The Nature of Reality
July 14, 1930


Einstein invited Rabindranath Tagore to his home in Caputh, near Berlin, for a stimulating intellectual conversation on the topic of science and religion. According to Einstein's step-son-in-law Dmitri Marianoff, “it was interesting to see them together—Tagore, the poet with the head of a thinker, and Einstein, the thinker with the head of a poet. It seemed to an observer as though two planets were engaged in a chat.” The conversation was recorded and subsequently published in the January 1931 issue of Modern Review.
Tagore

You have been busy, hunting down with mathematics the two ancient entities—time and space—while I have been lecturing in this country on the eternal world of man, the universe of reality.

Einstein

Do you believe in the divine isolated from the world?

Tagore

Not isolated. The infinite personality of man comprehends the universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the universe is human truth.

Einstein

There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe—the world as a unity dependent on humanity, and the world as reality independent of the human factor.

Tagore

When our universe is in harmony with man, the eternal, we know it as truth, we feel it as beauty.

Einstein

This is a purely human conception of the universe.

Tagore

The world is a human world—the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist; it is a relative world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it truth, the standard of the eternal man whose experiences are made possible through our experiences.

Einstein

This is a realization of the human entity.

Tagore

Yes, one eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realize the supreme man, who has no individual limitations, through our limitations. 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 truth as good through own harmony with it.

Einstein

Truth, then, or beauty, is not independent of man?

Tagore

No, I do not say so.

Einstein

If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?

Tagore

No!

Einstein

I agree with this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth.

Tagore

Why not? Truth is realized through men.

Einstein

I cannot prove my conception is right, but that is my religion.

Tagore

Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony, which is in the universal being; truth is the perfect comprehension of the universal mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experience, through our illumined consciousness. How otherwise can we know truth?

Einstein

I cannot prove, but I believe in the Pythagorean argument, that the truth is independent of human beings. It is the problem of the logic of continuity.

Tagore

Truth, which is one with the universal being, must be essentially human; otherwise, whatever we individuals realize as true, never can be called truth. At least, the truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic—in other words, by an organ of thought which is human. According to the Indian philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words, but can be realized only by merging the individual in its infinity. But such a truth cannot belong to science. The nature of truth which we are discussing is an appearance; that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind, and therefore is human, and may be called māyā, or illusion.

Einstein

It is no illusion of the individual, but of the species.

Tagore

The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore the entire human mind realizes truth; the Indian and the European mind meet in a common realization.

Einstein

The word species is used in German for all human beings; as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it. The problem is whether truth is independent of our consciousness.

Tagore

What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the superpersonal man.

Einstein

We do things with our mind, even in our everyday life, for which we are not responsible. The mind acknowledges realities outside of it, independent of it. For instance, nobody may be in this house, yet that table remains where it is.

Tagore

Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the universal mind. The table is that which is perceptible by some kind of consciousness we possess.

Einstein

If nobody were in the house the table would exist all the same, but this is already illegitimate from your point of view, because we cannot explain what it means, that the table is there, independently of us. 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—not even primitive beings. We attribute to truth a superhuman 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

Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.

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 difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such 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 possessed by the moth which eats that paper literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.

Einstein

Then I am more religious than you are!

Tagore

My religion is in the reconciliation of the superpersonal man, the universal spirit, in my own individual being. This has been the subject of my Hibbert Lectures, which I have called “The Religion of Man.”


August 19, 1930


Tagore

I was discussing with Dr. Mendel today the new mathematical discoveries which tell us that in the realm of infinitesimal atoms chance has its play; the drama of existence is not absolutely predestined in character.

Einstein

The facts that make science tend toward this view do not say good-bye to causality.

Tagore

Maybe not, yet it appears that the idea of causality is not in the elements, but that some other force builds up with them an organized universe.

Einstein

One tries to understand in the higher plane how the order is. The order is there, where the big elements combine and guide existence, but in the minute elements this order is not perceptible.

Tagore

Thus duality is in the depths of existence, the contradiction of free impulse and the directive will which works upon it and evolves an orderly scheme of things.

Einstein

Modern physics would not say they are contradictory. Clouds look as one from a distance, but if you see them nearby, they show themselves as disorderly drops of water.

Tagore

I find a parallel in human psychology. Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole. Does something similar to this happen in the physical world? Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse? And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organization?

Einstein

Even the elements are not without statistical order; elements of radium will always maintain their specific order, now and ever onward, just as they have done all along. There is, then, a statistical order in the elements.

Tagore

Otherwise, the drama of existence would be too desultory. It is the constant harmony of chance and determination which makes it eternally new and living.

Einstein

I believe that whatever we do or live for has its causality; it is good, however, that we cannot see through to it.

Tagore

There is in human affairs an element of elasticity also, some freedom within a small range which is for the expression of our personality. It is like the musical system in India, which is not so rigidly fixed as western music. Our composers give a certain definite outline, a system of melody and rhythmic arrangement, and within a certain limit the player can improvise upon it. He must be one with the law of that particular melody, and then he can give spontaneous expression to his musical feeling within the prescribed regulation. We praise the composer for his genius in creating a foundation along with a superstructure of melodies, but we expect from the player his own skill in the creation of variations of melodic flourish and ornamentation. In creation we follow the central law of existence, but if we do not cut ourselves adrift from it, we can have sufficient freedom within the limits of our personality for the fullest self-expression.

Einstein

That is possible only when there is a strong artistic tradition in music to guide the people’s mind. In Europe, music has come too far away from popular art and popular feeling and has become something like a secret art with conventions and traditions of its own.

Tagore

You have to be absolutely obedient to this too complicated music. In India, the measure of a singer’s freedom is in his own creative personality. He can sing the composer’s song as his own, if he has the power creatively to assert himself in his interpretation of the general law of the melody which he is given to interpret.

Einstein

It requires a very high standard of art to realize fully the great idea in the original music, so that one can make variations upon it. In our country, the variations are often prescribed.

Tagore

If in our conduct we can follow the law of goodness, we can have real liberty of self-expression. The principle of conduct is there, but the character which makes it true and individual is our own creation. In our music there is a duality of freedom and prescribed order.

Einstein

Are the words of a song also free? I mean to say, is the singer at liberty to add his own words to the song which he is singing?

Tagore

Yes. In Bengal we have a kind of song—kirtan we call it—which gives freedom to the singer to introduce parenthetical comments, phrases not in the original song. This occasions great enthusiasm, since the audience is constantly thrilled by some beautiful, spontaneous sentiment added by the singer.

Einstein

Is the metrical form quite severe?

Tagore

Yes, quite. You cannot exceed the limits of versification; the singer in all his variations must keep the rhythm and the time, which is fixed. In European music you have a comparative liberty with time, but not with melody.

Einstein

Can the Indian music be sung without words? Can one understand a song without words?

Tagore

Yes, we have songs with unmeaning words, sounds which just help to act as carriers of the notes. In North India, music is an independent art, not the interpretation of words and thoughts, as in Bengal. The music is very intricate and subtle and is a complete world of melody by itself.

Einstein

Is it not polyphonic?

Tagore

Instruments are used, not for harmony, but for keeping time and adding to the volume and depth. Has melody suffered in your music by the imposition of harmony?

Einstein

Sometimes it does suffer very much. Sometimes the harmony swallows up the melody altogether.

Tagore

Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value.

Einstein

It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your melody is much richer in structure than ours. Japanese music also seems to be so.

Tagore

It is difficult to analyze the effect of eastern and western music on our minds. I am deeply moved by the western music; I feel that it is great, that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is Gothic in its structure.

Einstein

This is a question we Europeans cannot properly answer, we are so used to our own music. We want to know whether our own music is a conventional or a fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural, or a convention which we accept.

Tagore

Somehow the piano confounds me. The violin pleases me much more.

Einstein

It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.

Tagore

It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.

Einstein

The difficulty is that the really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.

Tagore

Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.

Einstein

The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or in Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.

Tagore

And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.



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