The big news of last week was the detection of the Higgs boson, the missing subatomic particle predicted by the Standard Model but never found until now.
It’s a big deal, despite the fact that everyone knows that the Higgs boson is not really “the God particle,” even if it does bring the mass to everything else.
OK, so that was a very bad joke. But the way that the Higgs fleshes out the predominant description of subatomic physics is no joke. It’s a primary example of the methodological differences between the rationalism of science and the metaphysics of belief.
This is not new territory, but you don’t get such a perfect case every day. There is no clearer example of the difference between postulation and presumption than what we find in the search for the Higgs.
What is the Higgs boson, and why is finding it so important to verifying the Standard Model? There are hundreds of explanations out there this week, but in this case (as in many others) the rigourously-edited Wikipedia summary is both succinct and useful.
The Higgs boson plays a unique role in the Standard Model, by explaining why the other elementary particles, except the photon and gluon, are massive. In particular, the Higgs boson would explain why the photon has no mass, while the W and Z bosons are very heavy. Elementary particle masses, and the differences between electromagnetism (mediated by the photon) and the weak force (mediated by the W and Z bosons), are critical to many aspects of the structure of microscopic (and hence macroscopic) matter. In electroweak theory, the Higgs boson generates the masses of the leptons (electron, muon, and tau) and quarks.
Put another way, if there is no Higgs boson, then the Standard Model is at best woefully incomplete, if not quite wrong. So the search for the Higgs is a search for fundamental theoretical validation. In one sense, then, God is rather like the Higgs, after all. The claims of religion, especially belief in a benevolent creator and/or eternal life after death, are nonsensical without the existence of God. While the Higgs may not be the God particle, it’s not just playfulness to suggest that God is the Higgs spirit.
The point is that the scientific method provides a very different kind of argument, based on a very different kind of evidence, than does the assertion of God’s reality.
For scientists, the Standard Model predicts the Higgs. Physicists construct an experiment in which the Higgs, if it exists, may be observed. Note the structure. The Standard Model gains validation if the Higgs is found. The postulation of a particle that should be there, given everything else that’s observable, leads to an experiment that seeks empirical verification.
For theists, the perception of order and beauty in the universe predicts God. Believers and theologians construe subjective experience or conceptualizations in which God’s existence may be asserted. Note the structure. Belief in God gains justification if this non-empirical “evidence” is accepted. The postulation of a supernatural being who should be there, given what’s felt and believed, leads to a claim that allows no empirical verification.
Quite a methodological difference. For science, evidence is required. For faith, evidence is not only not necessary, it’s not possible, and often it’s not desirable. If we’re to accept the lesson of Doubting Thomas, blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.
One of the most fundamental arguments against the idea that religion provides a net benefit to society is just this — it demands that we believe without seeing, that we value subjectivity over objectivity, irrationality over reason.