The God particle, and what little it has to do with God

Oh how I wish the recently demonstrated Higgs Boson, which bestows mass on particles, had never acquired the moniker the 'God Particle'. I suppose there is one benefit: it increases the attention and coverage about a very cool and significant question, just solved, in particle physics. But it does so with the false implication that this has anything remotely to do with God when in reality it counts neither for or meaningfully against the case for a deity.

There is a precedent here. Many religious people are quite happy to jump on the bandwagon of the Big Bang theory as being the moment of creation they had long asserted happened. Even the Catholic church has, after a few years, accepted the big bang and internalized it as part of their own worldview. Undoubtably, the Higgs Boson will be used in much the same way, especially because it already has the name attached to it, where people will point to it and say that it is God working in this universe, bestowing mass on particles. 

It helps, very, very slightly, the atheist position. A common class of arguments for God essentially work by defining it as the God of the Gaps. Whatever science says is considered true, but when science does not know something, whenever there is a 'gap' in our knowledge, God is asserted to have caused it. Evolution might be accepted, say, since there is lots of evidence for that, but abiogenesis, which we understand very poorly, must have been caused by God. Every time we increase our knowledge of the world, as has been done with the Higgs Boson, we necessarily close the size of the gaps, giving God a little bit less space to work in

We can sometimes have surprisingly profound conversations with children. Everyone is familiar with the infinite regress where the child asks, in response to every answer, 'Why?' that continues until the tired parent finally retorts 'Because!'. This is not far from how our epistemology is forced to work. We can always ask questions about why the universe is the way it is, and try to explain it in terms of ever more fundamental facts, but at some point one has to throw up ones hands and simply explain that we have reached a level that we can accept as true, but cannot justify further. 

This is the reason that no amount of gap closing ever really helps us. Even though the Higgs Boson may answer the question 'what causes mass?' it only pushes the heirarchy of whys down one level; the next question will be undoubtably be posed: what causes the Higgs Boson? As of yet, since this has no explanation in terms of yet more fundamental causes, we must retreat to the position that this is simply how the universe appears to be. This 'gap' can always be explained, by the religious person, to be caused by God. Ironically, the hierarchy ought not to stop there and one should ask 'what caused God?', but this has rarely dissuaded the religious person in the past and I can hardly expect it would now (for more on the infinite regress problem, click here).

Scientists also dislike the moniker because it gives undue importance to this particular particle. It is indeed a momentous discovery, as it is the last major particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics and confirms in a major way the veracity of the Standard Model. However, many important questions remain in theoretical physics and we are far from saying we understand the universe. Further, there is not really a meaningful metric in which this particle is vastly more important than those that were discovered before it and do other things of importance to our universe. So it is bequeathed with this special status that it does not quite deserve. 

As someone with a degree in physics, I have always hoped that we would not find the Higgs Boson, at least from an aesthetic sense. I like the mystery of the universe, and I like the idea that the questions remain much bigger and deeper as would have been the case if the Higgs Boson had not been found in the predicted range. We would have had to keep exploring and searching for a model beyond the Standard Model. And, of course, we do have to keep exploring to answer the questions that are deep and mysterious and remain despite this. I have a love hate relationship with the idea that the universe is "solved", even if we are far from that yet. 

Views: 207

Comment by Nerdy Keith on July 4, 2012 at 5:11pm

Thanks for posting this, I understand a little better now. 

Comment by Logicallunatic on July 4, 2012 at 10:10pm

I don't think humans will survive long enough to "solve" it,  whatever "solved" means. But it's still great to live to see a few layers pulled back.  

Comment by Tom Holm on July 5, 2012 at 2:18am


Comment by Unseen on July 5, 2012 at 8:56am

It should be called The Atheist Particle, because now we know that things aren't held together by God. Instead, it's just another subatomic particle. The one that gives things mass. And with mass, gravity has something to act on.

Comment by Unseen on July 5, 2012 at 11:07am

"God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance, that gets smaller and smaller as time goes on."
-- Neil Degrasse Tyson --

Leaving us with Brahman, and we'll all be Hindus.

Comment by James Cox on July 5, 2012 at 1:05pm

Sadly, it does answer the question, 'where did the Higgs field come from?'

I still wonder about details. If the Higgs particle gives mass to matter, then it seems that it should be easier to find? Does the Higgs field represent the dark matter/dark energy of the universe?    

Comment by bazie on July 5, 2012 at 10:22pm

James, while the field persists everywhere, the excitation state of the field which makes the boson only occurs at energies that have last occured in the first millionth of a millionth of a second after the big bang. We shouldn't expect it to be easy to find...indeed scientists were aware that they would only find it when they could create these enormous energies. 

Comment by James Cox on July 6, 2012 at 12:09am

So particle called the 'Higgs Boson', only exists at very high energies, sort of crystalizing out of the 'Higgs field'? Once the particle forms then its energy is quickly shed and the particle decays back/resubmerges to the Higgs field? Were there specific decay particles left in the wake of the Higgs Boson as it resubmerged into the field?

I feel a weirdness here. Why would this necessarily explain 'mass'?    

It would seem that atoms would contain whole number increments of the Higgs Boson at low energies, dependent upon particles that have 'mass'? If I assume that the 'Higgs field' is a component of space, it would seem that a lot more questions are in the offing. From a previous post, the 'dark matter' could= 'Higgs Boson'.    

Comment by Unseen on July 6, 2012 at 12:18am

@James Cox

I'm with you. I need further explanation. With mass everywhere in the universe, and lots of it, how can the Higgs Boson be anything but extremely common?

Comment by James Cox on July 6, 2012 at 6:55pm

Since being agreed with is not the same as 'truth', which seems like a rather sad state of affairs, how does the 'Higgs Boson express itself in matter?'

Another way of thinking about it could be that, the 'Higgs Boson is only visible at high energies, since its mass increases at higher and higher energies, leaving behind the 'skin' of other particles with a charge(protons)'. I find it interesting that charge does not increase with energy/velocity.  We might be lucky that it does not..;p).


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