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Einstein’s God

A letter from Einstein is going up for auction (got $3 million), and it’s revealing about his actual attitude towards religion.

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text.

Just remember that next time someone tries to cite Einstein as a believer.

Comments

  1. says

    Is this a rerun?

    It sold, I don’t know, maybe three or four years ago for the equivalent of over four hundred thousand dollars, and the owner is hoping for a little less than 10X what it cost at that auction to over 10X on eBay.

    It didn’t really tell us anything that published writings had already told us, he was just a bit more explicit at rejecting the Bible. Seems a lot of money for that.

    Glen Davidson

  2. Gregory Greenwood says

    SuckPoppet @ 3;

    But .. but .. but .. Sophisticated Theology ™

    *Sarcasm*

    And Einstein converted on his deathbed, dontcha know. A completely trustworthy christian just happened to be there to document the fact while everyone else was elsewhere.

    Trufax…

    */Sarcasm*

    Well, they have claimed it about Darwin, they have claimed it about Hitchens, and you can bet your bottom unit of national currency that they will claim it about Hawkings and Dawkins after they are both safely dead and cannot contradict them.

    Why would Einstein be any different?

  3. kreativekaos says

    The personality or motivation of the buyer might be interesting.
    A strictly historical interest? Is the buyer an atheist inspired by the growing atheist/secular movements? Merely another investment property? Any or all of the above?

    he was just a bit more explicit at rejecting the Bible
    -Glen Davidson

    Yes, explicit, but probably no more explicit than one of his more famous quotes, when he said:

    ‘It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious
    convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I
    do not believe in a personal God….’

  4. jose says

    Famous physicists talk about God as some kind of shorthand. “God doesn’t play dice”; “God abhors a naked singularity”, etc.

    Sometimes their books need some “sophisticated interpretations” too, we shouldn’t take that literally!

  5. tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach says

    . Seems a lot of money for that.

    Oh, it’s all just relative.

  6. cactuswren says

    I got into it once with a TrooBeleever who posted that awful story about young Einstein and the Evil Atheist Professor. I pointed out that there was no evidence that any such thing had ever happened; she “argued” (scare quotes intentional) that even if there wasn’t it was still a good story that made an important point and besides the burden of proof was on me to prove it wasn’t true so there.

  7. Sastra says

    Just remember that next time someone tries to cite Einstein as a believer.

    O rly? O ye of little faith. Did you even read the link?

    This is going to be spun — as all of Einstein’s views on religion have been spun — as a rejection of an unsophisticated, primitive anthropomorphic God and the endorsement of a higher, nobler, less-obviously anthropomorphic version of God. The very same people who have been bashing the New Atheists as lacking nuance and enlightened comprehension of God are simply going to use this as if it were their own weapon.

    I mean, look at the quotes from the article:

    Religion, Einstein believed, made a caricature of God.

    That’s not, however, because Einstein rejected the notion of God, but because he took the idea of God very seriously, elevating it above a religious conception to a mathematical one. To Einstein, the elegance of the phsyics guiding the universe were God’s handiwork, the mark not of a humanlike being that maintains control over the world, but of a divine beauty in nature’s laws. As Walter Issacson wrote in his biography, following a religious phase in childhood, Einstein retained “a profound reverence for the harmony and beauty of what he called the mind of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe and its laws.”

    Einstein’s God — deeply shaped by the ideas of Baruch Spinoza — was a “superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe,” he wrote. His religion followed from there.

    Einstein replied calmly. “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”

    “Superior reasoning power.” A mysterious force we venerate. Oh, not religion: spirituality. Supernaturalism, but in a trickier, more subtle form. They will grasp desperately at the mind-like aspects of this God, and they will emphasize that Einstein was no Dawkins:

    “The religion of the Bible was too provincial, too small, to contain the God Einstein revered. That God, the one he found in physics and who inspired his science, deserved more. But, nevertheless, Einstein didn’t believe that differing views on God should interfere with the development of understanding among men.”

    The way they frame it, Einstein would never have tried to disparage faith in God. He wants a BETTER God. Less “childish.” And no arguing in public.

    The critics of New Atheism think — or pretend to think — this letter supports their views on sophisticated theology, and its lack of conflict with religion. If you think we gnus are going to simply be able to use it without argument, you’re underestimating how slippery their God is. The people with the biggest hard-on for reconciling science and religion and the most scorn and contempt for outspoken atheism are the Spiritual, Not Religious.

    This letter isn’t going to clear up the real debate.

  8. Ichthyic says

    that even if there wasn’t it was still a good story that made an important point

    the point being that authoritarian personalities far prefer to make the argument FROM authority instead of on facts.

    I’m sure what convinced this person originally was not that it was a good argument, but that Einstein’s name was attached to it.

    but then, that’s what misquoting Einstein has always been about anyway.

  9. Menyambal --- Sambal's Little Helper says

    Evil is simply the absence of God?

    Then the existence of us atheists is just as evil as cross-dressing Hitler on a drug-fueled nun-slashing rampage.

    Good to know.

  10. says

    Gregory Greenwood @3

    *Sarcasm*

    And Einstein converted on his deathbed, dontcha know. A completely trustworthy christian just happened to be there to document the fact while everyone else was elsewhere.

    Trufax…

    */Sarcasm*

    Actually in 1945 a rumour was circulating that a Jesuit priest had converted Einstein to Christianity. In response Einstein wrote

    “I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.”

    I have discussed Einstein’s religious views in more detail here

  11. rootrudee says

    It surprises me that nobody seems to have noticed it yet: the translation –although excellent in most parts– is incorrect in the most important sentence.

    “Das Wort Gott ist für mich nichts als Ausdruck und Produkt menschlicher Schwächen, die Bibel eine Sammlung ehrwürdiger, aber doch reichlich primitiver Legenden.”

    The second half of this sentence does NOT translate
    “[…] the bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish”.
    It should read
    “[…] the bible a collection of honorable but yet quite primitive legends.”

    The expression “pretty childish” or “childish” (“kindisch” or “kindlich” in German) cannot be found in the entire text of the letter.

    Funny thing is that it seems that five years ago even the German secularist’s “Humanistischer Pressedienst” cited this passage wrong “`Kindischer Aberglaube´:Einstein über Religion”.
    The reason is rather simple, as the text seems to be re-translated to german.

    That makes me wonder if Joan Stambaugh, the translator of this letter, made this mistake deliberately or not. As a translator of Martin Heidegger she should to be well aquainted with even more complicated language than this simple letter.

  12. Q.E.D says

    What Sastra said @ 12

    QFT. There is no space to small, distant and irrelevant for the “sophisticated theologians” and “spiritual” people (what the fuck does that word even mean anyway) to cram their god into.

    rootrudee @ 14

    Good catch!

    I don’t speak German, but even I can translate “primitiver Legenden”, they are the same words in French and English! No sophisticated Heidegger-level German needed!

  13. trinioler says

    I’ve posted this in PET before, but this seems particularly apt today:

    http://mukto-mona.net/Articles/einstein_tagore.htm

    A series of letters between Einstein and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

    (Quick primer on Tagore: Bengali nobleman, single-handedly invented the Bengali form of fiction, first non-western person to win the Nobel Laureate prize in Literature, and regarded in the Indian cultural sphere as the equivalent or better of Shakespeare. )

  14. yoav says

    @cactuswren #9
    I’ve been hearing this story for years, I wander was it influenced by or is it the inspiration for Jack Chick’s all time favorit big daddy
    @Gregory Greenwood #4
    It doesn’t meter if he converted on his deathbed since once he kicked the bucket he became a mormon.

  15. Sastra says

    trinioler #18 wrote:

    A series of letters between Einstein and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

    Not a series of letters. Parts of it sound like an imagined dialogue in which Tagore throws out a lot of deepities.

    Einstein grants too much when he says that his belief that reality exists outside of human consciousness is his “religion.” I agree with Russell: Tagore’s views on this are both “unmitigated rubbish” and stale. They’re the sort of supernatural crap which is STILL being presented as a wise alternative to religion by people who ought to know better. Idealism isn’t deep; it’s useless, childish, and ego-centric.

  16. says

    *sigh*

    Seriously… the case of Einstein’s beliefs (or lack thereof) is a hell of a lot more complicated than y’all are making it out to be.

    He denied a personal god. PERSONAL. Not ALL gods. Just personal ones.

    He noted that, according to a Jesuit Priest, he was an atheist. In my experience, Jesuit’s have a rather fast and loose definition for atheists: “anyone who isn’t a Jesuit”.

    Einstein also later said that he is not an atheist:

    I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

    ~Einstein and Religion by Max Jammer, Princeton University Press

    He was also no fan of atheists who used him:

    “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

    ~The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University, page 214

    “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”

    ~Albert Einstein, letter to Guy H. Raner Jr., Sept. 28, 1949, quoted by Michael R. Gilmore in Skeptic, Vol. 5, No. 2

    And, finally:

    I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

    ~Response to Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein who asked Einstein if he believed in God.

    Don’t know who Spinoza is? Here. Find out.

    And that is not “sexed-up atheism”, as Dawkins claims. Please don’t confuse PanDEISM with Naturalistic PanTHEISM. They may claim the same inspirations, but they are two different things. I will grant that Pandeism is as close as you can come to being an atheist while still believing in a higher power of some sort, but it’s still not atheism.

    And besides… why does it matter? Who cares? Einstein is dead. There is simply no way for him to make a public statement today shutting everybody up.

    So leave him alone.

    Seriously.

    The position of dead people means fuck all to the current atmosphere, thank you very much. We need Einstein as much as theists do; that is to say, not at all.

    So just let it go.

    And yes, I have said this same thing to theists… I say it more often to theists than atheists, in fact.

    ——————————–

    For the record, in case someone here confuses me, I am an atheist… slight anti-theist, even. I’m just sicked of Einstein being used. Because that’s what’s happening. We aren’t honoring him with this shit; we’re using him, for the “appeal to authority” fallacy.

    Einstein believed in Spinoza’s god. He said so himself. He also expressed ire at atheists quoting him to support our views. So I think, maybe, we could respect Einstein’s wishes?

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t call out theists. But we shouldn’t be countering their lies with one of our own. We should be pointing out to them that they would not recognize the god Einstein expressed belief in… at all. It doesn’t even fit the “Sophisticated Theology (TM)” concept of Yahweh… it’s isn’t even close to being Yahweh.

    Spinoza’s god is quite literally the exact opposite of Yahweh in every single way possible. It’s Deism at its most diluted.

    It’s still not atheism, though.

  17. Sastra says

    NateHevens #21 wrote:

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t call out theists. But we shouldn’t be countering their lies with one of our own. We should be pointing out to them that they would not recognize the god Einstein expressed belief in… at all.

    I agree with most of what you say here — except that I think that for the most part we atheists are responding to the fact that Einstein being “spiritual” is constantly being used to bash atheists over the head for NOT being “spiritual.” They start with the appeal to authority on the conflict between science and religion: if Einstein sees none, then none exists.

    I’m not sure Einstein would recognize the God Einstein expresses belief in, either.

  18. says

    Sastra @ #22

    I agree with most of what you say here — except that I think that for the most part we atheists are responding to the fact that Einstein being “spiritual” is constantly being used to bash atheists over the head for NOT being “spiritual.” They start with the appeal to authority on the conflict between science and religion: if Einstein sees none, then none exists.

    Understood. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s just the whole “well, actually, Einstein was really an atheist” that pisses me off.

    No. No he wasn’t.

    I’m not sure Einstein would recognize the God Einstein expresses belief in, either.

    Honestly, I think he would. If you think about it, the idea that the universe is god (or that god and the universe are one-in-the-same) isn’t that much of a stretch, even in the early 20th century. It still has issues (infinite regress being the main one), of course, but quite a bit less than a personal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, personal, micro-managing, prayer-answering, authoritarian deity. I’m sure Einstein thought about it quite a bit, in fact.

    Also, although I’m really not a fan of appeals to authority, if we absolutely must have them, from Physics we have Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow, Leonard Susskind, and Sean Carroll. And so many more.

    We don’t need Einstein…

    Seriously…

  19. coelsblog says

    NateHevens:

    He was also no fan of atheists who used him: “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

    As far as I’m aware, that quote originally comes from an autobiography “Towards the Further Shore” by Prince Hubertus zu Lowenstein, a Catholic activist, which claims that Einstein had said this at a dinner party.

    The book was published in 1968, 13 years after Einstein’s death, and thus Einstein had no opportunity to comment on or verify this quote as being accurate.

    For that reason I regard it as a dubious claim, not something anyone should quote as a genuine Einstein quote (I don’t trust Catholic activists to report such things accurately many years afterwards).

  20. says

    We don’t need Einstein…

    A-fuckin’-men.

    To my eyes, Spinoza’s god is the reification of nature, which is a cop-out. It’s a god for those who recognize the problems with traditional gods, or can’t be bothered with traditional gods, but who — for various reasons both social and personal — do not profess a total lack of belief in gods. It’s basically theistic agnosticism.

    But in the end, who the fuck cares? It’s such a trivial matter, like a preference for graphic novels. Belief in Spinoza’s god harms no-one. It automatically leads to no conclusions about the desires of the chosen god, putting us in the same moral position as if that god did not exist at all. Einstein’s belief (or lack thereof) is at best a distraction, and at worst, a red herring.

  21. coelsblog says

    NateHevens:

    “I’m not an atheist”

    It’s likely from the context that he was regarding “atheist” as meaning “definite assertion of non-existence” of gods (many people do). Under the “lack of belief” definition he likely was an atheist.

    Einstein believed in Spinoza’s god.

    The same Spinoza who was excommunicated for atheism? Einstein’s quote on that was highly political; the context was Americans trying to denigrate Jews as atheistic. Einstein’s reponse was clever in that it would be taken as theistic, but wasn’t really. Spinozas “God” could be taken as simply “nature”.

    He also expressed ire at atheists quoting him to support our views.

    That’s dubious, see my previous comment.

    So I think, maybe, we could respect Einstein’s wishes?

    I agree that we should, but it seems he lacked any belief in any personal god or any god who intelligently designed the universe for a purpose, so likely he was an atheist.

  22. says

    coelsblog @ #24

    If such is the case, then I retract that one. I’ve never seen anything questioning the quote, but you make a valid point.

    nigelTheBold @ #25

    A-fuckin’-men.

    To my eyes, Spinoza’s god is the reification of nature, which is a cop-out. It’s a god for those who recognize the problems with traditional gods, or can’t be bothered with traditional gods, but who — for various reasons both social and personal — do not profess a total lack of belief in gods. It’s basically theistic agnosticism.

    That’s actually a decent way of putting it, to be honest…

    But in the end, who the fuck cares? It’s such a trivial matter, like a preference for graphic novels. Belief in Spinoza’s god harms no-one. It automatically leads to no conclusions about the desires of the chosen god, putting us in the same moral position as if that god did not exist at all. Einstein’s belief (or lack thereof) is at best a distraction, and at worst, a red herring.

    Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    The who the fuck cares part, especially. It just isn’t important.

    At all.

    If “spiritualists” and theists want to smack us over the head with Einstein, then of course we have a duty to disavow their illusions about Einstein’s beliefs. But we can’t be doing that with the lie that Einstein was an atheist. That’s my only point.

  23. says

    coelsblog @ #26

    It’s likely from the context that he was regarding “atheist” as meaning “definite assertion of non-existence” of gods (many people do). Under the “lack of belief” definition he likely was an atheist.

    No.

    The same Spinoza who was excommunicated for atheism? Einstein’s quote on that was highly political; the context was Americans trying to denigrate Jews as atheistic. Einstein’s reponse was clever in that it would be taken as theistic, but wasn’t really. Spinozas “God” could be taken as simply “nature”.

    Excommunicated from what, exactly? Spinoza wasn’t a Catholic… he was Jewish. You don’t get “excommunicated” from Judaism. Only the extreme ultra-Orthodox believe you can actually leave Judaism. The vast majority of Jews believe (despite the lack of evidence) that Judaism is passed through the blood/genes. So you could turn around and become a Muslim… you’re still a Jew in the eyes of the vast majority of Jews.

    And you would be shocked how many Jews (clergy, even!) actually like Spinoza’s ideas. Spinoza’s a pretty big influence on modern Jewish theology (again, outside of the fanatics).

    Again, don’t confuse Pandiesm with Naturalistic Pantheism. They are different insofar as Pandeism really does insist that the Universe is god. It’s not a metaphor; the universe is god; they are one in the same. With Naturalistic Pantheism, it’s just a metaphor. Spinoza was NOT being metaphorical.

  24. says

    Er… scratch that.

    Spinoza was issued a cherem when he was 23. I apologize.

    Jewish theology tends to include a lot of him these days, however…

  25. coelsblog says

    NateHevens:

    “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

    More on the context:

    Cardinal O’Connell of Boston attacked Einstein and his work saying that it “cloaked the ghastly apparition of atheism” and “befogged speculation, producing universal doubt about God and His Creation.”

    Rabbi Herbert Goldstein wanted to defend Einstein and Jews. Thus he sent the “Do you believe in God?” to Einstein, effectively for ammunition to rebut Cardinal O’Connell. That led to Einstein’s reply above. In the context of highly religious America and the context of anti-Semitism rapidly gaining ground in Einstein’s homeland, this exchange is highly political, and needs to be interpreted in that context.

  26. coelsblog says

    NateHevens:

    Spinoza was NOT being metaphorical.

    Of course whether Spinoza regarded his language as metaphorical is different from whether Einstein intended his references to Spinoza’s “God” as metaphorical.

  27. Sastra says

    NateHevens #23 wrote:

    If you think about it, the idea that the universe is god (or that god and the universe are one-in-the-same) isn’t that much of a stretch, even in the early 20th century. It still has issues (infinite regress being the main one), of course, but quite a bit less than a personal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, personal, micro-managing, prayer-answering, authoritarian deity. I’m sure Einstein thought about it quite a bit, in fact.

    Einstein may have thought about the Spinozan God-as-Nature quite a bit, but I think there’s enough waffle and ineffable mystery in such a God that it’s still not very likely that Einstein could think about it very deeply. If you take all the mind-like aspects out of God — remove consciousness, thought, intelligence, goals, values, and emotions — then I would argue that what is left is not going to fit anyone’s understanding of God, however vague, inchoate, and wonder-inspiring it is. This includes Einstein and Spinoza.

    Adding in those characteristics but placing them in an area beyond what we could recognize doesn’t help. It’s now incoherent — but not incoherent enough to avoid the charge of anthropomorphizing the universe. And there’s also the epistemic problem, and the ethical problems which come along with having to grant a “special way of knowing” for facts which are known (or felt) by special sorts of people. So it’s not AS much of a stretch, agree — but it’s still an inversion of the scientific process.

  28. Ichthyic says

    So you could turn around and become a Muslim… you’re still a Jew in the eyes of the vast majority of Jews.

    I’ve met quite a few atheist Jews who figure their Jewishness comes from a cultural history and tradition preserved by choice within their families (nothing to do with genetics), and seem easily able to separate that from their beliefs regarding how the world around them works.

  29. says

    It seems to me that Einstein used the term god to represent the so far unknowable essence of reality, that being WHY there are particles and wave functions, why there is curvature of space produced by mass – why things are the way they are.
    I hardly think he meant a mysterious force or any spiritual cohesiveness. I thought he meant the sense of awe and wonder at the mysterious nature of reality.

    “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.”
    — Albert Einstein

    “Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect, as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”
    — Albert Einstein

    “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
    — Albert Einstein

    I found these in this article: Einstein, the universe, and God
    by Russell Grigg

    = =
    Answering a Japanese scholar who asked him about ‘scientific truth’, Albert wrote, ‘Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as “pantheistic” (Spinoza).’25
    It is thus clear that when Albert mentioned ‘God’, e.g. ‘God does not play dice with the universe’, and ‘The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not’,26 he was referring to something like rationality in the universe. He is recorded as saying that a ‘deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God’.27 However, he certainly was not referring to anything like the God of the Bible, who is Creator, Lawgiver, Judge and Saviour.
    – –

    [23]Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein, Crown Publishers, New York, NY, USA, pp. 36–39, 1954
    [24]Ref. 23, pp. 46, 48. Return to text
    [25]Ref. 23, pp. 261–62. Return to text
    [26]He was objecting to the random unpredictable element in quantum mechanics, where one cannot calculate what will happen, only what will probably happen. Return to text
    [27]Barnett, L., The Universe and Dr. Einstein, Victor Gallancz Ltd, London, UK, p. 95, 1953.

    That’s the sense I get – ‘the mystery of why it is the way it is.’

    I also talked in some long lost comment that the reason the universe makes sense to us, or that we understand it as coherent, is because WE are part of the universe and innately understand the laws of operation of our universe. (I was making a comparison to how we couldn’t understand or perceive other universes or levels of reality, like quantum mechanics and higher order dimensions, or them ours.)
    This is the ‘rationality’ of reality that Einstein speaks (26 and 27 above).

    I think! lol

  30. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Einstein is to physics as Jefferson is to politics–you can find a quote to support damn near any position. And of course none of them are what he really believed.

    You also have to draw a distinction between Einstein pre- and post-1915. In the former period he did all his best physics, while in the latter he developed a philosophical and almost mystical idea of the Universe. The latter period is of course when he famously said that God did not play dice with the Universe–to which Niels Bohr responded, “Stop telling God what to do!”