Mankind has searched for a great many things in the firm conviction that they could be found: the Northwest Passage; a cure for HIV/AIDS; and a way to safely send a man to the moon and back again. Sometimes that conviction – faith, really – was misguided (El Dorado and perpetual motion); sometimes it was not (Troy and heliocentricity). But it is always faith that drives on both the great discoverers (Louis Pasteur) and the promising failures (Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann).
A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting one these intrepid explorers of the undiscovered at Oxford University. I was there to conduct the final round of interviews for a Fixed Point Foundation documentary titled "Science and the God Question."
One day after a full schedule of filming, I attended a dinner at Green-Templeton College. Such dinners are a formal affair, held as they are in the elegant eighteenth century Radcliffe Observatory. Taking my assigned place, I was told that I would be sitting next to Gerald Myatt, a particle physicist. This promises to be a very short conversation, I thought, as I have nothing whatsoever to say on that subject. I imagined the many things that I might have discussed happily and with some degree of competence: current events, religion, sports, history, or philosophy. But particle physics was not high on my list of conversation starters.
I did my best to avoid eye contact with the physicist lest he strike up a conversation about, well, physics. Realizing that I could not ignore the man forever, I turned to him preemptively and asked if he had attended any of the Oxford Literary Festival lectures. The OLF is an annual event featuring a wide variety of authors speaking on an equally wide variety of subjects. I loved the smorgasbord of intellectual treats and hoped he did, too.
"Not since I attended a lecture by a philosopher who claimed that he had disproved the existence of God," He replied. Stirred from my conversational slumber, I leaned in to hear more.
"Did you find his arguments compelling?" I asked.
"Not in the least. I am a scientist and we are reluctant to say that we have disproved the existence of anything." His recollection of the lecture seemed to annoy him. "A more measured and, I think, honest response would be to say that God doesn't exist in the places where he's looked for him." He paused half smiling before concluding playfully: "But this man was a philosopher, and I suppose they can afford to say absurd things like that. In science, however, we must have proof." Apparently an agnostic, he thought such pronouncements premature.
I then asked him about his work as a physicist. He went on to explain that much of his career had been spent in search of the mysterious Higgs boson.
Otherwise known as the "God particle," the existence of this boson-that is, this subatomic particle-was proposed by British physicist Peter Higgs in 1964 as an explanation for how all other particles get their mass. Einstein explained gravity, but not how matter acquires mass in the first place. The hypothetical "Higgs boson" seemed the most likely explanation. Since then there has been an Osama-bin-Laden-like search for it, consuming billions of dollars and many careers in the process.
"Do you believe it exists?" I began to see a striking parallel between this and our earlier conversation about God's existence.
"Yes," he nodded decisively. "We have every reason to believe that it is real. Although we have never actually seen it, we see its effects." He explained the extraordinary nature of such a discovery and the benefits it would offer to our understanding of science.
"As you look back on a long career, what is one thing that your study of science has taught you?"
He did not hesitate. "It has taught me that there are laws in the universe that science is powerless to explain. We understand the laws of physics, but where did the laws themselves come from? Why do they work?"
"Professor, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that just as the Higgs boson is the most logical explanation for how particles get their mass, there must also be a kind of Higgs-boson-to-the-universe, so to speak, establishing laws and making them work, yes?"
He tilted his head inquiringly. "You mean God?" I acknowledged that I did indeed mean the Almighty. If, by faith, we accept that there are immutable natural laws, why not accept the possibility of a Lawgiver? "Yes," he conceded with a smile, "I suppose you could say that."
Last week the faith of this physicist and many others like him was rewarded when scientists in Geneva found the Higgs boson. Faith is a much-maligned word, associated as it so often is with the word "leap," these words in tandem suggest something irrational or, worse, dangerous. That is not faith. Faith is evidential. It is a firm conviction that the search is not in vain and that one will eventually be proved right.
As I left that stimulating dinner, my mind returned to a singular remark: "We have every reason to believe that [the Higgs boson] is real. Although we have never actually seen it, we see its effects." So it is with God: though we do not see Him, we see His effects. A "God particle" might tell us much about the universe, but it is God Himself who, as Hebrews 1:3 puts it, "upholds the universe." Man was willing to spend billions of dollars and a half-century searching for a subatomic particle. Are you willing to search for the God of the Universe? "Seek and you shall find."