July 9, 2012

Q. & A. - Theological Implications of the Higgs Boson

Question: I have read an article claiming the the scientists at the CERN supercollider have actually found the Higgs Boson ("God Particle"). All my atheist friends are now ranting, raving, and, more or less, partying over the fact that now "God has been disproved!" So my question is: assuming that CERN has found this boson, what theological implications does the Higgs boson have?


The reaction of your atheist friends to this discovery is eloquent testimony to the deplorable state of science education in our country which has been frequently lamented by professional scientists.

Without wanting to spoil the party, I have to say that this impressive achievement just has no theological implications of any direct sort, so far as I can see. The Higgs boson is the final particle postulated by the standard model of particle physics to be empirically confirmed. The standard model postulates various fundamental sub-atomic particles like quarks, electrons, photons, and the like in order to explain three of the fundamental forces of nature, namely, the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces. The fourth fundamental force, gravity, is left out of the standard model.

One of the theoretical particles in the standard model is a type of particle, called a boson, which is responsible for a field permeating space which determines the mass of various other particles moving through space. For example, the photon has zero mass, whereas the electron has a small mass. This particle has been called the Higgs boson after Peter Higgs, the physicist who predicted its existence, and the corresponding field the Higgs field.

Because the Higgs boson decays so quickly and requires such extraordinarily high energies to create, it took considerable time, effort, and money to finally provide empirical confirmation that the standard model was correct in postulating such a particle. It is one of those wonderful instances in science where theoretical predictions were shown to be correct by experimental scientists.

I think you can see that this confirmation just has no theological significance, except in an indirect sense (e.g., testimony to the mathematical order and beauty of nature). In particular, it changes nothing for cosmological arguments for the universe’s beginning or teleological arguments concerning the fine-tuning of the universe, since those arguments have proceeded on the assumption that the standard model of particle physics is correct (--at least so far as it goes! We still need a Grand Unified Theory in order to explain the physics of the universe prior to the emergence of the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces as distinct forces. And prior to that we need a quantum theory of gravity or so-called Theory of Everything to incorporate the gravitational force. We have neither of these yet.) All that was wanting was empirical confirmation of the standard model with respect to the Higgs boson. Now we apparently have that; so much the better! Nothing has changed.

The contrary impression, evidently shared by your friends, is undoubtedly due to the appellation “the God Particle” given to the Higgs boson by Leon Lederman in his 1993 book The God Particle. Some people seem to think that the Higgs Boson takes the place of God. In fact, however, Lederman called it “the God Particle” for two reasons: (1) like God, the particle underlies every physical object that exists; and (2) like God, the particle is very difficult to detect!

I really like Lederman’s nomenclature because it highlights two aspects of God’s existence, first, His conservation of the world in being, and, second, the hiddenness of God. With respect to the first, according to Christian theology, God not only created the universe in being, but He upholds it in being moment by moment. Were He to withdraw His sustaining power, the universe would be instantly annihilated. Similarly, on a physical level, without the Higgs boson nothing would have any mass and the universe would be devoid of physical objects. (By the way, no fear that the Higgs boson supplants God in conserving the universe because the Higgs boson is itself a contingent particle, which decays almost as soon as it is formed, so that it does not exist necessarily, and the Higgs boson and the Higgs field themselves are the products of the Big Bang and so non-necessary and non-eternal.)

With respect to the second point, it is part and parcel of the problem of evil that God is hidden. Not only is He undetectable by the five senses, not being a physical object, but He sometimes seems frustratingly absent when we need Him most. But the lesson of the Higgs boson is that physical undetectability is no proof of non-existence, and something can be objectively there and real, even pervasively present, even when we have no direct evidence of its presence. Just because you may not see God’s hand at work when you are suffering, that doesn’t imply that God is not present and active in your situation unbeknownst to you. So the Higgs boson is a nice reminder of these features of God’s existence.

It’s a shame that atheists who have little understanding of science or theology should party over something that has not happened and miss what is truly celebratory in this triumph of human reason and discovery.

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