Life, the universe, and everything? Must be the start of AGHI’s Humanities in the Village series for 2023–2024!
Kicking things off for August 2023, AGHI Director Bill Egginton celebrated the launch of his new book, The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality (PRH 2023). Speaking to a crowd overflowing across the Ivy Bookshop’s back patio, Prof. Egginton chatted with Prof. Sean Carroll (JHU Prof. Natural Philosophy) about why the stories of these three great thinkers are in fact so deeply intertwined. For Egginton, this work of narrative nonfiction—not just teaching us something, Egginton stressed, but telling stories in the hopes that these stories teach us something—traces how major concepts about reality and the world from the late eighteenth century influenced the philosophies and even scientific theories into the present day. The conceptual triangle between Kant, Heisenberg, and Borges may be unexpected, Egginton and Carroll discussed, but when you begin to trace their respective ideas about the nature of the world and how one’s experience is either the observation or the creation of that reality, this triangle becomes a lot more intuitive.
Carroll threw the crowd into the deep end by jokingly asking Egginton to give the audience 30–40 seconds on Kant (“Your generosity is overwhelming!” Egginton replied laughing). From there, though, the discussion ranged to how concepts familiar from many a Philosophy 101 course or handbook—something as major as Kant’s Categorical Imperative—shows up with a wink and a nudge in something as speculative as Borges’s story, “Funes el memorioso [Funes the Memorious].”
As questions from the audience then prompted, Egginton described the process of coming to write this book, on what it taught him about the amazing convergence of these wildly different men’s lives and minds, and how the key debates among cutting-edge physicists in 2023 are still indebted to the fundamental problems of Kant, Heisenberg, and Borges.
Both nonfiction and even fiction, Egginton noted in closing, can help us animate these thorny and mind-bending debates. Fantastical takes on Einstein, libraries of the mind, Dante, Bohr, and more all share the work that Egginton (as Carroll underscored in his remarks) set himself with this book: namely, trying to figure out how the characters and lives of these monumental theorists actually lived through the periods that produced such world-altering (even world-creating) ideas.