Heisenberg at the bottom of the glass

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.

Attr. Werner Heisenberg

Wikiquote contributors have done some legwork on this, and I base what follows on what I found there.

The original quotation in German is: “Der erste Trunk aus dem Becher der Naturwissenschaft macht atheistisch, aber auf dem Grund des Bechers wartet Gott.” The source “cited in Ulrich Hildebrand: ‘Das Universum – Hinweis auf Gott?’, in ‘Ethos. Die Zeitschrift für die ganze Familie,’ Berneck, Schweiz: Schwengeler Verlag AG, No. 10, Oktober 1988, p. 10. The quote can not be found in Heisenberg’s published works, and Hildebrand apparently does not declare his source. The renowned journalist Eike Christian Hirsch

A friend of Heisenberg, Dr. Eike Christian Hirsch PhD, said that the content and the style are “foreign to Heisenberg’s convictions and the way he used to express himself.” Also according to Wikiquote, Heisenberg’s children “did not recognize their father in this quote”.

Two sources are suggested: Francis Bacon, “Of Atheism” (1601): “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion,” and Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism“ (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.”

I can hear the axes being ground in the Wikiquote material, so I did a little extra searching on my own.

  1. Google searching for the English quotation adds no new information.
  2. Wikiquote as above.
  3. Wikiquote is right that the quotation is attributed to Heisenberg in the source cited, and no original source appears to be given there.
  4. I Googled for the German version of the quotation as given above, though apparently there are several competing variations. Since I speak basically no German beyond “Gesundheit,” I wasn’t able to gain much, but at least I tried.
  5. Heisenberg was a practicing Lutheran. Here’s an authentic quotation: “In the history of science, ever since the famous trial of Galileo, it has repeatedly been claimed that scientific truth cannot be reconciled with the religious interpretation of the world. Although I am now convinced that scientific truth is unassailable in its own field, I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking as simply part of an outmoded phase in the consciousness of mankind, a part we shall have to give up from now on. Thus in the course of my life I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of thought, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.” From “Scientific and Religious Truth” (1974).

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.

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