Thought for the Day - Abdal Hakim Murad
We seem to live in the age of leaks. Most notoriously, we’ve been following the various stories about the US military which come to us courtesy of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks website. But yesterday another leak reached the outside world, which might put an end to a different kind of secret. This, somewhat improbably, is the story about the Large Hadron Collider, the gigantic machine buried thankfully out of sight in the Alps, which has, according to a leaked memo, now found firm evidence for the existence of a particle called the Higgs boson.
The tiny particle which has, allegedly, been spotted, is none other than the semi-legendary God Particle. The research is tentative, unofficial and unconfirmed. But so important is this speck of near-nothingness that we European taxpayers spent several billions making a machine one of whose prime purposes was to determine whether it exists or not.
I first thought about the Hadron Collider several years ago, when a Muslim physicist asked me about the religious lawfulness of working on projects that might, on some accounts, produce a black hole which could suddenly eliminate the entire physical universe. Such rumours proved unfounded, and I saw no reason to pronounce his employment a contravention of religious law.
The God particle, however, seems to raise a different sort of problem. The boson in question, if it exists, would provide a good account of the otherwise mysterious existence of mass in some elementary particles. There is a certain popular view that yet another creative activity formerly attributed to the mysterious workings of God would turn out to have a purely physical explanation.
In the current crop of New Atheistic polemics against faith, a common theme has been that the more physical explanations we find, the less need we have for a metaphysical interpretation. There’s a widespread perception of theologians resembling three year olds, who imagine that the rain falls because God reaches into a cloud and turns a tap.
In fact, even pre-modern religious believers seldom believed any such thing. Material causes are hardly something we have spotted recently; we simply see and understand more of them. Religion operates on a different level of interpretation. The Higgs boson certainly wouldn’t give us an explanation of why anything should exist at all, or why the particular set of laws which govern our universe are present, rather than a different set.
According to the Qur’an, ‘the creation of the heavens and the earth is a sign for the insightful’. Commentators agree that the insight required is not a mechanical or arithmetical mapping of reality, but something deeper, that reaches beyond physical existence. The little ‘how’ questions do not add up to an answer to the large ‘why’ question.
Calculation is precious, but when it replaces insight, something even more precious has been lost.