The German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) is one of the fathers of quantum mechanics and ranks among the greatest scientists of the 20th century. He was also a Christian theist. Whenever the issue of the relationship of science and religion comes up, you are likely to stumble upon the following quote attributed to him. “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you,” is the common English translation of the German original, “Der erste Trunk aus dem Becher der Naturwissenschaft macht atheistisch, aber auf dem Grund des Bechers wartet Gott.” The latter comes in some variants with the words “Schluck” instead of “Trunk,” “Wissenschaft” instead of “Naturwissenschaft,” “Grunde” instead of “Grund,” or “begegnet uns Gott” instead of “wartet Gott.”
A few random examples for such quotes from recent books are Perry Marshall (2015), Evolution 2.0; Mike McHargue (2016), Finding God in the Waves; Justin Brierley (2017), Unbelievable?; and Sy Garte (2019), The Works of His Hands. The attribution of this quote to Heisenberg is even found in some university-level physics textbooks (e.g., Patterson & Bailey 2019: page 427), and is used by prominent scientists in lectures, for example by renowned quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger (Ertl 2011). A quick Google search yields 20,500 hits for the English version and a total of 8,840 hits for the German versions of the quote with attribution to Heisenberg, while countless memes with this quote may be found on social media.
A Little Deeper
However, if you dig a little deeper and try to find an actual source for the quote you will enter muddy waters. There are multiple websites that claim to debunk the attribution to Werner Heisenberg, and it has even been speculated that the quote was fabricated by American fundamentalist Christians. Quite accidentally I came across some new information, so that I decided to do a little investigation and write a brief synopsis about the history and true origins of this quote.
First, let’s have a look at what previous investigators have discovered: The English Wikiquote lists the quote under the header “Misattributed” and briefly reviews the findings by German Wikiquote contributors, who did the main legwork in 2015. More research was done by an atheist blogger with the pseudonym kereng (2017)and by the website Zitatforschung (2018).
In many memes and blog posts you find as a citation an article by Ulrich Hildebrand in the October 1988 issue of the Swiss Christian journal Ethos (Hildebrand 1988: page 10). Unfortunately, this German article just mentions the quote but provides no further source.
Other early mentions are found in German books by Thürkauf (1980: page 123; and 1987: page 74), both citing a book by the German intelligent design proponent Wolfgang Kuhn (1979). Kuhn’s book indeed has the quote in the preface, but again without any source.
Other authors considered Heinz Otremba’s (1979: page 205) book on the town history of Würzburg as the earliest citation for the attribution to Heisenberg, but also mentioned that he did not declare his source. Indeed, the quote is nowhere found in Heisenberg’s published works. I also full-text searched all electronically available works by or about Heisenberg and could not find the quote either. Of course, this should make you highly skeptical of the attribution unless there is additional independent evidence.
The German intelligent design advocate Ralf Isau (2022) lists the quote attributed to Heisenberg on his website and mentions as a source an introductory chapter by Rasche & Waerden (2011) to the 8th German edition of Heisenberg’s book Physik und Philosophie. I purchased this work as an ebook in vain, because it turned out the quote is not in it.
A Crucial Email
Almost all websites that dispute the attribution of the quote to Heisenberg (see Fauxations, Kereng, and Zitatforschung) refer to the research in the German Wikiquote. They particularly reference an alleged debunking statement by email (dated June 22, 2015) from the German journalist Eike Christian Hirsch, who was personally acquainted with Heisenberg and had interviewed him for his book Expedition in die Glaubenswelt (1989). In this crucial email, Hirsch remarked that the “content and style of the quote was completely foreign to Heisenberg’s convictions and the way he used to express himself, and that Heisenberg’s children, Dr. Maria Hirsch and Prof. Dr. Martin Heisenberg, did not recognize their father in this quote” (English Wikiquote). This would indeed be significant, if there were not strong internal evidence that this alleged email may itself be a crude fabrication by an atheist activist at Wikiquote:
- The email is anonymously posted without header, so that there is not the slightest evidence that it is authentic. There exists no other statement or confirmation by Hirsch himself on the matter.
- The email begins in the first person “I personally knew Heisenberg very well …” but then continues in the third person “The journalist Eike Christian Hirsch has interviewed him in 1971 on the question of religion and presented the result in his book …”. This passage can hardly be written by Eike Christian Hirsch himself.
- The email contains factually false statements about Heisenberg’s beliefs, because it says “a religious denomination was foreign to him” even though Heisenberg was a devout Lutheran Christian (also see: Seeger 1985). This is also clear from this passage written by Heisenberg (1942): “The first thing we could say was simply: ‘I believe in God, the Father, the almighty creator of heaven and earth.’ The next step — at least for our contemporary consciousness — was doubt. There is no god; there is only an impersonal law that directs the fate of the world according to cause and effect. … And yet, we may with full confidence place ourselves into the hands of the higher power who, during our lifetime and in the course of the centuries, determines our faith and therewith our world and our fate.”
- The email clearly has an atheist and anti-Christian agenda, which is quite unlike the Christian theologian Hirsch. This agenda is evident from the sentence “The quote that is attributed to him could originate from a US fundamentalist, who wanted to fabricate a confirmation of his faith.”
Actually, an anonymous German commenter at Wikiquote has raised the suspicion that the email is fake, but he was ignored. From these considerations it seems obvious that the suspicious Hirsch email should not be considered as reliable evidence.
Further research by Wikiquote and Ado (2018: page 27) showed that the German physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (Weizsäcker 1948: page 152) mentioned in his summer lectures 1946 the same quote as an old saying or adage without precise attribution to any author: “Nach einem alten Satz trennt uns der erste Schluck aus dem Becher der Erkenntnis von Gott, aber auf dem Grunde des Bechers wartet Gott auf den, der ihn sucht.” (“According to an old saying, the first gulp from the cup of knowledge is separating us from God, but on the bottom of the cup God is waiting for those who search for him.”)
Two historical precursors that may have inspired this quote are suggested:
- Francis Bacon (1601): “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
- Alexander Pope (1709): “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”
Indeed, the former quote is similar enough to suggest that Weizsäcker was paraphrasing Bacon. Anyway, these previous investigations strongly suggest that the attribution to Heisenberg is indeed highly questionable to say the least. Father Horton (2016) concluded on his blog Fauxations, where he investigates dubious quotes: “So I’m not going to say 100% that he never said it, but I’m going to say that it takes much more evidence than I have yet seen to prove that he did, or even to make it likely that he did.” I totally agree, which is why I did some more research to uncover how the common (mis)attribution to Heisenberg came about.
The Origin of a Misattribution
Of course, incorrect attributions of quotes are rampant online as well as in the mass media. Google is your friend, so I quickly found that the quote was also carelessly and incorrectly attributed to Max Planck, for example in a book by Hess (2014: page 21) and in an article in the German newspaper Die Welt by Giesen (2003), who said: “… gemäß dem Wort von Max Planck: “Der erste Schluck aus dem Becher der Wissenschaft macht atheistisch, aber auf dem Grund des Bechers wartet Gott.” (“… according to a saying by Max Planck: …”)
But since Heisenberg is so consistently mentioned as author of the quote, there should be a backstory to this misattribution. I started my own investigation with the oldest source known so far for the attribution to Heisenberg, which was Heinz Otremba’s book of 1979. I thought that he might have known Heisenberg. Thus I googled both names together. This brought up something interesting and new: Otremba has also published a booklet with a short biography of the late Werner Heisenberg on the occasion of his 75th birthday. It seemed logical that an earlier quote with a potential source should be found in this work. I immediately ordered an antiquarian copy from Amazon. Luckily, I found the following in Otremba (1976: page 59): “Und Werner Heisenberg bekannte: ‘Der erste Trunk aus dem Becher der Naturwissenschaft macht atheistisch, aber auf dem Grunde des Bechers wartet Gott.” (“And Werner Heisenberg confessed: … ”)
Fortunately, Otremba indeed included a reference to his source. It is in the German book Leiden – Sterben – Auferstehen, by Luise Rinser (1975: pages 57-58). This was what I had hoped for. Of course, I could hardly wait to get my hands on a copy of this book. When I did, I found this passage with the quote: “Ist es nicht vielleicht so, wie der Physiker Heisenberg in Bezug auf das Verhältnis von Naturwissenschaft und Glaube sagt: ‘Der erste Trunk Der erste Trunk aus dem Becher der Naturwissenschaft macht atheistisch, aber auf dem Grunde des Bechers wartet Gott?’” [“Isn’t it perhaps as the physicist Heisenberg says in relation to the relationship between science and faith: …”]. But nothing more, no source. Another dead end? Bummer!
But All Was Not Lost Yet
Luise Rinser was a famous German author, who survived Nazi persecution. Even though she was a believing Christian, she was also an outspoken leftist and critic of the Catholic Church, so that she certainly had no malicious motivation to pull this quote out of thin air. Could it be that Rinser got the quote from Heisenberg personally? I searched the website of the Rinser Foundation and discovered a short biography written by her son Christoph Rinser, which confirms that she had met many important people such as “Gabriel Marcel, Carl F. von Weizsäcker, Werner Heisenberg, die Päpste Pius XII, und Johannes XXIII” (Rinser 2005: page 386). That’s interesting: as a matter of fact, she personally met two of the people to whom the quote has been attributed. Since we have no further information, we can only speculate that Luise Rinser heard the quote personally from Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and later confused this episode with her meeting with Heisenberg, who was also a German Christian quantum physicist and Christian. This is possible and plausible since she met both and likely chatted about God and science with both of them.
There is of course one more point to consider: According to the impressum, Otremba’s booklet was printed in the fall of 1976 on the occasion of Heisenberg’s 75th birthday. It includes photos from the private archive of the Heisenberg family, which according to the acknowledgements were provided by Heisenberg’s wife Elisabeth. Therefore, it seems likely that Elisabeth Heisenberg either proofread the manuscript or at least received a copy with a dedication by the author. Since the booklet is just 59 pages long, it also seems likely that she read it. If the quote on final page was really so alien to Heisenberg’s thought as was allegedly maintained by Eike Christian Hirsch in his dubious email (see above), it would be very strange if Elisabeth Heisenberg would not have told the author. However, the fact that Otremba repeated the quote three years later in his book on the town history of Würzburg (Otremba 1979: page 205) suggests that nothing like that happened. So, maybe Heisenberg had adopted and paraphrased Weizsäcker’s quote and used it in his talk with Rinser without mentioning the source (or she forgot about it), which is why she attributed it to him. This is certainly possible but arguably not as plausible, because she does not at all suggest in her book that she heard the quote from Heisenberg during a personal meeting, but just mentions it in passing, as if it were drawn from common knowledge about Heisenberg’s thinking.
I fear we will never know for sure. This seems to be the somewhat unsatisfying end of this investigation. Anyway, the quote is neither an evil fabrication by American fundamentalist Christians nor of dubious unsourced origin. It is a wonderful genuine quote, which can be legitimately used by ID proponents and others, but it should be correctly attributed to Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1948) in the future.
Last but Not Least
I will conclude with a genuine quote from Werner Heisenberg (1969) in his famous book Der Teil und das Ganze (The Part and the Whole): “…. so ist es doch immer noch schwer zu glauben, daß so komplizierte Organe wie etwa das menschliche Auge nur durch solche zufälligen Änderungen allmählich entstanden sind.” (“…. thus it is still hard to believe that complex organs like the human eye gradually originated through such random changes.”) Apparently, Heisenberg was not only a Christian theist but also a Darwin doubter. Actually, he mentioned in the very same chapter that the famous quantum physicists John von Neumann and Niels Bohr were skeptical of Darwinism as well and even questioned whether the available time frames for evolution were sufficient, which resonates very well with my current research on the so-called waiting time problem. These guys were of course no biologists, but certainly brilliant scientists and deep thinkers, unlike many secular scientists and science popularizers today.
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