God and finding the God-particle

2012-07-16 00:00

THE news that physicists at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) near Geneva have evidently identified the Higgs boson, or so-called God-particle, is sensational. In the words of a lead article in the current issue of the Economist, it is “the most fundamental discovery in physics for decades”. It certainly grips me. And it brings back vivid memories of a visit to CERN when I was researching my 1992 book, A New Guide to the Debate About God.

I wanted to inquire whether the latest physics at CERN really does strengthen the case for believing in a creator. As St Paul says in his letter to the church in Rome: “Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things God has made.” (Chapter 1, verse 20).

Will the Higgs boson confirm or undermine this contention? Michael Worsnip certainly thinks the discovery at CERN is a blow to believers (The Witness, July 10). And although spiritual matters must, for me anyway, be as fully informed by the sciences as possible, it doesn’t follow that science alone is equipped to settle the debate between believer and sceptic. So as I await further developments at CERN, my mind goes back to that visit 20 years ago and what I heard there.

My visit was facilitated by a Bloemfontein-born director of research at CERN, the late

Dr John Thresher. Besides taking me underground to see the awesome particle collider, he advised me to speak to two of the top scientists there: Andrei Linde, who specialised in inquiry into the large-scale nature and story of the cosmos, and Dr John Ellis, a specialist in the particle physics. Ellis was very direct about whether the universe indicates a personal purpose. “Not at all,” he replied, adding that he saw no evidence of intention in the universe.

Moscow-educated Linde was less clear-cut. Well aware of Western and Eastern religious thought, he noted that there are many understandings of the concept of God, so that much will depend on what we mean by that concept.

He gave me leave to quote him as saying that “at the moment we do not have enough arguments to say that the universe is the result of intention”.

That, of course, is not the same as saying that the evidence disproves the idea of a divine intention underlying it.

To return to the present: has the CERN discovery really made belief in a creator redundant?

In pondering this question we need to listen to sophisticated theologians and not just sophisticated physicists.

So I turn to top Oxford theologian Keith Ward because, as an Anglican priest, he is a believer and is also wholly open to the findings of science.

Writing at much the same time of my visit to CERN in his important book, A Vision to Pursue, he sees no necessary conflict between physics and faith, adding that believers will, however, need to update some of their ideas about God in the light of new knowledge, including knowledge of other faiths.

Would Ward still think this way if the Higgs boson explains the coherence of the universe, which Worsnip so emphasises? The following words from page 146 of his book strongly suggest that he would, precisely because of the question of coherence, this time not just in the way the physical universe works but at a spiritual level: “God will be seen as one who creates primal energy and draws from it communities of persons who are capable of growth towards full consciousness, understanding, happiness and responsible creativity. God will be an empowering ideal, not a tyrant or a watch-maker; and the revelations of divine nature and purpose which occur in religious experience will be the present glimpses of our future goal and of a cosmic ideal which can empower our own efforts to achieve it.”

In simple language, believers like Ward might respond to the view that the Higgs boson puts God out of business and even out of existence by asking: “Who made the Higgs boson, and can the Higgs boson explain a reality we all experience which has no mass or weight, called


• Martin Prozesky was formerly a professor of religious studies at the local campus of the UKZN and now works as an independent ethics trainer and writer under the banner of Compass Ethics.

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