Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Higgs Boson: Why the 'God' Particle won't quell Religion

Now that we've found the creator in a laboratory, can we stop believing in this religious nonsense?

Xenocrates

Unless you were living under a rock for the last 72 hours, it is inescapable that you've heard the news. Scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva have finally discovered the particle that for the last 38 years has been theorized as being responsible for conferring mass to subatomic particles. In layman's terms, it is the particle that is responsible for the creation of the universe. So that ultimately begs a very crucial question: Now that we've found the creator of the universe in a laboratory, can we stop believing in this religious nonsense?

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Killing the Fear Factor


Remember when there was mass hysteria surrounding the Large Hadron Collider back in 2008 when it was first completed? Remember when people thought that powering up the LHC would cause a black hole that could destroy the world? I bet they feel pretty stupid now. The same kind of fear that powered the mass hysteria in 2008 is the same kind of fear that makes people believe that teflon pans cause cancer, that microwaves are inherently dangerous, that there is no global warming or that there is some god who is going to punish you for your sins.

A part of me wants to believe that this fear was also powered by the fact that if the scientists at CERN were truly successful with their multi-billion dollar experiment, that they would single handedly render religion obsolete. Well as it turns out, that is certainly not the case. If you were listening to the BBC on Wednesday July 4th, 2012, you would have been privy to one of the most disconcerting open discussions mired in cognitive dissonance this side of the planet.

On the popular BBC talk show radio program "World Have Your Say", several religious leaders were congregated by Skype­™ to discuss the momentous findings at CERN. Among the panel were representatives from the scientific community who were there to offer some perspective. It was as if the BBC wanted to bludgeon the religious leaders with the probability that their religion is growing obsolete. You could sense the uneasy tension between the scientists who diplomatically avoided the religious aspects of the discussion and the theists caught in denial.

I must give kudos to the BBC for assembling such a large panel of religious leaders so quickly. I'm pretty sure many of them were on edge since the potential of the discovery was first announced on Saturday. I imagine they could have seen this discussion coming from a mile away. With that said, none of the religious leaders conceded the obsolescence of their faith in the face of such a remarkable scientific discovery. Why would they? They were on public radio!

That would be disastrous for their religious flock!

Can you imagine a pastor of a mega church who earns tens of thousands of dollars a year in tithes from hapless believers terrified of going to hell coming out on a popular radio program to say: "Now that scientists have found god in a laboratory, we now have proof that god doesn't exist. Ergo, I'm resigning as pastor" ? That would never happen. It's not just because of the financial implications of such a move, but because it would cause a social implosion the likes of which would resemble an intellectual civil war. Such a pastor would be vilified by his followers.

Defending the "faith"


In my opinion, the religious discussion on the BBC was mostly a waste of time. I'm sure the moderator was well aware that none of the religious leaders would concede intellectual defeat. The BBC probably only did the program to make up for an increased audience in between the programmed segments of news updates and pre-Olympic coverage. You're not going to get a contrite concession from a hardened religious believer in under 15 minutes after scientists have categorically disproven the necessity of ever believing in any almighty creator.

With that said, I found the following counter arguments from the now enlightened religious leaders to be quite interesting. I find them interesting because they are not only compelling examples of cognitive dissonance, but also since they chose to recycle some of the age old philosophical questions center to be battle between science and religion. Admittedly, I also liked gauging their emotions now that they have been caught on the defensive. So now they have been called to tenaciously defend the faith against a threat to their religious convictions:

Science isn't asking a Moral question


False.  If this were remotely true, then what have cognitive psychologists and geneticists been doing all this time? If science was not interested morality, then why is it that science has discovered that evil is essentially a biological trait? Why do we know that there is a positive correlation between religious belief and some of the greatest wars in history? Why do we know that serial killers have malformed brains? Why do we know that certain genetic propensities can be activated by environmental stimulus? Why do we care that there are parts of the brain that give us religious experiences? So how is science not asking moral questions?

This is one of the many standard straw man arguments utilized by religious theists to avoid the philosophical debate altogether. The idea is to frame science and religion as non-overlapping ideologies (despite the fact that religion was first conceived by man to explain the universe—but I digress). The truth is that science is and has been asking the moral questions.

But I wouldn't expect the religious to know that.

Science cares about the how not the why


False. This argument is tangentially related to the question of science's concerns with morality. While science does ask the how question a lot, its quest actually begins with heavy postulation on the why question. Science asks the big questions like Why are we here? (A fluke of nature). Why are we male and female? (Biological sustainability). Why do we evolve? (Environmental adaptation). Why is life on Earth and hardly anywhere else? (Earth is just right for life). Why does religion exist? (Because we are programmed to rely on instinct over logic).

In fact, the why question drives science just as furiously as the how question. When we figured out how mass was assembled (atoms), we asked why does mass have mass. It is because of our asking of the why that the speculation of the how becomes involved. Unlike religion, science likes to assume that it is never infallible. That is why every "why" question in science has a speculative "how" answer, until that answer can be proven to be correct. Ergo when science asked why does creation exist, that's what led us to search for the Higgs boson.

The Big Bang Theorist was a Catholic


Irrelevant. So too was Blaise Pascal. Isaac Newton was a devout Christian. Francis Collins and many other elite modern scientists are also very much Christian. However, pointing out that these brilliant men had some degree of faith in some god (if not necessarily the Christian God) says nothing about the significance of the discovery of the Higgs boson. Religion is an indelible cultural meme that is rooted deeply in our biology. It is natural for us in our youth to doubt god, then as we get older and weaker, facing our inevitable mortality, to switch views.

That's hardly inexplicable. Cognitive Dissonance explains how people like scientists can hold two completely separate and competing ideas in their head at the same time. For example: it is entirely possible to logically rationalize that the big bang was incited by god. In Genesis 1:1, it says god called for light, and there was light. The big bang was light: a lot of light. In fact, to simply call the big bang light is something of a gross understatement—it was violently bright.

With that said, there will still be scientists who will continue to hold on to their religious convictions even in the face of the discovery of the Higgs boson. They will say to themselves: "who put it all in motion in the first place?" The truth is that while a "who" is completely unnecessary in the scheme of things, it doesn't matter to someone who wants to believe in God—"want" here being the operative word. Wanting to believe ignores the need to believe.

Science is a different lens on the universe


Irrelevant. That's like saying that someone who had their vision corrected by surgery still needs to wear glasses. While everything around us is merely a perception of a tiny fraction of reality that we assemble with our senses, at least that perception isn't entirely a figment of our (or someone else's) imagination. While I would never detract from the hope factor that the religious lens affords, it is not fundamentally different from the lens that recreational drugs can't also accomplish. Hope is good. Reality is better. Fantasy is for kids — facts are for adults.

Science and religion are compatible


False. Religion makes infallible claims. Science makes educated guesses. Religion is entirely satisfied with faith. Science is only satisfied with proof. Religious instruction doesn't respect changes in accepted thought due to cultural evolution. Science is what often drives changes in accepted thought that powers cultural evolution. Religion embraces intellectual ignorance about the mysteries of the universe. Science tries to fix that ignorance. Religion doesn't accept scientific discovery unless it validates religious doctrine, while science isn't trying to answer religious questions. Religion asks untestable questions of scientific insignificance. Science asks testable questions which, if answered, would completely invalidate the need for any religion.

That ultimately brings us to the penultimate point:

Science and religion are as compatible as a bicycle wheel on a BMW. They always have been and always will be. They are two fundamentally different epistemological approaches. Any argument to the contrary only seeks to elevate religion to the reliability of science, since science by its rigorous nature cannot be reduced to the capriciousness of religion. This is why the discovery of the Higgs is so important. It proves that a creator is not necessarily a grumpy, jealous, fickle, narcissistic superman with morbid taste for human blood. It's a particle field.

And where did this particle field come from you might ask? Before you lapse into an infinitely recursive debate about the creator of the creator, I invite you to consult the first law of thermodynamics. I'm not saying that a grumpy, jealous, fickle, narcissistic superman with a morbid taste for human blood can't possibly be behind all of this. I'm just saying that the existence of a force of nature is much more credible than a suspiciously human mythical being.

The Hindu creation myth resonates with the Higgs boson theory


Anecdotal. So what if the Hindu Brahman creation myth sounds similar to the Higgs field theory about the creation of mass? The creation myth of Genesis resonates with the Big Bang Theory. Jesus' sermon on the mount resonates succinctly with the fundamental principles of socialism. Parts of the Biblical Book of Revelation that talk about a star falling from the sky sound a lot like a meteor strike. The moon turning to blood part sounds like a lunar eclipse.

Perhaps renown atheist Sam Harris summed it up best when he posited that religions are failed sciences. We should not be the least bit surprised that anything in religion resonates with some essence of truth in it. Men invented religion to try and explain the universe and give them a purpose for living. Therefore, it is not inexplicable that in the myriad of wrong and totally mythical guesses, (Hinduism also says that the universe sprung from a flower in Vishnu's navel—really?), that some of it would sound suspiciously like the real thing. So you got 1 right out of a billion. You still got 999 million of your guesses wrong, religion. Try again?

Actually, don't do that.

Of what use is the Higgs boson discovery?


Good Question. In fact, of all the ideas discussed, this is the only actually worth discussing. Many people are naively asking of what significance is the discovery of the Higgs boson and why they should care. Before I answer this question for you, kindly note that this very same question was being asked by people in the 19th century when electricity was first discovered.

Before you laugh at their ignorance while you read this article on your computer / laptop / tablet / smart phone, kindly note that 22nd century kids taking a one second trip from New York to Tokyo will likely feel the very same way about you, as they read a similar article 100 years from now. Concordantly, the confirmation of a potential Higgs boson is a very big deal.

To put it ridiculously simply, the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson is proof that the standard model theory of physics is correct. The standard model of physics underlies the theory of everything. It's a unifying theory that explains how the universe came to be and why it works the way it does. Up until last week, that model was still mostly a theory, because one of the pieces of the puzzle was missing. That piece, (the part that explains how mass is created) was a theoretical boson (a subatomic particle) that confers mass to other particles.

Why is this significant? Because now we can explain how existence came to be. The existence of the boson was predicted by a scientist named Peter Higgs in 1964 (hence its name). While he never thought that his theory would be confirmed in his lifetime, the validation of his theory is not only a big win for his theoretical credibility (now he will go down in history with the likes of Einstein), but it means that we have now have a pretty good idea of how it all fits together.

What you should know is that physicists don't like when we use the term "God particle", since based on this discovery we know that god didn't create the universe. Actually, I'm kidding — they just dislike the term because science isn't at all concerned with validating religion. With that said, much ado was made about this discovery, so it must actually be good for something.

What can we do with this knowledge? Potentially a lot. The completion of the standard model theory is a springboard for understanding the other mysteries of the universe, in much the same way as how the discovery of atoms gave us a better understanding of chemistry. Because we now have a complete framework for our understanding of all physics, it's also a springboard for advanced technologies that we would be able to build in the distant future:

Faster Than Light (FTL) Engines


A completed standard model means that we now have a fairly good understanding of how mass and empty space are related. From this knowledge, we could build a faster than light engine that would enable us to explore the universe in minutes instead of centuries. We would be able to colonize other worlds and thereby expand the human race. This is because we would have eventually replaced our massive, expensive chemical propulsion engines with much smaller, inexpensive, pragmatic engines that can harness the laws of relativistic physics.

Teleportation


Combining our understanding of mass with our knowledge of quantum entanglement, we can build real teleporters. Imagine taking a trip to Asia by just walking onto a pad and pushing a button. With our knowledge of the standard model complete, we could disassemble you at one telepad in Texas and transport you to another in Tokyo. You'd be there at the speed of light. It would single handedly render the entire airline transport industry completely obsolete.

Cure World Hunger


With our understanding of how mass is created, we can theoretically examine the molecular structure of food items and create an exact copy of essential, healthy food for starving populations in unlimited quantities. Why would this be possible? Because the existence of the Higgs proves that something (i.e. mass) can indeed come from nothing—literally from nothing.

Therefore we could theoretically store the meta data of a fruit's molecular structure in a database for example and create it as many times as needed without ever having to revisit a supermarket. Yes, supermarkets will eventually become obsolete—just like the video cassette. There are clearly many other practical applications, but I'm sure you're starting to get the idea.

Does this discovery invalidate religion?


Hardly. Belief in religion is predicated on emotion, not on logic. No amount of logic can sway a religious believer. The leap between religion and scepticism has less to do with what makes sense and more to do with what makes you feel good. You were either always in one camp or another. Therefore, when one leaps between belief in logic to belief in faith, (or vice versa), they are not making a choice as much as they are  simply following their original programming.

Science isn't trying to answer religious questions as much as religion is trying to answer scientific questions. To attempt to do the latter is to court an inevitable meeting with a logical fallacy. With that said, scientific postulation can seem to be no different from religious postulation (what with String Theory and the like). The only difference is that science at least tries to find a way to prove its postulations. That is why billions were spent building the LHC.

By contrast, religion spends billions building houses of worship.

Now that you have a frame of reference for the kind of cognition that drives either schools of thought, it should come as no surprise that it is irrelevant to ask if the discovery of the Higgs boson invalidates religion. Just because BMWs exist, it doesn't mean that bicycles will therefore cease to exist. Even if we built flying BMWs, people would still want to own bicycles.

Apropos, even when men become gods, with the ability to create something from nothing (with the discovery of the Higgs, this is very scientifically possible), there will still be those among us who will believe in gods. Our desire to believe is mutually independent of our need to believe. That is why men are able to believe in both sense and nonsense simultaneously.

Conclusively


We didn't need the discovery of the Higgs to invalidate religious belief. We could have done that from the moment people first killed for religion; or from the moment a Catholic priest first touched a little boy; or from the moment religious organisations broke up relationships and families; or from the moment we discovered inconsistencies between what we found in the physical world and what religion told us to believe. Very little can be done to reconcile them.

The Higgs discovery merely validates what we dared to think all along: That god is probably a force of nature and not a machination of man's imagination. Now that we know this for a fact, it doesn't matter who still wants to be sceptical of the discovery. Remember, men still believed that lightning was an act of god even after we produced lightning in a bottle — just like a god.

Now that the same forces that make lightning also power our computers, we've simply eroded a little bit more of what we attribute to god. What will we think when the discovery of the Higgs boson has created technologies that would be spectacular to us today, but mundane to our great grand children a century from now? Will religion finally cease to exist? Probably not.

A century from now, religion will still exist, albeit in a radically diminished form than it is today. There won't be much room for it when we're busy using the knowledge we've gained from Wednesday's discovery to terraform new worlds, bend space/time to leapfrog across the galaxy or permanently solve the problem of feeding billions. Even when we evolve to become god-like, our religious inclinations will probably persist until the parts of our brain responsible for it evolutionarily atrophy out of existence, and that's not likely to happen for many millennia.


E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com

10 comments:

  1. An excellent article from the perspective of someone who has limited his view of religion to one of a fear based religion, which says to me you are afraid to look at anything else. Still more questions you raise in my mind.

    "Why are we here? (A fluke of nature). Why are we male and female? (Biological sustainability)." If we are a 'fluke' why did we need to be sustained?

    "Why does religion exist? (Because we are programmed to rely on instinct over logic)."

    Why are we "programmed" that way and how did we get programmed?

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    1. I think you've made some unsubstantiated leaps in logic there, Kathleeen. Yes, I do view religion as fear based, but I also view religion as a failed (read: obsolete) science.

      That automatically throws out every other presumption you've made about how I view religion.

      We are "programmed" that way through cognitive evolution. We have learned to respect our fear because our brains weren't sophisticated enough to understand that fear shouldn't govern the way we look at the universe. Now that our brains have evolved past that cognitive water mark, we can look back at the failed science of religion and see it for what it really is.

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  2. Another question. If we are 'programmed to rely on instinct' how come you are relying on logic instead? Seems to go against 'nature' wouldn't you say?

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    1. I've answered your question in my response to your previous post.

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  3. I love your blog posts, normally, but this one... this one had me quite astonished. Science isn't asking a moral or ethical argument at all. It can provide theories and explanations as to how behaviour we deem ethical evolved (incidentally selfish gene theory is giving way to sociobiology on that one, see link), but it can not define what ethics or morals actually are. Science can not even touch that aspect.

    Utilitarian "ethics", such as those espoused by Professor Singer, are typical of hard logical scientism (which is where this blog entry definitely goes). If a sacrifice of one protects ten then that is a necessary thing. The needs of the many, the balance of overall good. Because all that is good needs to be observable and empirical fact - that is the standard of science.

    So if a person born who we know for a fact will drain more resources from the population than they will produce we should euthanise that person for the greater good. Burying old people is a waste if they have blood and organs which can be used. If prisoners locked up for crimes can not be rehabilitated then their useful body parts should be harvested for those who need them and will lead useful and productive lives to help enrich the many, not absorb the fruits of their labor.

    Criminals, chronically sick, disabled, even people who are unemployable due to their skills being unnecessary... they are by all objective standards a burden to the rest. Unless one uses ones emotions and feelings as a guide - emotions and feelings being the thing which also gives rise to religion.

    I am an atheist myself, one who is tolerant of religion because I am fully and completely aware of boundaries of science. But there is another reason. I know that my ethics, my desire to do right by others is based not on logic or on fact, but on emotion and a subjective feeling of "right". It is essentially religious in nature, although I believe in no higher power. Science and empiricism has no place there, and every time it is brought there I feel the collective soul of humanity die a little more.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jun/24/battle-of-the-professors

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    1. Thanks for the comment Gz. I am inclined to agree with your position.

      My only critique is that science is indeed interested in morality since it can be quantified with evolutionary logic. Allow me to elaborate:

      1. We know not to kill each other because death is a threat to the survivability of the species.

      2. We know not to steal because disenfranchising another member of the species breaks down the cohesive collective of the entire species.

      3. We know not to deceive each other because the risk of being found out erases the trust engendered from each other, which would affect our ability to survive within that social fabric.

      4. We know not to cause grievous harm each other, because as social animals, we know that there is strength in numbers.

      5. I could go on, but I'm sure you see my point...

      My point is that morality can very much be tied to logic. Every moral behaviour can be traced to an evolutionary function. We just experience a compound of rush emotion along with it, and that is why we think morality is not logic based. I assure you, everything we do, moral or otherwise, is very much tied to our evolutionary function as animals.

      The few of us who don't follow those rules face the social wrath of the rest of the community. This is why everyone from Adolf Hitler to Bashar al Assad will face the indignation of the human community to the point where they meet their demise.

      Evil occurs where nature's evolutionary precepts get out of hand. But evil never thrives for long. Goodness is an evolutionary function that is critical to the survival of the species.

      That's why good always defeats evil eventually. It's not because good is greater than evil, but because evolutionarily speaking, good is more NECESSARY than evil.

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    2. Xen, in your response to Gz, I'm left wondering if you believe there is a true act of altruism?

      For example, nothing is stronger in humans than the reflexive survival instinct. Yet some people risk their own lives for others. Isn't the overriding of one's own survival instinct for good of another person(especially one that isn't your offspring) or for a higher idea essentially tantamount to genuine altruism?

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    3. Sir Allan,

      This is a good question. There's no such thing as Altruism.

      Whenever altruism appears to be manifested, it is nothing more than a functional display of empathy. Empathy is an evolutionary function that drives the survival of the species. Empathy is what causes people to give to the poor or donate to a charity. We do these things because of a very subtle reward in our brains - a small rush of dopamine (that "Fuzzy" feeling inside) when we do good to others.

      Evolutionarily speaking, this feeling of goodness we get from helping others has exactly the same function as an orgasm during sex. It is a pleasurable release that encourages behaviour that is useful for driving the survival of the species. Orgasm encourages us to copulate to produce children. Likewise, the pleasure of doing good via empathy encourages us the continued survival of the species as a whole.

      What we see as altruism in its most extreme form is really on the spectrum of personality disorders loosely classified as a "Hero complex". It is where people derive more pleasure (particularly at their own expense) from assisting others, especially when it is at great odds with their own survivability.

      The most extreme form of this behaviour is called the Hero Syndrome which may involve committing unlawful acts that can be resolved in the pursuit of personal recognition. It is often manifested in fire fighters who commit acts of arson that they can themselves quell, even at risk to their own lives.

      The other side of this coin is called "Survivor's Guilt". People who experience manifestations of a Hero complex who fail to act on their compulsions when others are in danger may often experience Survivor's Guilt.

      While survivor's guilt primarily manifests itself in other ways (such as if you're the lone survivor of a plane crash or a corporate downsizing), it is really a reverse manifestation of a latent hero complex.

      Normal people are somewhere in the middle, where the urge to survive usually beats out the urge to save someone else (or otherwise, to be empathetic) as opposed to being on either of the far ends of the spectrum of human emotion. Most people wouldn't try to save someone from drowning if they can't swim, and yet, some people do, and drown anyway. For people in this position, they would rather die in the act of saving life than survive and live with the guilt of losing other lives.

      Remember that photographer who later killed himself after taking that infamous photo of a vulture awaiting the death of a starving Sudanese girl in Africa? It's the same psychological manifestation. He was so racked with guilt at not saving the little girl that he killed himself.

      At the end of the day, Chris, we are all selfish animals. We don't do anything without a promise for reward (irrespective of how tiny that reward is). It's all nature's way of guaranteeing our survival.

      Hmm... I might have to dedicate an entire post to this. Thanks for the question, Chris.

      Xen

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  4. Of course it won't quell religion. Now I'm a religion skeptic myself but I don't see how the HBP disproves the existence of a god. The next question of course will be what created the HBP? And if we ever discover what created the HBP we'll then ask what created that. It'll be like putting two mirrors across from each other and looking in a recursive hallway of infinity. No matter how far you look you can never see the end of the tunnel. It also doesn't answer why there even needs to be a universe in the first place. Maybe there are answers to these things, but humans trying to understand this stuff would be like ants trying to understand string theory.

    Perhaps a conscious, willful creator of the universe exists, perhaps one doesn't, but I don't see how the discovery of the HBP will be a game changer here one way or another.

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