Science, Belief and the “God Particle”
Unlike Venus emerging fully-born from the sea (not a bad metaphor for creationism), ideas evolve slowly, in the unfurling of time. Like the perfect zinger (which never seems to be within reach when you need it most, but reveals itself in all its rightness later) the seeming dichotomy between science and belief isn’t just about process and meaning. Science is the how; belief is the why.
Science doesn’t concern itself with why spacetime is curved, or why a chemical soup sparked into life. Belief doesn’t ask how a collection of chemicals can achieve consciousness or how a golden sunset can evoke intimations of the sacred.
Human beings don’t live monolithic lives. We exist on several planes at once, just as we live numerous roles concurrently: friend, lover, child, parent, colleague, consumer, pilgrim. On the material plane, we tend to our physical selves: food, shelter and the labor that supports physical life. On the intellectual plane, we grapple with abstract concepts and ideas and try to make things work. On the emotional plane, we feel: love for another, passion, anger, excitement, frustration, compassion. The religious/spiritual plane creates a context in which we seek ethical and moral guidance, and, if we’re lucky, experience the presence of the divine that, in my view, is the sense of oneness that connects us with all of creation. For most of us, consciously or not, these happen simultaneously, some in the foreground, some in the background, but in us, constantly, those various planes hum with the complex harmonics of life.
Just a few days ago, after some serious, as well as, unintentionally hilarious delays (a hydrogen leak, a baguette in the bowels), the Large Hadron Collider succeeded in smashing together two protons at a higher speed than ever before, thus, possibly, paving the way, as the system ramps up, for producing a new, as yet unobserved but predicted and eagerly anticipated particle, the Higgs boson or “God particle.” Einstein unsuccessfully tried to postulate a unified field theory, one that would reconcile the seemingly incompatible principles that rule objects on a huge scale (general relativity) and those far too small to see (quantum mechanics). Recent theories, such as string theory and super-symmetry, have satisfied some but not all of those inconsistencies. Some fundamental questions remain: How did mass emerge from energy? How many dimensions are there of space, of time? What are dark matter and dark energy? The Higgs boson potentially is the unifying force, the one that explains seemingly magical transformations, one will make that ultimate connection. Presumably, that is also the purview of God (whatever one’s definition is).
The “God particle” got its appellation from Nobel prizewinner Leon Lederman’s book of the same name, subtitled: If the universe is the answer, what is the question? (BTW, scientists are reported to not like that moniker and refer to the Higgs boson as the “champagne bottle” particle. That does sound like more fun.) However, the fact that the name has captured popular imagination suggests that we are hungry for some sense of purpose to be inherent in scientific reality.
Perhaps the “problem” with science is that it has moved so far beyond any real human dimension. Check out any description of the “multiverse” and, before your brain explodes, you’ll see that the only way to grasp its inconceivable nature is to be fluent in a language (theoretical mathematics) that isn’t available to most of us. Scientists, in a sense, have become priests of the physical mysteries and, for many people, that creates a most uncomfortable hierarchy of powerlessness. It’s far easier to envision a compassionate (or wrathful) deity that one can approach and whose punishments and rewards are couched in human dimensions. It’s far easier to imagine that such issues as global warming, which will require major sacrifice if we are to slow it down or reverse it, are conspiracies on the part of those who would speak in the tongues of inaccessible scientific language and manipulate the trajectories of our lives. (And, of course, this fear is exploited by those for whom the profit motive IS God.)
Both science and belief seem to agree that some basic unity – of the laws of nature, of the need for spirituality – is fundamental to human consciousness. However, we don’t achieve unity by taking one system and imposing it on the other.
When we confuse science and belief, we deny the unique power of each. People are mind and heart – to give one inappropriate dominion over the other is to leave each one impoverished. “How” is the great human quest; “why” is the great human question. We should be able to seek and ask at the same time.