News is now widespread that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator shared by France and Switzerland, has generated a high-energy reaction which provides convincing evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, known in contemporary circles as the “God particle”. The Higgs field is a theoretical medium that attributes mass to all non-zero-mass particles, where mass is the substance of all matter. To put it in layman’s terms, it gives matter its matter-like property. And the Higgs boson, which is believed to be the new particle discovered in the CERN experiment, is the smallest possible (quantum) disturbance or excitation of this field, providing direct evidence of its existence.
The particle has been given the “God particle” nickname because of its tie to what is believed to be this fundamental property of all matter. The universe is comprised of matter and energy (which Einstein proved to be interchangeable) and the medium in which they exist (space-time). All large-scale matter in the universe interacts primarily through gravity, which drives the formation of stars and planets. Without gravity, neither the earth nor life on it would exist.
All fine and dandy, but what does it have to do with Catholicism? Well, before the Middle Ages, humanity was at a loss to explain the physical phenomena that engrossed it. The earth was flat. Pagan gods caused the sun to rise in the east and set in the west. The stars were immutably fixed on a sphere hovering above the earth. Plagues, floods and earthquakes were directly caused by the displeasure of deities with the works of people. All causes were attributed to mystical or supernatural forces for lack of the foundation for a better explanation.
All this was changed by the scholastics of the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas being a prime example. They combined the philosophical insights of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, together with the theological insights provided by the Church Fathers. In doing so, they were able to achieve a level of comprehension of the workings of God and His creation as had never been done before.
One of the primary fruits of these efforts was a better understanding of causality. When something happens, people tend to wonder why and how. “Why A?” “Because B.” “Well why B?” “Because C.” Eventually one comes upon what’s known as a self-evident truth, one or more truths that cannot be rationally proven but must be believed for all other knowledge to stand. This applies not only to religion, but also to science, politics, and all other types of knowledge.
The truth that proceeded from the scholastics and formed the foundation of modern science is that the universe contains an intelligible order – it can be understood through the faculty of reason. The scholastics saw the existence of mind in the universe – that of every human person – and concluded that intelligence could only exist through the agency of an intelligent Creator. This Creator desires to make Himself known to his creatures in part through reason. Thus the rationality we observe in the order of the universe points beyond itself to the rationality of the Creator.
There remain worldviews that deny this principle. Fr. James Schall, SJ, notes in his book “The Order of Things” (chapter “The Order within the Godhead”) that the lack of Muslim aid for the 2004 South Asia tsunami was primarily due to the belief that natural disasters are believed to be a direct punishment from God. Thus intervention would be akin to blasphemy. Weather reports have been frowned upon in Muslim nations due to the presumption that humanity, through their own power, could predict God’s “miracles”.
There are widespread movements within this age to deny the base principle that the universe is intelligible because it sprang forth from an intelligent Creator, using scientific evidence as proof. However, it is impossible for science to prove or disprove these self-evident principles since they do not arise from reason, as explained above. The best that can be done is to substitute an alternate philosophy that denies this principle, putting in place its own base principles. This is what goes on behind the scenes.
Nevertheless, science, when pursued properly, does provide a greater understanding of God’s creation along with profound contributions to the common good. The work of the physicists at CERN is to be heralded as a truly praiseworthy step in unlocking the mysteries of the universe.