Hadron Collider – Unlocking Life’s Greatest Mysteries? I Don't Think So...
'Unlocking the secrets to life in our universe?' Well, perhaps not...
There's no doubt that the Large Hadron Collider, which runs for 27kms (17 miles) near the French/Swiss border and was fired up earlier this week, is a hugely impressive piece of machinery.
I suppose it ought to be having cost £3 billion. Physicists believe that this will eventually prove a wise investment. They're expecting all kinds of useful discoveries to emerge over the next months and years.
The Collider's ultimate task is to recreate the conditions that followed the first one billionth of a second after the Big Bang, which scientists believe kicked off the universe.
The whole thing works, apparently, by firing subatomic particles round a one-yard-wide metal tube, squeezing them into beams that are thinner than a human hair. The beams are fired in opposite directions.
Over the next few months, these beams will be made to collide, smashing into each other up to 600 million times per second.
Just being able to get a stream of subatomic photons to move, with anything like this precision, at near the speed of light, around a monster underground tube, is surely a major feat of ingenuity in itself.
I for one am definitely impressed by the scale of this 'machine'.
However, to say that all this will answer the most profound questions of life, as some commentators are claiming, is ridiculous.
Now, I consider myself a pretty forward-looking person on the whole - I definitely spend a good deal more time studying likely future trends than most people; it's part of my job.
Yet science, for all its impressive feats, will never answer the deepest questions that play on our minds, because those questions are not about the 'how' of life in the universe - they're about the 'why'.
For all we know, the construction of the Collider we may lead to discoveries that will stand conventional scientific wisdom on its head, perhaps even impacting how human beings see their place within the cosmos.
It's happened before in history: as when human beings discovered that the earth orbits the sun, and not vice versa.
But even if this happens, even if physicists get the Collider to do amazing feats, science will still not be able to answer those most fundamental of all human quandaries: why am I here and what is my purpose?
This is not the realm of science at all, but that of faith.
Some would argue that this is the purview of theology and philosophy, yet in a sense even they can't help us. They are academic constructs which try to systematize what is in reality non-systematic and subjective.
Worthy though they are, in the end it's only a very personal faith that can help us bridge the gap between the mystical or transcendent and the real or mundane.
Yes, faith is subjective. But that doesn't mean that it is not rooted in objective realities. For example, there would be no Christian faith without the actual historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
And everything involving human beings is, to some degree, subjective - including science.
The scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn showed how scientists, being human, must base their findings not simply on the facts they see -- but on the assumptions they make about those facts.
They rely upon those assumptions in order to can build paradigms and theories which they can then test through experiments.
The scientist takes a paradigm, based on partly subjective assumptions, and uses it as a basis for further exploration. So, in a sense, even scientists must place their 'faith' in something, before they can prove anything.
For a long while now, our overly-secularized, materialistic culture has preached a dogma that relegates faith to the realm of harmless eccentricity. Science, says this belief system, is concerned with facts, while faith deals with fantasy.
In fact, in the wake of scientists like Darwin many people have grown up thinking of science as a "no God" zone. But there have always been many scientists, including some very big names, who've had to a strong religious faith.
There still are. These people see no conflict between pure science and faith. In fact, some of them have come to faith because of science, not in spite of it.
In response to the fuss about super colliders this week, many people of faith will ask: 'What came before the Big Bang?' If everything that exists must have a cause, going back far enough should bring us eventually to a great uncaused cause - or, in religious terms, God.
But that particular journey, beyond the physical into the metaphysical or spiritual, isn't one that we can take using science. The existence of God will never be proven in a laboratory.
In fact, the existence of God is probably not as important a subject as the nature and character of God. After all, if God is a complete tyrant, a celestial psychopath, we're all in a lot of trouble and the future isn't bright.
We might say that science, at its best, honours the Creator and helps equip us to be better stewards of his cosmic creation. And, in these fast-paced, demanding times, I think we should all be grateful for the life-enhancing (and often life-saving) technologies science has given us.
But unless we're willing to explore the questions of faith, to shake off our present preoccupation with pure secularism and pop-atheism, we can't possibly claim to be anywhere near unlocking the deepest mysteries of life in our universe.
Knowing our deepest selves - and knowing God - is not something we can achieve by colliding photons.
Copyright Mal Fletcher 2008