Category Archives: Higgs Boson

The God Particle

The full text of an article I wrote shortly after the finding of the Higgs Boson:

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And so as the hoopla over the apparent finding of the Higgs Boson – the “God Particle” – dies down I must confess to being a tad irked by certain representatives of modern atheism who have trumpeted the discovery as “another nail in the coffin of God” (as one Irish News columnist wrote last week, without giving any reason or argument for his view). Regrettably this reaction testifies to the rather deplorable state of scientific and philosophical education in society and should be lamented as such. I’ve found myself on more than one occassion having to spoil this ignorant little atheist band parade by pointing out that as impressive an achievement as this is there are no theological implications in favour of atheism as a result. On the contrary there are good reasons for theists to take heart in the discovery, and I’ll come to this shortly.

First of all, in the interests of clarity, I want to say a few words about what the Higgs Boson actually is. It is the last particle predicted by the “Standard Model” of particle physics to be empirically confirmed. This Standard Model postulates several fundamental atomic particles – quarks, electrons, photons etc – to explain three of the fundamental forces of nature – the “strong force,” the “weak force,” and the “electromagnetic force.” One of the particles is called a boson and is involved in determining the mass of various other particles moving through space. The particle gets its name “Higgs Boson” after the physicist who first predicted it: Peter Higgs. It took so long to find empirical confirmation of it because it decays so quickly and requires incredibly high energies to create. So after half a century we have witnessed one of those great moments when experimental scientists confirm what were up to now merely theoretical predictions.

From this, albeit cursory, discussion it should strike us as odd why some atheists are trumpeting the discovery as a point in favour of their worldview. After all there is nothing here to challenge any argument for the existence of God, nor anything to make the concept of God incoherent. It seems that the reason for these celebrations owes as much to the nickname of this particle – “the God Particle” – as it does to anything else (except maybe a patent lack of scientific understanding). This name has caused some confusion and seemingly has given the impression that this particle in some way takes the place of God. In fact the nickname was coined by Leon Lederman who gave two reasons for the use of the term: (1) like God, this particle underlies every physical object in existence, and (2) like God, the particle is very difficult to detect.

Some theists might like such nomenclature, seeing it as highlighting these two aspects of God’s existence: his conservation of the world and his hiddenness. With respect to the former we should note that the Higgs Boson doesn’t take away from God as the conserver of the universe, since the particle is a contingent particle which decays almost as soon as it forms, and since it is a product of the Big Bang – facts which lead us to conclude that it does not exist necessarily or eternally. With respect to God’s hiddenness some theists might point out that – like the Higgs Boson – being difficult to detect is not proof of non-existence. Even when we can’t see God’s hand at work that doesn’t mean He is not present and active. So the Higgs Boson – to some theists – might be a nice reminder of that.

As interesting as these points are, I think the real significance for theism lies in two other places. Firstly, the discovery illustrates further the wonderful mathematical order of the universe and the awe-inspiring beauty of nature. Secondly, its significant that the discovery further confirms the Standard Model. The first of these points is more obviously relevant and it is easy to see how it lends weight to certain arguments for God’s existence based on design, or teleology. The second point is not so obvious, but to my mind is more important and more interesting.

One of the most important and widely discussed arguments for the existence of God today is what’s known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. It’s probably the piece of natural theology I find most interesting, and I’ve been obsessed with it for well over a decade! The main argument runs like so:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

Once the conclusion is established we can – through conceptual analysis – identify a number of significant features of this cause. In short the argument points to a timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, incredibly powerful, personal creator of the universe. (I must skip the intriguing details for now!)

Step two of the argument is probably the most controversial – certainly if the academic literature is anything to go by. There are a number of philosophical arguments in favour of it, as well as several scientific arguments. Probably the most important scientific argument is from the Standard Model of physics pointing to a beginning of the universe. So, anything that helps to confirm the Standard Model of physics will lend weight to this piece of evidence in favour of premise two in this theistic argument. With the finding of the Higgs Boson we see that the Standard Model has once more received an important piece of confirmation, and this helps towards making step two of the Kalam argument more plausible.

The discovery does not of course prove God. All it does it lend a little bit of extra weight behind one argument in favour of one premise of one theistic argument. Like atheists, theists should not trumpet the discovery as being something it isn’t. However, I think theists have nothing to worry about and much to celebrate. I think it’s a real shame that some atheists, seemingly with little understanding of either science, philosophy, or theology should throw a party for something that has not happened and actually miss out on celebrating what really has been a triumph of human science as it explores the wonderful universe in which we find ourselves.

Stephen J Graham

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