Borges, Modern Science and the Postmodern

(This paper was presented in March, 1999 at the Chispa conference in New Orleans)

"Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
Albert Einstein

In the June 15th, 1998 issue of U.S. News and World Report, in an article entitled "Physics is rewritten by a neutrino’s heft: The shy particle reveals its gravity," we read science that is reminiscent of Borges’s Tlön. Theorizing about an explanation for the apparent tendency of a subatomic particle, the neutrino, to vary in and out of a detectable form, the article cites physicists’ ideas on the phenomenon: "One theory from the border of science fiction is that [the neutrinos] oscillate right out of this reality, into a parallel universe, and back" 1It is such occurrences as this one, that a physicist would feel comfortable suggesting the possibility that parallel universes might explain a subatomic event, that prompt me to explore the relationship between modern science—and in particular the quantum theory of Physics—and the postmodern sensibility, as this is reflected in Borges’s work.

Alex Callinicos, in his essay "Postmodernism: A Critical Diagnosis," argues that the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century catalyzed the changes away from an ontological orientation rooted in classical antiquity. This, he maintains, resulted in the West’s cultural shift to modernity, a term Baudelaire defines as "that which is ephemeral, fugitive, contingent upon the occasion; it is half of art, whose other half is the eternal and unchangeable" 2. Prior to that revolution, in which "our understanding of nature was refounded on concepts and principles fundamentally different from those known to Plato and Augustine, Aristotle and Aquinas . . . [anything that was] ‘ephemeral, fugitive, contingent upon the occasion’ was either to be interpreted in the light of ‘the eternal and unchangeable’ or thrown away as the merest dust. . . . To direct even one eye toward the momentary and the present [as Baudelaire suggests we moderns do], represented an enormous cultural shift." Callinicos goes on to say that it was only with the Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century, "when the broader implications of this recasting of Western thought were fully articulated; . . . [when] the idea of a modern age, radically different from the past and oriented toward the future," took conscious shape. Citing Habermas, Callinicos concludes that "[m]odernity can and will no longer borrow the criteria by which it takes its orientation from the models supplied by another epoch. . . [I]t has to create its own normativity out of itself" [emphasis is Callinicos’] 3.

In time, of course, the conceptual innovations ushered in with the seventeenth century scientific revolution became installed as a new canon. Newton’s laws of motion had described not only how nature works but also why nature works that way. The ideas of progress and perfectibility, first minted in the eighteenth century, were applied to human understanding, and the positivistic outlook was engendered. It was at the turn of this century, precisely when physicists tried to interpret subatomic events in terms of the canonical, or classical concepts of physics, that the need for a radically different framework for understanding became evident. It is arguable, I believe, to say that another significant recasting of Western thought has been catalyzed by a second, more recent scientific reinterpretation of our understanding of how nature works, and that perhaps it is in the fruits of postmodernist artistic expression where "the broader implications of this recasting of Western thought"—to use Callinicos’s phrase—have been and continue to be articulated. Borges, especially in his critique of human understanding and reality, has created some of the most imaginative and interesting expressions of this reformulation of Western thought, a recasting triggered by theoretical physics, and primarily associated with the theory of quantum mechanics 4.

The epistemological implications of the new discoveries in physics in the early part of the twentieth century aroused considerable interest and debate. I have seen no comments by Borges about these issues, but the climate in which his stories were written and read was increasingly influenced by popular perceptions of the work of Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg and others, as well as by the explanations of the nature of reality which some of these theoretical physicists gave in light of their innovative work. The decades of the 1920s and 30s, which overlap with the time when Borges begins composing the short stories of Ficciones, witnessed an unprecedented rebuilding of the foundations of Physics, a process accompanied by a parallel philosophical revolution involving the definition of such terms as "reality," "meaning," and "understanding." Einstein’s famous illustration of the relativity of simultaneity (and therefore of time), Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy, and the undermining of classical by quantum mechanics, are mileposts in the radical change of our scientific perception of space and time, and of the realization by the scientific community that the concept of causality is problematical and that the nature of reality is ultimately contingent upon the way in which an experiment is set up and by the tools one uses to measure natural phenomena.

It was when modern physicists came to realize that classical physics constitutes only a special case of the way things really work that quantum mechanics was developed to supersede the old framework. Richard P. Feynman, the 1965 Nobel laureate in Physics and one of the theorists most active in the attempt to make modern physics comprehensible to the layman, writes about the history of quantum theory this way: "[a]ttempts to understand the motion of the electrons going around the nucleus by using mechanical laws—analogous to the way Newton used the laws of motion to figure out how the earth went around the sun—were a real failure: all kinds of predictions came out wrong" 5. The new paradigm developed by quantum physics incorporated the essential idea that reality, truth, meaning, and interpretation were inextricably entwined with the observer’s frame of reference in space-time. Outcomes varied as the frames of reference varied; the assumption of a single, universal space-time frame of reference was seen to be false, a case of mistaking a part for the whole.

Here emerges a similarity between the relation of modern physics to its classical canon on the one hand, and the contemporary relation of literature, art and philosophy to their respective canons, on the other. The revaluation of classical physics by quantum theorists parallels the later revaluation of the literary canon, which has come to be seen as a special—read here almost exclusively a white, Western, male—version of reality, and of canons in general in what has been called the postmodern age. Indeed, just such revaluations are a hallmark of the postmodern sensibility. Classical, Newtonian physics was no longer perceived as being absolutely true, but rather as being absolutely relative. Many of Borges’s stories serve as a solvent in which several previously privileged preconceptions are dissolved: any absolutist claims about the Western—or indeed any—canon; any statements about the unequivocal nature of reality, or about the ability of human reason finally to understand how the world works; and, more generally, any unexamined or facile points of view which we as readers might bring to our reading experience. And it is arguable that, at least in part, the plausibility that is galvanized in the mind of the reader by the doubt Borges casts on traditional cultural assumptions, is rooted in the intellectual climate informed by the twentieth century refashioning, by quantum physics, of what used to be called "objective reality."

The rejection of the absolutist claims inherent in classical physics is founded upon the authority of experimental results, and it is on the strength of such authority that the mindset of twentieth century readers begins to shift away from what might be called a "common-sense view of the world." For the model of nature that emerged from the revaluation of classical physics constitutes a radical departure from what we had assumed before. Feynman expresses it this way: "It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense. The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as She is—absurd" 6.

When we read a story like "La lotería en Babilonia," while we find the concept of La Compañía more amusing (or perhaps more frightening) than convincing, at the same time the idea that our everyday reality could have another, completely consistent (even if very fanciful) interpretation is intellectually pleasurable. Beyond such a mental tonic, however, is the stimulus of the idea that what is taken for granted—be it the interpretation of reality or the possibility that time can stand still for one individual, as in "El milagro secreto"—can be successfully questioned by an imaginative genius like Borges. We can experience and meditate upon how our preconceptions lock us in to a particular world-view, or about how our assumptions, personal or cultural, conscious and unconscious alike, may not warrant unquestioned confidence, and this experience is a liberating one. Perhaps it is such an internal, subjective process to which Borges was referring when he responded to Richard Burgin’s question " . . . what do you suppose it is that gives one a sense of enjoyment from a book?" Borges remarked: "[T]he individual is getting away from his personal circumstances and finding his way into another world, but at the same time, perhaps that other world interests him because it’s nearer his inner self than his circumstances. I mean if I, suppose I take one of my favorite authors, . . . that book might be telling me a secret, or half guessed at things about myself" 7.

A most striking parallel between the description of reality given by theoretical Physics on the one hand, and by the traits of the postmodern set forth in the description of this session on the other, and one that is very relevant to a consideration of Borges’s work, emerges when we consider the "interdeterminacy of meaning." Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1925, and Werner Heisenberg, who was awarded this same prize in 1933, are perhaps the two theoretical physicists of their generation most engaged in the philosophical ramifications of quantum theory. They embraced an idea called "complementarity," which Bohr has explained this way:

Within the scope of classical physics, all characteristic properties of a given object can in principle be ascertained by a single experimental arrangement . . . . In quantum physics, however, evidence about atomic objects obtained by different experimental arrangements exhibits a novel kind of complementary relationship. Indeed, it must be recognized that such evidence, which appears contradictory when combination into a single picture is attempted, exhausts all conceivable knowledge about the object 8.

Bohr, in a piece entitled "Science and Religion," makes the following observation while discussing this concept of complementarity with Werner Heisenberg: "The two descriptions are mutually exclusive, but not necessarily contradictory. . . . I believe that if the development of atomic physics has taught us anything, it is that we must learn to think more subtly than in the past" 9.

In essence, then, more than one partial description will be necessary to describe completely subatomic natural phenomena—such as, for example, the nature of light, which in some experiments behaves as waves of radiation, and in others acts as if it consists of discrete particles. These partial explanations can seem to be mutually contradictory; this is due to the limits of the classical concepts of Physics and to the nature of everyday language, with which we must explain them. While mathematical expressions of physical phenomena are the most accurate, Bohr argues that everyday language and the classical concepts, although less than perfectly accurate, are, "[n]evertheless . . . indispensable for a description of experience in connection with our ordinary space-time view" 10Descriptions of sub-atomic events then, due to linguistic and conceptual constraints, are, technically, fictions: because of limitations endemic to everyday language and also, perhaps, because of the mind’s own inherent structural limits, the truths of subatomic physics can be expressed only metaphorically in narrative form.

An illustration of how attempts to employ everyday language and classical concepts to describe subatomic physical events can result in explanations that appear to contradict a "common sense" understanding of reality, comes from Richard Feynman’s book QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Commenting on the apparently dual nature of light, Feynman drolly observes:

No reasonable model could explain this fact, so there was a period for a while in which you had to be clever: You had to know which experiment you were analyzing in order to tell if light was waves or particles. This state of confusion was called the ‘wave-particle duality’ of light, and it was jokingly said by someone that light was waves on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; it was particles on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and on Sundays, we think about it! 11

Another illustration from Feynman describes a situation with a distinct Borgesian flavor. Feynman presents "a strange but real possibility: [an] electron emits a photon, rushes backwards in time to absorb a photon, and then continues forwards in time" (97). It sounds as if this electron could, when it reached its original time, once again emit a photon and then once again travel back in time to reabsorb one, thus establishing an infinite loop that would, nonetheless, have no duration in time. Such a situation is reminiscent of some of Borges’s most paradoxical "fantastic" images, such as the singular volume described in the footnote at the end of "La biblioteca de Babel," "que constara de un número infinito de hojas infinitamente delgadas. . . . El manejo de ese vademecum sedoso no sería cómodo: cada hoja aparente se desdoblaría en otras análogas; la inconcebible hoja central no tendría revés (Ficciones 95). In these two phenomena, both the "real" one described by Feynman and the fictional one described by Borges, we can see two infinite series, one in space and one in time, which are set in opposition to engender an apparent paradox. My suggestion is that statements like this one of Feynman’s, imbued as they are with the authority of science and experimental results, have contributed to the development of the postmodern sensibility. They have catalyzed a recasting of human thought and have helped to prepare a receptive soil for postmodern expression. Borges, as much as—and perhaps more than —any other twentieth century artist, successfully engages his audience in exploring a mindset consistent with such apparent paradoxes and the possible alternative interpretations of concepts such as "meaning," "understanding," and "reality."

The description of postmodern discourse that appears in the statement of purpose of this session on Borges’ work cites four general characteristics: self-reflexivity, confusion of generic distinctions, interdeterminacy of meaning, and hermeneutic interpretation. I have considered two of these in the course of this paper, the interdeterminacy of meaning and hermeneutic interpretation, which are as central to quantum physics as to non-scientific manifestations of postmodernism. Time does not permit an examination of the other two traits vis à vis modern science, but the exercise is an interesting one 12.

I hope I have shown how the concepts of quantum physics, and the resulting, radically different view of the world that accompanies it, may have helped create a receptive climate which amplified the reverberation of Borges’s art. Borges tells us that literary conventions on Tlön consider all theses incomplete unless they are accompanied by their antitheses, and of course significant differences between science and prose fiction can be enumerated. Aside from the obvious fact that they focus on the world in very different ways, one notably significant difference between modern theoretical physics and Borges’s oeuvre involves their respective attitudes towards the human endeavor: while the tone of the latter is fundamentally pessimistic about humanity’s ability to understand the world, that of the former reflects a basic optimism that science can continue to make progress in its understanding of nature. Notwithstanding the fact that, in light of the atomic bomb project, in which many of the first quantum theorists were participants, many scientists are fearful about the uses of any future discoveries, and pessimistic about the ability of scientists to control them, it is still true that science feels it learns a bit more about Nature every day: the enterprise, overall, is infused with optimism.

The psycholinguist Steven Pinker, employing computational theory and evolutionary psychology, states in the conclusion of his book How the Mind Works :

Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. . . . Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with 13.

Of course the endeavor to understand such enigmas——or to understand why we can never understand them completely or definitively——as impossible as its success might be, can nonetheless provide us with potentially infinite fascination; and the artistic, philosophical and scientific attempts to tease out fresh insights into our limitations can catalyze exquisite jewels of thought-provoking entertainment, such as those Borges has left us.

To conclude, I would like to suggest that perhaps more than any other concept, the idea of "complementarity" presented above, as it is used in quantum physics, can be useful for an approach to Borges’s stories; it can keep us humble as we try to better understand Borges’s art. The complementarity of Physics teaches us that all descriptions and analyses are partial and necessarily incomplete, and they may appear to be mutually contradictory when an attempt is made to arrive at one, single articulation; yet taken together they define the phenomenon in all its apparently paradoxical aspects. Bohr, while commenting on this concept of complementarity, observed: "[T]he purpose of such a technical term is . . . constantly to remind us of the difficulties which, as already mentioned, arise from the fact that all our ordinary verbal expressions bear the stamp of our customary forms of perception, from the point of view of which the existence of the quantum of action is an irrationality. Indeed, in consequence of this state of affairs, even words like ‘to be’ and ‘to know’ lose their unambiguous meaning" 14.   Finally, I offer a second quote from Einstein that serves to unite this focus on modern physics, Borges and the postmodern: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." [To "Works Cited"]


NOTES [To "Works Cited"]

(1)  Page 27. [Back to text]

(2)   Callinicos, Alex. "Postmodernism: A Critical Diagnosis," 213. [Back to text]

(3)  Ibid. [Back to text

(4)   While Freud’s publication of On the Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 is undoubtedly important in any overall discussion of art as reflective of a significant shift in how science perceives reality, especially as regards theories of the self, it falls outside the scope of the present study. Much has already been done, of course, on the impact of this work on art, especially its influence on the Surrealist movement. The same could be said for other scientific studies. An example of a recent science-based work that would offer an intriguing consideration of Borges’s work in the light of the new field of evolutionary psychology is Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works . [Back to text]  [To "Works Cited"]

(5)   Feynman, Richard P. QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, 5.  [Back to text]

(6)   Feynman, QED, 10.  [Back to text]

(7)   Burgin, Richard, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, 139. [Back to text]

(8)   Bohr, Niels. Essays 1958-1962 on Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge., 4.  [Back to text]  [To "Works Cited"]

(9)   Heisenberg, Werner, Physics and Beyond, 92. [Back to text]

(10)  Bohr, N.  Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, 57. [Back to text]

(11)  Feynman, QED, 23.   [Back to text]  [To "Works Cited"]

(12)  If we think of the different sciences as scientific "genres," the frontiers between physics and chemistry, for example, became blurred when physicists were able to explain the subatomic processes responsible for the Periodic Table. Up until that time, chemists knew that the Periodic Table was a reliable description of Nature, but they had no explanation for the periodicity it depicts. In discussing this, Feynman explains why "theoretical chemistry is in fact physics" (Six Easy Pieces, 48). Hybridization between or among erstwhile scientific "genres" has engendered such results as the fields of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. A colleague of minein Biology tells me that when he received his degree, his professors debated whether he was a physiological ecologist or an ecological physiologist.

In terms of "self-reflexivity," it is from quantum theory that the dissolution of the separation between object and subject comes. Bohr observes: "The impossibility of distinguishing in our customary way between physical phenomena and their observation places us, indeed, in a position quite similar to that which is so familiar in psychology where we are continually reminded of the difficulty of distinguishing between subject and object" (Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature p 15 [emphasis is Bohr’s]).  [Back to text]   [To "Works Cited"]

(13)  Pages 561 and 565. [Back to text]

(14)   Atomic Theory 19. [Back to text]


Works Cited  [Back to "Notes"]

Bohr, Niels. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature: Four Essays with an Introductory Survey. Cambridge University, 1961.

————. Essays 1958-1962 on Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge. Suffolk, Great Britain: Richard Clay and Company, Ltd., 1963

Burgin, Richard. Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Avon, 1968.  John Wiley, 1963.

Callinicos, Alex. "Postmodernism: A Critical Diagnosis," 206-56 in The Great Ideas Today: 1997. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1997.   [Back to "Notes"]

Feynman, Richard P. QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton, 1985.

————. Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher. Reading, Massachusetts: Helix Books, 1995.  

Heisenberg, Werner, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, tr. A.J. Pomerans. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Pinker, Steven, How the Mind Works. New York: Norton, 1997.

"Physics is rewritten by a neutrino’s heft: The shy particle reveals its gravity," U.S. News and World Report, June 15, 1998, p. 27.   [Back to "Notes"]