“In my time, I have heard two quite different arguments against my religion put forth in the name of science. When I was a youngster, people used to say that the universe was not only not friendly to life but positively hostile to it. Life had appeared on this planet by a millionth chance, as if at one point there had been a breakdown of the elaborate defenses generally enforced against it. We should be rash to assume that such a leak had occured more than once. Probably life was a purely terrestrial abnormality. We were alone in an infinite desert. Which just showed the absurdity of the Christian idea that there was a Creator who was interested in living creatures.
But then came Professor F. B. Hoyle, the Cambridge cosmologist, and in a fortnight or so everybody I met seemed to have decided that the universe was probably quite well provided with inhabitable globes and with livestock to inhabit them. Which just showed (equally well) the absurdity of Christianity with its parochial idea that Man could be important to God.”
C.S. Lewis, “Religion and Rocketry,” printed in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays)
I was en route to see family in the Amarillo area when I heard the news that scientists at the LHC had detected a particle with the characteristics of the elusive Higgs Boson. That is to say, they may have detected the elusive particle predicted by that part of the Standard Model which allows for other particles to have mass . Along with that news came our editor’s comment that there were atheists doing their endzone dance over this. I guess you have to celebrate something—in the case of the scientists who made this discovery, I suppose the celebration may be either a new Nobel prize or that their multi-billion dollar science project will almost certainly continue to be funded. And while I may not go quite so far as Mr. Scott Locklin when he says that his general reaction is to shrug off this discovery as interesting but useless, I also don’t think that it is quite so earth-shattering (let-alone faith-shattering) as some people would have us believe .
I suppose before going into why the Higgs-Boson is so exciting to the high-energy physicists—to say nothing of hotheaded atheists and equally excitable Christians—it is worth taking a moment to consider what the Higgs Boson is. Yes, it is often popularly referred to as the “God particle” , though most actual physicists (including Higgs himself) do not use that particular term. Actually, a good and somewhat brief explanation of what the Higgs Boson is and why it is important to high-energy scientists  is written by Professor Steven Weinberg, himself a Nobel laureate. How Stuff Works also has a solid short entry on this. To summarize:
- The Standard Model is a well-tested theory about the interaction between elementary particles. It accounts for 3 of the 4 fundamental forces—elctromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces—though not for gravity.
- There is a symmetery between electromagnetic and weak nuclear force such that photons (wavepackets of electromagnetic radiation, “carrier” of the electromagnetic force) and W and Z particles (carriers of the weak nuclear force) are interchangeable in some combination in the equations which describe the standard model.
- If this symmetry is left alone, it would mean that the W and Z particles would be massless like photons; as, for that matter, would be all other particles (and thus all of matter).
- That symmetry is broken by the oxymoronically named scalar fields which pervade space, in a similar way to the way in which magnetic fields are organized to be non-zero in an iron magnet.
- These scalar fields have various energy states; the result is that these fields can be manifested as chargeless particles, bundles of energy from the fields. These particles are Higgs Bosons.
The discovery of the Higgs Boson could therefore help to verify the existence of these scalar fields, which in turn are what allows the Standard Model to account for how particles get their masses. It is not true to state that the Higgs Boson is what gives particles mass, but the Higgs Boson is the only  predicted and likely detectable result of the scalar fields which do allow particles to have mass, according to the Standard Model. Thus, the Higgs Boson is evidence for existence of these fields, and so finding it suggests that these fields do in fact exist, and hence that the Standard Model does in fact allow particles to have mass; otherwise , the Standard Model would be rendered rather embarrassingly incorrect, since we know that particles do have mass.
I began this by quoting C.S. Lewis observation that each new finding—real or otherwise (e.g. the existence or lack thereof of extraterrestrials)—seems to be used as a bludgeon against Christians: and sometimes also by ignorant if well-meaning Christians to prove that God exists. Some discoveries really have held at least the appearance of the one or the other when first made. The Big Bang, for example, appeared to prove that the universe had a beginning; thus it was initially rejected by many prominent scientists, then as it began to be more and more widely accepted, the strategy became one of “containment,” e.g. by proposing theories in which a Big Bang could occur without the need for a Creator . The converse is true of Darwin’s theory of evolution. We would not be so lucky as to escape from this already with the potential discovery of the Higgs Boson. On the Christian side of things, we get this:
It is interesting that it [the Higgs Boson] is called the “God” particle because science is usually atheistic in its outlook. For science to have a “God” of any kind seems to discredit all the attacks and allegations that have been thrown at people of religion for centuries. You might argue that the “Higgs” particle, known also as the “God” particle, is not really a “God”, but then you have to explain what a God is….
Scientists believe that the Higgs particle is necessary for everything in the universe to exist. Without it the universe would never have come into existence. Without it the planets would not orbit the sun. Without it time would be meaningless and there would be no purpose or meaning to anything in the universe. Scientists have long accepted the existence of the Higgs (God) particle as being present in everything around us but cannot yet prove that it exists physically. The way matter behaves and interacts is proof enough of its existence. They accept its existence base on “faith” that it exists.
It’s not a bad analogy, since there are some people who have distilled popular accounts of what the Higgs Boson is to mean that it is necessary for the existence of everything in the universe. The problem is, as I explained above, that this is simply not what “scientists” actually believe. Some might be so beholden of their Standard Model as to insist that the Higgs Boson must exist. Others will simply note that if said particle does not exist, and if the Standard Model cannot be otherwise reconciled to the fact that things have mass, then the Standard Model is wrong .
On the atheist side of things, we get innumerable posts, columns, and comments about how this discovery spells out the doom of religion. Of course, reports of the demise of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are always premature, and often exaggerated. To pick just one comment:
“As science forges ahead, there is naturally less of a ‘need’ for us to rely on baseless supernatural sky fairy theories. Belief in a higher power may continue but it will eventually be considered eccentric and/or funny. Much like thinking that Thor controls thunder today. Roll on evolution…“
This is fairly typical of the “atheist endzone dancing,” from what I have observed. Basically, it goes into the category of, “we’re one step closer to having a Theory of Everything,” that is, a theory which accounts for all for fundamental forces. From here, the scientistic line of reasoning goes, we are one step closer to a final theory which explains everything in physics, and then everything else is reducible to this. To quote from Mr Locklin.
The way the High Energy guys tell the story, once their Standard Model is complete and unified with gravity, we understand everything and the rest is just chemistry. The High Energy branch of physics has dominated research since the 1950s. The High Energy guys have more theorists and money for their experiments than other branches of physics. Every physics department I’ve visited in the US has a proportion of High Energy Physicists ranging from a quarter to half of the total head count….
It’s ironic that [Philip] Anderson had the original idea [for the Higgs Boson] and gets little credit for it. The greater irony is the fact that Anderson has been a critic of High Energy Physics’ hyper-reductionist approach. His famous essay “More Is Different” makes the argument that reductionism doesn’t get us far in understanding the universe. While the Standard Model is very good in the high-energy limit, it is generally useless in the study of lower-energy phenomena, some of which may be very interesting and relevant to human beings. We certainly know more about High Energy Physics’ ultra-microscopic world than we used to, but this hasn’t increased our physical understanding of the rest of the world.
Putting aside Mr Locklin’s own response to the “hyper-reductionist” scientistic outlook, it is worth noting that if the Standard Model is “completed” by unifying it with gravity, it is nonetheless not a truly complete theory. True, it would be the coveted “Theory of Everything,” so grandly named by physicists who would include under the heading of “everything” only all the fundamental forces (e.g. interactions) between particles. This would be a great accomplishment for theoretical physicists , but it would fail in the purely scientistic goal of reducing all things to sciences, and ultimately to physics (and therefore excluding God).
For one thing, the use of such a theory to to explain nature so that there is naturally less of a “‘need’ for us to rely on baseless supernatural sky fairy theories” makes the explicit assumption that God is no more than a God of the gaps. True, there are some people who may hold this opinion, and quite a few who argue as if this is what they believe. William Paley still has his disciples today, in that regard. But the argument as such is a caricature at best and a mischaracterization otherwise of the classical-theistic arguments for God (not to mention a few newer arguments derived from them). As we gain a better understanding of the “emperiological” science of nature, the “gaps” in which God might “hide” shrink.
This is not, of course, what many theists believe. There may or may not ultimately be left any parts of the natural operation of the universe (at any level) which remain unexplained. But though God is the LORD of nature and the Author of her laws, He is not merely this. He is not merely the entity posited by the ignorant to explain those things for which we do not have an answer, though there is necessarily some mystery involved in a truly supernatural religion. It seems every bit as likely that God revealed Himself to man, who only then began to posit God (or His angels, or devils, later the gods) as being the explanation all things unexplained.
Following any of the Five Ways, for example, does not lead to God as a mere “brute fact” which underlies everything, let alone to a necessary entity because some unexplained “gap” exists, even a “gap” at the beginning or as first Cause or first Principle. God Is the first Cause, but the arguments arrive there by way of conclusion. They begin with an observation, then follow that observation with more observations, and more still, each step being thought-out and logical (if not always clear to us “moderns”). They arrive at God, not as an assumption, not as an assertion, and not as Deus ex Machina, but rather as the only actually compelling and logically consistent conclusion to the line of reasoning. As Professor Ralph McInerny put it by way of contrast between Saint Thomas’ arguments and the ontological argument of St Anselm:
“A proof should move from what is known to what can come to be known on the basis of what is known. The conclusion is true because the premises are true, which is why, in analyzing the proof, in assenting to it, we turn to the presmises to see if they can bear the freight that is being put upon them. Anselm’s proof is really a reductio ad absurdum, the kind of proof that is fitting when doubt is cast on the self-evident. But the existence of God is not self-evident to us, however familiar He may be. (A First Glance at Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists, page 143).”
Aquinas’ Five Ways, adumbrated and misunderstood as they so often are, actually do fit this bill. Saint Anselm’s ontological argument, to say nothing of Paley’s arguments relying on the gaps of our understanding, do not.
The other reason why the discovery of the Higgs Boson does not ultimately advance the scientistic program to its completion—why even a unified “Theory of Everything” does not do this—is that a “Final Theory” is beyond the power of physicists to deliver. This is because there can be no final theory in physics so long as the incompleteness theorems of Kurt Goedel hold true. These theorems state that no non-trivial set of mathematical statements can contain the proof of their own consistency, let alone completeness. In his essay “To Awaken from a Dream, Finally!”, Fr. Stanley L. Jaki writes:
“Whether mere conceptual constructs [e.g. equations, models which include the Standard Model and any potential Theory of Everything] would construct physical reality is a problem which has not ceased plaguing Platonists (even those whom [Professor Steven] Weinberg calls moderate Platonists among whom he classes himself). Here it should be enough to focus on Weinberg’s way of coping with the problem of knowing whether the final theory is true. His answer contains more than meets the eye: ‘The problem seems to be that we are trying to be logical about a question of what should or should not engage our sense of wonder’ (p. 238 of Dreams of a Final Theory).
If the reader has been swayed by Weinberg’s heavy reliance on the role of aesthetics in doing good physics, he will not see a most disturbing fly in the ointment. How, one may ask, is it possible that in a book where hundreds of names fill the index, one looks in vain for the name of Kurt Godel. All the more so as it is now over half a century since the world of mathematics was shaken to its very foundation by the publication of Godel’s incompleteness theorems. According to them no non-trivial set of mathematical propositions can have its own proof of consistency within the system itself. The reader of this review [of Dreams of a Final Theory] can easily note some earlier warnings about the bearing of Weinberg’s repeated, though inattentive, uses of the word consistency.
The impossibility of formulating a final theory about the physical world, which would contain its own proof of being true, relates not to the always shifting grounds of aesthetic considerations but to logic or mathematics. The reason is as straightforward as is the highly mathematical character of every significant physical theory. That leading physicists still have to become aware of this elementary inference (and indeed of the long shadow which Godel casts not only on mathematics but also on physics) may be perplexing enough” (printed in Fr Jaki’s The Limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays).
In other words, so long as Godel’s incompleteness theorems are true, there can be no complete theory or set of theories which explain everything in the universe up to an including the very existence of the universe. As Fr Jaki puts it, this is good news for the physicist, because he can never work himself out of a job. It is, however, bad news for the naturalist-materialist, that is for the man of scientistic philosophy who is certain that science can and one day will be able to explain everything: for even if a theory made this claim—as even the so-called “Theory of Everything” does not—that theory cannot contain the proof of its own correctness. There will always be something outside of physics—not a gap but rather an actual limit as to its explanatory power–and moreover other things within the limits of science which will be taken on faith by any given scientific expert. .
All of which goes to show that C.S. Lewis was right, when he followed the passage quoted at the beginning of this post by writing:
“Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarassingly seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a a new defense.
But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists, and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, and with the new psychology.”
I think we can add safely add the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson—and the possible future unification of gravity into the Standard Model for a Theory of Everything—to that list.
 I am not saying that the Higgs Boson gives particles their mass. Rather, it is predicted by the fields which allow particles to have mass according to the Standard Model. Get rid of those fields and the Higgs Boson, and suddenly the Standard Model appears to predict that all particles are massless—which would make the Standard Model wrong.
For a rather humorous take on this, I consider the reaction of my friend and former fellow contributor to this site, Mr Nathan Kennedy. He compiled a fairly substantial list of things which should rank above the discovery of the Higgs Boson as points of concern for the American exceptionalism who laments that this discovery means that we are no longer “no. 1.”
 A term coined by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermi Lab’s own particle collider. Lederman, for his part, originally called it the “goddamn particle” because it was going to be so difficult to find this particle. Higgs, it should be noted, is himself an atheist who has expressed reservations about referring to this as the “God particle.”
 Aside, that is, from cynical reasons concerning the justification for more funding and a large sucking sound in the vicinity of the taxpayers’ wallets, if not for the LHC/CERN in Switzerland, then for the US’ own relatively low-cost efforts (SLAC, Fermi Labs, and the Superconducting Super Collider which was scrapped after $4 billion were spent on boring a hole for it into the Texas soil).
 Actually, if I understand the Higgs Boson correctly, it is a relatively low-energy state of the scalar fields proposed. Thus, there could be higher-energy particles, but if we failed to detect the low-energy particle—which required the highest-energy interactions which we have yet been able to produce, and this at the cost of billions of dollars and Euros worth of equipment and expertise—well, good look finding the higher-energy ones.
 Of course, not finding or otherwise detecting something does not mean that it doesn’t exist.
 Two examples: the oscillating universe and the idea of a multiverse, not to mention newer theories which strive to prove that the Big Bang could occur uncaused, or could be caused by an infinite chain of prior events. Few if any of these examples are really very satisfying (perhaps this is why there are so many), and none would, if right, actually disprove the existence of a Creator. After all, Aristotle believed in a Creator and an infinitely old universe (his Creator is more of an unmoved mover or a purely actualized actor), and St Thomas Aquinas did not base his own Five Ways on the condition that the universe began to exist in time.
 And according to Wikipedia—which is generally a fairly reliable source concerning the actual emperiological side of science—there is a Higgs-less version of the Standard Model, though the vast majority of physicists probably expect to (eventually, if not already) find the Higgs Boson.
 On the other hand, the failure of the high-energy particle theorists to develop such a unified theory does not prevent the rest of the physics world—all 75% of it by Locklin’s estimate—from continuing with our own research.
 Father Jaki ends his own essay “To Awaken from a Dream, Finally!” by noting that
“Clearly, one does not need to bring in the always slippery fish of esthetics when plain mathematical logic will suffice. Apart from that logic, those who find only in a personal Creator the ultimate reason for the existence of a specifically ordered physical universe, have always found that a necessarily true final theory is a philosophical pipe dream. But such a way out of the labyrinths of a search for a final theory is not open to Prof. Weinberg, who devoted to God the next-to-last chapter of his at times entertaining and informative dreaming about the final theory. But the God he is ready to consider is not a Creator who has the freedom to to bring into existence any of an infinite number of possible worlds. What he endorses is panentheism which, apart from its impotence for coping with the moral evil in the worlds, cannot even justify the enduring question of perennial philosophy about the physical world: why such and not something else?”
At the end of the day, science is born of Christian theology (not to mention that it has Catholic scholastic philosophical underpinnings), so we can rightly rejoice with each new discovery.
[author] [author_image]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/JC-Sanders-OP-e1313150942177.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]JC Sanders, OP is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He is currently a physics Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas, where he studies high-intensity laser-plasma interactions and Raman processes. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers, with a three year commitment to the Order. He has been happily married since June of 2010. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?” His websites are Equus Nom Veritas and The Nicene Guys.[/author_info] [/author]