May 20, 2024

an unconditioned whole

I am loving William Egginton’s The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality, not least because I just finished making a film that’s partly about classical and quantum mechanics. Egginton unites these thinkers around their understanding of the limits of human knowledge — limits that are at the bedrock of making empirical sense of the world and, therefore, with implications for our existential movements through space, time, choices, relationships.

It’s incredibly moving to read how Einstein found Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle so challenging. He actively resisted and argued against it at length before finally accepting its claims. An intellectual giant, with his own famous formula that overturned Newton’s machinic universe — even he had trouble making peace with the profound contingency baked into our understanding of nature.

Here’s Egginton in a characteristically lucid explanation of the profundity of limitations:

In his influential treatise The Problems of Philosophy, the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell declared that the goal of philosophy was to free itself from the biases of individual perspectives and to see the world “as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears…in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge…as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain.” But in practical terms, what would such a knowledge look like? The ideal of “seeing” the universe sub specie aeternitatis has existed for millenia, but those who have grappled deeply with this ideal have all tended to founder on the same shoal. As beings who must know the world in time and space, the notion of a knowledge unconstrained by time and space is quite simply inconceivable.

Take one metaphor for knowledge, that of sight. Sight grants us an image of the world, yes, but an exceedingly partial one. Not only do we see very few images in any given moment, but even when we envision an object, we can only ever do so one aspect at a time. Now try to generalize or expand on that ability. Even to stretch the visualization of a single object beyond a single facet quickly runs aground. What is a cube when simultaneously viewed from all six sides? We quickly see that freeing the constraints of our perspective in such a way doesn’t sharpen our understanding of the cube; instead, it obliterates it. Indeed, the very “cubeness” or “cubity” of the cube depends on our not being able to see more than three sides at a time. When we start to push the boundaries of this thought ever wider, this limitation becomes all the more apparent. Not only all visual discernment but every possible form of knowledge we can obtain about the world depends, radically and entirely, on its limitations in time and space. Seeing everything simultaneously or knowing all time in the blink of an eye would obliterate the very connection between objects and instances that constitutes knowing. Thus, although godlike knowledge in its ostensible freedom from bias may seem like a desirable goal, its realization even in theory leads to an absolute contradiction in terms.


What I can know is always conditioned on an unconditioned whole that I must presume to exist but that remains unknowable. Put another way, the minimum condition of any experience whatsoever is not being a god, whether a god of very small things or of very large ones.

If more thinkers were willing, like Egginton, to extend and elucidate the philosophical implications of physics in the actual physics classroom, we’d quickly realize much more of the so-called interdisciplinarity that so many of us claim to want. But the mastery of calculations is just easier in the end. To take uncertainty seriously would cede too much ground to the humanist’s conundrum.