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The God Particle and the Scientific Universe
July 9, 2008   
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And what can be more important than science and religion? Science offers an understanding of the world, and religion gives a sense of meaning.

Prof. Michał Heller, a Polish Catholic priest, cosmologist, physicist, philosopher and winner of the prestigious international Templeton Prize for building bridges between science and religion, talks to Ewa Dereń.

Does science bring us closer to God?
Albert Einstein used to say that in our materialistic times scientists are the only religious people. It's true that contact with science leads, if not directly to religious faith, then certainly to respect for Mystery, which is akin to religious belief.

When we study the world like we do in physics we encounter a reality that is extremely real. Even in mathematics this reality is quite tangible. If I have before me an equation I have solved and I don't like the solution because I was expecting a different one, there's nothing I can do about it. This is an absolutely strict reality that is impossible to overcome. Moreover, I feel part of that reality. People are part of the world and come into contact with it in the process of research. This creates a sense of communing with Mystery.

The faith of scientists is not always religious in nature, but certainly a majority of them recognize some kind of principle beyond this world, a principle of rationality, a force of some kind. Many call this God, but many scientists are religious also in terms of professing a specific faith.

Nevertheless, there is a certain difference between people with a technical and engineering education and researchers with a theoretical education in natural sciences. The former more often display an indifference to religion because their everyday experience teaches them that everything depends on the creator-which means themselves. They build something and it works just like they planned, and nothing external, transcendental seems necessary. In empirical sciences, meanwhile, you can feel a higher thought, a rationality enchanted in nature over which we have no power-we can only discover it.

Is science in conflict with religion? After all, science is based on experience, while religion is not. It seems that, by their very nature, science and religion have to be mutually exclusive as two different kinds of cognition, don't they?
It's true that science and religion-as well as the kind of cognition that applies in philosophy-represent two different cognitive levels. Science is governed by certain methodological rules, including the rule of agreement with experience in terms of laboratory tests. In religion and philosophical disciplines, meanwhile, the experience is of a totally different kind-existential, personal. We cannot transfer experimental methods to theology. Therefore all the conceptual and cognitive methods are separate at these two levels, and they cannot be mixed.

Various self-styled apologists often make this mistake: they jump from one level to the other too easily, and then various pseudo-problems, misunderstandings and conflicts arise.

However, I'm not in favor of completely separating these two levels of cognition. Even if they never overlap, they are immersed in the same space of human culture. Through culture and the entire set of concepts that define it, these two levels of cognition influence each other. History proves that.

Modern sciences originated from philosophy. I often quote an example of what I call a migration of concepts. There are typically philosophical concepts-like the concept of time, causality and determinism-that were characteristic of philosophy before science emerged. Then they began to migrate, moving from philosophy to science. Newton's theory is involved with time, space and determinism. It's true that these concepts changed their meaning as they were transferred from philosophy to science. The meaning depends on the context, and the context in science is different than in philosophy. The process of concept migration continues. Concepts from physics are returning to philosophy, and today practically no philosopher who wants to say something wise about space and time can ignore Newton or Einstein. Thus, there is a mutual influence between these two levels.

Besides there is also the psychological, existential aspect of the issue: the same person practices physics, is a philosopher and has an attitude to religion, being either a believer or a nonbeliever. So, these areas converge and intersect within a human being.

Are people often surprised that you are a physicist and a priest at the same time?
Very often, because there are certain stereotypes in our world, even where you least expect them. After I received the [Templeton] Prize in New York, a major scientific weekly conducted an interview with me; when it was published, it turned out they'd written about me "cosmologist and former priest." They had to correct the error, but this shows that even in such circles people thought that if I was a cosmologist, I must be an ex-priest.

Isn't it partly true that a scientist, especially a cosmologist, pries into God's mysteries that are inaccessible to other people?
Yes, you do feel that way a little. There's a well-known saying of Einstein's that his only true desire was to discover the Mind of God. Discovering the Mind of God means tracking down the thought God had at Creation. That is precisely what science does, according to Einstein. He himself had a concept of God that was closer to pantheism, which says that the universe is God or a part of Him. This kind of idea is quite close to scientists' hearts-that the laws of nature they discover, or mathematical laws, are a kind of God's thought.

With such an approach, isn't it easy to succumb to the temptation of abandoning further investigation whenever you come upon insurmountable difficulties, and just say that "this is how it was devised by God"?
That would be too easy a tactic. No, today no scientist feels this sort of temptation, though the issue itself does have a history. In the 17th century, when empirical sciences were emerging, scientists were fascinated with the progress of their age. The first telescopes revealed the world of the planets; the first microscopes uncovered the secrets of the structure of the mosquito's eye, and so on. The researchers of the time, enchanted with the precision of the universe's structure, saw this as direct proof of God's existence-because an earthly optician couldn't have possibly invented a wonder like the eye of the mosquito. Historians of science later called this field physico-theology, and this truly was a time when physics and theology were the closest to each other.

Those ideas were also embraced by Newton, for instance. Let me use his example to illustrate the reasoning behind the idea contained in your question. Newton mathematically described the structure of a planetary system based on the laws of gravity. He noticed that the visits of comets, which were quite frequent in the 17th century, affected our planetary system in such a way that they disturbed it gravitationally. Simple calculations showed that after a time these disturbances, if there were more visits, would destroy the structure of the planetary system. The planets would simply fall out of their orbits and there would be total chaos. Meanwhile, this never happened. This led Newton to the conclusion that God made corrections once in a while, and he considered this proof of God's existence. In the history of theology this argument was later called "God of the gaps." This means that if we don't know something in science, we fill that gap with God. Lightning strikes a tree and people say "Zeus is angry, God is angry." This had a disastrous effect because science moved forward and as time passed what was once considered to be a gap was filled in, and God became unnecessary. He was gradually pushed out of science, and that's why historians explain the emergence of modern atheism-the views of the French Enlightenment-as a reaction to that process.

Today the God-of-the-gaps ideology is censured in theology. Theology believes we should seek God not where we don't know something but wherever we do know things-because the Mind of God, God's Plan, is hidden in what we know. Hence contemporary scientists no longer have a tendency to fill the gaps in their knowledge with God. Rather, the scientific method is characterized by a degree of aggression-if I can't do something, I'll try differently, attacking the problem from a different angle.

And that's how it should be-one of the assumptions of the scientific method is to strive to explain the world with the world itself, without involving God.

Which came first for you: God or the world? Was your first thought to become a priest or a scientist?
I think both these areas grew within me simultaneously. One of my faults is that I'm too ambitious, I've always wanted to do the most important things. And what can be more important than science and religion? Science offers an understanding of the world, and religion gives a sense of meaning.

On second thoughts, though, perhaps science came first. My father was an engineer; he graduated from two faculties at a university of technology and was good at fueling my interests. But my family was very religious. My childhood was suffused with religiousness, and when I decided to enroll at the seminary my father only wanted me to complete regular studies first, for instance in physics. But I started with the seminary, as I thought this was more important. Since I couldn't enroll at a state university in those days as a priest, I chose the philosophy of nature at the Catholic University of Lublin, as this was the closest to physics.

Is it true that your superiors advised you against seeking a doctoral degree in cosmology?
At the time cosmology wasn't a separate science yet. Some people thought it was more mathematics than physics. There were few astronomical observations of cosmological significance: just the expansion of the universe and three small effects confirming the general theory of relativity. When I came out with my proposal of a dissertation in cosmology, my physics professor said that such a huge mathematical effort to explain just those three small effects wouldn't be worthwhile. I was firm, though, and it turned out that my intuition had not let me down.

A year after that conversation there came a breakthrough in the theory of relativity. In 1965 several astronomical observations were made that transformed cosmology into a full-fledged empirical science. Two discoveries in particular were important-quasars, which gave us the possibility of looking way back into the history of the world, and the microwave background radiation, which is one of the main tools for studying the young universe still today. That was an absolutely special year in the history of physics and from that moment cosmology took off as a new discipline. Today no physicist would say cosmology was an unwanted child of science. You could even say that physics is an aspect of cosmology, because it is a set of laws that propel the universe and can only be understood fully when you place them in that huge, dynamic process that is the evolution of the world.

This year may also see a breakthrough. A new elementary particle accelerator, the biggest one ever, is due to be launched this summer by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. Physicists hope it will confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle described in detail though as yet purely theoretical. Why is the scientific community so interested in the Higgs boson?
The Higgs boson has never been detected, but its existence-or of something like it-follows from theory. Today's standard elementary particle theory works very well and explains practically all the known elementary particles. However, there was one serious difficulty with this theory: what are known as intermediating particles had no mass. This mass had to be explained somehow, so the Higgs boson was devised, its only aim being to give mass to those particles. Its existence was never proved empirically, but it fitted the theory so well that physicists started believing in its existence.

Today, thanks to the new equipment at CERN, possibilities are opening up for experimentally confirming either the existence or nonexistence of the Higgs boson. I admit we are waiting for this with bated breath. It will be a huge success if the Higgs boson is detected, and the scientific community will be overjoyed. If it is not observed, the standard theory will remain in force, but we still won't know where the mass of intermediating particles comes from. This will require a search for a new concept. That's what progress in physics is all about. Physicists are pragmatists. A negative outcome of an experiment is also valuable because it shows that we took the wrong way. But if we failed to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, we would be disappointed all the same.

The Higgs boson is sometimes called the God particle. Why?
That's just the name that was adopted. Physicists like strange, surprising names. For instance, the name for the quark was taken from James Joyce's novel [Finnegans Wake]. The problem with names is that the world of elementary particles is incomparable with our macroscopic world. It involves properties such as spin that are not found in the macro world. This often causes problems with naming things when we can't even imagine them, but only know their numerical value. That's why names sometimes spring up out of nowhere. In the case of the Higgs boson, I'm not sure but perhaps the term "God particle" stems from its function-it is supposed to create mass, so it involves creation.

The issues you deal with on an everyday basis are beyond the comprehension of the average person. Justifying its decision to award you the Templeton Prize, the foundation mentioned your "innovative works on the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics, geometric methods in relativistic physics and the philosophy and history of science." What does this mean in simple terms?
With regard to cosmology, in general terms I deal with the new theory of the universe's origin. Today our knowledge of the beginning of the world goes back 13.7 billion years and this is good knowledge, confirmed empirically by various observations, and we would be surprised if it turned out that things were different. The first three minutes were of key importance, when the chemical composition of the universe was being decided-and in this domain our knowledge is still secure.

The limit of our knowledge today is the Planck threshold, when the density of the universe was so huge that a thimbleful of matter weighed billions of tons. If we take the moment of the Big Bang as zero, the Planck threshold is at 10-44 seconds. The question is what happened before?
We don't know, but theory says that at densities greater than the Planck threshold, general relativity and quantum mechanics have to merge. This means that gravity has to display its quantum aspect. Thus, to penetrate whatever went before, we have to create a quantum theory of gravity. We don't have such a theory today, only many attempts to develop one. The best-known, at least by name, is the superstring theory. Others include the quantum loop theory and the noncommutative geometry theory. These concepts are the domain of theoreticians as well as mathematicians rather than physicists, as the possibilities for confirming these theories are as yet minimal.

My work is based on noncommutative geometry, a new field of mathematics, started a decade or so ago, that has some very interesting applications in physics and cosmology. Together with my colleagues, mathematicians from Warsaw, we have developed a model that combines general relativity and quantum mechanics. This model aspires to investigate whatever is below the Planck threshold. I would say this model of ours is very elegant, but we probably won't know for a very long time whether it's true and whether experience confirms it.

Does this model contradict other theories that exist today?
All of them have the same quality: they are theoretical and as yet not verified empirically. But it has often happened in the history of physics that different models competed with one another and when the right theory was finally developed, it turned out they all fitted into it somehow. This was the case with quantum mechanics, and the same may happen in the future. Perhaps it will suddenly turn out that noncommutative geometry, superstrings, loops etc., are just different roads to the same goal. There's a lot to suggest this. For example, many different approaches lead to the same conclusion-that there should be no time and space below the Planck threshold; these two concepts only apply to the later stages of evolution.

No time and space is something beyond our imagination, isn't it?
Right now, yes, but remember that our imagination expands as we learn things. When the theory of relativity emerged, people couldn't imagine the fourth dimension and wanted to reject the theory as nonsense. Today third-year students are familiarized with the concept of the fourth dimension. There are many things in physics we cannot imagine but if, for example, the superstring theory requires the existence of 11 dimensions, it's not a problem for equations.

It's not a problem for a theologian, either, I imagine, because why should God's creation of the world be limited to just three dimensions?
Exactly. He may just as well have created the world in 115 dimensions. For God, such a world would be equally possible.

Does this mean that contemporary theologians have no problems with other forms of life in the universe, other civilizations, rational beings?
For divine omnipotence it is all the same if God creates one world or an infinity of worlds. One theologian said cleverly that if God is infinite, He may not be interested in anything smaller than infinity. I think our theology, and primarily our religious imagination, is still very geocentric. In a sense, it dates back to a time before Copernicus. In biblical times and later, problems of the cosmos, other planets and star systems simply didn't exist, so nobody studied them. Today, in the age of space travel, theologians should strain their imagination a little, and many are actually doing it. Considering the enormity of the universe, the probability that we are not alone is substantial. But the probability of meeting another civilization is minute-for the same reason. And also because the period in which a civilization similar to ours-that is one based on carbon or some other chemical element-can exist is relatively short in the history of the universe. A few billion years ago there were no planets; there was no carbon in the universe. A few billion years from now the stars will have died; there will be not enough energy. Thus the time when the world is life-friendly is relatively short. If we draw a sphere with the Earth as its center with a radius of 10,000 light years, we can say that there is no civilization within that sphere because we would have discovered it. If there is one somewhere farther away, what chance do we have to communicate with it? A signal sent from Earth will reach those beings in more than 10,000 years, and it will take the same time for their reply to reach Earth-only we won't be here. Either way, I would offer one theological certainty: if there are rational beings somewhere, God has certainly not left them to their own devices but takes care of them somehow.

Wouldn't the existence of other civilizations turn the biblical truths upside down? What would happen to the concepts of Incarnation, Redemption and Salvation, for example?
Maybe those beings never needed any Redemption? Maybe they always lived according to their nature, had a much higher standard of ethics and knowledge of good and evil, and the original sin never happened to them? Maybe their minds are so acute that the Mind of God is enough for them, that they read the laws of nature like we are unable to? We can't imagine all the possibilities that could exist. Even the act of Redemption could have happened in a thousand different ways. I recently gave an interview that the editors tellingly headlined "Can Aliens Be Saved?" Of course they can, but who said it has to be the Salvation we were given on Earth?
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
I will evade your question by telling you a story. In 1931 a meeting of the greatest cosmologists of the time was held at the British Association in London. They were asked the same thing. The replies were varied. Among those replying was George Lemaitre, a priest and co-founder of relativistic cosmology. He said he wouldn't ask God for the answers to the questions that bothered him because he wanted future generations to have the pleasure of discovering them for themselves. I would follow Lemaitre's example, also because a reply obtained in this way would introduce a foreign element into the research process. Discovering the Mind of God must be something we do ourselves.


MichaŁ Heller, 72, is a Polish cosmologist and Catholic priest who for more than 40 years has developed sharply focused and strikingly original concepts on the origin and cause of the universe. In addition to his interest in cosmology, Heller is a philosopher, theologian, physicist and writer. He has written more than 30 books and 500 other publications. He is a professor at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Cracow where he heads the Philosophy of Nature Section. He lives in his hometown of Tarnów, in southern Poland, from where he commutes to Cracow to teach. He has conducted research in Oxford and Leicester, England, lectured in Rome as well as Louvain and Liege in Belgium, and is a member of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory and many scientific societies.
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