Thursday, July 19, 2012

Stop calling it the God particle and get your theology out of the Higgs boson

On the fourth of July of this year, scientists at CERN announced that they are certain, by particle physics standards, that the elusive Higgs boson exists. After what might be one of the most extensive searches for something ever (if you factor in the required equipment--an enormous particle accelerator using superconducting magnets stretched in a circle several kilometers in circumference) scientists have amassed enough data to conclude that the Higgs boson exists. This discovery is a critical piece for verifying the Standard Model of physics, validating much of our understanding of the fundamentals of particle physics (and thus the rest of stuff), and so we should all be mega excited (even if stupid American politics prevented American scientists and engineers from completing the SSC in Texas and thus handed the find to the E.U. instead--a point not missed by astrophysicist and outspoken science advocate Niel deGrasse Tyson).

What's the problem, then? A stupid nickname.

The story about how the Higgs boson acquired the unfortunate monicker "the God particle" is almost literally everywhere on the Internet, so it doesn't need to be repeated here. Indeed, I'd rather call it by Leon Lederman's alleged preferred title, the goddamn particle, if I must use a nickname for the particle, which already has a name--the Higgs boson. That said, stop calling the goddamn particle "the God particle" already!

Why? Well, to get to the point, other than that it's foolish, inaccurate, and useless to do so, sometimes I toy with the idea of starting another book that would have the working title Bad Metaphors Called God. The essential premise of that book would be to elaborate on a point I make in God Doesn't, "God" means different things to different people, and thus it makes a rotten choice of metaphor for whatever particular set of meanings the speaker assigns to the term "God."

Take, for example, what several notable folks in different walks of life have to say about this discovery.

First, Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which he states that "the God particle has nothing to do with God" and yet in which he went on to state that through understanding natural laws, as this find helps us to do, we are better able to understand the "personality of the one who fashioned those laws," whom we can assume he means God. 

This, of course, is the same line of rubbish that the clergy always feed us when trying to marry science to religion. If we wanted to give God credit for creating the universe and use it to determine anything about his personality, we'd have to surmise that he's very capricious and seems to get a certain thrill from watching his creations teeter on the brink of destruction in a universe that is almost overwhelmingly inaccessible and inhospitable. 

This, of course, helps to render as empty his addition that, "The mysteries revealed by modern science are a constant reminder that reality is bigger than our day-to-day lives." Philosopher Dan Dennett refers to statements like this as "deepities," meaning that they're trivially true and yet somehow fundamentally incorrect while posing as being profound. Here we see the bad metaphor thing in full action, though. God as "bigger than our day-to-day lives" is a rather benign definition unlikely to be the limit of the understanding of a fundamentalist who is, in all likelihood, far more interested in an Old Testament (when it serves him) understanding of God's personality, which he is likely to believe more substantial now that a particle bearing God's name has been discovered, despite his lack of understanding of the physics or the unfortunate nickname.

Second, fellow scientist, though skeptic, Lawrence Krauss (a cosmologist) has a very different view of the matter. Writing in Newsweek (mirrored here on The Daily Beast), Dr. Krauss (author of A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, Free Press, 2012) put the matter of the goddamn particle much differently than any Vatican scientist: "Humans, with their remarkable tools and their remarkable brains, may have just taken a giant step toward replacing metaphysical speculation with empirically verifiable knowledge." He went on to point out, "If we can describe the laws of nature back to the beginning of time without any supernatural shenanigans, it becomes clear that you don't need God."

This analysis, besides being clearer in scientific understanding, is not awash in the kind of misleading metaphorical nonsense that we read from Consolmagno, and so while Krauss's words may infuriate fundamentalist believers and cause them to shove their goddamn fingers in their ears, they aren't likely to lend any support to their dangerous worldviews.

Third, we need look no further than master metaphysicalist Deepak Chopra, in some YouTube videos on the topic, to listen to him butcher the topic, physics, and common sense while he presents his "God is energy" metaphor via the goddamn particle.

In one, he says, "So, what does this do to our idea of divine creation? Well, it certainly changes the idea of divinity, but it doesn't really get rid of the idea that this divine field of possibilities [stretchingly referring to the Higgs field] could be infinite consciousness itself." Excuse me, but WHAT? (Especially if one listens further in the video than that point, which is incomprehensible jibber-jabber until he gets to a classic argument from ignorance about a minute down the line!) He goes on to directly call this whole mystery, the field of infinite possibilities, God and to conclude that this mysterious field, which requires a Large Hadron Collider to even gather data about it, is "the mind of God.

In another, he spouts more arguments from ignorance about "infinite possibility fields" which is "self-interacting consciousness," which he ties to yoga, samadhi, infinite interconnectedness, and God. As this definition of God is undeniably different from Consolmagno's definition and from the definitions of God held by typical believers as well as fundamentalists, we have to accuse Chopra of using a bad metaphor called God.

So, to finish my point, why should we stop calling the Higgs boson the "God particle"? Besides the obvious reasons, mentioned above, it creates yet another opening into a very bad, substantially dangerous metaphor that we're all better off without.

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