Friday, April 29, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 6

Tagore meets Einstein



A conversation took place in Caputh, Germany, on July 14, 1930


Rabindranath Tagore had a clear belief in the need for human reason to moderate received practices, religious faith and its rituals. Tagore was explicit in his disagreement with Mahatma Gandhi on this score:

We who often glorify our tendency to ignore reason, installing in its place blind faith, valuing it as spiritual, are ever paying for its cost with the obscuration of our mind and destiny.


With such a background it is natural that when he met Einstein in Germany in 1930 the conversation turned to the theory of knowledge: how do we come to know truth.


The conversation was edited after transcription by Amiya Chakravarty, Tagore's secretary at the time. It sounds as if Chakravarty eliminated all the small talk, pleasantries and jokes (if there were any) and wrote down only a wooden dialogue, as though the event was a seminar for the public, not a private meeting.

Tagore was far more loquacious (542 words, versus 329 for Einstein) and didactic. Einstein is more like a Socrates, understanding the point being made, raising questions, and interjecting alternate viewpoints which belong to the scientific-rational sphere of thought. Einstein speaks mostly in single sentences, until the very end.

There was one theme in the whole debate, which is stated by Einstein as follows: "The problem is whether truth is independent of our consciousness."

And in the end it becomes clear that Einstein says, Yes, truth is independent of human consciousness of truth. Rabindranath says, No, there is no truth independent of human consciousness. When Einstein remarked, “If there were no human beings any more, would the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?” Tagore simply replied, “No.” Einstein nevertheless admits that scientists who posit the existence of a physical reality, independent of human consciousness, are making a working hypothesis.

And then the conclusion at the end is recorded thus:
EINSTEIN: If nobody were in this 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 to us—this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind—though we cannot say what it means.
TAGORE: In any case, if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!

It's worth noting this topic of reality and human consciousness has nothing to do with the effect of experimental observations on sub-atomic events; that is quite another matter, first noted by Heisenberg and other quantum physicists.

The transcript of the conversation follows.

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 isolation 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: This 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 our 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 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. As 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 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, may be called maya, 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 it, independent of it. For example, 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 this 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 to us—this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind—though we cannot say what it means.

TAGORE: In any case, if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!

TAGORE: My religion is the reconciliation of the superpersonal man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.

2 comments:

Rajinder Ahluwalia said...

An interesting conversation between two unique human beings I adore. They both are masters of their own fields.
Thanks for providing such a valuable literature.
Rajinder Ahluwalia (rajwalia)

Joe said...

Rajinder,
I'm glad you found the posting about the Einstein-Tagore meeting in 1931 illuminating ...
joe