Faith, physics and the Higgs boson

lhcPhysicists love carnage. At Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, they are smashing streams of protons into each other at terrifying velocities and using powerful computers to examine the wreckage. It’s a bit like filming the collision of two logging trucks and watching each splinter as it tears loose and skitters across the pavement.

With so many proton collisions, I wonder what becomes of all that subatomic debris? Maybe a team of highly-trained janitors armed with giant Swiffers hike around the collider’s 17-mile underground circuit every night, sweeping up all the bits of mangled subatomic waste. Or maybe they hose the tunnels down, washing all that subatomic cruft into the municipal sewer system? Officials are understandably tight-lipped about how they dispose of all that atomic waste.

But I digress.

What’s the point of all this destruction? The LHC is searching for a very important little particle known as the Higgs boson.

The Higgs mechanism is a theoretical process that may give subatomic particles their mass. The leading explanation for the Higgs mechanism is that it arises from the properties of a particle named the Higgs boson. But among the exotic catalog of subatomic stuff predicted by the current models, everything has been documented except for the elusive Higgs boson. It may be shy, or it may not exist at all.

That is what the LHC was designed to find out. By smashing enough protons together, physicists should find the Higgs boson, if it exists. Or, failing to find it, they hope to rack up enough unfruitful searches to prove that the Higgs mechanism doesn’t need a new particle to do its mass magic.

When all the money has been spent and all the research finished, what these physicists will be left with is a theory supported by somewhat stronger evidence than some different theory.

In other words, they’re not going to snap a photo of a particle with the name “Higgs” tattooed to its backside. They won’t be able to hold a Higgs particle in their hands or smell it with their noses. Their evidence will be a few oddball data points in a sea of numbers, or it will be something even less conclusive: the absence of those data points.

Particle physics isn’t like discovering a new species of frog. You can hold a frog, photograph it, listen to its croaking, take its blood and test its DNA, gather its eggs and hatch baby frogs, measure and weigh it and compare it to other frogs. There is something concrete and unambiguous about a new species of frog that simply can’t be doubted.

Unlike the frog, the evidence for the Higgs boson won’t be concrete or tactile. It will be mathematical and probabilistic, and those numbers and probabilities will always have within them an unavoidable degree of uncertainty and doubt.

Werner Heisenberg said that in the realm of subatomic particles, the very act of taking a peek alters the thing you are studying. For this and other reasons, much of quantum physics depends on probabilities rather than certainties.

Of course, it’s human nature to want to nail things down and find solid ground to stand on. Physicists are only human, so they often speak with great certainty about the unseen world they study, when much of what is “known” of the invisible structures of the material universe is nothing more than a set of conjectures built on probabilities.

And that, when you think about it, is a pretty good definition for faith.

Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see. It was this kind of faith that won their reputation for the saints of old. And it is after all only by faith that our minds accept as fact that the whole scheme of time and space was created by God’s command — that the world which we can see has come into being through principles which are invisible. — Hebrews 11:1-3, JB Phillips

Faith is a conscious decision to act as if the invisible God is real. It means living with certainty about something you can’t truly be certain about.

God is other. He is nothing like us and we are nothing like him. We are made in his image, but we don’t share the essential characteristics of his being — we are finite creatures bound to a material world, but God is an eternal and infinite spiritual being. We cannot observe God, we cannot touch him or interact with him in any of the ways we’re accustomed to.

But we can look for evidence of God in what we see around us and inside of us — the earth and stars, the visible and invisible physical world, the miracle of life, the wonder of consciousness, the mystery of love, the historical persistence of morality, the extravagant and superfluous beauty of creation, the rigorous order imposed on the material realm in the midst of great complexity — and as we consider these characteristics of the world and our own human experience, we can ask if these wonders are better explained as the handiwork of a creative, omnipotent God, or as the byproducts of a long and remarkable streak of very good luck.

Faith is not an emotional impulse, but an intellectual decision. The big lie about faith is that it requires the suspension of rational thought; the truth is that faith, as lived by the men and women of the Bible, is built around their personal experiences of God and the testimonies of trusted witnesses. Faith comes through a process of testing the evidence for and against. It never requires eliminating all doubt or suspending disbelief. Faith leads us to conclude that the evidence in favor of God outweighs the evidence in opposition.

This is exactly the process the scientific community will go through once the LHC has finished its Higgs experiments. As the findings are presented, however they shake out, there will be some who will take advantage of ambiguities in the evidence to take a dissenting view. The findings may seem ironclad, but a few will keep looking for a loophole.

God challenges us to examine the evidence for faith. Jesus lived and witnesses wrote about his life so that we can judge his words, judge his character, judge whether the claims he made are more likely true than false. Faith requires a sifting of the evidence in favor of God and an honest appraisal of the evidence against him.

And if, in the end, we conclude that God is all that he has revealed himself to be in the Scriptures, faith becomes the way we begin to live in response to that conclusion.

It will take as great an act of the intellect, the heart and the will to believe in the Higgs boson as is needed to believe in the God of the Bible and his Son, Jesus Christ. The difference is that the Higgs boson, as interesting as it may be, has no power to transform us or the life we live.

God’s promise is that if we live by faith, we will experience life in an entirely new way. Faith creates the possibility of living in a relationship with the God who created the universe, the God who created you and me, the God who even dreamed up a shy little subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson.

Photo credit: BBC News

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  1. Excellent.

  2. Well put! Thanks!

  3. wilfred Melville says

    Thank you for revealing that I do not have to give up reason to have faith. In the bible as far as I can recall, the holy men of god did not have to give it up in order to pleas god. Blind Bartimus cried Jesus son of David have mercy on me. Who told him that this man was the messiah. His faith was: Jesus son of David. The centurion commanded “do not bother to come to my house but only speak the word and my servant shall be healed. He recognized that Jesus was God. The friends of the Man sick with the palsy removed the roof to get attention by Jesus not minding to have to put the roof back as long as their friend was healed. In his first miracle the porters obeyed and the water they brought was turned into wine. The Syrophnesian woman bemoaned that the dogs did eat of the crumbs that fell from the children’s table. What is faith? I feel that faith is having a revelation from God residing in you and moving you in a direction. Its seeing where the average man cannot see but you yourself wonder how others cannot see it the way you see it when it is so plain. Still I am not certain what Faith is. Teach me Lord.

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