Particles of Faith: Seeking God in small things
Last year, a rare event occurred: Particle physics made headlines around the world. Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, reported a major discovery. Using the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator near Geneva that is arguably the biggest and most complex science experiment in human history, scientists came upon a new particle they believe to be the Higgs boson.
This tiny but important entity has been nicknamed the “God particle,” which is one reason it received so much attention in the popular press. When the news broke last spring, I was contacted by my archdiocese to field questions from a news broadcaster, presumably because the discovery of a “God particle” fueled expectations of friction between religion and science. Early in the interview, however, it became apparent that the journalist was disappointed that my comments were far from reactionary. Not surprisingly, my segment was cut from the news story that finally aired.
Naïve sensationalism aside, it is worth reflecting anew on the relationship between faith and natural science, for the two do not exist in isolation. There really is an important connection between God and the “God particle.” But before exploring this exactly, a primer on the science behind the news stories will be helpful.
The Capstone of Particle Physics
Particle physics is the study of the building blocks of the material world. As we all learned in school, the atom is not the smallest particle in nature. It consists of a nucleus, containing positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons, surrounded by negatively charged electrons. These subatomic particles were discovered near the beginning of the 20th century, but they were only the first of many. Over the next few decades, more and more were spotted in the laboratory until a veritable zoo of particles had been identified. Physicists began studying and classifying their properties, and eventually a theory describing the fundamental particles and their interactions emerged.
This theory is now called the Standard Model. To the electron it adds two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. Protons and neutrons are combinations of the colorfully named up, down, charm, strange, bottom and top quarks. Neutrinos, which we can only barely detect with the most sensitive instruments, turn out to be omnipresent—every second, trillions of neutrinos generated inside the sun pass through your body without your feeling a thing. Photons, gluons and the W and Z bosons mediate the forces that govern how particles interact with one another.
Like all good theories, the Standard Model not only explains known phenomena, but has predicted new ones. It predicted, for example, the existence of the top quark and tau neutrino, which were only seen for the first time in 1995 and 2000, respectively. One prediction, however, has been awaiting confirmation since the early 1960’s: the existence of the Higgs boson, named for Peter Higgs, one of the handful of scientists who introduced it into the theory.
Far from being superfluous to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is its capstone, for it is the only obvious way for the theory to explain why many particles, such as the electrons, protons and neutrons that make up our own bodies, have mass. The trouble is, if the Higgs boson exists, it can be spotted only at very high energies—energies that have only recently been made accessible by the Large Hadron Collider. The announcement last year that the Higgs boson has probably been discovered marks the beginning of the end of a 50-year quest.
If the Higgs boson really has been found, it is not the end of particle physics. The universe has plenty more puzzles up its sleeve. For example, the Standard Model does not account for gravitational forces, nor does it give us any clear candidate for what makes up the dark matter and dark energy that fills about 95 percent of the universe. But the detection of the Higgs boson represents a significant step forward in understanding the world we live in and is a triumph of natural science.
Two False Leads
It is partly due to the Higgs boson’s centrality in the Standard Model that it was nicknamed the “God particle” in a 1993 popular science book by Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate, and Dick Teresi, his co-author. At the same time, the moniker is half whimsy. The authors claim that their original name, “the godd--n particle,” chosen because of the experimental difficulty of discovering it, was rejected by their publisher.
Though physicists generally ignore Lederman and Teresi’s neologism, the press has eagerly taken it up. A news story with “God particle” in the headline is much more likely to be read than one about the blandly named Higgs boson. Thus, the nickname does a service to physics by helping to popularize an important discovery that might not otherwise have received the attention it deserves. On the other hand, it can encourage shallow speculation on the relationship between faith and science. Two lines of thought are particularly alluring but ultimately misleading.
First, likening the Higgs boson to God can encourage the notion that God is just one physical cause among many. In the past (so runs the narrative), we may have invoked a deity to explain why things have properties such as mass, but as science becomes capable of explaining more and more, the need for this hypothetical deity dwindles. Discovering the last component of the Standard Model is treated as a final step in the process by which science elbows aside any need for God. This notion was brought up centuries ago by St. Thomas Aquinas, when he wrote about God’s existence. If we can find natural causes for all that happens, he asked, what need is there for God?
The answer is that this is a category error. Natural causes presuppose the existence of nature, and it is the existence of nature that God causes. Whether nature itself actually needs a cause is a valid question, but it is not a question for natural science. Given the existence of an intelligible nature, of course natural science will be capable, at least in principle, of explaining everything that happens in it—including the Higgs boson responsible for the mass of particles. But God, by his very essence, is not a part of nature. God’s creative power should not be confused with the explanatory power of physics.
The second mistake, made particularly by religious believers, is to search for a sort of mystical short-cut to God in nature. Perhaps, it is thought, God will be revealed in a new way by studying the “God particle.” Could it be the entity that links the spiritual realm of God to the physical realm of human existence? Vague hopes surface that the finger of God will suddenly be made visible in a science laboratory. It should not take much thought to see that this approach suffers from the same misapprehension as the triumphalistic scientism we saw above—except now it is supposed that God elbows his way into physical explanations of the universe. At the end of the day, however, the Higgs boson is a physical entity just like any other physical entity. It does not bring one any closer to God or any farther from God than the piece of paper this article is printed on.
One obvious way forward is to treat faith and natural science as completely unrelated fields of human inquiry. Stephen Jay Gould famously articulated this position by speaking of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria.” While this may be an attractive idea, if only for its diplomatic value, it is too simplistic. Religion and natural science may each have their own proper subject matter, but it is not true that these domains do not overlap at all. God is present in both. Theology (to restrict our scope somewhat from religion in general) is most properly the science of God, but of a God who creates the material world and can be partly known through God’s effects in creation. The natural sciences most properly study the physical world, but this world is contingent on God’s creative act for its existence and does not bear its ultimate meaning within itself. The God studied by theologians and adored by people of faith is the same God who creates the Higgs boson.
What, then, is the authentic relationship between faith and science? Or, to return to our original question, what does faith have to do with the Higgs boson? First of all, Gould correctly posited that faith and science have their own proper domains. The scientist, when doing science, should not be concerned with describing God or trying to prove or disprove his existence. Nor should the theologian, when doing theology, be formulating theories about the Higgs boson. If either breaches his or her discipline, he does not become a cleverer practitioner of his own field but a hopelessly backward amateur in another. What is really needed is intelligent dialogue.
Traditionally, philosophy (which included the natural sciences) was considered the handmaiden of theology. Today we need to be guided by this metaphor more than ever. The theologians who study how God works in creation need to have some idea of what creation contains and how it works. Consider the service astronomy has provided to theology. It has purified our understanding of how God has ordered the cosmos. Together with the historical and anthropological sciences, it has aided theologians in developing more profound and theologically correct exegeses of the biblical creation narratives. Sometimes, however, it seems that theology does not consult her handmaidens with as much vigor as she ought. How many theologians, for instance, are engaged in systematically working out what the scientific theory of evolution brings to bear on Christianity? Physical science, by its very nature, has no ability to alter dogmas of faith, but its insights, applied with sobriety and integrity, can lead to deeper and richer expressions of what we already believe.
Let us now look at the relationship from the other side. Whereas science ought to be a handmaiden to theology, the converse is not true. It is quite possible for science to chug along happily oblivious of God and religion. The scientists at the Large Hadron Collider will keep learning about the Higgs boson whether or not they acknowledge the transcendent. It would be a mistake, however, to think that because natural science itself is indifferent to all but the empirically verifiable, the men and women who do science should share this indifference. By our nature, we desire not only to know how things work, but also what their purpose is. The intelligibility of the natural world, the very condition that makes science possible, inflames our minds with wonder and curiosity, pointing beyond science to the deeper question of what the world means—a question patently beyond the scope of the natural sciences. The fact that we are capable of describing the universe—that we can grasp through human reason how particles acquire mass and thereby predict the existence of the Higgs boson—indicates that there is a rationality to the universe that transcends the world of sights and sounds, inviting us to open ourselves to this wider reality. In the end, the person who limits himself to the realm of matter may become a successful scientist, but will not be a successful human being. To be fully human, the scientific enterprise cannot reject the realm of faith prima facie. To do so would risk severing it from the very Rationality that is at its heart.
Science and faith are, then, related: not because they are in competition for the same answers but because they are complementary enterprises in the human search for meaning. Scientists must recognize that a real intelligibility exists that transcends their methodology; and theologians must turn to science, seeking deeper understanding of faith from this noble and indispensable handmaiden. God does not deliver handwritten messages into particle accelerators, but by a creative act God holds the Higgs boson in existence—a particle that scientists can study and understand, and which at the same time is part of a universe charged with meaning that science itself cannot exhaust.
Adam D. Hincks, S.J., talks about his Jesuit vocation.