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Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore

Einstein vs. Tagore: One of the Most Stimulating Conversations of Modern Thought


The presence of the Hindu philosopher Rabindranath Tagore in the home of the physicist Albert Einstein materialised a memorable conversation centred on the nature of reality.

What is reality? The answer can vary from lightly to drastically, depending on whom you ask. Consider a book for example: for a writer, the reality of a book is fictional and emotional; for an editor it is business; and in the meantime, to a moth the book is food. In the same way that the paper the text is written on is not literature, the scientific and philosophic visions of reality maintained a close relation in Ancient Greece and then became virtual enemies in the modern era, without a horizon of mutual understanding anywhere in sight.

On July 14th 1930, Einstein received the Hindu philosopher Rabindranath Tagore in his home to have one of the most stimulating conversations in the history of modern thought. The conversation we now reproduce is part of Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein Met Tagore, a book where these thinkers define concepts like science, beauty, consciousness and philosophy, in a truly fascinating meditation.

In this extract, Einstein and Tagore begin with the nature of truth: only in appearance, the opposite of scientific Truth —the Truth of Brahmanism, so that the truth of man can transcend individual consciousness and fuse with universal consciousness; Einstein rejects this point (science believes that Truth, or at least some truths about how the universe works, such as gravity and the speed of light) exist in their own right, and science aspires to their understanding. Tagore believes that every truth —in sum, everything we can ever know— is part of our human limitations.

Tagore: Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth is good in relation to our own harmony with it.

Einstein: Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack — no primitive beings even. We attribute to Truth a super-human objectivity; it is indispensable for us, this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind — though we cannot say what it means.

Tagore: In the apprehension of Truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

It is not hard to imagine a mind which experiences the sequence of things, not in space but in time, like the sequence of musical notes. For such a mind the conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind the moth possessed, which eats that paper, literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper has. In a similar manner if there is some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will remain as nothing as long as we remain human beings.

Einstein: Then I am more religious than you are!

Tagore: My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.

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