The biggest experiment in particle physics, the Large Hadron Collider, starts this summer in Switzerland. The goal is to find signs of an elusive particle called the Higgs boson—also known as the "God particle" because it might ultimately lead to a grand theory of the universe. What impact will the experiments have on our ideas of the cosmos and our place in it? To find out, NEWSWEEK's Ana Elena Azpurua spoke about science and religion with theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg at the University of Texas in Austin. Excerpts:
After this experiment, will we have a final theory of how the universe was created?
It is possible that this experiment will give theoretical physicists a brilliant new idea that will explain all the particles and all the forces that we know and bring everything together in a beautiful mathematically consistent theory. But it is very unlikely that a final theory will come just from this experiment. If had to bet, I would bet it won't be that easy.
As we come closer to developing an ultimate theory of the universe, how will this impact religion?
As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn't contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.
You've said that Darwin's theory of natural selection was the biggest step in this direction. What about the possible findings in particle physics?
I don't think that discoveries in elementary particle physics in themselves are likely to have anything like the impact of Darwin's theory. After all, I don't know of any religious people who say that the breaking of the symmetry between the weak and the electromagnetic interactions requires divine intervention. Discovering the Higgs boson, confirming the theory of electroweak symmetry breaking, is not going to upset people's religion.
What about possible contributions toward finding a final theory? Would that upset religious believers?
If we put together something like a final theory in which all the forces and the particles are explained and that theory also throws light on the origin of the Big Bang and gives us a consistent picture of cosmology, there will be a little less for religion to explain. But religion has evolved along with science. It is something created by human beings, and as human beings learn more and more their religion changes. Today, especially in the more established religious sects in the West, they've learned to stop trying to explain nature religiously and leave that to science.
But won't some people expect to find the presence of a grand designer in that final theory?
That's what was thought at the beginning, but we see less and less possibility of that. The more we learn about the universe the less sign we see of an intelligent designer. Isaac Newton thought that it would require an explanation in terms of the action of God to explain how the sun shone. Now we know that it shines because of the heat produced by the conversion of hydrogen into helium in its core. People who expect to find evidence of divine action in nature, in the origin of the universe or in the laws that govern matter, are probably going to be disappointed.
Are they also going to be disappointed about our position in nature, our purpose?
We don't see any purpose dictated to human beings in nature. Human life does have a purpose, but it is a purpose that we invent for ourselves. It takes a certain act of courage to look at nature, not see any plan for human beings in there and yet go on and live good lives, love each other, create beautiful things, explore the universe. All these take more courage without having some divine plan that we discover, but one that we rather create for ourselves.
Do you think most people have that kind of courage?
I don't know. People have to have a lot of courage just to get on with their lives. And if there is no … Well, I don't know the answer to that question.
You once said that even if we find that final theory, it will still be possible to ask why this one and not another.
Yes, it is true. What will be completely satisfying will be to show that there was only one kind of nature that was logically possible and derive the laws of nature in the same way that we derived the principles of arithmetic. I don't think that will be possible, because we can already imagine logically consistent laws of nature that don't quite describe the world we see. We will always be somewhat disappointed. But people who believe in God have the same problem. They will never be able to understand why the God that they believe in is that way and not some other way. All human beings, whether religious or not, are caught in a tragic situation of never fully being able to understand the world we are in.
At some point will it be possible to find proof that God or the Ultimate Designer does not exist?
I don't think that we can ever prove that God does not exist. But if he does exit it might be possible to prove it.
It might be?
Well, if God did exist and suddenly made himself known by sending thunderbolts to all the people who don't believe in him [Laughs], that would be pretty strong evidence that he exists.
Do you think he would send you one?
He hasn't so far.
Would it be accurate to say that you are an atheist?
Yes. I don't believe in God, but I don't make a religion out of not believing in God. I don't organize my life around that.
Could something found in the Large Hadron Collider or in future experiments make you change your mind?
It is logically possible that something could be discovered that will make me change my mind, and it will be interesting to see if that happens. But I don't expect it. It is always possible that we will discover something in nature that cannot be explained in the naturalistic way that we've gotten used to in science and that will really require divine intervention. That hasn't happened.