On Nobel Prizes, “the God Particle,” and the Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Life

On Nobel Prizes, “the God Particle,” and the Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Life

The discovery of anything nicknamed “the God particle” is bound to arouse the curiosity of Christian believers around the world, especially those who are not familiar with the world of particle physics and have never heard of the Higgs boson, which is the name by which the particle is known in the physics community. What is this particle, how did it acquire its nickname, and is there a real sense in which Christians can see the hand of God in the existence of such an exotic entity?
That such a particle should exist was first proposed by the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs in 1964. Actually, Higgs was one of a handful of physicists in the early 1960s who were trying to explain the origin of mass (resistance to acceleration) in terms of a force field that permeates all of space and produces a resistance to motion proportional to the amount of mass possessed by the objects moving through it. In quantum field theory, such force fields are always mediated by a particle called a boson that conveys the force. As Higgs noted in his original paper, this mass-conferring force-field predicted the existence of a new particle of unknown mass. This particle came to be known among physicists as the Higgs boson. It was finally discovered in experiments at a large particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland, in July 2012. Its discovery brought to completion the picture of the atomic and subatomic world associated with the Standard Model of particle physics, a theory that has governed our understanding of the microscopic world since its completion as a theoretical structure in the early 1970s. The discovery of the Higgs boson garnered Peter Higgs and another researcher, the Belgian physicist François Englert, the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for work they did half a century ago.
But how did the Higgs boson come to be called “the God particle”? The name comes from the title of a 1993 book written by Leon Lederman, erstwhile director of Fermilab, the particle accelerator facility in Batavia, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. As for why he called it “the God particle,” the part of this tale relevant to our purposes rests on the role it plays in modern physics. While Lederman is an atheist and used the term with humorous intent, a closer consideration of the function and properties of the Higgs boson is very enlightening from a theistic perspective.
What the Higgs boson does is give substantiality (push-back, if you like) to the world of our experience. But not only does it do this, thereby explaining how our universe’s laws of motion are possible, it also is necessary for our universe’s habitability. Let me explain. Since Einstein’s special theory of relativity requires massless particles to travel at the speed of light and without the Higgs field no particles would have mass, if there were no Higgs boson, everything would be traveling at the speed of light. Under such conditions no atoms would exist, no chemistry would be possible, and the universe itself would be completely lifeless. In short, along with a handful of other fundamental forces and laws—things like gravity, the nuclear force, electromagnetism, some sort of quantization rule, and the Pauli exclusion principle that enables matter to form structures—the Higgs mechanism is necessary for the existence of life. Without it, we wouldn’t be here.
The necessity of the Higgs mechanism extends beyond its mere existence, however. The mass of the Higgs boson and the strength of the Higgs field also are fine-tuned for the existence of life. If the Higgs did not exist in its predicted mass-energy range, dire consequences would follow. In 1997 it was shown that if the Higgs boson were even five times more massive than the value it is measured to have, it would suppress the formation of all atoms larger than hydrogen, effectively rendering the universe lifeless (http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/9707380v2). Furthermore, experiments at the same facility in Switzerland at which the Higgs was discovered are pointing to the falsity of another conjecture that has played a role in theoretical physics beyond the Standard Model, namely supersymmetry (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=supersymmetry-fails-test-forcing-physics-seek-new-idea). Supersymmetry is essentially the idea that every force particle (boson) has a partner that is a matter particle (fermion) and vice-versa. If supersymmetry is false, and the consensus for its falsity is growing, then in the absence of supersymmetric cancellations between fermions and bosons that solve the so-called “hierarchy problem” by imposing constraints on the strength of the Higgs field, its field strength has to be fine-tuned to about one part in a trillion quintillion (1 followed by 30 zeros) for the Higgs boson to have its observed mass (http://lifshitz.ucdavis.edu/~santopietro/hierarchyproblem.pdf), a mass that could not differ by even a factor of ten if we are to exist.
Of course, where the fine-tuning of the universe for the existence of life is concerned, these observations about the Higgs boson are just the tip of the iceberg. The amount of fine-tuning present in the forms taken by the laws of nature, the conditions governing the beginning of the universe, and the values associated with various universal constants (force-field strengths, particle masses, etc.) is beyond the reach of any undirected process. The specified nature of these forms, conditions and values, combined with their staggering and (mostly) multiplicative improbabilities, leads inexorably to the conclusion that the universe has these properties as the result of an intelligent cause, not an undirected process. Instead of Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg’s remark that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless,” the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction: the greater our comprehension of the universe, the more we understand it as the precise product of transcendent design. The proper response is one of doxology—the heavens are telling the glory of God (Psalm 19)—not cynical unbelief: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

CS Lewis on Reason and Imagination in Science and Religion – Dr Michael Ward

HBU Apologetics is delighted that Dr. Michael Ward has joined our full-time faculty as Professor of Apologetics and director of HBU’s new CS Lewis Centre in Oxford, England. Based primarily in Oxford, Dr Ward will teach online and travel to Houston regularly, as he did this spring to teach on “CS Lewis and Imaginative Apologetics”.

On route to Houston, he stopped in New York to do a lecture for Cornell University, on “CS Lewis on Reason and Imagination in Science and Religion.”

From the description of the talk:

Although he was a literary historian, not a scientist or a theologian, C.S. Lewis has much to say of interest regarding the interface between science and religion because of his scholarly study of the sixteenth century and, in particular, of the imaginative effects of the Copernican revolution. He regards science, properly speaking, as a subset of religion. He believes science to be a fundamentally imaginative enterprise. He argues that scientific statements, because they tend to be univocal and strive to be verifiable, are actually rather small statements, all things considered. He argues that there is always a mythology that follows in the wake of science and that both scientists and non-scientists should take care not to put excessive weight on particular scientific metaphors. We should hold our scientific paradigms with a due provisionality, because new evidence may always turn up to overthrow those paradigms. Even the best and most long-lasting paradigm is merely a lens or linguistic stencil laid over reality, not reality itself. This humility in relation to the facts about the physical universe is a virtue similar to the one we should exercise before the mystery of God.

How Methodological Naturalism Begs the Question of Nature’s Nature and Blocks the Path of Inquiry

Let’s begin by being clear about our terminology. As we are using it here, “naturalism” is a philosophical term and “naturalists” are not those who study nature, but rather those who hold certain tenets about nature. In particular, metaphysical naturalists maintain that there is no such being as God and there is no realm of being that transcends the physical; all that exists are material substances and processes and things that emerge from them. A methodological naturalist may or may not believe that metaphysical naturalism is true, but maintains that for the purposes of science one cannot appeal to transcendent causes, and therefore scientific research must be pursued as if metaphysical naturalism were true. In other words, a methodological naturalist believes that, for the purposes of doing science, the Universe (all of nature) must be treated as a closed system of physical causes and effects.

Needless to say, Christians reject metaphysical naturalism as false; but why, then, would they be seduced into embracing its methodological handmaiden? The only plausible explanation for their acceptance of the unacceptable is that methodological naturalism has been sold as a foundational principle for the practice of science and that, quite appropriately, they believe that science is an important and productive activity in which Christians should be involved. Indeed it is, but – with all due respect to the district judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover whose philosophical naiveté was exploited by the ACLU – this does not mean that methodological naturalism is a foundational principle for the practice of science.

What is foundational to the practice of science is the assumption of uniformity in the causal structure of nature, that is, uniformitarianism. Some think that uniformitarianism is equivalent to methodological naturalism – after all, they assert, if God “intervened” to change the course of nature this deviation would disrupt natural regularity and destroy the possibility of science – but this assertion is mistaken on multiple levels and it’s easy to see that uniformitarianism and methodological naturalism are distinct ideas. Continue reading

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