Thursday, July 05, 2012

All that matters is matter itself

An historic day for science and our understanding of nature yesterday couldn’t fail to contrast with a bad day for democracy when after hours of meandering questions, MPs came no closer to understanding the truth about interest-rate rigging by a global bank. 

While it’s true that it took hundreds of scientists almost half a century to establish in practice a theory about the existence of a sub-atomic particle that gives matter mass, holding the universe together, they sought an altogether objective, deeper knowledge.

Members of the treasury select committee who questioned ex-Barclays chief Bob Diamond were, on the other hand, merely concerned with who did what, when, as if that was all that mattered. The inner processes at work, the logic of capitalist banking, understandably, never entered their minds.

Apparently conceived on a rainy weekend in 1964 by Edinburgh academic and atheist Professor Peter Higgs, the almost certain discovery of the boson was announced in the presence of  the 83-year-old at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva.

Higgs has always despised the description “God particle”, which implies that it owes its existence to a supernatural deity. In fact, the virtual verification of the Higgs theory is much more like the "there is no God" particle.

In the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the church was forced to retreat on the idea that a mysterious deity created the earth and all its contents in under a week. Dr Lee Rayfield scientist and the Bishop of Swindon had to take another step back yesterday.

He had to agree that the Higgs boson provided “crucial support that the prevailing scientific theory for the nature of the universe”. But then he claimed that it left “unanswered questions that science alone can never address". The unanswered questions are being answered one by one, however. 

And not by faith but by rigorous scientific investigation which leaves no room for divine intervention. As Richard Lewontin, the noted evolutionary biologist, put it:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

If this result holds up, then the Cern team will have answered an absolutely central question as to why matter in and of itself has mass. That all matter, which includes humans, is in constant motion and transformation is verified by the discovery. The Higgs boson exists in relationship to other forms of matter, imparting a necessary force and substance.

With just one in two million chance of it being wrong, the breakthrough also demonstrates that what at first sight seems an unknowable, Kantian "thing in itself" becomes the knowable "thing for us" as a result of human interaction, experimentation and analysis.

New doors are opening. Some of the scientists are already saying that this particle has some unpredicted behaviours that may give insights into very poorly understood aspects of cosmology such as dark matter and dark energy

Professor Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of sciences noted: "The project at Cern is a testament to what can be achieved in science when countries come together and pool resources and brains. Today moves us a step closer to a fuller understanding of the very stuff of which the universe is made."

A parallel, rigorous scientific approach to our understanding the essence of another form of matter – capitalist society – is not only possible but necessary. While it is breaking down in front us, conscious human intervention is needed to transform society into a thing for us. Historical evolution needs a push in the right direction.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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