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A Cause for Con-CERN

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Last month Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, held a three-day conference between some of Europe's most renowned scientists and a few groups of people whose understanding of particle physics is probably dubious at best; namely theologians and philosophers. The event was held in the wake of the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle at the Large Hadron Collider, which brings us closer to a complete understanding of the universe. The institute brought these groups together in a search for common ground between science and religion on how the universe began. The organiser of the event, Dr Wilton, said he was optimistic that "scientists, theologians and philosophers alike might gain fresh insights from each other's disciplines". As the fog surrounding the beginning of the universe has become less and less hazy through scientific discoveries, there have been significant implications for the realms of reason and faith more broadly.

Firstly, it is crucial to distinguish between reason and faith as diametric opposites in this discussion. Reason, including the scientific method, is the adaptation of belief in light of observation; faith is the denial of observation in order to preserve belief. This distinction is important, as it should clearly highlight the differences between science and religion, particularly in understanding the universe. Religion comes to the table with a presupposed knowledge, that God created the universe. However science and reason assume nothing and are able to change their theory of the start of the universe, considering new evidence constantly. The latter method seems to be the only constructive method in understanding the beginnings of everything we know and the discoveries at Cern.

The problem with the faith based approach is that God seems to be just 'filling the gaps' of our understanding. Aside from there not being any empirical evidence for God or a divine creator, any faith-based believer seems to just posit God when in doubt. So given that we still cannot say with certainty, although we are close, how the universe began, the faith side would place God as the almighty first mover that set the universe in motion. They have no reason for believing this other than their 'faith' in God, which seems to be just ungrounded assertion. It is strange that faith could be allowed as a justification for belief in God, as there is no other belief that one could reasonably justify with this same argument. What else could you believe in good conscience with the explanation, "I just have faith"?

A related problem with the use of faith in understanding the world is that any explanation that appeals to God appears completely superfluous to our scientific understanding. By saying God caused the Big Bang, for example, one would firstly have to subscribe to the existence of some non-physical type of being that is completely contrary to our understanding of the world at the moment. More importantly, an appeal to God seems to actually raise more questions than it originally answers: "what is God?", "where is God?", "what caused God?" The explanatory value of a divine being is then undermined, as it actually causes more problems than it solves. It is not useful in clarifying the beginning of the universe.

The main problem with bringing a theologian into a scientific debate is that any faith-based believer already has a worldview to impose on the facts. Science is a balance between data and theory, using observation to test and formulate hypotheses. What's the point of having a debate if one side already claims to 'know' the answer and will never be willing to change that? Reason and science are adaptable and use the discoveries at Cern to refine the theory of the universe. In order to have 'faith' one must claim to know, not just theorise, everything about the start of the universe. Whether or not you believe that scientific discoveries make it increasingly difficult to hold a religious belief, faith always seems to hinder the progress of knowledge and truth by its very nature.

As Bertrand Russell reminds us, "Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe, but look only and solely at what are the facts".

Originally published in The Student on 30/10/12