No faith for the Higgs

I’ve been reading stuff about the Higgs all day and I’ve noticed something: not once has any scientist, even a religious scientist, cited “faith” as justification for believing it exists.  When you have evidence, citing faith only weakens your position.  In this light it is easy to see how faith and evidence are two different sides of the coin.

You see science, and any reasonable person, withholds judgment until evidence exists.  Faith is both a confession that your beliefs have yet to meet that standard and a means to adopt the arrogance of thinking you have.  It’s embarrassing, and only in religion is such an embarrassing trait considered a virtue.  That alone should tell you all you need to know about religion.

If god cared more about us knowing he exists than he did about the existence of the Higgs boson, religion would never have a use for the word faith.  As it stands, it can’t survive without it.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Improbable Joe

    To carry this a bit further…

    The scientists who believe that they have made this discovery are inviting all the other similarly qualified scientists in the world to attempt to replicate their results and then build upon them, even if eventually that advancement finds some fundamental flaw in their work.

    Contrast that with religion, which would make the claim and then make threats against anyone who would dare to try to replicate let alone refute their results. They would be happy for others to build upon their work, as long as none of that work contradicts their claims. Even if a new advancement provides better results, it must be rejected if it exposes a fundamental flaw in their work.

    • usingreason

      What so only scientists get to critique the scientists? And you wonder why the fundies think there is a conspiracy among scientists to hide god from the public because they are mad at him.

      • Rob

        What, so anyone other than a specialised physicist or possibly some mathematicians are going to stand a snowballs chance of critiquing this experiment?

        • Drakk

          Sure they will.

          Whether or not they’ll get laughed at is another matter though.

      • usingreason

        Arghh, my sarcasm tag didn’t get through.

        • Rob

          I did wonder, but not to worry.

  • Jasper of Maine

    The religious sit around and make shit up. Scientists build giant colliders to investigate particles, launch sophisticated telescopes into orbit to clearly see the universe, and send men to the moon to see what it was like.

    So who’s more concerned about truth again?

  • just one more thing

    I was thinking about this very topic this morning. We often talk about the scientific method and how results can be replicated. Are we getting into a branch of science where it’s so expensive to participate that we have to redefine our concept of reproducing results?

    Obviously we aren’t going to build a dozen LHCs and run the experiments in them, so as our experiments require even more expensive and unique equipment, do we lose anything by accepting the evidence of multiple teams reproducing experiments using the same equipment? Obviously that addresses human error and fraud, but are we then more susceptible to systemic error? How do we control for that if we only build one of some new scientific tool in the future?

    Now in reading this post, I began to wonder how we describe Peter Higgs’ continued belief in his theory in spite of many decades of no evidence without using some term similar to faith. When Hawking bets against you, and experiment after experiment comes back with no hint of evidence, that’s a fierce tenacity that keeps someone believing in his theory.

    All that said, I’m very happy that this has happened and hope a Nobel Prize is in the cards for Higgs.

    • Rob

      I believe in this case the concern has been addressed by getting different teams to design complimentary experiments, each intended to identify the Higgs Boson using a different mechanism. Each team must perform its analysis blind of the other teams and must be confident of having identified the HB to within 5 sigma (i.e. certain to within 5 standard deviations).

      In the latest announcement I understand that one team reached 5 sigma and the other 4.9 sigma.

      Significantly better proof that the Higgs Boson exists than God does :-)

    • Mike de Fleuriot

      Sure we all can not build LHC to prove CERN wrong. But if we have the skillz and put together a proposal on how to prove them wrong, it is our duty to inform CERN of this and they will, after review of our work, allow us a chance to play with the machine.

      It really is that simple and honest a process.

    • skepticallydenpa

      I’m not confident in my ability to address most of your questions, (perhaps someone with a better understanding of the LHC?). What I’d like to address is this:

      Now in reading this post, I began to wonder how we describe Peter Higgs’ continued belief in his theory in spite of many decades of no evidence without using some term similar to faith.

      Fist off, Higgs did have mathematical evidence, (which, I’m afraid, is over my head). And the belief in spite of experiments yielding no evidence is not surprising. The math suggests it’s there. So, every experiment that seemingly provided no evidence, up until this point, helped us to locate where it is. Think of it like a game of battleship. With only one side, a massive grid, and the Higgs boson only occupying one square. Only once you have covered the entire grid can you confirm that there never was a boson to begin with. And at that point one can believe on faith that we somehow missed it, or you file away the theory, (the math was correct, so we don’t want to completely discard it,) and go back to the drawing board.

      We also don’t know that he wasn’t feeling discouraged. Even with my analogy, it’s hard to keep going full steam ahead when it appears you aren’t making any progress. I’m sure most of that involvement, (I’m unaware of his direct involvement, but if he was,) fell into the routine of constant testing. Oh, the tediousness of science that can only be worth it on days like this.

      As for Hawking betting against him, his reasoning was because, “…the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect…”

      So it wasn’t that he didn’t think the theory was sound. Rather his reason for believing Higgs was wrong was due to a lack of precedence for something so amazing to be discovered by actually looking for it, when such things are generally stumbled upon.

      Also, if I were Higgs, and had known about Hawking’s bet, that would’ve driven me to try and prove him wrong.

      • just one more thing

        Thanks for the reply. I agree that Higgs had his mathematical proofs (already a huge step beyond any religious “proofs” that are typically provided) which science warmed to, after significant initial doubt by the experts of the day.

        I was trying to capture the distinction between the mathematical evidence being sufficient for him to continue to hold out for his hypothesis, while recognizing the need for sufficient physical evidence before it could be advanced by the scientific community as a whole. To be in that “in-between” state for 40 years and to remain convinced deserves some special recognition, even if “faith” isn’t the correct word.

        To try and clarify my previous point,in thinking about the announcement, I was also thinking about previous discoveries, in particular several of the newer elements and the “discovery” of faster-than light neutrinos.

        Many of the later elements were first discovered by an American lab and then confirmed by a Soviet lab or vice versa. Other labs also contributed to the process and this avoided the possibility of fraud, human error or equipment failure.

        When the initial neutrino results were disseminated, many labs attempted to replicate them to the best of their ability and could not. In spite of equipment reviews at CERN, the faulty timing component wasn’t discovered until the negative results from the others labs triggered a more intense level of scrutiny.

        My thought was simply, given the shrinking resources and expanding costs for certain areas of research, if we ever reach a point where only one of a particular lab can be funded, how will we adapt the scientific method to ensure that equipment failure at that lab isn’t missed, as it would potentially impact all repetitions of an experiment.

        I recognize that we can’t solve the issue, I simply wanted to address it as a point of interest for the future given the strong support the scientific method provides when showing the lack of evidence for gods.

        • skepticallydenpa

          I don’t believe he was as devoted to the existence of the Higgs boson as you might believe. Perhaps he was. It’s rather difficult for me to know how he felt about his work without, at least, having a grasp of his personality. Maybe it all just fell into routine and was ready for his theory to either be proved or disproved on any given day. Or maybe he’s the obsessive type that would spend the occasional night reworking the math, even starting from scratch at times. Or maybe he gave up on the idea that the Higgs boson was real years ago, but continued his work because they hadn’t finished searching. In the end, only Higgs knows. And I’m unable to form a working hypothesis without an understanding of his personality.

          I was also thinking about previous discoveries, in particular several of the newer elements and the “discovery” of faster-than light neutrinos.

          The error with the faster-than neutrino was what made me skeptical of this claim at first. This is why scientists are supposed to verify these tests before going public, (I have a personal problem with people who don’t take a moment to doubt their findings before going to the presses).

          I’m still uncertain about my qualifications to answer that last question. But, I’ll give it a try. While such a machine might make an error, the power of whatever information we discover is within it’s predictive capability. So while we might falter and claim such-&-such discovery, it could then be falsified by the failed predictions based on that discovery. Even if the machine that suggested the discovery is our only means of testing those prediction, it would be improbable for that machine to also yield results verifying it’s original mistake.

          However, your concerns are justified. Even though the process would eventually sort out such mistakes, it would still slow down our progress and increase our margin for reported error. This could lead to science appearing inept in the public eye and possibly creating a self defeating cycle that would prevent us from getting enough funding to, not only, build a second machine that could fix the problem, but also lead to the one that exists being shut down, (I’m probably exaggerating).

          *Note to the future: Always leave room in the budget for a second machine.

  • kraut

    “religion would never have a use for the word faith.”

    Religion without needing faith and relying on testable evidence would be: science.
    Religion needs faith so the leaders can wield power over the flock, by interpreting the obscurantist writings, provide exegesis of the will of the deity. With evidence the leaders would loose this power, hence no priestly cast that spouts untestable nonsense would need exist.
    Religion was always a tool of suppression, science is a tool (although it can be abused by the powerful as well)to free the mind, to inquire, to doubt.

  • gadfly

    Do triangles exist?

    • Drakk

      Mmkay, I’ll bite.

      No, not really. Perfect triangles pretty much can’t exist as real objects, given that we live in a 3-dimensional (kind of) space and triangles are by definition 2-dimensional.

    • Mike de Fleuriot

      Yes, a line between two points does not require a height to be valid. So you can have a triangle in a three dimensional world perfectly flat having exactly a sum of angle equalling 180 degrees. A third dimension is not a requirement of a triangle

    • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

      Triangles are an abstraction, just like the number 7 and “mellow”. You can, however, point to something which exists which exhibits the properties of a triangle, or 7, or mellow.

      You cannot take something triangular and isolate its triangular properties from the object itself.

    • The Lorax

      A Platonic ideal of a triangle was created by humans in order to describe physical objects that sort of but not quite resemble the Platonic ideal. Essentially, a “triangle” is a simplification of all triangle-like objects so that, when we find a triangle-like object, we can effectively communicate our mutual agreement that it is a triangle, and thus get over the whole fuzzy situation where we have to define, from scratch, the new object; which, in itself, would be infeasible, since you eventually have to start from somewhere.

      Natural science started at “what you see is what you get”, and since then, we’ve been simultaneously describing what we’ve seen and looking further.

      As for whether or not a triangle exists, I can say it depends on what sort of triangle you’re talking about: a Platonic triangle exists as a concept in the mind, a physical triangle exists as something the human mind accepts resembles closely a Platonic triangle, a Platonic idealized triangle cannot exist (unless string theory is correct), and *nom nom nom* … wkut triamble?

      • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

        Platonic idealism refers to something more specific than just “abstracted mental concepts,” as I understand it.

    • gadfly

      So we agree that, despite not being something that could be observed in nature nor composed of matter, a triangle exists as a theoretical model?

    • gadfly

      And furthermore, can we agree that the theoretical model that has been agreed upon and that we all have an intuitive senses for that we refer to as “triangle” is of utility to human beings? And that triangles, and whether or not they exist is a question not suited for science to answer?

      If yes, then my next question is this: How can science possibly be used to explain something that is theoretical and unobservable, such as the notion of a “god”?

      Since not everything that exists can be reduced to natural phenomena, maybe using science to try to settle the question of a “god”‘s existence is the wrong tool for the job so-to-speak.

      Science, in my view, should be limited to explaining natural phenomena.

      Furthermore, since those that believe in a god have some notion about what it is (despite the fact that each individual notion of god may be unique), and because this notion serves them some purpose, can we not grant them that belief without needing to challenge it?

      Can we buy that, for some individuals, god can exist as a theoretical model that has utility?

      • josh

        I don’t think anyone disagrees that the idea of a triangle or the idea of God exists. But it doesn’t follow that we then have to agree that triangles or gods exist. The interesting question is whether our idea is actually a good description of the ‘real’ world.

        We can go out and measure something in the world and see how much it deviates from an ideal triangle, or conclude that it is consistent with an ideal triangle to within our limits of precision. We can also say that the idea of a triangle is pretty well defined and self-consistent within a geometric description. Mathematically, we can define our ideal triangle as part of a self-consistent, formal description of rules for symbol manipulation. What we find is that those symbol manipulations can be useful for approximating real world measurements, e.g. doing calculus to compute the volume of a pot vs. measuring the amount of water the pot will hold. We could also appreciate the results of that set of rules just aesthetically in themselves. In fact, we find the set of rules that includes triangles so useful for describing and predicting the universe, that we are inclined to think they are telling us something fundamental about the universe. We can’t really see a way to describe the universe that violates the logic that is embodied in math.

        Anyhow, all those things I said about triangles? They don’t really apply to ‘God’. God hasn’t turned out to be a good description of anything we encounter in the universe, it isn’t a usefully precise concept, much less a self-consistent one. ‘God’ hasn’t given us insights into good models of reality, it hasn’t yielded important or even aethetically interesting fields of research. ‘God’ is an idea in some peoples’ heads, and some of them sincerely believe it is a useful or true idea, and in our judgement they are completely, gobsmackingly wrong. Why wouldn’t we challenge their beliefs the same way we challenge any other idea that isn’t good, particularly when we see a lot of additional negative consequences that stem from faith in that belief.

        • gadfly

          I agree with most of what you said. Let me clarify the point I’m trying to make even further:

          I don’t think the existence of some thing that we collectively refer to as “god” hinges upon how well it explains the real world.

          Here’s why: in and of itself, a belief in some type of god does not (necessarily) limit your ability to also believe that natural events should be best explained using science.

          There is, of course a caveat. In my view, someone would be overstepping when they say “God created the Earth.” Because the creation of the Earth was/is a physical event, using god to explain this is, again, the wrong tool for the job.

          I agree that a great deal of Christians overstep in this sense and try to use supernatural explanations that either a)have natural explanations or b)more than likely have natural explanations that science has not yet reached.

          But nevertheless, let’s take an issue that is not one that science can address: for example, why do we have a universe that appears to be governed by natural laws? Why do we have natural laws?

          The bottom line is that you can fill in any number of answers here and have no way to prove them scientifically. These can be irritating conundrums, but for some reason, humans are inclined to ask them. And ask them, we do.

          Therefore there is a void to fill, and that is where something like believing in a notion of a god can help in the same way that the model of a triangle can help explain patterns we see in nature.

          If someone needs answers to some of these existential/metaphysical questions and wants to use “god” as an answer, I don’t have a qualm. I might not find that to be a strong answer, but certainly I don’t see that particular belief as being philosophically incompatible with being a naturalist as well.

          Furthermore, if their beliefs can provide some comfort or inspiration, we can view a belief in god as a type of technology that the bearer can enjoy the benefits of. Who are we to even attempt to take that away?

          Which brings me to me another point. It would seem to me that those who’s focus is on understanding the natural world using science should not even bother to ask a question such as “does god exist?”.

          That does NOT, however, prevent the naturalist from challenging someone who is attempting to use a supernatural explanation (such as “god”) to explain natural events (this tendency, by the way, is not limited to theists. Humans use supernatural explanations inappropriately all the time). However, if you do this, you are simply doing your due diligence as a naturalist.

          Why don’t we just leave it at that and not overstep by trying to debunk an individual’s belief in god?

          The debate is much more nuanced as we would have it be.

          • josh

            I do not see a useful distinction between natural and supernatural. I am interested in what is true, what exists and what, if anything, explains one
            true thing in terms of another. So I don’t draw any kind of line where ‘science explains the natural, and ‘something else is reserved for the supernatural’. ‘God’ isn’t a bad explanation for the world because one is supernatural and the other not, it’s just a bad explanation because it fails to explain anything, or because it raises far more problems than whatever gap it was supposed to explain in the first place.

            You ask, as an example, ‘Why is the universe governed by natural laws?’ First lets remove the superflous ‘natural’. Then I have to ask, “What does this question mean? What would a universe without laws look like? What would a satisfying answer to this question look like?” Figuring out if this question even applies, and how we would decide it has a right answer is, to me, part of Science. It’s at what we call the philosophical end of the spectrum, but it’s not a distinct venture any more than math can be separated from physics.

            But at any rate, whether or not we feel like this is a good question, ‘God’ doesn’t seem anywhere near a good answer. It doesn’t seem to mean anything that isn’t clearly wrong. It doesn’t help.

            You say belief in god can be a sort of technology to make people feel good. Which I can agree with. But, and sorry to Godwin this thread, belief
            in the superior destiny of the German people and the treachery of outsiders is also a technology to make certain people feel good. The point is, beliefs have real world consequences; especially all-consuming beliefs like religions tend to be, and that always runs the risk of really, really bad consequences. Beyond that, I, just personally, like truth and am bothered by other people believing falsehoods as I see them. If I take away someone’s happiness by convincing them they were wrong, I at least replace it with the happiness of knowing they are no longer deceived. That’s a trade I will make every time.

      • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

        Taking this argument at face value: I don’t think anyone’s disputed that the abstract idea of a “god” exists, any more than anyone rationally disputes that the abstract idea of a “triangle” exists. (Some people, such as PZ Myers, have noted that the “god” concept is very poorly defined, and/or that there are a plethora of competing and often strictly incompatible concepts subsumed under the label, but this is another matter).

        However, objects corresponding to various degrees to the specific properties implied by the concept of a triangle can be located and observed. So far, the same has not been demonstrated for gods.

        More importantly, this is a profoundly dishonest argument, since no one except a handful of academically-inclined sophists even claims to believe in a god which is merely an abstract concept (and those that DO inevitably try to sneak in “real-world” properties). A being capable of working its will in the world, of communicating with humans, of creating the universe, of sending one part of itself to die as a sacrifice to another part of itself, cannot possibly be merely a “theoretical ideal.”

        • gadfly

          Agreed, for the most part. See above comment.

          You’re right, using god to explain natural phenomenon is inappropriate. But, you must concede that some questions simply cannot be answered using science, so there is a need to utilize another “way of knowing”.

          • Rob

            Why must we “…concede that some questions simply cannot be answered using science…”? (emphasis mine)

            I’m perfectly prepared to concede that some questions cannot currently be answered using science, but not that they never can/will be. perhaps you are referring to matters lying outside the physical universe, in which case you need to talk to someone better versed in ethics and philosophy than me. Luckily FTB has plenty of philosophers you can approach.

  • Bruce Gorton

    What struck me with the Higgs, was how many scientists were excited at the prospect of it being something other than a classic Higgs boson.

    That is a fairly big difference – the physicists would possibly be even more excited to be wrong, than to be right.

    Now contrast that to any scrap of anything that looks kind of like evidence to a person already inclined to believe it for a passage if you squint hard enough, that gets touted by the religious.

  • Randomfactor

    Someone noted that they can’t call it the “God particle” anymore, since there’s now actual evidence that it exists…

  • otocump

    DAMNIT…now you made me look at videos and now I’m going to have to buy it.

    I’m in.

    • otocump

      DOUBLE DAMNIT….wrong thread…strike all that…