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: 184

Tags: Boson, God, Higgs, Particle, Physics, Religion, Science

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

yay??

Comment by archaeopteryx on July 5, 2012 at 7:49am

I seriously doubt that the time will ever come when we have unlocked all of the secrets of the universe - like an onion or a pearl, every layer that is peeled away, reveals yet another layer underneath.

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

And every time we make a major scientific discovery, we find a way to apply it to our daily lives, sometimes, admittedly, to our detriment, but maybe when we've finished solving the riddles of the universe, we can begin solving the mysteries of Man.

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 archaeopteryx on July 5, 2012 at 10:16am

Doubtless Yeshua nullified his Higgs Field in order to levitate into the clouds, but since the boson also helps hold particles together, why didn't he fly apart - or did he --? That would certainly explain why he hasn't been back.

Comment by archaeopteryx on July 5, 2012 at 10:43am

Blatantly plagiarized from another site:

"The Higgs Boson gets it's mass from the Higgs field, much as we get our mass from really big cheeseburgers."

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 archaeopteryx on July 5, 2012 at 8:50pm

I don't know James - an answer most theists find impossible to admit - but I read an article just yesterday that said a band of dark matter has been discovered connecting two galaxies. What that means, no one knows, but that's the beauty of science, the wonders of the world are revealed in tiny increments. What would we have to look forward to, if we knew everything all at once?

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