Mind Over ‘Dark’ Matter – The Higgs-Boson & The Value of Theoretical Academic Enquiry

CERN’s recent discovery of a particle consistent with the long sought-after Higgs boson has been hailed as a momentous achievement in physics. According to press releases, the finding provides substantial support for the standard model of the universe, since it explains why the particles proposed by the standard model should have mass. Although the complex physics underlying this explanation may be beyond non-physicists (such as myself), even we lay-people can understand that this finding represents a huge step forward in our understanding of the universe.

However, the response to the success at CERN amongst lay-people (in my anecdotal experience) has been mixed. The mix of responses is also evidenced in the various comments sections on online media reports (although that is not to suggest that this should be taken as a representative sample). Some people are hugely excited by the discovery. Others are completely apathetic. Somewhat tellingly, there was a meme doing the rounds on the internet on the day that the discovery was announced despairing of the fact that the top trending article on ‘yahoo’ that day had been about the adolescent pop-star Justin Bieber storming out of an interview, and not about the most important physics discovery of the century.

Particle physics and cosmology is not for everyone; we may lament the fact that some people are more interested in the inanities of the world of celebrity than in attempts to unravel the mystery of the universe, but it is not clear that this should cause us moral concern. However, one opinion that is frequently voiced in comments on reports of the discovery is that the whole endeavour to find the Higgs-Boson has been an outrageous waste of money. Such critics point out that during a time of global recession, it is morally irresponsible to spend vast amounts of money (something in the vicinity of £2.6 billion) on a purely theoretical experiment which is not designed to tackle any significant social problem or health concern.

I think that it is important to defend against this sort of opinion. Two arguments weigh against it; the first is applicable to only to scientific research, whilst the second is applicable to academic research broadly conceived.

The first point to make is that although scientific discoveries often lead to useful practical applications, these practical applications are not only often not the goal of the experiments which led to the discovery, but they are also not even foreseeable consequences. Of course, some of the scientists who have made world changing discoveries may have been attending to particular practical problems. For instance, even though Fleming discovered penicillin by accident, this accidental discovery occurred as part of his research to find a chemical that could stop bacterial infection, research that was motivated by his first hand experience of the devastating effects of such infection in WW1. However, as Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, claims “Most researchers won’t know what the societal or economic benefit [of their research] will be until after [the research] has been done, and there could be unforeseeable benefits that weren’t anticipated when the research project started.”(What’s your research worth? – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences at http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55337/#ixzz1zqKeiZ64).

As such, it seems plausible to claim that many scientists are not motivated by a particular practical problem like Fleming; instead, it seems that they are driven by to conduct their experiments out of a spirit of scientific curiosity. However, although these experiments may not have been motivated by practical considerations, they may yet lead to practical applications which the researcher did not even dream of. Perhaps more importantly, it is the spirit of scientific curiosity which engenders creativity in science, and which will lead to the sort of revolutionary technologies that could potentially eradicate the social problems or health concerns that the critics of CERN highlight. The important point is that the fact that certain theoretical experiments are not carried out in the hope of providing some foreseeable practical benefit does not entail that no such benefit shall arise; we cannot tell what practical applications that the results at CERN may one day lead to.

The scientific knowledge obtained in theoretical experiments will thus often have instrumental value. However, the second reason that we should refrain from calling the experiment at CERN a waste of money is that there is a case for claiming that knowledge itself has intrinsic value, irrespective of the benefits that it may be instrumental to. There seems to be something to be said for the view that it is just a good to have knowledge about the way in which our universe works.

This sort of thought can be extended to other fields, including the one to which many of the contributors and subscribers of this blog belong to, namely philosophy. Philosophy and many other humanities subjects can seldom be said to have direct practical benefits in the same way that the natural sciences can have. In the economised societies that we live in, this leads many to attack these disciplines as worthless. How can knowledge or enquiry be a good if it will not lead to cures for cancer, more stable economies, or solutions to climate change? In reply, we might first point out the goals that the objector points out here are not intrinsic goods in themselves, but  instrumental; we would value a cure for cancer not as an end in itself, but rather because it would be a means to alleviating suffering, and prolong lives that we believe to be valuable. Accordingly, the successful accomplishment of these goals would be valuable in so far as they are a means to human well-being, which may plausibly be deemed intrinsically valuable. Now the knowledge attained in academic enquiries may be deemed as instrumental to well being on certain objectivist theories. However, it might also be plausible to claim that knowledge is just a different sort of intrinsic good from well being. Furthermore, to return to the natural sciences, it seems that it is this belief in the intrinsic value of knowledge that spurs the spirit of scientific curiosity, which, I suggested above, engenders the creativity in science, which is most fecund to the practical benefits that we often demand of it.

However, it does not seem to me that enquiry into the humanities should have any less intrinsic worth than theoretical enquiries in the natural sciences. Both enquiries can enrich human life not just because they make the world more intelligible to us, but also because they can alter the way in which we understand our existence. There is more to life than Justin Bieber leaving a radio interview early.

Academic enquiry can have instrumental value, and perhaps this is the easiest way in which we can justify publically funding it. But that should not make us lose sight of the idea that these enquiries might also have intrinsic value. The success at CERN should be celebrated and defended; the reception to it in some quarters should also give us in the humanities cause to consider the value of our particular enquiries.

 

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10 Responses to Mind Over ‘Dark’ Matter – The Higgs-Boson & The Value of Theoretical Academic Enquiry

  • George Watson says:

    I am not sure that an absolute line of distinction can always be drawn between what has instrumental value and what has intrinsic value.

    I would suppose those who suffered from the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki might disagree with any claim that said

    the splitting of the atom and subsequent research was intrinsically valuable. It seems to me that unless we have the wisdom to

    use whatever new knowledge we discover – we really should be careful about saying all new knowledge is intrinsically valuable.

    If there are any physicists out there can they explain why the Higgs Boson, if now proved to have existence, is not a revival of the

    old “Theory of Ether” that the Michelson/Morley experiments – at least in appearance if not in some factual way. Thanks.

  • Crunk Bodangle says:

    It is a revival of sorts, but the aether of old had neither a carrier particle nor any serious theoretical prediction of expected properties, etc. In any case, the Higgs may only apply to non-dark mass and ultimately say very little about most of the matter in our universe… Can’t wait for the Dark Matter supercollider. Instead of a God particle it will serve up an anti-God particle and wake Nietzsche from his grave.

  • michael says:

    interesting thoughts,

    but kind of empty if you do not define what you would consider a waste of money.

    some examples would help

    thanks

  • Dave Frame says:

    Agree about intrinsic value and the unforeseen technology thing, but how about “insurance” as a third potential benefit of free enquiry? In a world where black swan events are potentially many, hard-to-quantify, hard-to-rule-out and decision-relevant, it seems like a good idea to let a few brainiacs loose in each direction to see what they might find. Sort of a Monte Carlo investigation of the frontier of ideas. Examples: investigation of the geological record has let us discover that there are few things that really seem to matter in terms of creating loads of dead organic matter (incl us, potenially) – eg large igneous provinces & asteroid strikes. So thinking about arcane things (such as the Oort cloud and Siberian Traps) might actually turn out to be surprisingly practical. There are lots of other examples – the discovery of the ozone hole, for instance, was basically a fortuitous discovery made possible by scientists persuading decision makers that atmospheric chemistry might be vaguely useful.

    • michael says:

      don’t understand the relevance with respect to the Higgs.

      a well planned and hollywood like scenario for the presentation.

      In contrast, the neutrino speed fake discovery fits into what you want to
      fund because of ?

      so lets try to be clear and think about what is relevant and what not

      and yes, the discovery of the jupiter moons was very cheap and brought the sky to fall
      over rom and the Vatican. Without any other practical use..
      but real progress for mankind no?

      of course, such research would never be funded today!

      so please try to define a little more before judging.

      • Dave Frame says:

        Jonny gave a couple of justifications for spending public money on arcane R&D: (1) instrumental value via new tech and (2) intrinsic value. I was adding a third, which could be seen as another strand of instrumental value, and that was insurance. In terms of the argument Jonny is advancing, though, the Higgs is just one (expensive) example of research that many in the modern era find hard to justify. It’s just an interesting frontline in discussions over the justifcation of public resources for elitist projects. Agree that renaissance astronomy had huge intellectual ramifications for Europe – it was an early exemplar of new social practices that freed minds and allowed the establishment of an unbelievably powerful form of knowledge generation. Galileo’s experiments are a nice example of potential feedbacks between intrinisic and instrumental value – the new intellectual climate that the Renaissance ushered in made the Enlightenment possible (with all the immensely powerful technologies that gave rise to…).

  • Ken paulin says:

    The discovery of the Higgs Boson might well have very significant practical applications. If in the future we understand the mechanism and interaction between the higgs and matter it may be possible to affect that interaction. Thus either increasing or decreasing mass and inertia. This may very well be the first step to anti-gravity propulsion. Would that not be a significant contribution to the world and its problems. If we can reduce mass we can also reduce inertia and the fuel needed to overcome it. The ramifications of such knowledge is staggering and truly has the potential to change everything.

    • michael says:

      sorry to say so, but this idea is complete nonsense!

      the discovery is at most demonstrating that the scientific method
      works even with extraordinary abstractions…

      a miracle you can call it if you want but not more!

      the discovery of the jupiter moons was far more important

      regards

      michael

  • Michael Cohen says:

    Dear Editor,

    I am contacting you with regard to your recent articles on about Higgs Boson. The have omitted an important contribution the the welfare of humanity and our planet. Perhaps it once seemed too hypothetical or remote. It is not any more. 

    As you have noted, Higgs Boson has now been identified. Scientific methodology verifies that the essence of our universe is the sub-atomic “God Particle” of the Big Bang. Significantly, that particle consists of natural attraction energy originally holding other particles together and continuing to grow through the eons. and become our universe today. The name given to this fundamental attraction phenomenon is “nature.” Natural attraction is how nature works. 

    At Project NatureConnect, the therapeutic science of Natural Attraction Ecology has long identified the core of the universe to be natural attraction. To “flaky” for most periodicals, since 1982 its methods and materials have helped people make conscious sensory contact with the purifying and healing power of nature’s fundamental attractions in and around us. This has increased personal, social and environmental well being

    With the recent identity of the Higgs Boson, I submit that our Natural Attraction Ecology way of thinking and feeling is scientifically accurate and an important practical contribution to personal, social and environmental well-being. It deserves your attention on behalf of your readers because it makes sense to help them benefit from it.

    For Peace,

    Michael J. Cohen, Ph.D.

    For immediate release:

    Nature Professor Says Higgs Boson Omission in our Thinking Corrupts Our Planet, Economy and Wellness

    San Juan Island, Washington, July 5, 2012: “New evidence for the Higgs Boson atomic particle further affirms that a fundamental attraction energy gave birth to the Big Bang and grew into a tangible essence of the material and non-material world that we enjoy today.” This is the conclusion of an article appearing in the Journal of Organic Psychology entitled: “Those Who Are Attracted to Discover Higgs Boson Have Already Found It.”

    The article validates that, like everything else, our senses, feelings and psyche are natural attraction continuums of the Higgs Boson. They bring the balanced wisdom and purity of the universe to our body, mind and spirit. To our loss, we suffer because our socialized story way of knowing in Industrial Society excessively rejects and separates us from the Higgs Boson’s self-correcting powers in and around us.

    The article’s author, Dr. Michael J. Cohen, a Project NatureConnect program director at the Akamai University Applied Ecopsychology Institute says that, for the survival of life, including our life, it is normal for our 53 inherent natural senses to register, think with and help us maintain balanced relationships using information obtained by genuinely connecting with sensory “Higgs Boson” attraction energy. 

    “What is abnormal,” Cohen says, “Is that we omit our wisdom of the ages in our senses from our thoughts and feelings; we label natural sensations to be subjective, flaky or environmental passion. The result of this ‘sin of omission’ is a psychological warp that is corrupting our planet, economy and wellness.” 

    Cohen, an Ecotherapist and author of “Educating, Counseling and Healing With Nature” says, “To our benefit, doing activities that help us make sensory contact with authentic natural areas, backyard or backcountry, enables our thoughts, feelings and spirit to consciously interlace with natural attraction and its purifying powers. Anybody who has had a restorative experience while spending quiet time in nature knows this joy full well.”  

    “We are excessively destructive because we are out of tune with natural attraction and its powers,” says Cohen. “We spend, on average, less than twelve hours of our total life span in conscious sensory contact with nature in and around us. To fully benefit from the Higgs Boson ‘God particle,’ we must acknowledge the natural attraction paradox noted by St. Francis and others, ‘What we are looking for is doing the looking.”

    The pioneering mission of Project NatureConnect is to help our thoughts and feelings tap into nature’s renewing natural attraction love that flows in, around and through us. The online program’s subsidized, UNESCO approved, training courses and degrees enable individuals to activate 53 natural senses that we inherit and thereby make conscious sensory contact with the life-nurturing attraction energy of the ages found in natural areas, backyard or backcountry. This Educating, Counseling and Healing With Nature (ECHN) process, the science of Natural Attraction Ecology, gives us the ability to strengthen and apply purifying and healing power in ourselves and others through Ecopsychology connections in natural areas. Some participants have called ECHN the “Unified Field Theory in action.”

    For further information visit http://www.SaneEarth.com

    The address of the Higgs Boson attraction article http://www.ecopsych.com/journalstfrancis.html

    Contact:

    Dr. Michael Cohen at 360-378-6313, email http://www.ecopsych.com/mjcohen.html

    Biography of Michael J Cohen:

    Recipient of the 1994 Distinguished World Citizen Award, Applied Ecopsychologist Michael J. Cohen, Ph.D., Ed.D., is a Program Director of the Institute of Global Education where he coordinates its Integrated Ecology Department and Project NatureConnect. He also serves on the faculty of Portland State University and the Akamai University Institute of Applied Ecopsychology whose program he initiated and has directed since 1990. In 1965, Dr. Cohen discovered that Planet Earth acts like a living organism and from this he founded sensory, Gaia based, degree granting Environmental and Expedition Education outdoor programs independently and for the National Audubon Society and Lesley University. He conceived the 1985 National Audubon International Symposium “Is the Earth a Living Organism,” at the University of Massachusetts and established the sensory science of Natural Attraction Ecology in 2008. He is the Editor of the “Journal of Organic Psychology and Natural Attraction Ecology” and an award winning author of ten books dealing with Applied Ecopsychology including “Educating, Counseling and Healing With Nature,” “The Web Of Life Imperative” and “Reconnecting With Nature.” Dr. Cohen is also an accomplished folk song artist and contra dancer who presents traditional music programs accompanied by guitar, banjo and accordion for the U.S. National Park Service and Skagit Valley College
    Elderhostel on San Juan Island, Washington.

    A video about his lifework may be viewed at
    http://www.imdb.comtitle/tt1357054

    CONTACT: http://www.ecopsych.com
    Telephone 360-378-6313, Pacific Time Zone

  • Miguel Antunes says:

    Dear Jonny,

    The critics of the investment of 2,6 billions (me included) claimed that such money could have been applied in areas where there is more probability of getting direct benefit to people, as health research.
    Your counterargument seems to be that some benefit will come out of this experiment in the end, but the problem is that applied science, in a crisis scenario, translates a much direct immediate benefit to the populations.
    You say that scientist don’t know whether their research will bring something useful, but I think that even applied physics can translate more immediate benefits that theoretical physics (I’m not talking of the importance of the discoveries, I’m talking of immediate value).
    I believe that, as the US did, we should postpone very expensive theoretical research to a time of better economic stability.

    Best regards,

    Miguel Antunes

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