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Saturday, October 20, 2012
Religion ... Science ... Spirituality ...

When the physicists at CERN in Europe more-or-less confirmed the discovery of the Higgs particle this past July 4, it made a big splash with the press (well . . . as big as a splash as a scientific discovery can make these day; just under the magnitude of Lady Gaga’s meat dress). The Higgs particle completed the picture of the sub-atomic world that has evolved over many decades into today’s Standard Model of particle physics. It helps to explain how and why some things in the universe have “mass”, i.e. the quality that requires a bit of force to initiate movement (relative movement — don’t forget Einstein here) of something with mass, continuing force to cause acceleration, and an opposing force to slow it down (i.e., the quality of inertia or momentum).

Well that’s nice, the typical educated layperson might say. So now we have photons that give us light and magnetism, electrons that give us electrical charge, gluons to hold the nuclei of atoms together, neutrinos that don’t do much of anything, and now Higgs particles to make certain stuff “massive”. Just peachy. If you’re really into it, you might also know that W and Z bosons help radioactive stuff to keep on glowing. That’s groovy (even if you don’t want to wear a radium watch these days — I actually had one as a kid!). But what is different because of all this? The world is still mostly the world we’ve always known; in a metaphysical sense, the world appears to be composed of a huge (if not infinite) void, with lots of little bullet-like things zipping around in it (photon, electrons, protons, various other fermions and bosons, now including the Higgs particle). Right?

Hmmm. If you stopped and read further in the more detailed articles about the Higgs discovery, you would know that the Higgs particle itself really isn’t all that important. The reason that the boffins are so interested in it is that reflects the existence of a “Higgs field”, a type of energy field that exists everywhere in equal strength (i.e., a “scalar field”, a field that imposes a quality as opposed to a directional force, as with magnetic fields). This field gives mass-containing “massive” particles (like the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, along with electrons, and even the ghostly neutrino) their “massive characteristics”; i.e. the tendency to need force to start moving relative to something else. And once moving, to require an opposing force to stop that relative movement. Somehow, this field constantly interacts with massive stuff (in quantum amounts defined by the Higgs particle — i.e., via “virtual Higgs particles”), and makes it act and respond to forces in appropriate ways.

That’s actually a rather profound notion. What it says to me is that energy fields are real, not just some mathematical construct that relates how certain particle reacts in response to some other particles (e.g. how an electron is repelled or attracted in a magnetic field, via virtual photon exchanges). Ask yourself, just what is a “field”? For most of us, it’s something that we learned about in high school physics — mainly about electrical and magnetic fields. Fields are some sort of intangible physical process that causes one tangible thing to do something relative to something else. E.g., a magnet moves a piece of iron. An electrical current converts that piece of iron into a magnet. These “fields” can seem pretty real, even if we can’t perceive them with our senses. (Again, though, there is more to fields than the usual “force field”; fields can also instill a non-directional characteristic, like the weak field that encourages radioactive decay of heavy atoms and particles; and the Higgs field that imposes the characteristic of “mass”).

But then our science teachers told us that these fields appear to be doing things because of some little particles flying thru the void. I.e., virtual quantum particles. Fields are subject to the same limitations that quantum particles are subject to — i.e., they can’t respond faster than the speed of light and they convey a fixed amount of energy. A change in one part of a field can only be transmitted to another location at the speed of light, no faster. Also, as a quantum field, the field acts through little pre-set bundles, not in a precise fashion along a continuum. So, with all that in mind, it might seem best not to think of the field has being the real thing; it’s the particles, the little bullets moving thru the void, that cause the effects that we think of as “field effects”.
If fields were real, then the void would NOT truly be empty; there wouldn’t really be a void, as every spot in the Universe no matter how far away from any energy or matter particle, would at least have some field buzzing around in it (maybe many different fields), providing energy.

But we like to think of our Universe as an empty void with bullets flying around in it . . . thus we naturally have trouble thinking of fields as having true reality in them. We think of the field as the “side show”.

But now, in accordance with the Higgs theories — well, it’s the field that has the more important reality than the particle!! The tail now seems to be wagging the dog. Particles, including photons and gluons, are being explained simply as a harmonic vibrating wave in the “sea” that is the field. Virtual particles are non-harmonic, short-term “splashes” when one wave interacts with another (e.g. electrons with their charge field attracting an oppositely charged particle like the proton or positron). The field seems to be the grounding of reality; the particles that appear to make up the world, i.e. the “little bullets”, are just abstract events in those fields.

(I’m not at all sure how this “new view” interacts with string theory; perhaps strings still can thrive in a “field reality”, as the basic pattern caused by any change in a field, the most basic type of ripple that all fields produce.)

This gets even weirder when you start listening to the cosmologists. Most people know that there was a Big Bang that started the Universe; and many also know that the physicists call for a rapid expansion process called “inflation” to make sense of this Big Bang. I.e., that Big Bang that created all of the energy in the universe had to interact with some sort of space-expansion process; almost as though 3-dimensional space (really, 4-dimensional “timespace”) was being pumped into that dense little fireball just as the universe got its start. There wasn’t any space to expand out into, in or around this fireball; the inflation process was needed to create space, by infusing space within it.

Actually, what I just said is now considered to be WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!! Well, not 100% right, anyway. What I said assumes that the Big Bang happened first, that somehow all of the energy in the Universe suddenly appeared, jam packed into a tiny point (maybe an infinitely tiny point, akin to the “singularity” that is spoken of with regard to black holes). Then, in the next instant, the inflation process started. But NO! The tail is actually wagging the dog here — the Big Bang is now seen to be a mere side effect of something that happened to the INFLATON FIELD!!! More on that below.

Not so long ago, the “Big Bang” was understood by interested lay people like myself as “the mother bullet”, with inflation creating the “void” where all the little bullets that broke off from the Big Bang now zip around in. But the new view is that the Big Bang is just some particular phase or transition within the overall process of Inflation, i.e. a “reheating”, when the “mother field” released her energy into the void that she had just created.

It gets even weirder because these Inflationary cosmologists are invoking our old friend, “the field”. Yes, they posit that there is an “inflation field” called the inflaton (having NOT a singularity. The Bang is thus losing its status!!! It is no longer the “primeval atom” that was first posited by a Catholic priest and later became well loved by Catholic theologians (given their Thomas Aquinas leanings). The Big Bang is now described as a conversion process though which a chunk of the energy stored in the all-pervading inflation field condensed and transmuted into the particles known and described by our Standard Model. One theory says that the inflation/inflaton field went thru some gyrations that caused a “cooling” of energy, and the Big Bang was nothing more than a “reheating”, i.e. when the lost energy re-appeared as super-energetic particles springing forth into the newly minted “timespace manifold”.

Yikes. So, a master field (the “inflaton field”) created all the particles and all the energy that they carry. But as we discussed above, these particles are really just other sorts of fields at work. The Universe that we know was the work of master field that somehow transmuted into a variety of other fields. It all started with a field, and it’s all still about fields.

But just what are fields? The physicists tell us how they work, what they do, how they interact . . . but as to just what they are, what they can be compared to, what their true nature is . . . I don’t think anyone can answer those questions.

If all this is true, then we need to adjust our metaphysics. Our western world seemed content for many millennium with the notion that there is a void of absolute nothingness, and that particles zip back and forth across this void carrying mass and energy, interacting and clumping and separating and bouncing off one another. But now there is no void. There are fields everywhere. What we see as “bullets” (particles) are just ripples in these fields, interactions between various fields. Is the smallest thing a point or a line or a box? That’s not so important in the world of fields; it’s whatever the field wants it to be, given the circumstances.

For you who might still want to ponder whether the notion of God makes any sense amidst the evolving ideas and descriptions that the physicists are providing about our Universe . . . the question is, just what would this new metaphysical viewpoint do differently than the various theological constructs on which the notion of God rests, on how we imagine God interacting with our universe . . .

I’m far from being a theologian, but from what little I do know, Christian theological constructs of the God-Universe relationship developed along lines painted by the ancient Greeks. I.e., the lines of voids and bullets. Yes, this reflects the works of Thomas Aquinas and centuries of scholastic theology. Jewish and Islamic viewpoints became fairly similar as they developed in the first Common Era millennium and on into the second; they drank from the same intellectual wells as the Christian thinkers did. That’s why Christian leaders, including at least one Pope, welcomed the Big Bang notion. It seemed to imply that God held the gun that shot the master bullet into the void. This was OK when you could picture the Big Bang as a bullet needing a gun behind it (a smoking gun that the physicists could not explain away — given the infinities required by Relativity Theory for a singularity; ah, the mystery).

But how does God come out in a realm without voids and bullets, without need for an itchy trigger finger? How “God-Like” are fields? Can God be seen as “a field”? The inflaton field may be the mother of the universe. This sounds interestingly like the Genesis creation story — the story of a raging ocean in the total darkness (raging because of quantum uncertainty??). God commanded the dome of the sky to separate (i.e., the 4-D timespace manifold that was caused by the big-bang inflation process?) and called the light to come forth (the radiation particles emanating from the big bang?); and the energy for this was provided by the raging ocean (i.e., the inflaton field energy that powered the big bang-inflation event that created the Universe).

Is God the inflation field? Or some admixture of the mother inflaton field and the “field of consciousness” that somehow emerges or condenses within certain physical mechanisms where much information concentrates and inter-relates — e.g., the human brain? Is this all part of something like a grand information field — the great “it from bit” spoken of by some high-level theoretical thinkers? Is this “where God lives”, is this how God “causes all things”, is this how God is “all knowing”?

OK, time to crash land back into the realm of everyday life. There are shirts that need ironing, dishes that need washing, bills that need to be paid, doctors appointments, supper plans, problems at work to be worked on . . . So, my theological – metaphysical recess is over. For now, anyway.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:38 pm      

  1. Jim, Can’t say I know much about any of what you are talking about here. But I can’t help but make a few comments—-basically things I’ve said before. Don’t look for any real thought-out process here, just a few comments that may or may not be related to what you have to say and/or to each other.

    When you speak of– “Fields are some sort of intangible physical process that causes one tangible thing to do something relative to something else.”—-I find myself thinking, isn’t this what religion/spirituality speaks about? Basically, it’s the same idea, seems to me. If nothing else, science is here admitting that the intangible affects the tangible. Furthermore, if nothing else, aren’t we also saying that the emotional in our lives affects the physical? In some ways it seems to me, with all due respect, that science is a bit slow catching up. But then I find myself saying, well everybody has to find the answers to what it is they are searching for in their own way.

    Also, I constantly come back to the idea I’ve said so many times before: I don’t know why scientists (or so it seems to me) can’t take their own idea(s) seriously. Specifically, isn’t one of the basic ideas of science that the observer affects the observed? Could it be that those searching for these various things—-fields, bosons (whatever name they have), various other smallest things that exist—-are in the end finding what they are looking for because they are looking for it? Therefore, it seems to me that perhaps science will someday prove that man himself is the creator. Just an idea that always seems to come back into my thoughts as I read about what science is looking for and finding and that is why this all ends up back at Genesis. If science would/could prove that man himself is the creator, I’d say that would be a truly marvelous finding. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 22, 2012 @ 10:17 am

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