Jorge Luis Borges, Werner Heisenberg, and Immanuel Kant — A gathering of eminent minds in literature, science, and Philosophy

Dr. William Egginton, the Decker Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University, recently discussed his latest book, “The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality.”

In this book, Egginton skillfully unites the intellectual giants of physics, literature, and philosophy, a convergence not commonly explored. This strategic choice resonates deeply with the essence of his work. He explains the rationale behind selecting these three figures and how their fictional rendezvous serves to elucidate the book’s purpose.

Egginton’s journey towards this book spans decades of immersion in the realms of literature, philosophy, and physics. While countless luminaries influenced his thinking, it posed a challenge when it came to organizing his ideas into a coherent narrative. Initially, he contemplated a more extensive structure, but it proved unwieldy. Subsequently, he considered a literary biography of a single individual, Boethius, only to realize that he didn’t encompass the full spectrum of ideas he wished to explore. It was during this process that he recalled an article he had written, featuring Jorge Luis Borges, Werner Heisenberg, and Immanuel Kant as central characters. These three figures, Egginton realized, encapsulated the essence of his thesis.

His core objective has always been to demonstrate how profound insights can emerge from a deep exploration of a problem, transcending the boundaries of specific disciplines. The trio of Borges, Kant, and Heisenberg exemplifies this concept. Borges’ narrative about an individual with a perfect memory, when viewed through Kant’s analysis of the synthesis required for any temporal and spatial experience, elegantly clarifies what Heisenberg articulated in his 1927 paper: the impossibility of achieving a perfect observation due to the inherent disparity between observer and observed. This concept isn’t rooted in agency or neuroscience but is a logical necessity embedded in the act of observation itself.

Egginton also delves into the existential aspects of his work. Each of these thinkers grappled with the confrontation of existence. Borges’ characters pushed the boundaries of commonly held assumptions, Kant wrestled with Humean skepticism, and Heisenberg emphasized the primacy of observation. This realization fundamentally shaped their lives, making them confront existence in distinctive ways.

The book explores how this understanding permeates their lives and the consequences it has for individuals who take their art, philosophy, and science with utmost seriousness. In this worldview, time ceases to be a secondary element; it becomes intrinsic to the experience of the world. Choices involve irrevocable losses, and these unchosen paths exist solely because they were not taken, representing roads of regret.

The tension between the human desire for ultimate answers and the impossibility of attaining them is a recurring theme in the narrative. Egginton believes that the quest for knowledge can never conclude because human knowledge is inherently limited. The pursuit of ultimate knowledge, akin to the omniscience of a deity, is beyond human reach. However, this limitation is not a dead end; it’s a testament to the boundless nature of knowledge.

Egginton’s perspective is optimistic. He contends that our freedom to choose and our responsibility to each other and the planet are unaffected by developments in AI or neuroscience. Human perceptions, values, and choices, while subjective, are real and shared. The book encourages readers to embrace the idea that rigor in the world is a characteristic of human endeavors, not of divine beings. Our pursuit of understanding, relations, and judgments, rooted in our humanity, remains profoundly meaningful.

The discussion also touches upon the concept of free will in a deterministic universe. Egginton supports a compatibilist view of free will, where human agents, bound by the laws of physics, still make choices that are more or less free depending on the circumstances. The temporal and physical processes involved in decision-making do not negate this freedom.

Uncertainty, Egginton argues, is valuable because certainty can lead to arrogance, closed-mindedness, and stagnation. Science thrives on provisional explanations subject to constant evaluation and change. The acknowledgment of our limitations fosters humility, driving intellectual growth and progress.

In summary, Egginton’s book, “The Rigor of Angels,” presents a compelling exploration of the intersections between literature, philosophy, and physics. It illuminates the profound insights that emerge when these disciplines converge, offering readers an optimistic perspective on human existence, choice, and the pursuit of knowledge.

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