The God Particle, and what 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. 

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

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Comment by Matt--Lukin on July 8, 2012 at 6:11pm

bazie, of course, this "quasi-religious" language can often lead to confusion and misconception. However, when someone like Michio Kaku uses the word "God," Kaku makes sure to be quite clear as to what he means when he says "God." He does not mean an "all-powerful entity," the "God" of intervention and prayer, a "personal God," the God that George Carlin made fun of, he always makes sure to stress this point. He, of course, means God in the same sense that Einstein used it, the God of Spinoza, the God of elegance, order, harmony, and simplicity. That's why I said, "Now, this is just Kaku, if you're familiar with his work, just pleasing the crowd there to get a project like that going using such words as 'deity,'" meaning that Kaku was using that rhetoric only for show or as I said "to please the crowd." He didn't mean it literally as a reflection of his own beliefs. He just couldn't believe that the decision to scrap that project boiled down to a clumsy response to an obscure question, you see.

I read your blog (if it was your blog) on the use of what you're calling "quasi-religious" language. I sort of have a different take on that which I've posted under the guise of "Perennial Philosophy," which I've sort of stirred up an ongoing debate at another atheist forum that is a place where local theists where I'm from chat at. I'll link you, but they recently made the forum private, so if it prompts you for a password, use this one here:

User: deakon210@yahoo.com

Password: master1

That's a new account I made for this purpose, so you may not be able to access it until about a day or so because it takes a little while for them to finally activiate it, hopefully you don't see this post until it's activated. And here's the link to the thread:

http://www.sa-atheists.org/messages/boards/thread/22114442/10

Comment by Alan Carter on July 6, 2012 at 2:53pm

 "MANKIND"  abuses weaker animals across the board... enslaves hundreds of millions of humans

the strong the "psychopath "  rule..... humankind deserves to be destroyed not fit for purpose 

Comment by Alan Carter on July 6, 2012 at 2:44pm

All this knowledge.. deep thought ..along comes a large a very large piece of rubbish from outer space...back to the caves if we are lucky  cannibalism worship of a god trust me I'm a king 

Comment by taslima nasrin on July 6, 2012 at 11:43am
Comment by Sandi on July 6, 2012 at 11:02am

thanks to Andrew:

Comment by Loren Miller on July 6, 2012 at 10:34am

Let's just remember, gang, that it was originally supposed to be "The Goddamn Particle," because it was a bear to lock it down.  Problem is, the editors didn't like the "damn."

As to what the Higgs Boson has to do with god?  How about ABSOLUTELY NOTHING?!?

Comment by bazie on July 6, 2012 at 10:27am

Matt, I am always a bit hesitant when physicists use "quasi-religious" terminology like genesis to talk about important physical things. Yes there is a naturalistic notion of genesis, but much like a word like "soul" it is so attached to the deistic notion that it just begs confusion and misinterpretation, not to mention detracting from the beauty and majesty by borrowing rhetoric with religious baggage. 

For more: http://progressiveproselytizing.blogspot.ca/2012/06/religion-and-la...

Comment by Sandi on July 6, 2012 at 6:13am

I said the exact same thing yesterday while watching the report on the news. But at the same time, the christians would just say that god has allowed us to now see the particle now as proof of his being anyway, regardless of what we name it. Unfortunately, when you live in a mythical world, you can just make up shit as you go along.

Perhaps the 'Godless Particle' may have been more to the point.

Comment by Alan Carter on July 6, 2012 at 2:30am

My dog has created a game for himself fight or wrestle  the stone and pull up grass or dig the sand another thinking animal  filling time with meaningless   same as Plato and other restless thinkers 

Comment by Alan Carter on July 6, 2012 at 2:21am

Life has no value live die its all the same meaningless a wast of time

we live on a world filled with death  there is no" why"... just "is "  we the so called thinking animal

create reasons other than need 

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