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The God Particle was Framed July 6, 2012

Posted by Alex Bove in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , ,

Last week, mostly in the comments section of my post on the difficulties of defining words clearly and universally, to everyone’s satisfaction, Wes and I discussed (among other topics) the importance of rhetorical framing. CERN’s recent announcement of the near-certain discovery of the Higgs-Boson (a.k.a. the “god particle”) has elicited surprising reactions from theists, and I think framing explains their response.

Some of you may have seen this Twitter feed making the rounds. When I first saw it, I was puzzled. How can theists claim that a discovery that demystifies a major, previously unanswered, question about the physical world is bad for atheism? I considered the possibility that the Twitter feed was a joke (and it may still be, though I think it’s serious), but then I came across other christian apologists making the same case. Many theists do, indeed, see this discovery as proof of their god’s existence. But why?

The answer, at least in part, is that apologists have reframed the term “god particle.” Fifty years ago, when physicist Peter Higgs hypothesized his eponymous boson, it was simply called the Higgs boson. The metaphor of a “god” particle comes from nobel laureate Leon Lederman’s 1993 book, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? In most press accounts, the phrase is bracketed by quotation marks, a rhetorical move meant either to indicate words/phrases that are being used in ways that might differ from their denotative meanings or to show potential biases of the word/phrase’s originator. When Rush Limbaugh called Sarah Fluke a “slut,” people reported that Rush had used that word to describe her, not that they were using it themselves.

By placing it in quotation marks, the mainstream media, then, frames “god particle” as a term that could at least be open to debate. I think they do this with varying degrees of success, and using the term at all gives it credibility that scientists wish it would not have. I think there’s plenty of blame to go around here. Scientists generally do a poor job of framing issues in the public discourse. Perhaps this is because they see language in general, and the language of the media especially, as needlessly slippery, and they do not want to engage in discussions involving terms/concepts that are not clearly, objectively provable. In a way, that’s what I’d expect of scientists: it’s what makes them good at science. However, it also reflects a type of black-and-white thinking that doesn’t always help factions make their rhetorical points.

But the media is also to blame for assuming its audience needs figurative language to understand complex ideas (though figurative language is certainly useful for this purpose, one must choose one’s metaphors carefully), for so readily and uncritically using normative (in this case theistic) figurative language, and for not doing the minimal amount of research needed to know that Leon Lederman himself thinks the term “god particle” is problematic. On this last point, I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to let Dr. Lederman off the hook. He has joked that his idea to call it the “goddamn” particle was shot down by editors, but he has also said that he used the term “god particle” because the Higgs boson was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” It seems Dr. Lederman could think of no better way to communicate uncertainty than appeal to a deity, so he may have been foist by his own petard (along with the entire physics community, which is no stranger to using theistic metaphors to make its points).

Christian apologists, however, have used framing to remove the quotation marks completely. For them, “god particle” is not a metaphor but a descriptor. They refer to biblical passages like Colossians 1:15-18:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.

For apologists, then, the discovery of the Higgs boson particle is the discovery of the “invisible God.” This line of apologetics lauds scientific discoveries like the one at CERN as proof of the validity of the teleological argument. The problem, of course, is that they’re begging the question. The mere fact that we’re able to see a logical order to the material world does not prove that an unseen “logical” creator of that world exists. Whether or not that creator exists, our observations will be the same.

The thing about framing, though, is that it’s not always the same as misunderstanding–or, more insidiously, misusing–language. In the case of “god particle,” the problem is that the phrase’s two constituent words are abstract enough to allow myriad interpretations. The word “god” has almost a dozen definitions and “particle” has five. The definition of “particle” is particularly flexible, so it’s not altogether surprising that apologists would see “all things…that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” as being made up of “one of the extremely small constituents of matter.” Somewhat ironically, the definition of “particle” with respect to English grammar is “a small word of functional or relational use.” In other words, a particle itself doesn’t belong to a clear category: it is not easily quantifiable. To the extent that it fits into a linguistic structure, its role in the logic of that structure is unknown/invisible, or at least not categorizable.

I’m not saying that I think apologists are right to see the discovery of the so-called “god particle” (see, was the “so-called” so hard to use?) as proof of a deity’s actual existence, of the universe’s “intelligent design,” etc. But I think that Leon Lederman’s choice of words was problematic, that the media’s dissemination of his phrase (utterly divorced from its original context, mind you–Lederman was worried his phrase might offend theists) was irresponsible, and the scientific community’s inability (or lack of desire) to frame the debate in a way most advantageous to its own case contributed to apologists’ declaration of victory.

Atheists (or materialists, secularists, etc.) see the world in a way that we believe is fundamentally right, but we don’t have the power of cultural normativity–and its concomitant ease of rhetorical framing–on our side. As a result, we must be especially vehement in pointing out the ways in which dominant groups use framing to buttress their hegemony. We must understand, however, that framing is a technique we also use. Demystifying framing is necessary in order to understand how it functions, but demystification alone does not necessarily change the rules of the rhetorical game.




1. Sceadeau D'Tela - July 6, 2012

I realize this is the apatheist in me, but I’m not sure why it matters. You see a Higgs Boson, they see God. As long as we agree to what it does.

2. Alex - July 6, 2012


I can think of a couple of reasons it matters. For starters, we usually attach a fair amount of importance to who gets to name things. In this case, scientists have a name for it, and it’s a scientific principle, so I’d argue that they get to choose the name and we should adopt their name for it.

Second, in this case, I think what we name it actually does change our notion of what it does. Theists seem to think that the “god particle” is evidence of a deity’s role in the process of making matter out of the immaterial. Scientists see nothing supernatural in the process. Invoking a deity implies a supernatural component. Many atheists would argue that providing supernatural explanations for observable, comprehensible natural phenomena is at best unnecessary and at worst antithetical to understanding the universe as it actually is.

From a practical standpoint–i.e. how can we use this technology to make/do stuff that might actually help us live our lives–I can see that the distinction is not as important. But I think that argument still leans slightly in favor of removing superstition from the equation, since there are other cases in which theological principles *are* detrimental to practical science. As a general policy, then, it’s probably best to study the natural world free from assumptions about the supernatural.

3. wfenza - July 6, 2012

Way to be a militant atheist. WHY DO YOU HATE CHRISTIANS??!?!?

4. Alex - July 6, 2012

For the same reason I hate America?

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