What's All the Fuss?
Three Ways that Discovering the Higgs Boson Particle
Is a Form of Religious Experience
If you want to know why the potential discovery of the Higgs Boson particle is important scientifically, please see this link: http://www.livescience.com/17433-implications-higgs-boson-discovery-lhc.html. It presents the top five reasons. Time will tell whether or not the discovery is a discovery.
What is interesting is that it has been so exciting to people. Why? At one level perhaps it is because scientists believe that we are closer to understanding submicroscopic nature. Understanding is a nice thing. Sometimes even exciting.
But there's something deeper going on. It is that, today, developments within science function to evoke emotions of awe and wonder that are part of religion at its best; but that are, for some, no longer available through institutionalized religious channels. The scientists involved in the work are on a voyage of discovery and the laypeople get to join them.
Those of us who study religion realize that scientists are the shamans of our time, exporing uncharted lands. Like all shamans, scientists are evidence-based, except the contemporary shamans appeal to public criteria rather than introspective criteria for their evidence-based claims. Still the scientists are on a voyage. They are undertaking what Whitehead calls an adventure of ideas.
Institutionalized religion will begin to take hold of the imagination if, and only if, it, too, evokes a sense of adventure in its participants. Revealed religions carry the unwarranted assumption that all the important truths in life have already been fully revealed in already-existing textual sources: the Bible, the Qur'an, or Torah. Eventually it gets a little confining to focus on only one textual source, when there's a wider world to see as well. To be sure, exploring these textual sources can be an adventure in its own right. Bible studies and Qur'anic interpretations and Torah studies can be quite exciting for some, especially if they are scholars. But for laypeople the exploration always occurs within authoritarian parameters which seem to say: "Whatever wisdom you need is here; you need not and ought not look elsewhere."
Two things are missing: (1) the idea that revelation can be a continuing process in which new insights emerge which are continuous with conventional wisdom and (2) the idea that novel revelations are possible which are unanticipated by, and perhaps even discontinuous with, conventional wisdom. The potential discovery of the Higgs Boson particle is best understood as the first kind of revelation, not the second. It confirms the standard model. But this discovery has an air of adventure to it that is all too often lacking in religious circles, and thanks to the media, the sense of adventure is contageous.
Indeed, there's something a little Buddhist about it all. Critics of science might argue that the ultimate aim is of scientists is a mastery of the universe, placing it inside a conceptual frame -- otherwise called the standard model in physics -- which gives a sense of control. Perhaps this is part of their aim. Perhaps much science is merely a will to mastery, not unlike the mastery one feels having solved a puzzle.
But the excitement goes beyond this. Science at its best and deepest is one way of feeling small but included in something more than oneself: namely the universe. If, as the Chinese say, the universe consists of Ten Thousand Things in connection with one another, then science is a way in which some among the Ten Thousand -- namely we ourselves -- make contact with others among the Ten Thousand, feeling a sense of rapport. Science is not simply a way of mastering the world, it is a way of being connected with the wider world, including the very small worlds of Higgs Boson particles.
So what's all the fuss? Perhaps it is that there are three religious dimensions to the potential discovery of the particle: (1) a sense awe and wonder that comes with all healthy religion, (2) a journey of discovery as is characteristic of religion at its best; and (3) a sense of connectedness, of being small but included in something more than oneself. Would that institutionalized religions could also be contexts in which these three sensibilities are evoked, if not by science then by poetry and music and love.
We now know that the physicist who originally talked about Higgs Boson did not want to call it the God particle. So be it. But I suggest that there may be a little God in the particle anyway. God is not a puzzle to be solved or even an answer to be found. God is not an explanation. God is in the experience of awe and discovery and connection. Today science, sometimes more than institutional religion, offers a path into these three forms of religious experience. This is why science, in a deep way, is religion, too.