Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Higgs, Higgs, Hurray!

On July 4th scientists at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva) confirmed the existence of the Higgs particle. A week later Newsweek’s Lawrence Krauss wrote that with the discovery of Higgs Boson science comes even “closer to dispensing with the need for any supernatural shenanigans…. The Higgs particle is now more relevant than God.”
Really? Doesn’t anyone remember when John Lennon said something similar about the Beatles? Next thing you know kids in Tennessee will be burning their copies of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia, and radio stations will stop playing ABBA. (Yes, I know they’re Swedish, but it’s the best I can do.)
Anyway Dr. Kraus is wrong on both counts. First, Higgs doesn’t make God less relevant for the millions of people for whom God is most relevant. They will either deny the existence of Higgs they way they deny evolution and human-made climate change, or they will say that Higgs is God’s way of providing the universe with mass.
Second, linking all Gods to “supernatural shenanigans” suggests a vast theological ignorance. The God of Spinoza and Einstein, for example, doesn’t even play dice let along indulge in shenanigans. And Saint Paul’s description of God as that “in which we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) embraces the Higgs boson, while the Tao that cannot be named might very well be named the Higgs Field if it could be named. There is a lot more depth and sophistication to some thinking about God than Dr. Krauss gives us credit for.
Many of us who have a love for God also have a deep respect for and at least some grounding in science. I, for one, wrote my rabbinical thesis on the influence of quantum mechanics on contemporary Jewish thought and liturgy. (It was a very short thesis.) We don’t set out to refute science but to be challenged by it. We don’t want to compete with science but to place it in a larger context, a grand meaning–filled story that suggests a direction to evolution that many (most?) scientists either fail to see or fear to name lest they suffer a loss of professional status.
I am very excited about the discovery of the Higgs boson, and have no fear it will make any God irrelevant. As for shenanigans, we don’t need God for these at all.


Charles Kinnaird said...

Wonderful post. As a Christian who celebrates the Tao, dances on evolutionary shores, and welcomes tikun olam, this one is another breath of fresh air!

AaronHerschel said...

I have a problem, here. Two, in fact.

Let's start with the idea that evolution has a divine direction. This idea often goes hand in hand with the idea that evolution is progressive; progressive not just in the sense of leading toward more complex biological structures, but progressive in that it moves toward some ultimate moral good, a good which is inevitably defined in human terms.

I have trouble with the idea that universe acts with intent, especially an intent that can be comprehended by human notions of morality. It seems like an example of the pathetic fallacy writ large. I also have trouble understanding how one might apply the notion of moral progress to evolution specifically. Modern mosquitos are currently undergoing evolution, in the form of speciation, in response to the use of pesticides. Is the pesticide resistant species more morally evolved?

My other problem is that I'm very uncomfortable with the notion that we ought to place science in the context of a grand meaning-filled story. Grand meaning-filled stories are the bane of humanity. They are bloody and dangerous things. The Nazi's had a lovely story: the purification of humanity and the ascension of the Aryan race. The British Empire had a wonderful one about bringing the light of civilization to the savages. America had Manifest Destiny. Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine have the story of God's Promised Land. Radical Islam has Global Jihad.

I know you have no truck with the above stories, and that the story you woud tell would be quite different. But what if the problem is story itself? Not the content of this story or that one, but the whole methodology. What if the problem is narrative?

Look, narrative is a form of art, which is to say: artifice. The meanings created via narrative are themselves artificial. They are aesthetic effects. This is not to say that those meanings cannot be enlightening, or beautiful, or socially and politically powerful. It is not to say, even, that they can't be true. But they are true in a very limited and very human sense: they illuminate our encounter with life.

Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. This is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." He didn't mean it though. He was speaking in the voice of a talking urn.