The Rigor of Angels

From The Wall Street Journal:

In an era defined by anxiety, it would seem only natural that we should hanker after the eternal verities, as a bulwark against the threats and confusions that daily beset us. However, William Egginton’s “The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality” is here to assure us that not only is uncertainty built into the deepest structures of reality, but that we should gladly accept this fact, and be content with the limitations of our capacity to understand and absorb the world. As the author says of his three seemingly unlikely bedfellows, they “shared an uncommon immunity to the temptation to think they knew God’s secret plan.”

Why does Mr. Egginton, who teaches literature and philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, yoke together a writer of fiction, a quantum physicist and an Enlightenment philosopher? The common thread he finds running through the thought of all three might be called affirmative skepticism, a focus on the idea that the nature of things—the nature of nature—is unknowable in the ordinary sense. Instead, we play an active role in “creating our own reality.”

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This is not so outlandish a claim as it might seem. Knowledge, says Mr. Egginton, is “our own way of making sense of a reality whose ultimate nature may not conform to our conceptions of it.” How do we understand the reds in a Vermeer painting, the furred skin of a peach, a Beethoven crescendo? Since the mind itself is deeply involved in generating such particular, elusive experiences, “is it not possible, likely even, that the other phenomena we encounter have a similar origin?” By “other phenomena” the author means our commonplace, day-to-day doings—eating, sleeping, working. Are we complicit in, and necessary to, what the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus called haecceity, the this-ness of the world in which we have our existence?

Early on, Mr. Egginton delves into the work of a 22-year-old Jorge Luis Borges, on the brink of an artistic venture that would set him among the immortals. Obsessed with time and memory, the young Argentinean writer realized, as had Immanuel Kant before him, that there are no moments of time, only a continuous flow. Mr. Egginton writes: “The conceit of slowing time down to a single frame, honing the moment of an observation to a pure present, destroys the observation itself. The closer we look, the more the present vanishes from our grasp.”

The implications of this insight are far-reaching, and undermine traditional notions of our being in time. In Zeno’s paradox of the race between Achilles and the tortoise, the former can never overtake the latter because he has to pass through infinite subdivisions of distance, each requiring its own fraction of time to be traversed. But this is only the case if time can be broken down into an infinity of segments, and it cannot—it is a continuum. So the Greek warrior streaks past the poor old shambling reptile.

In Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious,” a young man suffers a head injury that gives him the ability to recall every detail of everything he experiences. He can reconstruct an entire day from the past—but it takes him a subsequent day to do so. And afterward he will remember the day in which he reconstructed that previous day, ad infinitum. What Mr. Egginton calls an “utter perfection of perception” is utterly stultifying. In order to perceive at all, the observer must “generalize, ever so slightly, and connect the difference between two moments in space-time. Without this slight blur . . . all there would be is an eternal present.” We must fool ourselves into thinking that time is granular.

What all three of Mr. Egginton’s subjects recognized was that much of our understanding of reality is in fact misunderstanding. We imagine things so because we require them to be so. Hence Einstein’s famous insistence that God does not play dice with the world—which provoked the Danish physicist Niels Bohr to urge the old boy to “stop telling God what to do.”

Werner Heisenberg was 23 when he took himself off to a small island in the North Sea to grapple with one of the more resistant puzzles of quantum theory: An electron circling the nucleus of an atom will “jump” from one orbit to another without seeming to exist in between.

Heisenberg’s explanation, put simply, states that it is impossible to know simultaneously the position and the momentum of an atomic particle. Consequent on this extraordinary but easily demonstrable fact is that ultimate reality, if it exists, is permanently beyond the scope of the human eye and its manmade aids. Nor can we adequately describe in words what is “out there.”

What is now known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was a scientific triumph almost comparable to Einstein’s theory of relativity—but Einstein could not accept Heisenberg’s conclusions. All the same, Heisenberg was right, even if what he had to tell us seemed to fly against all reason. As he said, “About the ultimate things we cannot speak.”

Bohr himself reportedly told Heisenberg, “When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” As the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli puts it in his recent book “Helgoland,” quantum reality is “intricate and fragile as Venetian lace. Every interaction is an event, and it is these light and ephemeral events that weave reality.” Quantum physics at once pulls the rug from under us and lands us in a hammock.

What we need to be wary of, Mr. Egginton argues, is not a barrier against understanding erected by science: “Rather, we should guard against creating that wall ourselves by imposing a prejudice we have about what reality must be like.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “The Rigor of Angels”

  1. In this kind or review I am often uncertain whether I am reading a report of the views of the author or the ruminations of the reviewer. Thus, I cannot tell whether the (false) claim that Zeno’s paradox is refuted by the fact that time “is a continuum” reflects badly on the author or the reviewer.

    Anyway, I mostly distrust non physicists – and quite a few physicists – when they opine on the philosophical implications of QM, or on the disagreements between Einstein and Bohr or Heisenberg. There is nothing in William Egginton’s education or prior works to suggest he has any special ability in this area, but then I don’t know whether the matters raised in the second half of the excerpt are a significant part of the book or just the musings of the reviewer.

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