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Phil-osophically Speaking: July 12, 2012

The God Particle

It’s a concept so abstruse and mind-boggling that it has become material for comedians generating lines such as this: So they’ve announced the Higgs boson, but no word on pricing or whether they will ship it by Christmas.

When you can’t quite grasp what they’re talking about, having a sense of humor helps. But it’s no laughing matter when you consider the investment involved. Hundreds of physicists and engineers world-wide have devoted more than 40 years and $10 billion to track down this most elusive subatomic particle. Now, with 99.9 percent certainty, they claim to have found the Higgs boson itself. Looking for something that no one had ever seen is par for the course in physics; a working hypothesis will do when hard evidence is unavailable. Higgs boson, (Higgs for the physicist Peter Higgs and boson for particles), was located not by bloodhounds since it has no scent, but with the help of an enormous collider that straddles the French-Swiss border and measures 27 miles in circumference and uses enough electricity to light up an entire city.

Here’s how it works: Two beams of protons are fired through a colossal, circular tube in opposite directions. When each respective beam is accelerated to near the speed of light they crash head-on, (hence the term collider), creating a massive explosion of subatomic particles that scatter in all directions. This explosion generated super-hot temperatures not seen since the Big Bang when the creation of the cosmos was spectacularly inaugurated. Scientists have long theorized that it was a Higgs-like particle, whose lifespan is one-trillionth of a second, which sparked the explosion that gave matter mass and created the physical tapestry that holds the Universe together. Essentially, if there were no Higgs-boson there would be no galaxies, no stars, no planets and no us.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research better known as CERN, sought to recreate the beginning by mimicking a mini-big bang. I was an enthusiastic supporter not because I thought CERN would yield any practical results, but because I believe there are two things that define human nature and make us radically different from all other forms of existence: Our system of morality and our desire to know.

The probable discovery of Higgs boson boosts our understanding of the building blocks of the Universe and a better road map for a “Unified Field Theory” that eluded even Einstein. But the real thrill physicists feel about the existence of Higgs boson is that it opens another whole chapter in physics. Things that sound like science fiction, parallel universes and unseen dimensions become, if only theoretically, possible. It is not for naught, though scientists tend to recoil at the term, that “Higgs boson” has been re-christened, (if I may use the expression), the “God Particle.” Underlying the terminology is the sputtering hope that something can be spontaneously generated from nothing.

Dating back to the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, who lived 2,500 years ago, the prevailing belief was that nothing comes from nothing. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologic, agreed with Parmenides in terms of natural processes but then sought to explain why there was something instead of nothing. His answer was that the purest creation was ex nihilo, meaning that something can be created out of nothing if the creator is outside the laws of nature. Aquinas’ famous First Cause or First Mover revolutionized philosophical and theological thought in avoiding the endless problem of reductionism by simply stating that God is the ultimate cause of everything other than himself.

For scientists who were religious skeptics (a growing number), the First Mover was not terribly troublesome as many believed the Universe to be eternal and unchanging. But that notion unraveled quickly beginning with astronomer Edwin Hubble’s observations in the 1920s that the galaxies were flying apart from one another and the Universe was expanding. By the 1960s, the Big Bang, with its belief that the Universe had a beginning and its creation was uncannily accompanied by the manifestation of light not dissimilar from the account in Genesis, had decisively prevailed in the world of astrophysics. The scientific method had inadvertently and unhappily (as far as scientists were concerned), juxtaposed science and faith. Their wounded sensibilities were hardly soothed when Pope Pius XII declared that Big Bang cosmology affirmed the notion of a creator and was in harmony with religious doctrine.

Why there was indeed something rather than nothing was stubbornly inexplicable in scientific terms especially when the fundamental constants of nature were so finely tuned to the creation of complex life that the slightest alteration of any of these forces would have been catastrophic to its development and evolution of life on Earth. That none of the myriad things that could have gone wrong but didn’t go wrong was so mathematically improbable that it seemed transcendentally suggestive. The elimination of the God hypothesis from the creation-equation is scientifically appealing because the presence of an omnipotent and omniscient being makes the process of discovery (the casus belli of the scientific method), essentially unsatisfying for the inquiring mind.

Higgs boson, however, restores material cosmology to its throne of pre-eminence. With a theoretical framework that can encompass an infinite number of universes at play, the evolution of complex life becomes more mathematically feasible in one universe if you can stack it against tens of trillions of dead universes. Grasping at straws is more of a scientific enterprise than readily admitted —- theoretical test pilots are a dime a dozen in that community. As for myself, I see the “God Particle” as very possibly existing but presumptively hyperbolic and factually unsustainable as the sole explanation of existence. That some physicists have posited that energy (which cannot be created or destroyed) emerged spontaneously from empty space and, therefore, in effect acts like a First Mover, might be theoretically interesting but it’s still lacking justifiable proof. Just because something appears to happen spontaneously doesn’t mean it is happening spontaneously. To say otherwise is to lean on some very thin evidence.

Kudos for the scientists at CERN; but the notion that with this putative discovery we have now embarked upon an unfalsifiable belief that existence can be explained exclusively by the scientific method is profoundly unpersuasive. Philosophically, I find the ambiguities of life too mysterious and multilayered to ever embrace an atheistic view. From a scientific perspective, the elegant simplicity of the Universe’s mathematical structure, its telling teleology that from the beginning unfolded in a way that was not only congenial to the emergence of consciousness but also to its comprehension of the vast and infinite phenomena strikes me, even in the absence of revealed religion, as something beyond the ken of scientific explanation.