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Richard Carhart
 

On the Spiritual Meaning of the “God Particle” (the Higgs Boson)

The media’s interpretation of the significance of the discovery a few months before it was made reflects the need most humans feel to find ultimate spiritual reality.

FORUM OF CHRISTIAN LEADERS AUTHOR Richard Carhart 08 MARCH 2016 10:43 h GMT+1

 



FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS!



We are about to take a journey together into the fundamental building blocks of the material world and the fundamental forces that hold it together, the world of elementary particle physics. It is a fascinating world with a beautiful, simple structure. Once upon a time in the 20th century, physicists had found so many “elementary particles” that we started calling it “the particle zoo.” But now we know there are only 12 building block particles, along with their 12 antiparticles. There are also five force-carrying particles for the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, and the weak nuclear force. All the other particle-like objects turn out to be composites of the 24 held together by some combination of the five force carriers. So, there is a deep level of organization we can see today. But are these all that exist? How many layers does the onion have? We will see…



Why should the average Christian leader agree to a journey through this fascinating, but foreign, territory? The spiritual points involved are very important in the modern cultural context. Getting a foothold in the discussion can really help our own faith. It will also strengthen our efforts to help others find faith in Christ and in the Biblical world view. So, I’d like to welcome you to join me for the journey! It is not often that the culture opens the door as wide as the “God Particle” does to focused spiritual conversations with the average person.



 



WHAT IS THE HIGGS BOSON—“THE GOD PARTICLE”?



The Fourth of July 2012 was more than a United States National holiday. It was the day scientists at the world’s highest energy particle collider, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland, announced the definite observation of a new particle called “the Higgs Boson.” Two independent experiments at the LHC had observed it to a high degree of certainty. They announced the momentous discovery together to strengthen the public impact. It represents an additional elementary particle of the force-carrying variety. So, now there are 24 building block particles and 6 force carrying particles, counting all of the antiparticles.



The existence and properties of the Higgs particle were proposed 50 years ago by Peter Higgs and several others to fix problems in the Standard Model. It has been sought since then to complete the theory for all matter and energy, except for the law of gravity and the possible existence of gravitons to mediate the gravitational force. The challenge to understand the behavior of gravity in elementary particle terms still remains unmet.



 



WHY IS THE HIGGS IMPORTANT?



The mass of a particle is the resistance it has to acceleration when the particle is nearly at rest. This is called the “rest mass” of a particle. Since the Higgs exists, we can assume that all of the building block particles have zero mass, and gain their observed inertia or rest mass by their interaction with the Higgs. We do not need to introduce the mass of each particle as an independently measured constant. The theory now exhibits a high degree of symmetry at high energies, as observed.[1]



Now we only need to measure the Higgs mass and the strength of its interaction with other particles, or two independent constants. It represents another level of integration and simplification of the particle world—an improved Standard Model with Higgs! Physicists generally regard a comprehensive theory where most constants can be calculated, and only a few are arbitrary and must be measured as a superior understanding of reality.



 



ON TO THE SPIRITUAL MEANING: MEDIA MATTERS!



The media’s interpretation of the significance of the discovery a few months before it was made reflects the need most humans feel to find ultimate spiritual reality. In the British Daily Mail online version on 13.12.11, an article appeared by Fiona Macrae titled: "God" particle found: Atom smasher reveals Higgs boson, the key to the universe.” Wow! That should catch anyone’s attention. It sounds like science has finally found God!



The article begins:



"The ‘God particle,’ hailed as the holy grail of physics, may have been glimpsed for the first time. … The Higgs boson is regarded–by those who know about such things–as the key to understanding the universe. Its job is, apparently, to give the particles that make up atoms their mass. Without this mass, these particles would zip though the cosmos at the speed of light, unable to bind together to form the atoms that make up everything in the universe, from planets to people."



Even a Dilbert cartoon from that time reflected the struggle people have relating to the traditional concept of God—the Creator of all things Who thinks He owns the universe and has a right to say how it should be run. On the Dilbert website for this strip is the following short commentary:



“Today’s (21.2.12) Dilbert is subtle. It serves as a nice illustration of the confusion created when physicists talk about the “God particle” – they are not using God in the sense of a personal deity liable to add hassles to one’s life by issuing awkward commandments…”



 



Author: Dilbert.com



The fundamental issue is, “Who/what will be in control?” The mysterious particle that gives mass to the other particles, without which we could not exist, sounds like a safer creator.



It seems to be a human desire to seek some transcendent spiritual entity, but to avoid any concept of God who could make actual claims on how we live our lives—our autonomy! Certainly, as far as we know, the Higgs would not make demands. Even better, we can control it, and even ignore it if we like.



Let’s do a little linguistic analysis of the Daily Mirror quote. “God particle” and “holy grail” set the tone of serious spirituality surrounding the Higgs. “Glimpsed” suggest its elusiveness and mystery, which are qualities people expect God to have. This particle is “regarded by those who know about such things as the key to understanding the universe.” A deity or God substitute would be such a key. “Its job is to give the particles … their mass.” So, the Higgs has a very active role, and like a good creator, can cause things to be a certain way. If the Higgs would not carry out this active role, we could not exist—we owe our existence to the Higgs. Wow! It sure sounds like a God. But, did the scientists who discovered it really give the “God Particle” name to the Higgs?



 



THE “GOD PARTICLE” NAME FOR THE HIGGS



Fifty years is a long time to wait between suggested existence of a new particle and its observation! The Higgs discovery has been very elusive as mirrored in another Dilbert cartoon (5.22.13).



 



Author: Dilbert.com



In the spirit of this Dilbert strip, in 1993 Nobel Laureate particle physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book entitled, “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?” In the first chapter, he says because the Higgs was so elusive from heroic experimental efforts to detect it, he wanted to title the book "That God D*** Particle."



He says that Harper, his publisher, rejected the title as bad for marketing. They finally agreed on the "God Particle" and the rest of the title. It certainly does help sales, but readers will find the book quite devoid of mystical spirituality. They may appreciate its casual personal recounting of the recent history of particle physics. But I could not find any attempted answer to the question posed in the title.



So the book that popularized this name for the Higgs is a bit of bait and switch. Lederman’s original desire for the title seems much more accurate for its actual contents. In the decade following Lederman’s book, our monthly trade journal, Physics Today, published a number of letters to the editor that expressed dismay at the attempt to connect the particle physicists sought with things spiritual. They rightly said that science cannot prove or disprove anything about metaphysics. Its methods are not appropriate to illuminate spiritual or supernatural dimensions to reality. But in grant proposals and public explanations of what the 1,000 physicists hoped to achieve and why we should pay their salaries, the spiritual mystique was useful.



For example, in Discover Magazine, January 2009, in an article on the Large Hadron Collider, we find:



 “In fact, the goal of the LHC is at once simple and grandiose: It was created to discover new particles. One of the most sought of these is the Higgs boson, also known as the God particle because, according to current theory, it endowed all other particles with mass.”



Note again use of a strong action verb “endowed.”[2]



 



THE ACTUAL “HOLY GRAIL” OF PHYSICS



Elementary particle physicists search for the set of laws underlying the behavior of the entire natural world. If one can say at all that they seek a “Holy Grail,” it would be a “Theory of Everything” (TOE), not just one element like the Higgs. Physicists believe that mathematics is the proper language for expressing fundamental natural laws. So the basic search is to find the right mathematical expression in the right mathematical system that captures all we can measure of the behavior of the natural world.[3]



 



OF EFFECTIVE CAUSES AND UNCAUSED CAUSES



Mathematics is the outcome of shared human logic and quantitative reasoning. It seems to be a discipline that is somehow built into the human brain. But how do we know that mathematical expressions have any active power as natural causes? We know they are at least descriptions of how nature behaves. But from where does nature actually get its lawful behavior? What are the effective causes?



We observe a system or network of natural cause and effect going on that is well described by the right mathematics. Science is a detailed study of this system with the goals of prediction of future events and the inference of past events. We assume that the network will be and has been steady. If it were time-dependent, we believe we could observe that dependence. So far no evidence of time dependence of fundamental constants has been observed, however.



It appears we cannot decide whether mathematics causes anything. The real question is whether the system of natural cause and effect had an uncaused cause? Or, is the system itself the Uncaused Cause of all else, and mathematics has effective causal power?



Was the system of natural law created? If so, does it maintain itself, or does it require maintenance? These are fundamental metaphysical questions, and most of us scientists believe they are undecidable using the methods of science. Naturalism says the system of laws is the Uncaused Cause. Christianity (and other monotheistic religions) says an Intelligent Personal Being is the Uncaused Cause and the system of laws is a created system.



The Bible also says that the system requires momentary maintenance—that the laws are continually imposed by the Creator on the natural world:



“He {Jesus Christ} is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17, ESV); but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:2-3a, ESV)”



Therefore, the real question boils down to whether the Higgs actively “endows” the other particles with mass, or whether God “endows” the particles with mass by maintaining a structure of natural law that includes the Higgs. In other words, is the Higgs a creator, or a created thing? When we think critically about the essential issues here, it is evident that science will not tell us an answer. The Higgs is only a God competitor at the level of metaphysics. To call it “the God particle” is merely Naturalism in disguise. Or, it could be a whimsical joke in the minds of some. For Christians, the Higgs and the effects it causes as described by the mathematics is a wonderful fascinating element of physical reality, the laws for which are created and maintained by God.



 



THE UNREASONABLE EFFECTIVENESS OF MATHEMATICS IN THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES



Since mathematics seems to be the universal inevitable outcome of human logic, how does it come to describe nature so fully? Is the Uncaused Cause, our Creator God (Jehovah), a mathematician, or is Mathematics God? Galileo answered these questions when he said,



“God is a Mathematician and understands all theorems. But the few we can understand are just as true as they are in the Mind of God, because of their logical necessity.”



Another view on this question by Nobel Laureate Eugen Wigner was presented in a famous lecture in 1960 that got published with premier billing on pages 1-14 of that year’s volume of Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics.[4]



The article is entitled, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences.” It argues that we have no explanation for how very abstract mathematics so fully captures the network of cause and effect in the physical world, and even repeatedly has led the way to discovery of new and wider, more accurate descriptions.



The great mathematician fully, almost ruthlessly, exploits the domain of permissible reasoning and skirts the impermissible.  That his recklessness does not lead him into a morass of contradictions is a miracle in itself: certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin's process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.



Though in general Wigner accepts Darwin’s Theory, he rejects it as a reasonable explanation for the match between human mind and natural cause and effect. Further:



“It is, as Schrödinger has remarked, a miracle that in spite of the baffling complexity of the world, certain regularities in the events could be discovered.”[5]



Another example follows:



"The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.  We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research … "



In this article he uses the word “miracle” 12 times! He calls it a gift several times. Four times he says we should be grateful for the happy circumstance that mathematics proves to be the magic key for describing natural cause and effect. Wigner was not known to hold any firm metaphysical system like Christianity, Naturalism, etc. For him there is no Doer of the miracle, no Giver of the gift, and no Recipient for our gratitude.



In addition to Schrödinger, another Nobel Laureate physicist, Richard Feynman, agrees with Wigner:



“The fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all…”[6]



We see here a glaring inherent weakness of Naturalism. Three eminent physicists agree that something unexpected and unexplainable from their perspective is observed in the almost magical connection of human reasoning and the functioning of natural cause and effect. As Christians, we are smiling at their intellectual agony, because God has revealed a clear answer to the mystery:



“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  (Genesis 1:27-28, ESV)



 



CONCLUSION



Surely our understanding of the world can be strengthened by these key insights. First, mathematics certainly describes natural cause and effect. But there is no scientific way to attribute actual causal power to a law of nature, a mathematical statement. To assume that only natural causes operate rules out in advance causes beyond natural ones, and blinds one to a fully valid description of reality. For a full description, mysteries like why human-origin mathematics lays bare the structure of natural law need good explanations. The Biblical world view, which affirms the existence of natural law but reveals to us key things about supernatural intervention in the real world, provides a fuller explanation. In particular, it explains the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical world.



We can explain this to others in faith conversations and ask them why the Biblical world view is not actually superior here. God is the Mathematician, who caused the whole Universe according to mathematical laws. He continually imposes this structure on the natural world at all places and at all times. Truly, in Him, we live and move and have our being. He has given us the beautiful gift of minds that will also do enough mathematics to understand, marvel at, and appreciate His handiwork. Using these minds and with His ethical and moral guidance, we can exercise responsible dominion and control over nature. Wow, now that’s a real God!



Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD [I AM] of hosts is his name: “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD [I AM], then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever." (Jeremiah 31:35-36, ESV)




 



Richard Carhart is Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, having taught there and done research for 35 years.



The Forum of Christian Leaders (FOCL) is the sponsor of the European Leadership Forum (ELF), which seeks to unite, mentor, and resource European evangelical leaders to renew the biblical church and re-evangelise Europe. This happens first at the ELF's annual meeting that occurs each May in Poland.  In addition to the ELF, FOCL is host to an online media library and learning community for evangelical Christians. Learn more at foclonline.org and euroleadership.org; or join us on Twitter @FOCLonline and Facebook Forum of Christian Leaders.






[1] The augmented theory also does not generate infinity for answers in some computations. Physicists had developed a trick called renormalization that got rid of the infinite part of the answer and left only the part that agreed with experiments. However, this procedure was not considered intellectually acceptable in the long run!





[2] See the end of the article for an appendix that gives an introductory description of  the building blocks and force carriers of the material world.





[3] This search had led to the formulation of a function called “the Lagrangian density of the Standard Model for Particles” and the rules for computing with it. I’m pretty sure most of you have no idea what a Lagrangian density is or how to use it. You would need a full graduate education in theoretical particle physics to learn what it is and how to use it to make predictions. All you need to know is that particle behavior is described by a specific mathematical system with known properties, formulas, and computational methods.



The basic search, then, is for the correct mathematical expression for the Lagrangian density that would predict the outcome of all our observations of nature. The Standard Model Lagrangian, which you can find on Wikipedia, had some mathematical problems. As we said, it sometimes predicted infinity for numerical answers. It also did not yield the symmetry that had been observed in high energy particle collisions.



To review, one additional term containing the field for the Higgs boson was added to the Standard Model Lagrangian, and all of the particle masses were set to zero. Then the infinite answers disappeared, and the particles exhibited rest masses at low energies that could be computed.  The extra term corresponds to a new force. The Higgs boson is the force mediator, joining the gluon, the photon, and the weak bosons.



Wikipedia also presents this new Lagrangian in the same article. It has zero particle masses and the formula for the Higgs term. The Higgs mass and force strength constants are left as unknowns to be measured. The new “Standard Model with Higgs” Lagrangian density better describes the real world of natural processes.



But it could not be the TOE before we include gravity. Sadly, we realized recently that a theorem proven years ago by mathematician, Kurt Gödel, means a TOE cannot exist. Famous physicist Steven Hawking has publicly agreed to this conclusion, so we will never find this Holy Grail.





[4] Wigner, Eugen, Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, 13, 1960, pp. 1-14.





[5] Schrödinger, Erwin, What is Life?, Cambridge University Press, 1945. Schrödinger also says that this second miracle may well be beyond human understanding, (page 31).





[6] Feynman, Richard, The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, Perseus Books, 1998, p. 23.



 




 

 


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