Monday, July 9, 2012

The theological implications of the Higgs Boson

Now, it has certainly been a while since I did theology. But theology is very slow to change, so I doubt I have missed much in the intervening years. But the recent mind-blowing identification of the Higgs Boson got me thinking about theology again.
I can remember, as if it were yesterday, the burden of faith. Essentially, the burden of having to believe what you knew to be untrue. We sang our way through our teenage years – arms raised skyward – tears staining the cheek. We believed. We believed that Jesus shot off into heaven like a rocket. We believed that Virgins conceived. We believed that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. And we believed that water could become wine and a thousand other strange and peculiar things, which reason told us not to. It was a burden. It was heavy. It was entirely unnecessary.

I remember my first year at university, when I encountered, for the first time, the standard methods of Biblical Criticism, where the Bible is analysed primarily as literature. This was a method which was then 150 years old. I suddenly felt released. I was free at last, from all the nonsense. I was liberated from the twaddle and the rubbish. At last, I could behave like a normal, thinking human being and the Bible suddenly became a goldmine for intellectual rigour and exploration.

One of my teachers, the redoubtable Bishop John Robinson, of “Honest to God” fame, once said a really interesting thing in a lecture. He said, when the aeroplane does a really dodgy landing and it lurches and shudders as it hits the ground and hurtles towards the end of the runway – one’s instinct is to pray. “It is much better”, he said, “simply to trust the pilot”.

Besides the entirely unworkable philosophical “Proofs” of the existence of God, there was, frankly very little else around. So, the believer was forced to live a life of faith on the thin gruel of the concept of “coherence”. God is “that which keeps everything together”. A kind of supernatural glue to the universe. (Needless to say, that is a belief. One could just as well believe that the colour yellow keeps the universe together.) It gives one a nice warm feeling. Within Christianity, there is the concept of a loving God, gently guiding here, nurturing there and holding everything in the anthropomorphic palm of his hand. When things go wrong, it is somehow the will of God. All we, within our limited understanding of things, need to do – is have faith, and things will get better. Because nothing can happen that is outside the plan of God. (I give you holocausts. I offer rampant, entirely unnecessary disease, disaster, famine, war. These are all apparently within the plan of God in some way. We just don’t understand them properly). And the believer will soldier on, despite these things. Despite every evidence in the other direction – that there is no plan, unless we make it ourselves. The believer will soldier on.

And then the other day, an announcement was made about the identification of a particle consistent with the Higgs Boson – a particle, which until now has been merely theoretical and whose primary function appears to be that of coherence. The discovery is key to our understanding of how matter has mass, which then combines with gravity to give an object weight. The identification of the boson has been made with an extremely high level of certainty. The chances of a false positive reading are low. The experimentation, which took place at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern in Geneva, has been amongst the most expensive and extensive that has ever been undertaken. Cern’s atom collider has cost about $10 billion and has been creating these high energy collisions in order to investigate dark matter, antimatter and the origin of the universe. As I say, the chances of it being wrong, appear to be rather remote.

No wonder, then, that the Higgs boson has been popularly dubbed the “God particle” – a term which scientists regard as somewhat histrionic. No wonder, because here at last, we have the scientific basis for the way things in the universe keeps together. We can, at last, start to understand the physical coherence of all things.

I recalled the argument of the philosopher Anthony Flew, writing at what must the same time as Higgs was positing his boson:

"Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revolutionary article "Gods." Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." At last the Sceptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"" Anthony Flew, Reason and Responsibility, 1968

Now, I don’t need to say it, but I will. Science has effectively pulled the carpet from the under the feet of the people who insist that only a supernatural being can fulfil this function of coherence. Because it is now fairly strongly evident that this assertion – this belief, this position of faith, is untrue. They may want to continue with the belief. They may want to say it is a matter of faith. But they can no longer say that it is a kind of cloaked “proof” of the existence of such a being – because we now have much more viable, much more believable evidence, in the opposite direction.

There is a real opportunity here, for the Church, the Mosque, the Synagogue and the Temple. The opportunity is for them to embrace the science and rejoice in this phenomenal discovery with the rest of us. Another frontier of knowledge has been breached. Another fortress of knowledge has been scaled. The inevitable march of science will continue. There will be more of the same. What will religious institutions do about these advances? My hunch is, probably nothing.
Whereas Galileo was shunned and Newton regarded with extreme suspicion, they were, very soon, proved to be right. Nothing much changed. (I lie – everything changed!) But lightning didn’t fall from the sky. The end of the world didn’t happen. It just all became part of truth. And so, undoubtedly it will be with the Higgs boson. Changes caused through our knowledge of it will be considerable. The world of our children and theirs will probably be unrecognisable to us, because of it. Surely institutions which take upon themselves the mantel of truth need to come to terms with it in some way?

But if your mind is closed and your senses dulled and your brain addled, you will probably ignore it. You will probably return to your sanctuary to worship your irrelevant and dangerous pretender to truth. Because truth is hard to come by and costs more than most religions are willing to give. It requires a certain humility and a mind that will not stop searching. Ever.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting view, but I think you may have been closer to the truth in your teenage years.

    You seem to be making a corollary error to the one believers make when they resort to 'God of the Gaps.' You seem to be making the 'Non-God of the Non-Gaps' error. That is, you're being able to see the design, and taking that to mean that there is no Designer. Like seeing the blueprint and concluding there is no architect.

    A number of scientists have noted the rather remarkable apparent design in the universe and wondered on this problem. For example, look at most any of Paul Davies' works, for example his Cosmic Blueprint. Coming from the non-theist that he is, his observations are revealing, culminating in the statement 'The impression of design is overwhelming.'

    Or better: You quote Anthony Flew's views from a few decades ago, but if your non-faith is strong, you should test his thoughts many years later, as he reflects on this 'problem' of seeing more and more of the blueprint. The book is, 'There is a God.'

    The discovery of the Higgs is not a big theological event -- it (or something close to it) has been expected (even relied on) for decades. That's what finding more and more of the blueprint is about.

    It's an enjoyable venture to test the other waters if you're still able, and I thank you for your thoughts.