The God Particle

Ezra Klein gives a nice, succinct explanation of what all of the hooplah over the Higgs boson (a.k.a. the God particle) is about.

A name like The God Particle practically requires comment from someone who plans on making their living as a practitioner of organized religion, so here are a few brief thoughts:

From my standpoint, it’s pretty important/fundamental to understand the basic purposes and purviews of both science and religion. The simplest way I know of putting this is that science deals with “how?” questions and religion with “why?” questions. That is, religion occupies the same cultural space as things like music, paintings, or literature. It deals with meaning. Katherine Jefferts-Schori, the current Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, has some really wonderful writings to this effect. As a PhD biologist as well as a savvy theologian, she’s much more qualified to comment than I am.

Here’s another way I like to put it: science deals in facts, whereas religion deals in truths. And the difference between truths and facts is that truths require some type of moral action whereas facts are value neutral. 3 + 2 = 5 is a fact, but it doesn’t mean anything. Which is just to say that the knowledge that 3 + 2 = 5 doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not the knower is a Saint or a monster. “Do unto others,” on the other hand, can’t be shown to be mathematically true, but it makes plenty of demands of its knower. (A point that I’ll elaborate much more fully at another point is that there’s no such thing as a scientific/mathematical/objective morality. The distinction between secular and religious cosmology is actually really fuzzy.)

Joe Lykken at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois explains the origins of the term:

“Our former director, Leon Lederman, called the Higgs particle the ‘God particle,’ ” Lykken says. “It was not meant to be a religious comment; it was meant to express our understanding of how the universe works. We think without a Higgs boson, you can’t have a universe in the first place.”

I’d submit that the terminology of The God Particle, however it was originally intended, does a great disservice to the practice of both science and religion. Explain the origin and physical dynamics of the universe all you like. I’m sure the knowledge will prove to be really useful. But it can’t tell me what it is I ought to do with my life.

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