On Thursday, CERN’s official page confirmed the validity of their Higgs Boson discovery last year. Following Wednesday’s papal announcement, the media seemed eager to jump on an opportunity to balance old world religious news with that of a scientific discovery.
Rather than feed into that science vs. religion debate, it might be pertinent to consider how these two distinct human perspectives might one day achieve a balanced harmony. Could we ever create a philosophical middle ground, which combines our spiritual sense of reverence for the mystical beauty of life, with our explorative curiosity and innate desire to discover the unknown?
First and foremost, let’s review what the Higgs Boson is, why it’s called the "God Particle" and how it affects our understanding of the universe.
The Higgs Boson is an excitation of the Higgs field — energy that permeates the entire universe, and gives particles their mass. Or to be more accurate, it creates resistance for particles with more mass than photons to move more slowly, thereby gaining their shape.
Imagine a fog, filled with the faint vapor of water. This fog is part of the universe’s initial big bang. All the particles that were flying around at the speed of light moved within this fog, and some of them acquired mass by the “condensation” they picked up within it. Now the particles we’re discussing are minuscule photons, quarks or leptons. And the condensation isn’t exactly an accurate representation of the Higgs Boson, as the Higgs is actually created by particles interacting in the Higgs Field. This interaction is technically what gives particles their mass.
But what you really need to know, is that the Higgs Boson has been a fundamental principle of the Standard Model for years. This is the collective understanding of the gravitational and electromagnetic forces which allow our universe to take form. Basically, the batteries that allowed God to say "let there be light."
We build our entire scientific understanding of the origin and nature of the universe off of that Standard Model, so it’s very important that it remains accurate and is tested thoroughly. To some degree, the confirmation of the Higgs Boson is good news because it affirms all the other theories we’ve been building off of it. On the other side, we haven’t progressed very far beyond this point in the 40 years since the Boson was hypothesized, and some scientists were hoping the Higgs wouldn't be proven, so we could rethink our approach to the Standard Model.
If we did rethink any aspect of the Standard Model, we would in turn affect our more advanced models and even potentially invest further inquiry into outlier theories like Loop Quantum Gravity or Superstring Multi-Dimensional Theory. Basically, every physicist wants to have a comprehensive and proven quantum model that applies to the whole universe, and not being able to comprehensively test or prove new theories is very frustrating.
This scientific discipline of pursuing theories, observing data, analyzing, hypothesizing, experimenting, testing and comparing, stands in stark contradiction to the spiritualist approach, which accepts a mystery of hidden meaning as part of life’s purpose. So can these two values ever share a harmony?
My friends of various faiths believe in a soul — some form of energy that inhabits our body and will exist after we die. While travelling in India, I got to talk with Buddhists, Hindus and spiritualists who described the human condition as the “universe experiencing itself” — we are all just subjective manifestations of the universe’s collective consciousness, interacting with each other. Ancient religions throughout human history, whether African, Mayan or Chinese, have all given deity names to energies, forces of nature and even emotions. The modern monotheistic faiths require one all-encompassing god, with a specific set of rules that guide humans towards heaven. But at the core of all faiths, lies a central belief that there is more to life than what we see around us. And scientists share that exact same notion, only they strive to fully discover the nature of those dimensions, particles and energies hidden from plain sight.
It’s like the three little piggies making a house from their theories, only the scientist's house is built from carefully crafted bricks of certainty. Slow, steady, and resistant to the ferocious force of a wolf's scrutiny.
I sometimes discuss older religions with my Christian friends. They will chuckle at the idea that man once worshipped the sun. Some might be inclined to say that it is no more foolish to put faith in a fireball in the sky, than a bearded man in the clouds. But there’s a more scientifically pure analogy to consider. Take a moment to reflect on your life. Every single thing you know, feel, think or imagine — your entire sense of existence and reality — is electricity firing between synapses in your brain. Within your melon-sized skull, sits a buzzing world of encased energy, and in the world around us, billions of other walking "realities."
Now scale that upwards, and think of how big the sun actually is in comparison to your skull. The differences in energy are equivalent to a spec of dust floating in a hurricane. By sheer order of magnitude, could it not be argued that the sun is a far grander and more complex expression of energy than your mind? Could it not indeed be a god? One whose energy has fed life on our lonely little planet since its inception?
It’s an abstract exercise, but the point remains: there is a cross over in language between our scientific understanding of the world around us, and our evolving sense of spiritual purpose. We once worshipped the sun ... then a god above ... maybe one day the universe itself. Who knows how our ideas will evolve? Our scientific inquiry helps us march forward. Our shared sense of spirituality keeps us united. Neither of these ideas should be worth killing each other over. Both of them should be helping us know a higher truth.
The religions of today, may not survive in a hundred or a thousand years. But humanity will not lose its sense of wonder, no matter how far our explorations reach into the cosmos. In Stephen Hawking’s Universe in a Nutshell he elaborates on mind-bending physics theories, including the nature of time, the dimensions that exist outside our perceivable four and the near invisible concert of energies dancing between the cells of our bodies. There are worlds of wonder still yet to be discovered, further enriching our awe of the Universe which birthed us.
In the question as to whether scientific understanding diminishes the mystical beauty of the world, no one has argued more eloquently than Richard Feynman. By truly understanding our part in a natural world, where even the deepest mysteries can be explained, we elevate ourselves above superstition, and absorb the purest form of spiritual harmony — one born of knowing our true selves.