08/30/2012 09:15 am ET | Updated Oct 30, 2012

Faith in the Higgs?

The constructs of modern science are often so complex and rarefied, they can only be understood through analogy and metaphor. No doubt he textbooks provide precise definitions and mathematical formulations, but it is often difficult to think clearly about them without a healthy dollop of less precise language.

Perhaps this is a point of contact with religion. In trying to talk about God, or the meaning of existence, we must frequently make do with figurative language. Religious discourse is filled with metaphors and approximations. It must be so, since the concepts we use to navigate our daily lives are inadequate for discussing weighty existential problems.

Writing in Nature, Daniel Sarewitz presents a version of this argument. He calls our attention to an article from The New York Tines in which the analogy of "cosmic molasses" is used in a discussion of the Higgs boson. Sarewitz compares this to a metaphor from certain Hindu writings, in which reality is likened to a sea of milk. Sarewitz writes:

If you find the idea of a cosmic molasses that imparts mass to invisible elementary particles more convincing than a sea of milk that imparts immortality to the Hindu gods, then surely it's not because one image is inherently more credible and more 'scientific' than the other. Both images sound a bit ridiculous. But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

In reconciling science and religion, it is commonplace for religion's defenders to stress its rational aspects. Sarewitz' argument represents a different approach. Rather than point to the rational side of religion, we point instead to the irrational side of science.

Let me suggest, however, that Sarewitz has overlooked a few things. While it is certainly true that scientists make healthy use of analogies and imprecise language in communicating their ideas to the public, the fact remains that the textbooks are available for anyone with the requisite interest and patience. The Higgs boson is real, confirmed both by theory and experiment. This is all in stark contrast to the analogies of religion, which, for all we know, have no correlates in reality. Elementary particles exist and can be described with great precision by those with the proper training. We cannot make the same claim on behalf of the Hindu gods.

Moreover, the attitude of lay people toward physics is hardly comparable to that of a religious person toward his dogmas. It is not an irrational leap of faith to accept what physicists say about the Higgs boson, even if you lack the technical prowess to read the textbooks. It is instead an expression of confidence in the investigatory method that led to our knowledge of the Higgs. People are not "raised to believe" that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests. Rather, they discover it on their own by contrasting the manifest successes of scientific investigation with the lack of same on the part of religion.

Sarewitz' argument backfires in that it calls our attention to the key difference between science and religion. It is sometimes said that religion answers questions about meaning and purpose, but this is not accurate. The correct formulation is that religion makes assertions about meaning and purpose. Sorely lacking is any reliable method for establishing the correctness of those assertions. Science's contribution to these conversations is a set of investigative methods that everyone regards as legitimate. When a physicist lectures about the Higgs, the audience understands that he is not just making things up. He is not asking anyone to believe anything solely on his authority.

As a practical matter, we all must accept what experts tell us about fields we have not studied ourselves. It is very lazy, however, to say that all such instances are just acts of faith and therefore intellectually equivalent. Surely we have reliable ways of distinguishing fields of inquiry that have earned our confidence from those that have not. To accept Sarewitz' argument is to lapse into a dangerous relativism, in which science and religion are just rival myth-making enterprises, neither with a greater claim to our respect than the other.

For many people religion satisfies needs that science does not address. For those not directly involved in their production, the findings of science often have little emotional resonance. There is always a place for awe and wonder, regardless of your beliefs about God. Acknowledging that simple reality, however, in no way implies that we should denigrate the tried and true methods of science by reducing them to a form of faith. Nor should we equate emotionally satisfying beliefs with those that are established by careful reasoning and hard data.