The Philosophy of the Higgs Boson

By Klein, Etienne | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Philosophy of the Higgs Boson

Klein, Etienne, Queen's Quarterly

The philosopher Alexandre Koyre explained that the challenge of modern physics, down from Aristotle, is the desire to "explain reality by the impossible." What did he mean? Koyre took the example of the principle of inertia to understand the damping of the movement of bodies that we observe in the empirical world. We try to imagine a movement that does not depreciate, something no one has ever observed and which thus seems impossible. In general, the true physical laws indeed contradict the observation as well as intuition, so they often seem absurd at first.

TODAY, everyone can see that philosophy are two quite separate disciplines--in high school, in most university courses, and even in our brains. This relative independence does not appear to affect the progress of philosophy, nor that of physics, and so there seems no reason to question it. This is especially true since, in appearance, the approach and objectives of physics have little to do with philosophy. One could even argue that these two modes are strangers to each other in the exercise of intellectual activity--that they do not address the same problems, do not involve the same reasoning nor the same faculties, do not meet the same goals, and are not maintained in the same way by society.


Nevertheless, while being different, these two fields of intellectual activity secretly communicate, and when we forget what connects them, we miss opportunities to think, to think differently, to think more than we did before. Gaston Bachelard, who died fifty years ago on October 16, 1962, wrote in Philosophie du non: "Finally, the philosophy of physical science is perhaps the only philosophy that applies in determining an overrun of its principles. In short, it is the only philosophy that is truly open." Indeed, the intellect does not develop only from itself: there is an outside to the mind, and that outside is the real world. The world's physicists are trying to understand this world more precisely, and their findings may bring us closer to a spirit of reason, and may modify the contours of what we call reason.

Physics and Its "Negative Philosophical Discoveries."

WHAT also makes physics so intellectually valuable is that it sometimes produces "philosophically negative discoveries," in the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. What does this mean? It means that some of its results, whether theoretical or experimental, may change the terms in which some philosophical questions arise, providing constraints, and thus inviting it into debates that are a priori external. Consider as an example the question of time: even if we remain strictly philosophical, and quote Aristotle, St Augustine, Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger, it has become difficult to deal with the issue of time as if Einstein's Theory of Relativity had not been "proven correct" throughout the twentieth century.

One of the greatest discoveries in negative philosophical physics has just occurred: on July 4, 2012, CERN physicists announced that they have detected a new particle, the "Higgs boson," thanks to the most powerful particle collider in the world, the LHC. What connection does this have with philosophy? It is the existence of this particle that has virtually undone the ontological link that we were accustomed to make between matter and mass, as if it were obvious to say that these two concepts, mass and matter, are part of the same idea of "substance."

Reinforced for ages by this amalgamation, we are inclined to believe that the mass of material objects, including elementary particles, is linked consubstantially--that an electron, for example, "owns" its mass, in the sense that its mass belongs to it. So our minds tend to follow this course, and we experience the same confusion when we try to image a massless material body as when we try to imagine a pure mass that does not incarnate in a body.

Yet in 1964, three theoretical physicists and true pioneers of the mind--Robert Brout, Francois Englert, and Peter Higgs--suggested that mass, instead of being a property of elementary particles, could just be a secondary property of these particles, resulting from their interaction with the vacuum! …

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