The God Particle . . and the Gaps in God

There is only magazine or journal I read cover to cover every month, and that is Scientific American. Nor is this a new obsession. My first job out of high school was as a research assistant in a computer lab, programming in Fortran to solve complex integral equations in order to analyze satellite data. My first major was astronomy.

True, I switched to history when I realized that I neither fully understood nor enjoyed complex mathematical analysis – which is all that physics and astronomy really is – but I’ve kept up with the news.

And that’s why I was both excited and skeptical about the recent announcement that evidence of the long predicted Higgs boson was finally discovered. Excited because it really is a breakthrough in demonstrating that the current model of how our universe functions at the smallest possible level is probably right (the so-called “standard model.”) Skeptical because decades before the particle was discovered physicists already knew that far greater mysteries lay beneath that model.

The standard model is based on incredibly difficult math but a simple concept: virtually all interactions that are commonly observed at an atomic level can be explained through the interactions of group of particles that carry either mass or force at a subatomic level. Physicists have known for some time that the most elegant explanation for what they observed required a particle they had never seen, the Higgs boson. They hadn’t seen it because it was so massive and tightly bound to other particles that they never had enough energy to pry it loose. The Large Hadron Collider gave them that energy, and it was theoretically only a matter of time before they pried loose a Higgs boson and observed it independently. And sure enough they did.

This esoteric stuff is actually pretty useful to you and me. The “standard model” and its ability to understand and predict interactions on a subatomic scale is critical to building upcoming generations of computers and to the material science that will create future consumer products.

But is this the “God particle?” Beyond these physical comforts, have physicists finally explained the world and everything in it? Let me quote Wikipedia on this. “The Standard Model falls short of being a complete theory of fundamental interactions because it does not incorporate the physics of dark energy nor of the full theory of gravitation as described by general relativity.”( Actually that is only the beginning of what the Standard Model doesn’t explain about the observed and observable universe. Check up on supersymetry for example. And don’t forget that much of the physical universe cannot be observed. Put another way, the “God particle” doesn’t really fill the role some physicists assign to God, explaining the currently inexplicable.

Religious people shouldn’t take in any comfort in this. Because the naive “god of the gaps” assumption that most physicists assign to theology fails to grasp that the role of God in human life isn’t to explain the inexplicable.

Were that the case religion and science would simply be competitors, with religion losing on a consistent basis. Science has proven far better than religion at explaining, predicting, and manipulating the events in the world around us. Nor do scientists intend to quite filling in the gaps in their explanatory mechanisms – not even when their own methodologies tell them that those gaps cannot be filled.

Religious people who intend to give an account of their faith may want to use the discovery of the “God particle” to reflect on the reality of God, and what God’s self-revealing means for humanity. Perhaps a starting point might be to consider humans, in our sinfulness, as the gaps in God.

  • Kevin

    This post had me pretty interested at first. You seem to have a better understanding of Physics than the vast majority of the population. I was disappointed with the article (and just about every article about the Higg’s recently) for using the nickname “The God Particle” to start talking about religion. I would hope that you, and any other readers from now on, realize that the name “God Particle” came from Leon Lederman’s book that he WANTED to call “The goddamn particle” because it was so hard to find. It has NOTHING to do with religion, god, faith, etc.

    I think your assumption that Physicists think religion is only used along the lines of the “god of the gaps” approach is not quite right either. Regardless, I don’t think Science is better than religion at explaining, predicting etc. I think Science DOES those things and Religion DOES NOT do those things. However, conceding that religions do not have any ability to add to the global knowledge pool does not mean that it can fill in wherever it likes. “Nor do scientists intend to quite filling in the gaps in their explanatory mechanisms – not even when their own methodologies tell them that those gaps cannot be filled.” If this is meant to mean that Science understands there are limits to knowledge, perhaps religions should learn that lesson as well and respect the fact that no matter how faithful someone may feel, there is no evidence at all to support having faith. There are gaps, but any gap that Science cannot fill will most certainly not be filled by religion either.

    Also, please never quote wikipedia.