Ga-ga and Cynical? (The Ersatz Religion of Popular Science Writing — Higgs)

About science I don’t know much at all, but I have a pretty good nose for smelling out the manure in a bad argument. I’m of three minds about this article from the NYT Science section It’s either ga-ga, cynical, or both. It’s pretty par for the course stuff, pitching science to a general readership. Typical are the overinflated appeals to the glory of human culture using religious rhetorical figures to what end if not to drum up science enthusiasm as ersatz religion, and research dollars. The problem is that ersatz religion is just as bad as genuine religion, and never quite as good.

Here we have three reason offered as to why we non-science people should care about the Higgs discovery.

“It is natural for those not deeply involved in the half-century quest for the Higgs to ask why they should care about this seemingly esoteric discovery. There are three reasons.

First, it caps one of the most remarkable intellectual adventures in human history — one that anyone interested in the progress of knowledge should at least be aware of.

Second, it makes even more remarkable the precarious accident that allowed our existence to form from nothing — further proof that the universe of our senses is just the tip of a vast, largely hidden cosmic iceberg.

Third, the effort to uncover this tiny particle represents the very best of what the process of science can offer to modern civilization.”

 These to me don’t seem like very good reasons that might matter to most people. It sounds like special pleading. Reason #1 and #3 are too general. Reason # 2 is vaguely philosophical, but not too “remarkable” in that we’ve learned nothing new from Higgs that we didn’t already know about the limits of human perception.

This to me is the most interesting point raised in the article. The miracle of mass — indeed of our very existence, because if not for the Higgs, there would be no stars, no planets and no people — is possible because of some otherwise hidden background field whose only purpose seems to be to allow the world to look the way it does. Conceptually, I like the way the “appearance” of visible things depend upon a diaphanous “background.” Against the philosophical monists, who tend to conceptualize things flat, I like the more matted effect.

But it’s the word “miracle” that grabs my attention. As I’ve posted before in a remark about Sam Harris, I always find interesting the casual use of the word “miracle” on the part of popular science writers. But then for good measure, the author proceeds to snark about religion, insisting that “[to rely] on invisible miracles is the stuff of religion, not science.” This just goes to show the author’s ignorance about religion and miracle in that miracles, in the history of religion, are always designated as “visible,” not invisible.

I’m conflicted about the point that then follows about “running the most complex machine humans have ever built…[this] triumph of technology and computational wizardry of unprecedented magnitude.” It sounds like bragging. But then again, I kind of like that “wizadry” word for the magical thinking and the way it brings the discussion about science back into religion.

The penultimate concluding sentiments are too drippy for words: “Most significantly perhaps, cathedrals and colliders are both works of incomparable grandeur that celebrate the beauty of being alive.” There’s that cathedral metaphor popping up. I posted recently about it appearance in Lev Manovich’s Language of New Media where I minded it less than here. Regarding Higgs, I think I prefer the molasses metaphor getting kicked around. What really sticks in my craw is that I’m not really sure how this enthusiasm for the “beauty of being alive” can scale down to consider the more prosaic problem of evil and catastrophic suffering. At least when religious thinkers fumble the problem of evil, they know what they’re doing.

I think the article in the NYT is supposed to come down to this final conclusion celebrating “our view of ourselves and our place in the universe. Surely that is the hallmark of great music, great literature, great art …and great science.” In the end, we see, it’s all about us, not about that ridiculous little Higgs particle. I actually think that science in the service of the glory of God is just as coherent a sentiment.

Of course, it’s the author’s first use of the term miracle that smells like shark chum for Religion scholars like myself, willing and wanting to assume that sometimes there’s more to rhetoric than “mere” rhetoric. But that’s not where the article goes, not really, even if the happiness is genuine. My guess is that it really is “just the rhetoric” that science writers employ to hook laypeople like myself, a version of Plato’s noble lie.  I just can’t help but feel that the language is incredibly parasitic, and not terribly original once the science gets transposed into more general form of communicative action.

My own constructive alternative would be to do this. Why not pitch it and the $10,000,000 price tag this way?In the medieval rationalist tradition, a good act is considered good, not for an extraneous reward, but purely for its own sake (li’shma). The Higgs discovery is most simply just that. The interesting thing about the Higgs boson is the Higgs boson, not some overinterpretation of “human grandeur.” It’s just knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Can’t the popular science writers leave it at that? God, I wish they would. It would be more elegant and more honest than the ersatz religion that popular science writers insist on serving up, not always, but again and again.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Ga-ga and Cynical? (The Ersatz Religion of Popular Science Writing — Higgs)

  1. Lee Spector says:

    As a scientist I think I’m basically with you on this, but I do think the Higgs boson exciting for reasons more than “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” The “more” for me isn’t anything about “human grandeur,” it’s about the practical implications of knowing the properties of the Higgs, being able to test its properties, being able to (possibly) flesh out a theory of quantum gravity, and being able to practically exploit the implications of that theory.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Lee. But what you describe re: testing properties, quantum gravity, etc, sounds to me like knowledge for the sake of knowledge. What are the practical implications as you understand or anticipate them? And if there are really no practical implications, who cares? We’ve learned something really cool about the world. To me that’s enough, at least for a start.

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