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Why is there something rather than nothing?

A question asked perhaps most famously by Martin Heidegger – but posed earlier by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, and, in some interpretations, implied by Thomas Aquinas when he contemplated Aristotle’s concept of a Prime Mover.

We’ll gloss over their different takes on the question and its answer, except to note that Leibnitz was talking about Being, while Heidegger was concerned with Beings – Being instantiated – a concept he referred to as Be-ing. Saved for another day as well: Discussing the idea of a Prime Mover as it relates to causality and religious doctrine.

Finally, we’ll also ignore the contradiction implied by the very question, which bestows existence (Being) upon nothingness. In other words, such as those of Parmenides, it is nonsensical to ask why there is not nothingness, since is implies existence, but nothingness (in the Leibnizian sense) has no such existence. In an accidental homage, it depends what the meaning of is is. Who knew? (Yes, it gets like this – and they knew it: Heidegger also quipped that Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy.)

In any case, philosophers have long dominated the conversation – and for good reason: Without tools to test an idea at a given level of scale, anything goes. An observation-derived prediction of how nature will behave does not necessarily conform to the physical structure of that slice of reality.

Now it’s science’s turn.

As announced on July 4, 2012, the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) has detected a new subatomic particle that is a very plausible candidate for the infamous Higgs boson. In so doing, scientists can at last (albeit provisionally) validate the standard model of particle physics. It’s big news, and long-awaited at that: It was in 1964 that Peter Higgs, Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh and the new particle’s namesake, published his two key papers – “Broken Symmetries, Massless Particles and Gauge Fields and Broken Symmetries and the Masses of Gauge Bosons.

The somewhat belabored point is that in addition to a 40 year-old mathematical mechanism, we can now actually answer the question Why is there something rather than nothing? in a way that even Heidegger might have accepted.

That answer, of course, is the Higgs boson. Actually, not so much the particle itself, but rather the Higgs field. (There’s also the lesser-known Higgs singlet – but that’s another story.|

According to the Standard Model, subatomic particles are associated with corresponding fields – and the only Standard Model-compliant explanation articulated-to-date for how subatomic particles with mass (for example, electrons and quarks) acquire that mass is by interacting with the Higgs field. Moreover, since the theoretical Higgs field can coalesce into a particle state, detecting the Higgs boson means that the Higgs field exists as well.

The short version: If the question Why is there something rather than nothing? is taken as Why are there things rather than no things?, we have our answer in the Higgs.

News travels fast, so it’s no surprise that all manner of metaphorical exaggeration has already emerged. One such humorous, relevant – and therefore bittersweet – observation was The Higgs Boson Makes Its Way Through Congress. In his post on The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy  commented on Dennis Overbye’s New York Times piece on the Higgs announcement, in which the latter wrote that “Particles trying to wade through [the Higgs field] gather mass the way a bill moving through Congress gains riders and amendments, becoming more and more ponderous.”

Levy’s comment?

Overbye’s remarks about “the Higgs mechanism, a pervasive field that gives mass to elementary particles” (and he also compared to the difference between paparazzi making their way through ordinary people or celebrities whose “fame” creates an “inertia,”) turns out to be particularly instructive due to what they say about congressional politics….But let’s hope that Overbye’s figure of speech is also characterized by hyperbole. If it turns out that the Higgs Boson does exist and that it’s one of the major building blocks of life as we know it, then if it’s anything comparable to a congressional bill, it’s going be contaminated—as contaminated as pork barrel politics itself….

From particle physics to progressive politics in a single bound. Imagine that.

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2 Responses to Higgs and Heidegger: Much Ado about…well, Everything

  1. Luther Blissett says:

    “We’ll gloss over their different takes on the question and its answer, except to note that Leibnitz was talking about Being, while Heidegger was concerned with Beings – Being instantiated – a concept he referred to as Be-ing.”

    That’s backwards. Heidegger’s criticism of metaphysics, since Plato and Artistotle, is that it had been absorbed with beings (objects, entities), and neglected the question of being. Heidegger’s be-ing, or beyng (Seyn), is that which makes beings possible, or allows things to emerge for us.

    • Acknowledged. I should have explicated my thought process by specifically discussing (1) Sein as Heidegger’s “ontological difference” distinguishing Being from beings , and (2) Dasein as seen by some as his term for Being as realized by (my phrase was instantiated in) human beings.

      Shortcuts sometimes work…but sometimes you can’t get there from here.

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