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THE RIGOR OF ANGELS by William Egginton


Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality

by William Egginton

Pub Date: Aug. 29th, 2023
ISBN: 9780593316306
Publisher: Pantheon

An intellectual history centered on three men who expanded our understanding of what we can and cannot know about reality.

Egginton, a professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins and author of The Splintering of the American Mind, describes in detail how Immanuel Kant in the 18th century and Werner Heisenberg and Jorge Luis Borges in the early 20th century grappled with the widely accepted metaphysical prejudice that reality is “out there,” encased in rigid space-time coordinates and “conform[ing] to the image we construct of it.” For Kant, these basic but false truths interfered with the “necessary postulate of reason” that enables us to manage our personal lives and public affairs. Human thought, he argued, brings reality into existence, and our perceptions are merely “construct[s] in our minds.” For Heisenberg, reality becomes real when science “translates [it] into thought.” Our ability to know reality is thus saturated with the “ineradicable uncertainty” intrinsic to both observation and language. Additionally, Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics, together with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, undermined the presumed fixity of space and time. Borges was poetic in his assessments, noting that “We…have dreamt the world,” and “the self’s experience of permanence and solidity [is] illusory.” Humans must “straddle the impossible border between ephemerality and eternity, loss and permanence,” never fully understanding themselves but still having to negotiate between freedom and responsibility. All three men elevated free will over determinism and dispensed with the autonomous and omniscient self. Divine origins were also cast aside: Kant, Heisenberg, and Borges shared “an uncommon immunity to the temptation to think they knew God’s plan.” Egginton traces Kant’s influence on Heisenberg and Borges and situates the men in their historical contexts, discussing their personal lives, describing their seminal writings, and noting how their ideas emerged from engaging with others.

A challenging book that rewards those willing to suspend their prejudice about the fixed nature of reality.