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.

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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.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

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.

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 9 months ago
I read in its entirety, “Particles Of Faith” and understood, yet I didn’t! This through no fault of its author, Adam D. Hincks, S.J, philosopher and doctor in physics, the deficit fully mine. Higgs bosom, Particle physics and complex scientific facts-finding and theorizing were just too much for me So I won’t fool around with such revelations, trying to post surrounded by my personal darkness in that regard. However, I did suggest I “understood” what was being said. I meant this only in reference to the preferential option God seems to have towards “littleness” - “particles” being the building blocks of the material world, not only the invisible to the naked eye material world, but the visible material world too. And not just that, for God being preeminently consistent, sees the Divine option for “littleness,” for “particles” as it were, at work in the spiritual world as well, revealing to “ little ones” mysteries beyond the grasp of the more erudite. Truly “the foolishness of God” is “wiser than the wisdom of men!” God is “big” needing to impress no one, so he allows himself to be impressed and impress others too, by “littleness.” There are many examples showing God’s preference for the small and apparently inconsequential. For example ,from all the evolutionary outcomes of mineral rocks tumbling through what we call space, some of these rocks dimensionally mind-numbing, God chose an insignificant speck of cosmic dust we call Earth from where to launch Salvation for example, throughout the incalculable vastness of the cosmos! From the “littleness” of Earth God has blessed the groans of all creation, by which even natural disasters take on cogency, on the Foundational Rock of Calvary, this a Christian revelation. Another example of God’s love-affair with the small can be appreciated through the giant Sequoia, the Red Woods of northern California. In a seed weighing no more than 1/5000 of an ounce, God packed all the potential to produce the magnificent Red Woods, some towering 200 feet high and living 2,000 years! Truly, as Joyce Kylmer put it, “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree!” I said there are many examples in nature of God’s fascination with “littleness” but I choose the third final example in the humble earthworm. How necessary the earthworm! Through its wriggle it loosens soil allowing oxygen to enter and through its body waste-material adds nitrogen –OXYGEN/NITROGEN the two indispensable elements necessary for the greening of the earth. Without the activity of the humble, earthworm, planet earth would be as barren as the moon! Isaiah called Jesus, “a worm” very apt considering that at the spiritual level Jesus’ salvific activity made green the soul iwith everlasting life, the “new creation” removing the barren landscape of Eden’s making! Having limped along probably inconsequentially in my own little way, concluding I’d like to say the following . It seems to me Father God, likes to play the child’s game called, “Hide And Seek” – He hides and we seek, or we hide and he seeks! All science suggests this and Jesus too, at the spiritual level Incarnationally and Sacramentally plays the same game! It’s no surprise to me that God acts “childlike” preoccupied as he is with the grandeur of “littleness.” Science has lots more to discover and each time it will become more grand until finally the “littleness” will evaporate into “nothingness” ofnecessity exactly where it all began. Seeing God in small things is for the Believer, a fundamental Particle of Faith!
J Cosgrove
4 years 9 months ago
Fr. Hincks, A very interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I have a few comments. First, it is not in our capabilities to understand the mind or nature of God. In a post a couple months ago I made the comment that it would be more presumptuous of us to understand God then for a maggot to understand a human being. While we are far more complex than a lowly insect or worm we pale in any comparison to God. Yet there is always amongst us those who not only think they know the Mind of God but want to tell Him how to do it better. This site has many of those both as authors and commenters. Because we cannot know the Mind of God, it does not mean He does not give us clues and does in fact intervene in our lives. Christianity and Catholicism in particular are revealed religions. It was necessary for God to directly intervene in our world in order for us to know Him. We might reason to an omniscient, omnipotent God but not to His specific plan for us. So we get clues, whether it be directly in scripture or through His Church or indirectly in His creation of nature of which this article is about. But in terms of science and the physical universe, somehow the rubber must meet the road between God and a physical presence and we get photons, gluons, quarks, neutrinos and Higgs Boson particles and a lot more in the Standard Model. And all so remarkably ordered. Faith is separate from science as you so nicely show. But all faith is built on something and that is where the Standard Model, science, human nature, revelation and reason meet. Second, My favorite current philosopher if he indeed wants to be known as such is Michael Sugrue who has made several courses for the Teaching Company. He is irreverent in a lot of ways and it is often hard to tell just what he believes. But in one of his lectures on Aquinas he described what he said was probably not true but a very telling anecdote about Aquinas or philosophers and theologians. Supposedly Aquinas stopped his writing after having a dream about philosophy. In the dream there was an angel that was on the sea shore and was going to the ocean with a tea spoon and taking a spoonful out and then pouring the small bit of water on the beach. Aquinas in the dream asked the angel what he was doing and the angel said "theology." Aquinas then realized that what he was attempting was like a teaspoon out of the ocean. He, as the anecdote continues, died shortly thereafter. While probably not true the story indicates what it is like to try to understand the Mind of God or His creation. Is any science we do just like the teaspoon of water in the world of truth? Is it like the Russian dolls where when you take apart one and within it there are still more and in this case there may be an infinite number of dolls to uncover. In the physical world, what is a quark and what is the quark made of? Third, you said "the scientific theory of evolution." This is a misnomer. There is no such thing. There has been in the last 3.5 billion years various life forms that have appeared in a timeline. These lifeforms indicate a direction of increased complexity. There is no theory that can account for the appearance of these life forms. There has been much speculation and a large number of the people on the planet believe that there is a mechanism that can explain their appearance but that mechanism is far from proven and is actually pretty unlikely as capable of producing what has happened. So there are theories but none are scientific in how the term is traditionally used. And if you should say that Darwin's ideas of natural selection or the various forms of the modern synthesis are plausible explanations, then none of these has any basis in science. Nothing can explain the origin of complex coding differences in the genome between species that account for the very different proteins in the different species. Selection can not account for these coding sections that are responsible for these proteins. At best the good scientist would say, it is a mystery.
Bruce Snowden
4 years 9 months ago
Dear Mr. Cosgrove, Respectfully, I read your truly profound Post on “Particles of Faith” and agree with its bonding golden thread which is “No one knows the mind of God.” Well, kinda. As you see I always use proper English! Please let me add my 2 cents. On the word of Jesus, God’s son we’re told that God likes to be called “Father.” The son should know. Saint Paul focusing on that revelation says that God is “Abba.” Patrick V. Ahearn, deceased Auxiliary Bishop of New York once said at a Confirmation liturgy that, “Abba” means “Daddy.” If true it means that the Omnipotent, Unknowable and Mysterious Holy One, reveals himself in a human way as a cuddly loving Daddy! It sounds unbelievable, but the Bishop based his conclusion to an answer he received from a Palestinian dad whose little son having bruised his knee while playing, ran to his father calling out, “Abba! Abba!” Questioned by the Bishop as to what the child was saying, the Palestinian dad replied, “He’s saying “Daddy.” So, God’s a Daddy according to St. Paul? We also have God’s word for it, that “His mercy is above all his works.” There’s other revelations too that clue us in to “the Mind of God” showing I guess, that in some ways we do know “the mind of God.” But in a more profound way you are right, as we know so little about the mind of God that it amount to almost nothing. However I personally find it exciting to discover that my Daddy spins universes on his fingertips, created all that exists out of nothing and sustains materiality, and continues to do so, revealed by the Son who said, “My Father works even now.” By Divine intent all within evolutionary constructs of wrap-around laws, evolutionary laws rooted I dare say in the Trinitarian Godhood, materiality one thing proceeding from the other, with beginning and end, but with “Daddy” eternally without beginning or end. You said so accurately that, God is MYSTERY.He certainly is! I hope this makes some sense to you, limpingly said I fear.
J Cosgrove
4 years 9 months ago
Mr. Snowden, There is nothing I disagree with you on. We know some things and can thank revelation and His Church for that. He has also left His imprint on nature and human nature so we do know some things from that too. The universe in its physical sense is immensely complex both at the nano level and at the astronomical level and incredibly organized in very interdependent ways. Leibniz hypothesized that we live in the best of all possible worlds and was mocked by Voltaire in Candide and by most others since. The problem with people like Voltaire and others is that they have no idea as to what is "best" in the Mind of God. Voltaire was a very clever person, so clever that he thought he knew better as to how God should be. We also do not know what is best but we can always have faith that He got it right. Thanks for your comments.
Kevin Murphy
4 years 9 months ago
Earlier this evening I'd watched an episode I'd "DVR'd" of "How the Universe Works" on the Science Channel. It concerned how the earth was formed and tracked its birth from a speck of dust to stellar "dust bunnies" formed by supernovae explosions in a cosmic nursery. Then electromagnetism pulled these metaphorical creatures into rocks and then to meteors which joined and formed their own gravity. Much cosmic violence was involved but it went on like a beautiful symphony building upon itself until earth shaped itself into a sphere. In the section on John Scotus Erigena in his book Great Christian Thinkers, Pope Benedict quotes the Irishman as saying "that after the end of this world all nature, both the corporeal and the incorporeal, will show forth God alone and yet remain integral so that God can in a certain way be comprehended while remaining incomprehensible and that the creature itself may be transformed, with ineffable wonder, and reunited with God." I'm quite content, in this life, not to comprehend God. It is quite enough to observe His works.
Bruce Snowden
4 years 9 months ago
Mr. Cosgrove, thanks for responding and concluding, glad my post-dabblings didn't give you acid reflux!
Joseph Fortier
4 years 8 months ago
As a fellow Jesuit scientist I just wanted to salute you on the fascinating, extremely well-written and articulate article. You do a great job with the difference between natural theology, which attempts to find evidence for God within the findings of science (can be tricky), and theology of nature, which finds scientific understanding an indispensable tool for better refining how we understand and articulate our faith. This is a useful article for anyone teaching a course on science and religion.

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