My new favorite book, The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality, had such a provocative title, as soon as I saw it recommended in The New Yorker I knew that I'd have to buy it.
Wow. It's a work of literary genius, based on my reading of the first part of it. The author, William Egginton, is a humanities professor, but he clearly has an excellent grasp of modern science also. The front cover has a one-sentence summary of what the book is about.
A poet, a physicist, and a philosopher explored the greatest enigmas in the universe -- the nature of free will, the strange fabric of the cosmos, the true limits of the mind -- and each in their own way uncovered a revelatory truth about our place in the world.
I immediately liked Egginton's approach when I read this in the introduction.
For all their profound differences, Jorge Luis Borges, Immanuel Kant, and Werner Heisenberg shared an uncommon immunity to the temptation to think they knew God's secret plan. Each in his own way resisted the urge to project essential aspects of how human beings experience reality onto reality itself, independent of how we know it.
Indeed, Heisenberg's disruption of classical physics had its roots in an iconoclastic countercurrent to a powerful human tendency to conjure the ultimate nature of reality in our imagination, and then go out and discover it. There is indeed rigor in the world, as Borges famously wrote, but "humanity has forgotten, and continues to forget, that it is the rigor of chess masters, not of angels."
Knowledge is man-made, our own way of making sense of a reality whose ultimate nature may not conform to our conceptions of it.
Is the saturated red of a Vermeer part of that ultimate reality? The soft fuzz of a peach's skin? The exalted crescendo of a Beethoven symphony? If we can grasp that such powerful experiences require the active engagement of observers and listeners, is it not possible, likely even, that the other phenomena we encounter have a similar origin?
When we do the opposite, we forget the role we have in creating our own reality.
The first section of the book, which I finished today, is called "Standing on a Sliver of Time." It's fascinating reading, though sometimes a bit difficult to fathom. This section starts out by talking about people who have the rare ability to remember everything they've experienced in remarkable detail.
It turns out that while this seems like a cool ability to have, in some ways it isn't, because these people lose the ability to generalize from experience. They deal in a vast multitude of specifics, endless moments of time that remain crystal clear in their mind.
Borges wrote about a fictional person, Funes, with total recall. Egginton says about him:
The scientist can't perceive the way Funes ostensibly can because the very nature of observing something as it changes over time requires that the observer generalize, ever so slightly, and connect the difference between two moments in space-time.
Without this slight blur, this ever so subtle distancing, this lifting up and holding steady of a standard so as to register some infinitesimal alteration, all there would be is an eternal present.
...Like Borges and Kant, what Heisenberg grasped -- what he calculated mathematically, yes, but also what he was able to capture in language -- was that to simultaneously observe an electron's position and momentum would require a perfect presence in a single moment in time, which is utterly incompatible with the minimum condition of observing anything at all.
Not because of some spooky quality of the world of fundamental materials, but because, by its very nature, an observation must relate at least two distinct moments in space-time.
In Kant's words, an observation absolutely requires distinguishing "the time in the succession of impressions on one another." An observation, any observation, undermines perfect being in the present, because the observation itself brings space and time to the picture.
A fundamental particle captured in a singular moment of space-time is thus, by definition, unperceivable and "absolute unity," an infinitely thin sliver of space-time, with no before or after.
Kant couldn't stand Swedenborg's belief in eternal truths beyond the reach of the human senses. Here's why.
It would take Kant many years to articulate what exactly about Swedenborg's pretensions so vexed him, but when he did, the reality came like a thunderclap. The problem was this: we are so accustomed to perceiving a world extended in space and successive in time that we naturally project those qualities onto all our intellectual endeavors.
Take the example of our very own personhood. Since we naturally tend to conceive of things as being extended in space and having duration in time, we implicitly apply the same structure to ourselves.
We think of our self, be it our soul or our consciousness, as existing somewhere in our body. We imagine it to have come into being at a certain time, and perhaps openly believe or secretly hope it will live on past our physical demise.
However, we fool ourselves when we think that this way of talking about ourselves in space and time has any validity outside space and time.
...The soul or consciousness, in fact, is nothing but the unity of a sense of self over time, the bare fact that to perceive and then to articulate our perceptions something must connect from this very instant to another, and another after that.
This connecting of disparate slices of space-time is a necessary condition of the possibility of knowing anything at all, but it is not itself a thing in space and time, a thing that survives our existence on Earth. When we believe that it is, we end up conjuring the kinds of ghost stories with which Swedenborg beguiled his readership.