Friday, 31 August 2012

God and the Higgs Boson

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Nor do I so forget God as to adore the name of nature. –Browne

When CERN issued a report of the discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson, the news made headlines around the world. I felt a particular thrill, for back in the summer of 2003 when I was an undergraduate, I worked at CERN on the ATLAS Forward Calorimeter. The hard work of literally thousands of people―including my own comparatively minuscule contribution―is bearing fruit. Physics is continues to explain more and more about our physical world, and that is reason for great excitement.

One of the reasons for the story’s success in the press is a nickname that has been widely adopted: “the God particle”. The familiar and tiresome science-religion narrative naturally ensued. Consequently, several people asked me to comment on it, and some suggested that I write something about it here.

It should first be pointed out that the scientific community does not use the term “God particle”. Its usual name is the “Higgs boson”, after Peter Higgs, one of the men who proposed its existence in the 1960s. It was only three decades after Higgs’ work that the term “God particle” was introduced in a book of the same title by Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi (which I have not read). While the authors did intend the name to be thought-provoking, there is a good injection of whimsy. Additionally, they state in the book that one reason they chose the name was that the publisher would not let them title the book “The Godd―n Particle”.

Although physicists continue to use the traditional name and, in my experience, basically ignore Lederman and Teresi’s neologism, the press has enthusiastically adopted the latter, to the point where the God particle is indelibly associated with the Higgs boson in the public consciousness. The positive result is that the popular nomenclature has raised the public profile of particle physics. This is a Good Thing. At the same time, however, it has done a disservice by raising false metaphysical hopes. Natural science is exactly what it says it is: natural. The supernatural is not part of its subject matter. Both science and faith end up being misrepresented.

First, take science. The problem that arises with the term “God particle” is that in the popular press, the (probable) discovery of the Higgs boson is sometimes treated as though it were substantially different from other scientific advances. This is not really the case. Though it could be argued that it is more (or less) important in terms of scientific knowledge per se, it is not qualitatively different from other important discoveries, such as the tau neutrino or the top quark, which, like the Higgs boson, were successfully predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. Discovering the Higgs boson does not make natural science one iota more capable of determining whether or not God exists.

Faith is also obscured. The name “God particle” raises expectations among some religious people that a physical phenomenon can unlock the mystery of God. Perhaps, it is vaguely hoped, the Higgs boson will allow us to clearly see the finger of God in the world in a substantially new way. To put it crassly, such an attitude expects novel scientific discoveries to open a kind of mystical short-cut to God. But this line of thinking is flawed for the same reason that we have already seen. Natural science is about nature, not about God―at least, not directly.

Does this mean that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria”, as Stephen Jay Gould once proposed? Do God and the Higgs boson have absolutely nothing to do with each other?

The Catholic answer to this question is no. While natural science and faith are not the same thing, they do not exist in completely separate vats of human knowledge. If God is the Creator, then of course there is a connection between our faith and the cosmos he created. Studying nature gives us hints about the kind of Being that created her, just as reading about Elizabeth Bennet tells us something about the author who invented her. But trying to prove or disprove God’s existence using the discovery of the Higgs boson is like trying to ascertain whether Jane Austen really existed by doing a literary analysis of Pride and Prejudice. We can infer her existence and guess at her personality from the book, but this is not the science of literary studies properly speaking. Similarly, we can infer God’s existence and what he is like by looking at creation, but this is not natural science. It is philosophy.

In the end, both science and faith are best served when we keep in mind what they are. We ought to celebrate the remarkable scientific progress unfolding before our eyes that is making the universe more and more intelligible. And, in faith, we can praise the Creator who is the source of that intelligibility.

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