Yesterday when I opened up the New York Times, I was greeted with something truly refreshing: a piece of interesting and good news: the discovery of the Higgs Boson – a long-sought keystone in scientific theories about the nature of the universe. As a pop-physics geek (i.e., I think this stuff is fascinating even though I really don’t understand it) I had been intrigued by progress in this field since reading about it last December when physicists at CERN announced they had identified potential hints of the particle’s existence. As I read about this week’s extraordinary achievement (purportedly the biggest discovery in physics in the last 50 years) I felt some small glimmer of the tremendous excitement that is currently rippling through the ranks of physicists around the world. I promptly turned around and tried my best to explain to my eight-year old twin boys the significance of this discovery:
Boys – there’s been a really exciting discovery today in physics. They think they’ve found a sub-atomic particle that helps explain why there’s matter with mass in the universe!
My boys, preparing to go to the rocketry class they attended this week, responded enthusiastically:
Cool! And we’re going to spray paint our model rockets today, and launch them tomorrow!
And so goes the future of science.
One might think that as a person of faith that I might somehow be threatened by discoveries such as this. Such major scientific advances help bring humanity one step closer to fully explaining the nature of the universe without dependence on a supernatural Creator. Or as Hawking and Mlodinow put it in The Grand Design, the discovery of the Higgs Boson is part of
…the long process of replacing the notion of the reign of gods with the concept of a universe that is governed by laws of nature, and created according to a blueprint we could someday learn to read.
There’s no question that the discovery of a particle that helps explain the existence of mass in the universe has theological significance (heck, the thing got nicknamed the God particle for a reason). The question of why there is something rather than nothing lies at the root of religious questioning. As the great theologian Paul Tillich put it in his Systematic Theology:
Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us.
In other words – theology is concerned with why anything exists. And the fact that scientists celebrated the discovery of the Boson with the exclamation ‘Thank you Nature’ was clearly aimed at rejecting any religious answer to that question.
But here’s the thing – I really don’t get why I can’t thank nature AND God for the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Because if I continue reading Tillich, he goes on to say
Man is ultimately concerned with his being and meaning.
Right – well the Higgs Boson and the Standard Model into which it fits helps explain our physical existence (or, more precisely, the physical existence of the universe in which we exist). But does this discovery do anything to help address the meaning of this existence?
From what I can tell, the most common scientific answers to questions about meaning either miss the point or respond in a way that embraces relativism. For example, Hawking and Mlodinow end The Grand Design with this statement:
Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
The problem with this statement is not the science behind it (which, to the degree I can understand it, seems to make a lot of sense). The problem is that the ‘why’ they are answering is not the ‘why’ that many of us are asking. When I ask ‘why do I exist?’ I’m not looking for a lesson in evolution or quantum mechanics. I’m wondering what my purpose in life should be – what should be the guiding principles of my life, what should give me hope in a world that so often seems hopeless. ‘Spontaneous creation’ doesn’t exactly fit that bill.
Richard Dawkins gets the question I’m asking, but his response is that it is up to each of us to define our life’s meaning. As he puts it:
There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.
While I couldn’t agree more with Dawkins that none of us should just unquestioningly accept answers to such fundamental questions, the fact is that his response seems to endorse relativism: the meaning you give your life is yours, the meaning I give my life is mine, and there’s no universal narrative. I personally think that’s problematic, and my one great leap of faith is that I think there are universal truths about the meaning of all our lives, even if I can not conclusively prove that belief through reason or science. My faith that there is a universal meaning and purpose to our existence is my faith in God, and underlies my continuing struggle and questioning to better understand that universal purpose.
So when it comes to amazing scientific discoveries like the Higgs Boson – I see no threat at all to my faith. All it does is imbue me with a sense of awe at the complexity and beauty of existence, and the extraordinary capabilities of humanity (well, OK, of the smartest segments of humanity) to uncover the fundamental dynamics of the universe. It reaffirms my belief that we should use our God-given capacity to question and explore the world around us. It makes me grateful for all that has been accomplished and will be accomplished by brilliant scientists. And it supports my continued search for answers to why any of this matters.
So thanks to nature and God for the Higgs Boson – I am eternally grateful for its discovery because it allows me to exist and search for answers to rather different questions.