Whichever may be the current seven wonders of the world, there is now a new entrant. The Large Hadron Collider, built by the Cern laboratory at Geneva, was scheduled to start operations on 10 September. Potentially it could change our whole picture of the universe and take us right into the heart of what happened at the Big Bang.
The LHC is a particle accelerator, a 27 kilometre ring, designed to bring about collisions by protons travelling near to the speed of light. Such collisions will yield particles, or traces of particles, some of which have been foreseen but never seen, and perhaps others of whose existence we presently have no clue. The premier quest is for the Higgs boson, sometimes called the “God Particle”. The Higgs boson should explain how the basic building blocks of matter acquire mass. The LHC is an extraordinary feat of engineering and science: in itself a tribute to the massive potential of the human brain. If its initial runs have not started a chain reaction which destroys the universe (not impossible) we must still expect months and years of work before solid results can be analysed and established.
The phrase “God particle” makes us think. Do we, or others, suspect that one day we will know of a universe which does not require the creative hand of God? Some may remember Yuri Gagarin’s return from the first manned space flight in 1961, which apparently proved that there was no Heaven since he had failed to find it. But we may take some consolation from the fact that the proponent of the Big Bang theory, in the teeth of scientific orthodoxy, was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest.
Another wonder of the world, intellectual rather than monumental, is the Darwinian theory of evolution. There seems to be little doubt that it provides the spine of our understanding how living matter and the different species came about. Of course there are missing links because of lack of fossil record, but the number of these reduce, as new discoveries are made.
Meanwhile our recent ability to chart the genome of different organisms has provided much new evidence to support the theory. Its mechanisms are considerably more complex than Darwin thought, or as the popular mind understands it. The ways in which the genes interact are difficult to unravel, and we are really only on the threshold of exploring the gene modifiers, which can make identical genes behave in dissimilar ways. Scientists are beginning to understand the part that viruses (effectively little roaming packets of genetic material) play in the process, and there are credible theories about how they may have brought about the initial formation of cellular life. All this has led many to infer that our own species is no more than an outcrop of the higher apes, and that human intelligence and faculties are just the latest – but not necessarily the last – stage of the basic evolutionary process. God has become a surplus hypothesis.
No less startling is our growing understanding of the brain, which has been much facilitated by new methods of scanning its operation. Our temperaments, our tendencies, our emotions, our perceptions, our decisions are all being charted in the different and connected functions of the brain. It would seem that all we call human – from freedom of the will to our aspirations towards the true and the good – are no more than the outcome of synapses firing at the behest of this vastly complicated organ fashioned by evolution. And what we have not yet charted we will chart at an accelerating pace in the future. Is God part of the picture?
To which of course the answer must be: no.
Think of the relationship between a picture and its artist. In the picture the artist expresses himself in many ways. But he remains outside it, or perhaps we could say that he transcends it. If the characters in the picture could, in our fancy, observe and think, they might glean some limited ideas about the artist. They could even discern some simple facts about him: that he must exist or they would not exist might be such a fact; that he has a sense of colour and harmony might be another. But although the conclusions may be true they are crude and indirect – the true nature of the artist can never be understood by the characters which he has created.
You can see where this analogy is going. We are the characters whom God has painted, and we can no more see God in his divine nature than the characters can see the human nature of the artist. Of course the analogy is not complete because God has communicated with his characters through Revelation, and most particularly through the Incarnation. But there are still limits. When Jesus says to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the father”, Philip cannot see the divine nature directly. What he can see is the fullest image of the divine nature that is accessible to man, through the person of Jesus.
So we delight in the work of the Hadron Collider because it will tell us more about how the divine artist painted his picture. We welcome the deeper understanding of evolution, and the construction of the mind – wondering at the ingenuity and economy of the process of creation. But most of all we are aware of a privilege never given to the character in a painting: we are offered a reciprocal relationship with the artist who created us. Today we see him darkly: one day it will be face to face.
I wonder whether Secondsight readers find this analogy helpful. Analogies are always limited, and you may be able to think of a better one. Sceptics think that we believe that God is just the ultimate superhuman, and part of the universe. Does the way we speak of God contribute to this misunderstanding? And it may be that our scientifically trained readers can contribute more information to this topic.