July 11, 2012

Experimental Metaphysics, or, the anti-God Particle

Physics and philosophy: a dichotomy that reaches back centuries, and perhaps a necessary boundary exists between them, one that fuels each side in its quest to explain Being and Knowledge, and all of the nebulous associations therein. It seems like a zen koan to describe noumena from the perspective of high energy physics, or to linguistically deconstruct the spin of an elementary particle. And yet I think both reach toward the same goal: to identify, and contextualize, what it means to be, and how the knowledge behind that "means" is produced. When science announces a discovery as important as the Higgs, it's a lot more than simple materiality (though that's vital); evidence of a Higgs field goes a long way toward describing the makeup of space, and how the universe came to exist, which is a lot closer to philosophy than some physicists would like to admit. And when a theorist examines materiality from a discursive perspective, proposing that matter and meaning are inextricably co-produced, it's hard not to conclude that experiments like the LHC are implicated. Scientists hold themselves to strict verifiability and reproducibility standards in their work, but it's rarely discussed how the fact that they set these standards for themselves affects scientific epistemology. A Higgs-like particle has been confirmed at a mass of approximately 125 GeV. Aside from its very large importance as an empirical discovery--the Standard Model, should this result hold up, would then be complete--what does it mean to us?

Lawrence Krauss, who writes a lot about space, proposes a theory along these lines: now that we know something about the Higgs field, which purportedly interacts with particles in a way that gives them mass, we know something about how our universe developed to accommodate life. Without the Higgs field, particles would never have combined to form atoms, molecules, planets; without an aggregation of mass, conditions for (our form of) life could have never manifested. Discrete particles would zip around at the speed of light; we would all be neutrinos, so to speak. We understand life by understanding the component parts that create a space in which life can exist. Krauss writes that a Higgs field "validates the notion that seemingly empty space may contain the seeds of our existence." Empty space, in fact, proves not to be so empty: dark energy, the Higgs field, and other quantum stuff is out there, and some of it--or something not yet identified--drives an ever-increasing inflation of the universe, which is another important piece of the ontological puzzle. (My indulgent theory: consciousness itself is dark energy. More explanation about the multiverse theory, and the specific amount of dark energy present in our universe, is warranted to flesh this out, which I'll do in a later post.) 

Based on these implications of a Higgs field, Krauss suggests that the Higgs particle is "arguably more relevant than God." This strikes me as an unabashed toeing of the philosophical line, despite its ostensibly religious language (it's also, of course, a reference to the much-loathed "God particle" moniker that the media loves): the deeper we probe the depths of matter, space, and time, the more empirical our knowledge becomes about the origin of the universe, theoretically eliminating the need for invented theologies to explain natural events. But God has always been a tool for a way of thinking that, by definition, eschews empiricism: faith is the operative apparatus, not belief in a verifiable system. I doubt any ardent believer in God/gods is swayed by the arrival of a verifiable Higgs, and I don't blame them: who's to say that God didn't activate the Higgs field so life could arise here? More important is the Higgs' contribution to metaphysical exploration, to our understanding of what it means to exist as an amalgam of particles, how agency is related to matter, how an ability to think came to be. The term "experimental metaphysics" was coined by Abner Shimony, and attempts to apply metaphysical concepts to experimental analysis. The Higgs is a sublime example of this overlap. If physics and philosophy split apart at the advent of experimental verification, it appears that we've at last arrived back where we started, using one field to inform and provoke the other to greater and more nuanced understandings of ourselves. 

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