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Alister McGrath fails to make the next obvious statement

I will never forgive Leon Lederman for calling the Higgs boson the “god particle”. It’s fueled decades of unjustified patronizing nonsense from theologians, and the latest is Alister McGrath, who babbles obliviously about it.

Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen. The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.

There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus. As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

The parallel breaks down hard, though. Yes, the Higgs boson is a satisfying theoretical construct with much power to explain. But notice that mathematical beauty was not enough: the physicists of the world, from over 100 countries, gathered and spent over $9 billion to build the largest scientific instrument in the world to test the hypothesis. Faith was not enough.

In contrast, you couldn’t convince a Baptist and a Mormon to get together and chip in $1.98 to test their god. Because they don’t have the slightest idea how to do it, and wouldn’t be interested if they did.

That’s the real lesson to be learned from the science: you have to do the test.

Comments

  1. says

    I can’t go for that, either. Higgs wasn’t a matter of faith, it was a solid inference, and would be miles ahead of theology even if we never had direct evidence of its existence.

    Remember, there are hypothetical entities that appear to be beyond our practical ability to find in any really conceivable future, like the graviton. It isn’t a matter of faith, it is a hypothetical particle that makes sense of the world, and thus has indirect evidence for it.

    God is not that, not part of the “standard model,” and never could be. God is, today anyway, just a convenient fiction to avoid learning about the world, simplistic “explanation,” or something one really hopes will give us life after death. Wishful thinking, and little else.

    Glen Davidson

  2. kemist says

    As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

    If “God” is for you a satisfying answer to the “riddles of the natural world”, then “because” is a more than sufficient anwser to any question you might ask me.

    What a doofus.

  3. EvoMonkey says

    I will never forgive Leon Lederman for calling the Higgs boson the “god particle”.

    I feel the same about Dean Hamer calling VMAT2 the “god gene”. That was a horrible book and has so much confusion about religion, belief, and genetics. A few students and other people think this (and the Higgs boson) is a defense of the existence of god. I cringe every time someone brings it or the “god particle” up.

  4. The Lorax says

    You can’t explain the “riddles of the natural order” by invoking a deity, you can only excuse them. Explanations demand connections; logical proof must use logical frameworks. Explaining the universe by invoking a deity only provides you with “it exists”, and cannot, ever, give you “why”.

  5. says

    One gets used God-of-the-Gaps from the grunting fanatics of YEC-dom, or even just average folk who haven’t thought the issues through, but I utterly fail to understand why apparently intelligent people like McGrath think that “God” is a satisfactory explanation for, well, anything. The Higgs’ characteristics are carefully specified to fulfill the explanatory requirements. If the experiments don’t work out — if they show that nothing with those characteristics exists — then the Higgs will be abandoned and some new hypothesis sought. Is there any observation that would persuade McGrath to abandon the God hypothesis?

  6. Randomfactor says

    There’s a story going around that the editor of the book changed the name to “the God Particle,” and the original name was “the goddamn particle” because of the difficulty of discovery.

  7. says

    Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen.

    Another thing to remember: Something like “dark matter” or “dark energy” isn’t much more than a sensible placeholder, and ways of explaining them that do not actually involve “dark matter” or “dark energy” are considered to be as acceptable as anything else. Plus, we don’t characterize “dark matter” or “dark energy” with attributes until we can actually pin down what they are. These are different than a “graviton,” which does have meaningful attributes, and is thus at least theoretically testable, and is a reasonable explanation even without confirmation.

    Thus “dark matter” really isn’t much like the “god explanation” at all, because we don’t think that we do have a handle on it, save its apparent gravitational interactions with visible matter. That is to say, it is in fact “detectable” far more than any “god” is, and yet it could turn out not to be matter at all, it could be something involving the “physical laws” instead. In science, we leave the indefinite as indefinite as observation tells us that it is–and yet we at least have some detectable evidence that seems to point to “dark matter”–while theologians are telling us all about this “god” that really is undetectable, unlike “dark matter.”

    Glen Davidson

  8. Richard Austin says

    Another very important distinction is that scientists more and more acknowledge that our models for understanding the universe do not necessarily equate to a literal interpretation of it. It’s the old “the map is not the territory” concept: we describe events as seeming to happen via certain mechanisms, but we’re becoming more reluctant to say they are happening via those mechanisms.*

    Whereas, with religion, the model is assumed to be fact, absolute truth, because some (usually) dude said so.

    *: The language gets conflated on conversion to “layman”, though. There’s a pretty significant difference between “according to this experiment, particles behaved like -blah-” and “particles behaved like -blah-”, even if the average person can’t spot it, and that’s just a minor example.

  9. Rich Woods says

    Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen.

    Undetectable today, perhaps, but maybe not tomorrow. Some dark matter candidates are within the range of the LHC once it’s ramped up to full power, particularly the posited supersymmetric partner of the Higgs. Several dozen other experiments around the world, both active and passive, are also looking into the matter (pun intended — I’ll get me coat).

    I love the idea of the LHC being turned up to 11, if only because it should fry the brains of the black-hole-apocalypse crowd.

  10. says

    Sure, the inferences of a deity and the Higgs boson are totally like each other. Also, the Higgs boson hates gays and demands you worship it.

  11. mikebarnes says

    Randomfactor – the whole ridiculous ‘god factor’ meme came about because a prissy publisher wouldn’t let Lederman use the phrase ‘the goddamned particle’ in his book title. Higgs himself, now in his eighties, hates it apparently but that doesn’t stop the media loving it. Even Newsnight, a supposedly higher-brow TV news programme in the UK, introduced its item on the Higgs boson two days ago claiming that scientists ‘call it the god particle’. Ugh.

  12. EvoMonkey says

    God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus.

    That reminds me, I need to make an appointment with the optometrist. I need to get a new prescription for some lenses gods, things have appeared a little fuzzy to me lately (especially when reading). I probably need bifocal glasses gods but I’m afraid I will labeled as a presbyopic polytheist.

  13. noastronomer says

    Both of my opposable thumbs up for Richard Austin at #9.

    Another reason why the ongoing search for the Higg’s Boson highlights the difference between science and religion is that if we DON’T find it we are quite prepared to change our map.

    If we find it a different form than expected we’ll also adjust.

    And no-one has to get nailed to a tree.

    Mike.

  14. anteprepro says

    While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus.

    And stuff like this is why Alister and his ilk are irrational clowns and will never be anything else. Do you know what is commonly given as proof of God’s existence? The variety of arguments that take things in our world, and try to show that they ONLY make sense, using “God [as] a lens”. Hence the arguments that logic and morality only make sense if we have God as a metaphysical law-maker. Hence the arguments that the laws of physics are “fine-tuned” in that the properties of our existent universe, if changed, might not have changed the way things, resulting in different/no universes. Hence the morons still bleating about the argument of design well after evolution has buried it. Hence the several people, some of them “academics”, still wanking endlessly and pretending that the Big Bang implies a “Big Banger” (and yet strangely little argue it also implies a “Big Mash”). Hence all of the fucking idiotic, blatantly fallacious arguments for god that leap to conclusions with no evidence or fly in the face of established evidence.

    But apparently these aren’t attempts to prove God, they are merely viewing the world through God lenses. As if that were any fucking different, and as if Alister has any basis for establishing that the world best makes sense this way. Apparently, not only does he not need to prove God, but he can simply claim that existence best makes sense by assuming God and pretend that this assumption has nothing at all to do with the tired old arguments attempting to prove God that others have made. Weak fucking tea, McGrath. Which, I suppose, is to be expected from one of the weakest of Dawkins’ fleas.

  15. anteprepro says

    Above, my:

    might not have changed the way things

    Should be “might have changed the way things work”.

  16. thomaslewis says

    While I hate to laud anything McGrath says (his book “Why God Won’t Go Away” was one of the biggest wastes of paper I have ever read), I think he is expressing something important. Not about the way the universe works of course, but about the way human psychology works.

    People like to explain things by use of agency. Many things can’t be caused by natural agents (e.g. people can’t cause the seasons to change) but humans still like the allure the agency-heuristic provides. Gods and other supernatural agents simply fill in the agent slot in this explanatory scheme. I’d go so far as to say it is intuitive – even if in a naive manner.

    So yes theism can be a psychologically satisfying explanation for a range of events like seeing disasters as “signs” to the confirmation bias of “answered prayers”. But satisfying is not the same as accurate.

  17. Moggie says

    God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus.

    And like a lens, he’s often been used to burn stuff. People, mostly.

  18. Sastra says

    Years ago I went to hear Leon Lederman speak at a local college and he sounded rather crabby when he explained that The God Particle title was his publisher’s idea and not his own. It wasn’t in response to a question, but since the college was a religious college he may have mentioned this in order to stave off any asinine questions from the audience. I bet he’s kicking himself for giving in.

    “Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus.”

    And atheists argue that God is more like a mirror which reflects the viewer — making “sense of the world” by turning the vast cosmos into a little morality play about our little lives, making them seem very big indeed. The clear focus is on ourselves — that’s why it seems so clear. It’s close, and close to our personal concerns. Religion provides a narrative framework, not an explanatory one.

    Because God doesn’t explain anything. There’s nothing in religious explanation. All invoking God does is move the question around so that it looks like an answer — an answer formed in our image. Where did the universe come from? From a creative source which is like a person. How? By thought power. How does that work? It just does. We don’t care about the petty details. Or any details at all.

    We can tell. Only someone who didn’t care about petty details would see a resemblance between dark matter, the Higgs Bosun … and God.

  19. stewartt1982 says

    I am an high energy particle physicist and have always rue and lamented the term “God particle”. As a term it only serves to confuse, and does not add any information to help explain what the Higgs boson (field, mechanism) is.

    I can not count how many times I’ve had to explain the Higgs boson/high energy particle physics in general by first dispelling the God aspect of the Higgs.

  20. says

    @18: One of the last nails in the coffin of my theism was one day when it occurred to me, more or less out of the blue, that people frequently talk to their computers and automobiles and otherwise behave as if they were conscious agents — even when we know damn well they’re just machines. Agent attribution seems to be built into our psychology as social animals.

    Once you realize that, it’s pretty obvious where religion came from.

  21. says

    He was wrong at “undetectable” – 10 words in.

    “Invisible” is easy. Someone who believes in an invisible (and undetectable) sky fairy ought to understand that you can detect something invisible by how it affects the rest of reality. Of course, if his invisible sky fairy did things like skew probability in favor of its worshippers (prayer) or cause electrons to occasionally obliterate an apostate (lightning) then the sky fairy would be invisible but detectable. Dark matter is detectable; scientists observe that there are regions of space where something invisible has mass, giving rise to a theory that there is an invisible massive something we call “dark matter.”

    Scientific theories are based on a real epistemology involving everyone’s ability to perform experiments to confirm the parts that they want confirmed. Compare that to the sky fairy hypothesis, which is deliberately sheltered from testability to prevent its being falsified. Of course it’s falsified anyway, because so far every one of the predictions it makes about observable reality has been shown to be wrong.

  22. Gregory Greenwood says

    While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus.

    Given the wilfull anti-intellectualism and reality denial of so many theists, I can only conclude that, if belief in god is a ‘lens’, then it is a lens painted black.

  23. crocswsocks says

    Actually, a lot of Mormonism is testable, and as Mr. Deity points out, it falls on its face when you try.

  24. raven says

    Well so it is over.

    God is a subatomic particle that only appears for nanoseconds in very high energy collisions at one place in the world, partly in France for Cthulhu’s sake!!!

    So why are we worshipping a subatomic particle in France? Why are we killing in the name of a boson and sending money to the boson’s self selected representatives?

    AFAICT, the Higgs boson doesn’t even talk, much less do anything other than glue other things together. We can’t even ask it why he put the Tree of Knowledge and that smartass talking snake in the garden.

  25. kosk11348 says

    Anyone who thinks that “the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world” either hasn’t thought about it very hard or is hopelessly dense.

  26. rosssargent says

    Regarding that stupid God particle name -

    According to an interview with Higgs himself “Its theistic nickname was coined by Nobel-prize winning physicist Leon Lederman, but Higgs himself is no fan of the label. “I find it embarrassing because, though I’m not a believer myself, I think it is the kind of misuse of terminology which I think might offend some people.” It wasn’t even Lederman’s choice. “He wanted to refer to it as that ‘goddamn particle’ and his editor wouldn’t let him,” says Higgs.” Looks like McGrath chose the wrong peg on which to hang his tedious apologetics.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/jun/30/higgs.boson.cern

  27. raven says

    And atheists argue that God is more like a mirror which reflects the viewer — making “sense of the world” by turning the vast cosmos into a little morality play about our little lives, making them seem very big indeed.

    God is a sockpuppet more often than not. Sockpuppet gods hate what you hate and want you to have what you want to have.

  28. gshelley says

    It’s almost as though he completely missed all the news from the past year or so about the search for the particle.

  29. raven says

    Dark matter and Dark energy aren’t any more invisible than gravity.

    We don’t see gravity. We see the effects of gravity.

    It’s still eerie that we don’t know much about the majority of the universes mass-energy though, other than it exists.

  30. Reginald Selkirk says

    Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world.

    With every success of science, the “God did it” explanation seems less and less likely. The entire history of science is pointing in a direction away from supernatural explanations.

  31. Reginald Selkirk says

    Reuters put together a nice article:
    The Higgs boson: What has God got to do with it?

    “We don’t call it the ‘God particle’, it’s just the media that do that,” a senior U.S. scientist politely told an interviewer on a major European radio station on Tuesday.

    “Well, I am the from the media and I’m going to continue calling it that,” said the journalist – and continued to do so…

  32. Active Margin says

    I was under the impression that Lederman actually named it the “Goddamn Particle” due to the difficulty in finding it, and that, in order to appeal to the masses, the name was changed by editors/publishers when he wrote his book.

    It’s been a couple years since it was explained to me. Trying to dig up a sources…

  33. dianne says

    Did someone finally toss particles together hard enough to get a Higgs boson out of it? I have to admit, I’ve been hoping that the LHC would find no Higgs boson because seeing the standard model fail is always exciting.

  34. says

    According to an article in the New York Times a few days ago, Lederman actually wanted to call it “the goddamn particle” because nobody could find the goddamn thing, but his editor wouldn’t let him get away with it. Thus are headaches born.

  35. Active Margin says

    Trying to dig up a source

    I’ve seen a much more comprehensive discussion about it, but here is Higgs mentioning the naming: link

  36. says

    @25: Actually, a lot of Mormonism is testable, and as Mr. Deity points out, it falls on its face when you try.

    So are a lot of more orthodox Christianities, eg. literal YEC fundamentalism, and fail similarly. The more (*ahem*) sophisticated Christianities have responded by trying to remove themselves from the realm of the falsifiable, but in doing so they inevitably wind up trying to thread the strait between the Scylla of falsification and the Charybdis of irrelevance, and generally don’t navigate it successfully. Hence we see things like the results of Baggini’s recent experiment, or esoterica like Karen Armstrong.

  37. Zinc Avenger says

    PZ:

    Because they don’t have the slightest idea how to do it, and wouldn’t be interested if they did.

    Isn’t it obvious? You simply have to smash two deities together at a significant fraction of c and catalog the resultant burst of demigods.

    Alternatively, if you’re looking for something that doesn’t require 17km accelerators, you can bring a christ into contact with an anti-christ, but this can be dangerous without proper shielding.

  38. says

    We don’t see gravity. We see the effects of gravity.

    The very word “see” prejudices the discussion (especially when religious obscurantists are involved). We “see” photon-emitting entities (and nothing else) because photons happen to interact with our evolved neurology (because photons of a certain wavelength happened to be conveniently abundant in our environment of adaptation). But even though vision happens to be a primary sense for primates, it’s still only one mode of perceiving the external universe, even with our un-augmented senses (and science has augmented them many-fold).

  39. Sastra says

    raven #32 wrote:

    Dark matter and Dark energy aren’t any more invisible than gravity.
    We don’t see gravity. We see the effects of gravity.

    So? You underestimate them. Gravity has also been used to prop up belief in God. It’s often wheeled out to do service in the rationally-challenged ever-adaptable always-dreaded Argument from Analogy.

    We don’t see gravity; we see the effects of gravity.
    We don’t see God; we see the effects of God.
    Therefore: belief in God is no more irrational than belief in gravity. Which makes it reasonable. And obvious.

    Oh, gawd.

    The Argument from Analogy might be a killer argument only if atheists really were saying that God can’t exist because we can’t see God (or that it’s irrational to believe in anything you can’t directly observe.) Since the only atheists who say this are the atheists in the heads of believers (and maybe one or two grouchy old atheists living in a village somewhere), the argument goes nowhere.

    But oh, don’t they bring it forth with bright and shiny aplomb. As if their aplomb needs polishing as much as their arguments.

  40. madscientist says

    The Higgs Boson has well-defined properties; this ‘god’ thing does not. The Higgs Boson is a tentative proposition to fill a gap in the Standard Model; the god thing is an omnipresent standard substitute for truth when one is too lazy to learn and would prefer ignorance.

  41. Sastra says

    By the way, I think McGrath is using a variation of an Argument from Analogy. It doesn’t look any better when it’s dressed up in even more science and cutting-edge mysteries. You can hear the whine at the bottom of it all: “I know you are, but what am I? You do it too!”

  42. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic.

    That’s because most people, theists and atheists alike, know there is no proof or even tangible evidence for the existence of god(s).

  43. unclefrogy says

    41

    well there is another way for a godist could “prove” there is a god and it is his once and for all at least to himself and that would be to die.
    the great advantage in that is he would be absolutely clear and know that he is right and would be justified in having been a dick about it during his life
    AND he would not be bothering anyone else.

    it sure is funny that they are all talking about heaven and the glory of god in the afterlife but are rarely willing to die. Some though will advocate that others should die, either whom they judge as “wicked” or the “soldiers” who fight for them against some others who believer in the wrong f’n god.

    uncle frogy

  44. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Active Margin #35:

    You are correct. His term was “Goddamn Particle” and publishers wanted the change. However, I can’t believe that they didn’t have his approval for the change, grudging or coerced as it may have been. (When the publisher paying you $30k or $50k says you have to change something, you probably change it…unless you’re Bill Gates, and then no one says you have to change anything anyway. )

  45. AlanMac says

    @Zinc Avenger #41

    Sounds very dangerous. The ancient Hebrews fused two gods , Yahwah and Elohim, and the decay products have proven to be very toxic with extremely long half lives.

  46. Active Margin says

    @’Tis #48

    Then there are the religious I know or have met who hear the name and assume scientists are actually looking for god. They declare such endeavors to be sacrilege, and that science is obviously a tool of the devil.

    Shouldn’t they instead be cheering the scientists on, donating money to the cause, volunteering to sweep the floor at the lab, etc just so one day, when the “God Particle” is discovered, they can say, “See! We were right. This is why we eat crackers on Sunday!”

    I always find it puzzling that they misunderstand what the Higgs is about, they don’t want it discovered even if it proves their superstition correct.

  47. Sastra says

    Crip Dyke #50 wrote:

    His term was “Goddamn Particle” and publishers wanted the change. However, I can’t believe that they didn’t have his approval for the change, grudging or coerced as it may have been.

    Maybe they told Lederer he had a choice: the title could either be The God Particle or the Quantum Higher Consciousness Particle — and the poor man went with the lesser of two evils. He may have figured it was easier for the world to have to deal with an inspired McGrath than a jazzed-up Deepak Chopra.

  48. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Stewart1982 –

    Is it possible to explain the Higgs field to someone with an undergraduate physics education? I’ve done a whole lot of reading on physics over the years and took some good, interesting physics courses way back when, but changed majors before I graduated & never did any graduate work in physics.

    So, do I have any hope at all of understanding the Higgs field? Would you be willing to try to explain it? It might make this thread interesting by speaking more about what the Higgs **is** and not just what it isn’t (God).

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that I want to stop having a go at the idiocy, like:

    As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

    Right. So there exists “an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

    Science has been investigating this unseen order since day one, and people using science have “explained” many “riddles of the natural order.”

    Now that we’ve established that explanations are possible, kindly explain why your “explanations” have, whenever evidence has been brought to bear, been found false **every single time** and not once been found true.

    What does that say, huh?

  49. Sastra says

    Active Margin #52 wrote:

    Then there are the religious I know or have met who hear the name and assume scientists are actually looking for god. They declare such endeavors to be sacrilege, and that science is obviously a tool of the devil.

    Really? I’ve never seen that. I’ve seen them sniff that God isn’t going to be found that way, but I always get the impression that they’d be glad enough to accept good evidence — or a “hint” — that God can be found however God wants to be found, including through science.

    My guess is that your religious folks are afraid that if the search comes up short then someone’s faith will be weakened. They’re pro-active.

  50. SallyStrange, Spawn of Cthulhu says

    the whole ridiculous ‘god factor’ meme came about because a prissy publisher wouldn’t let Lederman use the phrase ‘the goddamned particle’ in his book title. Higgs himself, now in his eighties, hates it apparently but that doesn’t stop the media loving it. Even Newsnight, a supposedly higher-brow TV news programme in the UK, introduced its item on the Higgs boson two days ago claiming that scientists ‘call it the god particle’. Ugh.

    Yet more evidence (as if any were needed) that giving in to tone trolls always ends badly.

  51. firstapproximation says

    The analogy is really bad.

    Dark matter is “invisible”, but not untectable. Its gravitational effects can be seen. I know the idea of dark matter sounds kinda desperate. It did for me the for the longest time. However, if you study the subject it actually makes quite a bit of sense. We already know that are massive particles that don’t participate in electromagnetic and strong interactions*, but do in the weaker forces**: neutrinos. It’s not absurd to assume others exist. ( Neutrinos are actually a type of hot dark matter.)

    Also, with regards to the Higgs boson, physicsists are prepared to throw out the idea if experimental evidence shows it doesn’t exist. Same can be said about dark matter. Can theists say the same thing about God?

    Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world.

    Human beings had to evolve in a world where there were many intentional agents. Prey, predators, and their fellow human beings. The fact that humans are social creatures made this ability to detect intentionality even more relevant. However, we also saw intentionality where there was none. That’s why we called the sun a god, that’s why we thought a god controlled the weather, etc. The idea that these are just natural forces at work wasn’t as intuitive and there was little harm in these false positives. Seeing God as “the best framework for making sense of the world” is just the modern version of this pathetic fallacy***.

    * Making them nearly “invisible”.
    ** Weak interaction and gravity.
    *** Not only is this a fallacy, it’s a pathetic one! :)

  52. says

    Even Newsnight, a supposedly higher-brow TV news programme in the UK, introduced its item on the Higgs boson two days ago claiming that scientists ‘call it the god particle’. Ugh.

    Ugh indeed. I hate that type of statement in a news programme. No, no, scientists do not call the Higgs boson the God particle. I have never heard a physicist do this and I used to work on an LHC experiment and know the particle physicist that posted above. Never heard anyone describe it as that.

  53. morgiana says

    That’s because most people, theists and atheists alike, know there is no proof or even tangible evidence for the existence of god(s).

    How do you know that? How do you know what ‘most’ people think and believe?

  54. usagichan says

    Robert Shrimsley in the FT came up with an amusingly opposite parody .

    I love the line

    Mystics working at the Large Hallucination Collider in Vatican City have announced that they are now “tantalisingly close” to proving the existence of the so-called “God”. The deity – also known as the Alpha and Omega boson – is said to be the missing link in the standard model of mysticism that explains the creation of the universe.

  55. Active Margin says

    @Sastra #55

    Although I’ve met many others who think this way, I unfortunately share genes with some of the people I’m referring to. In fact, much of our family thinks this way. If Bill O’Reilly says there’s no explaining the tide, there’s just no explaining the tide.

    It’s rather incredible actually. If critical thinking was a genetic trait, my brother and I would be convinced we were adopted. Our family gatherings, though rare, are rather uncomfortable when conversation turns to anything beyond pleasantries.

    Somehow (by the grace of FSM), he and I ended up drawn to that Sagan guy and his evil teachings. The road to hell hasn’t been the same since.

  56. Wowbagger, Madman of Insleyfarne says

    There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus. As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

    This would be less inane – though only marginally so – if the people saying it were Deists and not Christians. It’s yet another example of them wanting to have their god-cake and eat it too; they want their god to be nebulous and indeterminable when staring down the barrel of science, but at the same time still be the god of the bible, who (allegedly) interacted with humanity on numerous occasions, not the least of which involved him coming to earth in human form to be tortured – though not nearly as tortured as the logic required to explain why it had to happen – when they’re on their knees praying.

    That they continue with such transparent bet-hedging reveals their intellectual dishonesty.

  57. Sastra says

    Active Margin #64 wrote:

    In fact, much of our family thinks this way. If Bill O’Reilly says there’s no explaining the tide, there’s just no explaining the tide.

    Interesting. Out of curiosity, does this “science-can’t-examine-religion” attitude include anecdotes and stories about miracles? You know, cases where doctors or scientists are astounded and left with no other explanation than divine intervention? What about the paranormal?

    Maybe physicists and discussions of a “God particle” are simply too remote for these members of your family. “Folk” science is more comfortable with religion. Top scientists found the Ark just the other day. Again.

  58. cybercmdr says

    @8: I love the idea of dark matter and dark energy being placeholders for what we don’t yet fully understand. Whereas science uses these placeholders to describe specific phenomena (like dark energy), the religious place everything they don’t understand in a box called God. This is why God is such a large concept for many of these people, as there is SO much they don’t understand.

  59. Brownian says

    You know, cases where doctors or scientists are astounded and left with no other explanation than divine intervention?

    When I was young, part of our Christmas tradition was to go to my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve for a traditional twelve-dish meal before heading to Catholic Midnight Mass. And on our way, we’d listen to the radio. “Environment Canada reports an unidentified flying object in the vicinity of the North Pole,” they’d report, in between songs. I’d be beside myself with incredulity, “Don’t they know it’s Santa?!” I imagine that if I’d held on to my Santa belief into early adolescence, I’d have become increasingly aggravated. “Fools! Denying what’s right in front of their faces!”

    For some reason, the types of stories you’re referring to reminded me of this, Sastra.

  60. frankb says

    #62,

    How do you know that? How do you know what ‘most’ people think and believe?

    By definition atheists don’t think there is evidence for God, and theists are very motivated to tell everyone what they think is evidence for God. The only problem I see in claiming that everyone knows there is no evidence for God is all the stupid people who are wrong in what they think is evidence.

  61. Marta says

    I understand about the Lederman thing.

    But at the time I read his book, which is superb, one of the attractions of it was the title.

    Now later, I don’t thin that was a good title, but now before, it was important.

  62. David Marjanović says

    Regarding “The Goddamned Particle” – do you know how The God Particle was translated into German? Das schöpferische Teilchen. It retranslates as “the creative particle”, because it, like, creates mass.

    One experiment is worth a thousand expert opinions.

    No. One experiment is worth more than an infinite number of expert opinions.

    Isn’t it obvious? You simply have to smash two deities together at a significant fraction of c and catalog the resultant burst of demigods.

    Alternatively, if you’re looking for something that doesn’t require 17[-]km accelerators, you can bring a christ into contact with an anti-christ, but this can be dangerous without proper shielding.

    Thread won, week saved.

    Sounds very dangerous. The ancient Hebrews fused two gods , Yahw[e]h and Elohim, and the decay products have proven to be very toxic with extremely long half lives.

    Not bad either!

    Maybe they told Leder[man] he had a choice: the title could either be The God Particle or the Quantum Higher Consciousness Particle — and the poor man went with the lesser of two evils. He may have figured it was easier for the world to have to deal with an inspired McGrath than a jazzed-up Deepak Chopra.

    Stop it! This is too much win for one thread!!!

    Yet more evidence (as if any were needed) that giving in to tone trolls always ends badly.

    Bingo.

    I know the idea of dark matter sounds kinda desperate. It did for me the for the longest time. However, if you study the subject it actually makes quite a bit of sense.

    In particular, how else would one explain the Bullet Cluster and MACS J0025.4-1222? In not one but both of these galaxy clusters, you can plainly see the Einstein arcs caused by a mass that is invisible.

  63. David Marjanović says

    Stop it! This is too much win for one thread!!!

    …In fact, it’s so much win that I had to balance it with a blcokqutoe. Grmpf.

  64. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The Higgs is basically an attempt to understand why we seem to have 3 families of quarks (u-d, s-c, b-t) and 3 families of leptons (electron, muon and tau + their neutrinos) that seem to be distinguished only by their mass–a condition referred to as “broken symmetry”. Peter Higgs originated an idea that the mass of a particle is determined by how strongly it interacts with a particular boson–which came to be called the Higgs Boson.

    It’s a very elegant theory, and it tends to make a lot of the math of other theories work out. The question is whether it is strictly necessary. The recent announcement really just said, “Well, we know where it isn’t…” The next year could be really interesting.

    As to Leon, he’s a good guy. He was director of Fermilab when I was a grad student there. It was a pretty cool place. We all cringed when he called the Higgs the “God Particle”. WTF. However, you have to remember that he was trying to get the superconducting super collider built, so he had to sell the physics to xtian smack-asses in Congress.

  65. juice says

    I remember when my not-so-bright fundie mother bought me the book “The God Particle” by Lederman. She knew I was into science in general, so I think that she thought that this was some kind of theological book that bridged particle physics to christianity or something. O well, turns out it was a pretty decent book about the search for the Higgs boson and contained zero theology. Thanks mom.

  66. Tyrant of Skepsis says

    @a_ray

    However, you have to remember that he was trying to get the superconducting super collider built, so he had to sell the physics to xtian smack-asses in Congress.

    … and we all know how that turned out. But to be fair, it was the publishers’ idea, we can only blame him for not intervening harshly enough.

    Btw, cool, you were a student at Fermilab? In what era? ;)

    @juice

    I remember when my not-so-bright fundie mother bought me the book “The God Particle” by Lederman.

    Come on, leave insulting your mother to others :)
    But it seems like the Leatherman has his own reverse Wedge strategy going there. nice…

  67. says

    @juice – after learning that Britney Spears is Chinese from the mouth of my ex, you wouldn’t be my long lost son by any chance. The strange beliefs of fundies never fail to amuse as long as you never lose sight of how dangerous they are.

  68. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Tyrant of Skepsis,
    I actually ran on the very first run of the Tevatron–which eventually became the collider. Ours was a fixed target experiment–800 GeV photons colliding with targets of beryllium, silicon and tungsten. I still have fond memories of changing out gas bottles at 2 in the morning when it was 25 below and a wind howling.

    Actually, Fermilab was a pretty cool place to live. They brought in a bunch of farmhouses from the farms that were bought up for the lab, and visiting scientists and grad students lived there in dorms or apartments. The highrise had a spark chamber up on the 11th floor and you could watch cosmic rays zip through–zzzzzap. They had wine and cheese colloquia and occasional cultural events. They even had bison grazing in a pasture inside the ring–and they’d occasionally slaughter one for an end-of-run party. All in all it was a pretty humane and interesting place.

  69. epikt says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space says:

    Actually, Fermilab was a pretty cool place to live…They even had bison grazing in a pasture inside the ring–and they’d occasionally slaughter one for an end-of-run party. All in all it was a pretty humane and interesting place.

    A couple grad student friends spent a semester there in the eighties, along with their advisor. They told me they strongly suspected that he was committing all kinds of unnatural acts with those bison. He was a theorist, so it actually seemed plausible.

  70. mgroesbeck says

    David @ 72 –

    It’s too late — “blcokqutoe” is already on my list of potential band names should I ever find enough amateur musicians in my physics classes to form one.

    (Don’t worry, though — it’s still on the list below “The Carnal Cycle”, which everyone who ever had to take an undergrad thermodynamics class will appreciate.)

  71. Sandiseattle says

    okay let’s be real. for 1.98$ you might get a Baptist and a Moron to meet. I’d really like to see a (real) experiment that could be done for 1.98$.

  72. says

    They even had bison grazing in a pasture inside the ring–and they’d occasionally slaughter one for an end-of-run party.

    Were they Higgs bison?

    Sorry.

  73. Azkyroth says

    God-belief is like a kaleidoscope in the best case scenario, and in the worst like a magnifying glass held between one’s eye and the sun.

    FIFH.

  74. melior says

    the physicists of the world, from over 100 countries, gathered and spent over $9 billion to build the largest scientific instrument in the world to test the hypothesis. Faith was not enough.

    “It doesn’t matter
    how beautiful
    your theory is,
    it doesn’t matter
    how smart you are.
    If it doesn’t agree
    with experiment…
    it’s wrong.”
    -Richard Feynman

  75. KG says

    I love the idea of the LHC being turned up to 11, if only because it should fry the brains of the black-hole-apocalypse crowd. – Rich Woods

    Well, either that, or cause the black-hole apocalypse :-p

  76. puppygod says

    Sigh. Don’t these theologians realize that their arguments could be constructed – and fit even better – as an apology of Tao instead of their God? I’d like to see somebody recite them several excerpts from Tao Te Ching without giving up source, make them agree and then reveal where it is from. Head asplodin’ ensues.

  77. KG says

    I’ve actually been hoping they wouldn’t find the Higgs at the LHC. If they do, there’ll be a whole gang of idiots thinking it is proof of God’s existence. Still, if they don’t, we’ll probably have them arguing that the fact that the “God particle” can’t be found just proves God does indeed move in mysterious ways.

  78. geraldostdiek says

    Damn I get tired of people whose ‘knowledge’ is basically something they pulled – sometimes quite aggressively – out of their own ass. And no, I am not only referring to McGrath’s take on particle physics, the wankery of which is properly addressed by PZ. I mean the business with a much disrespected albeit thoroughly empirical 19th century neural physiologist/psychologist and philosopher.

    When James referred to an ‘unseen order ‘, he was referring to all that we don’t know about the structure of the universe. HE PRESUMED THAT THIS ORDER IS NATURAL. In years of work, James never claimed anything supernatural – even his ‘metaphysics’ was physical – when James wrote about ‘pure experience’ it was first, last, and always, the experience of an organic being minding its environment, seeking what it needs to go on living, (and not incidentally, building a ‘mental’ picture of the world). James flat out denied the existence of ‘consciousness’, arguing that it is gross error to use the fact of brain function as ‘evidence’ for the existence of a non-physical phenomena (call it ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ or whatever), Even the famed photos of him attending a seance are misleading – He went, and wrote that in his experience, such mysticism is actually misdirection and grift, and offers no evidence whatsoever for the claims of its practitioners.

    All this tends to fly under the radar of idiots who quote mine his work – both those who pretend to ‘follow’ him, and praise the religiosity they project into his work (and claim to find there), and also those who know nothing of his views except what the first order of idiots say about him. (This may include Kemist, Wowbagger, and Stewart 1982, though they may only be referring to McGrath…) But you needn’t take my word for it: James wrote several books, none of which postulated any kind of supernatural effect in the world. Read one or two and see for yourself.

    It takes a supreme act of misdirection to turn his work on religion “Varieties of Religious Experience” into theistic apologetics. In reality, it is a book about psychological pathology: the book focuses on the damage that occurs when we ascribe more ‘reality’ to the stories we tell of our own ‘cosmic importance’ than we do our actual experiences. And, as a species we do tend to do this. In thousands of pages of published material, James consistently and persistently demands two things: first, that we stop pretending to know more than we actually do (as the religiously inclined tend to do), and second, that we respect what little we do know (as the religiously inclined tend not to do) – it is from this second demand that he claimed agnosticism.

    In point of fact, James turned from studying art to pursuing a PhD in neural anatomy after reading “Origin”. (His father was a theologian – of a new agey kind – and after reading his father’s work, he decided to have nothing to do either with theology, or any kind of church practice, and remained a life long ‘agnostic’) He and his closest friends (Chauncey Wright and Charles Peirce, the two people to whom he dedicated his “Principles of Psychology”) were among the first people in North America to ever read the book. (This was on recommendation of his biology professor Asa Gray – a xtian – as most were then, but none the less one of the small coterie that received advanced notice of Darwin’s work).

    It should go without saying that James is dated, and and much of his science (and also his psychology and philosophy) is simply wrong. Moreover, when it came to religion, he was an accommodationist. But all this could be said of Darwin as well. But like Darwin, James’s actual work is grounded in naturalism and empiricism. McGrath is only quote mining – he, not James, should earn our disgust.

    ‘Nuff said

  79. says

    Richard Rorty once said this about William James’s work:

    I said earlier that many readers of ‘The Will to Believe’ feel let down when they discover that the only sort of religion James has been discussing is something as wimpy as the belief that ‘perfection is eternal’. They have a point. For when Clifford raged against the intellectual irresponsibility of the thesis, what he really had in mind was the moral irresponsibility of fundamentalists — the people who burnt people at the stake, forbade divorce and dancing, and found various other ways of making their neighbours miserable for the greater glory of God. Once ‘the religious hypothesis’ is disengaged from the opportunity to inflict humiliation and pain on people who do not profess the correct creed, it loses interest for many people.

    The passion of the “sophisticated” theologian is trying to inflict humiliation on people who do not profess the correctly contentless creed.

    It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one. [...] Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest. You know how men have always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part in magic words have always played. If you have his name, or the formula of incantation that binds him, you can control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. Solomon knew the names of all the spirits, and having their names, he held them subject to his will. So the universe has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be sought in the shape of some illuminating or power-bringing word or name. That word names the universe’s principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself. ‘God’, ‘Matter’, ‘Reason’, ‘the Absolute’, ‘Energy’, are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them. You are at the end of your metaphysical quest.

    But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.

    Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid.

    — William James, What is Pragmatism (1904)

  80. josephahrens says

    @geraldostdiek,

    It’s understandable why Christians like Alister McGrath quote-mine William James.

    James’ work ‘The Will to Believe’ comes off as being a pro-christian defense, but that is only if you read the first 4 or 5 paragraphs. It was meant to be a defense of believing something when insufficient evidence points to one conclusion or the other. He felt this way because having a belief in something might allow one to generate evidence for that thing coming true. Such as believing that good will ultimately triumph over evil may cause you to act in such a way that causes good to ultimately triumph over evil. He also uses the example of love, but I couldn’t possibly do it justice so anyone interested will just have to read it on their own.

    Now this probably sounds like that christian silliness where they say ‘Once you believe in god then he will manifest himself to you and give you reason to believe in him’; However, James dedicates a couple paragraphs in the work to rail against christians for thinking god would find any merit in someone’s belief in god when they had insufficient evidence.

    But, you seem to be pretty well read when it comes to James so you probably already know that.