginton puts it, “Quantum theory is the victory of science over the presuppositions that make science possible.” Again, we must set aside, and granted it’s not easy, our metaphysical prejudice. The problem (or challenge) is that we can’t step out of the world we live in. Imagine humans as goldfish, knowing there’s something on the other side of the glass bowl, but what, and how do we get to it, let alone speculate about its properties?

And then there’s the other side of the coin, the notion that space and time have no beginning and no end. How can that be? Is it even imaginable? Apparently it is, because there’s an active theory that the origin of the universe is anywhere and everywhere, and that time and space — or space-time, since they amount to the same thing — were born with it. And so we ask, does that mean there was once no time and space? Egginton writes: “The boundaries of the cosmos cannot be located in space and time; rather its limits are intrinsic to space and time itself.”

The notion of an expanding universe (one that’s inflating like a balloon?) relates to another theory, that of the Big Bang, which says that our universe was created 13.8 billion years ago. If so, what was going on 14 billion years ago? If there were previous “big bangs,” would they all have produced similar results? If not, would all of them have permitted life as we know it to have evolved? Of course it’s a crapshoot that we’re here at all, even if we’re left scratching our heads as to why (and no, you will never have an answer).

One thing that space and time does have are upper and lower limits that prevent everything from happening all at once. Which, if it did, we wouldn’t be here to observe it anyway.

Books like Egginton’s have us juggling a lot of concepts, some of which, to make matters worse, are subsequently superseded, but at least paved the road forward. Therefore, in addition to his triumvirate of Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and also Einstein, we’re introduced to other deep thinkers including Niels Bohr, Johann Georg Hamann, David Hume, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Sir Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, and even Zeno. All of them, and others, had profound things to say about our universe and our place in it. The other evening, looking at the full moon, my friend Kari asked, Why is it that from our vantage point on Earth the Moon and the Sun are the same size? And even Bill Cosby once posed a relevant question: Why is there air?

Of course it’s not just about the world in which we find ourselves, it’s about ourselves as well, for example our memory. Apparently, each time we recall an incident we’re actually recalling how we remembered it from before. However, and this was the gist of something Kant wrote to Hamann, “To recollect perfectly eradicates the recollection, just as to perceive perfectly eradicates the perception.” We also know that we are easily deluded. Our subconscious does this all the time to our conscious mind whenever we dream, and rarely do we think, while dreaming, that we’re just dreaming and it’s not reality (reality used lightly in this context).

At any rate, another of Egginton’s principal topics concerns free will versus determinism, and thus the question of whether we are responsible for our actions. He seems to conclude that it’s not necessarily a matter of free will or determinacy per se, but rather whether we can imagine making other choices. At the heart of reasoning is the ability to reflect, and therefore “To reason is to be free. There is no way around it.”

What I would guess is that we have choices, but also a kind of limited free will based on all the factors that have fed into our lives. That is, maybe we can imagine other choices, but what if they’re all poor choices. And how might all this apply to other species? Do lions and tigers and crocodiles ponder and reason before they pounce? Or do they just react? Is it simply instinct that drives them, that determines what they do?

Perhaps the most poignant result of all this experimentation with the building blocks of the universe, and specifically the atom, concerns the atom bomb, a creation unimaginably dangerous. In this sense the biggest question of ethics and morality came to a head in 1945 when two such devices were detonated over Japan. Heisenberg and his colleagues in Germany floated the idea that they could have developed the same weapon, but the fact that they did not (probably due more to funding than pacific intentions) allowed them to point a moral finger at their American counterparts. It’s entirely possible that the bomb could turn out to be the darkness at the end of the lighted tunnel, an ironic ending, who knows, to all the scientific work that preceded it in good faith. I often wonder if the weapon that ended World War II may turn out to be the weapon that ushers in World War III.

Well, enough of all that. We shouldn’t end with a Doomsday scenario. Reading Egginton’s book made me go off on my own tangents, as you’ve seen, but as I stated at the beginning those who stick it out will have plenty to mull over before and after they’ve reached the last page. ER


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