Higgs boson: the particle of faithPosted: December 24, 2011
There are parallels between the search for the ‘God particle’ and the search for God Himself, writes Alister McGrath.
In 1994, Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman came up with a nickname for the Higgs boson – the mysterious particle proposed by physicist Peter Higgs back in the 1960s to explain the origin of mass. Journalists loved the name – “the God particle” – which probably explains the huge media interest recently in the work of the Large Hadron Collider. Most scientists hated it, considering it misleading and simplistic. Maybe so. But it certainly got people talking about physics.
And maybe it’s not such a bad nickname after all. Lederman invented the name the “God particle” because it was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” Nobody had seen it back in 1994. And they’re still not sure whether they’ve really seen it today. Yet this isn’t seen as a massive problem. The idea seemed to make so much sense of things that the existence of the “God particle” has come to be taken for granted. It has become, I would say, a “particle of faith”. The observations themselves didn’t prove the existence of the Higgs boson. Rather, the idea of the Higgs boson explained observations so well that those in the know came to believe it really existed. One day, technology might be good enough to allow it to be actually observed. But we don’t need to wait until then before we start believing in it.
Some tell us that science is about what can be proved. The wise tell us it is really about offering the best explanations of what we see, realising that these explanations often cannot be proved, and may sometimes lie beyond proof. Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen. The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.
There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus. As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.
There’s more to God than making sense of things. But for religious believers, it’s a great start.
Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology at King’s College London, and President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. He is currently writing a new biography of the Oxford apologist and writer C. S. Lewis, to be published in March 2013.