Why the Higgs Boson is not a meaningless discovery

I’ve thought a lot about my last post and realised that I’m wrong…not everything is arbitrary, just the matters that we give most attention. I started thinking about this when thinking about something that I usually give little attention, particle physics. For whatever reason the discovery of the Higgs Boson has really got me thinking and prompted by several articles claiming that the discovery is meaningless here are my thoughts.

I’m not a physicist. I don’t claim to be. My understanding of physics is very limited in relative terms to many who have studied the subject. I know little about the laws of thermodynamics or quantum mechanics and I am unable to derive the mathematics of elegant theories, such as that of the Standard Model. I wish I could, to me the subject suddenly seems immensely interesting all of sudden. Although you could also make the case that this does not matter because I understand a great deal about physics by living with it. My place in the solar system is very much a question that, I suspect, physics could begin to explain to me. As I type a great variety of questions that physics explores are taking place; gravity, motion, energy transferal. Yet you could make the case that my ignorance to them is unimportant because it doesn’t have anything practical to add to my life. It’s like teaching birds how to fly – they know how to fly but they do it and they certainly don’t need someone to tell them how. It would not add to their competence. But I think this line of thinking ignores something very fundamental to what it is to be human and what separates us and I will explain why.

 

But to follow this line of thinking there are those that would say that the discovery of the Higgs Boson is of little importance because it has no practical purpose. These same people would argue that it does not add anything to our lives by knowing about it. The Higgs Boson doesn’t alter the way you will go about your day, how you will interact with others or how you will lead you life – so they say. They would argue that subjects like business or law or politics are more important and that developments in these fields matter more. That they serve a practical purpose to how we live our lives. But I would disagree on the strongest terms.

 

When it comes to questions of truth or questions of right or wrong the practical fields have nothing to add. We can, and if we were in the mood could, have a lengthy discussion about different political regimes or about questions of morality. We could even discuss business strategy or investment approaches and other such topics. However even though our knowledge of the subjects will differ, both in terms of the breadth of our understanding and the depth of our understanding we will eventually realise that our conclusions have been derived from assumptions that we have made along the way. Once we get past the jargon and so on that is usually associated with “learning”, especially with those who do not truly understand a subject because they need to talk in such overly complex terms that only a fellow scholar in that field could understand, we would realise that the assumptions that we have made are arbitrary. We may believe they are true but we cannot ever say that they are. You may be pro-choice and I may be against (I’m not but it doesn’t matter) but there is no reason why one is right and one is wrong, even if we may argue as such in the strongest terms. The statements we make in subjects that are generally deemed practical are in fact very impractical statements because they are opinions and opinions alone, regardless of how well we think that they may hold true. Regardless of how well we make the case either way. It may simply be the case that we just haven’t observed something that would disprove your theory yet (in the time dimension) or yet (in the breadth of knowledge). One observation may disprove your viewpoint. That’s the logic of scientific understanding – a theory is just a best guess until something better comes along.

 

However there are a special set of circumstances where the problem of arbitrariness and assumptions does not hold. This is the case where we are able to reduce our understanding to an irreducable level. And this is why I believe the Higgs Boson to be immensely interesting. Take a decision that you make – let’s say that you choose to buy a new pair of shoes. A practical person, usually carrying the job title of an economist,  observing your decision would attribute this to your preferences. You preferred to have the shoes over having the money when you considered your options, or so they may say. But this statement makes a set of assumptions about the way in which people make decisions. It assumes that you have knowledge of information about other things that you could have bought and that you were able to compute before the purchase that you preferred the shoes over the money. Indeed how can you really know until you’ve experienced it? Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist recognised this criticism of the assumptions of economics and tried to side-step this issue cleverly. He said that it did not matter whether the theory was accurate, that people carried out such a computation, it only mattered that people behaved as if they had carried out the decision in such a manner. But this is like saying that you got lucky and happens to be that your luck is holding out, it doesn’t sound like very solid ground to be standing on. However it still didn’t stop the economics profession from taking over fields of finance and politics with such theories. From public policy decisions to regulatory reforms you will realise that the arbitrary assumptions of economics pervade. And since talking about matters of practicality we cannot avoid quoting the great economist J.M. Keynes who said that “practical men, who usually consider themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist.” What he means by this is that these assumptions have very powerful consequences and if they are inaccurate then it has very real consequences.

 

Following the purchasing decision further though there are some that would them begin to look in to the psychology of your purchasing. They may say that imprints and associations over the course of your life, maybe even within the advertising for the product, will lead you to buy the shoes. Again though this makes a set of assumptions about the way in which people make decisions, linking one thing with the other. Now it may very well be the case that in experiments we cannot disprove the link but that doesn’t mean that it is right. Again – it may be that we haven’t experimented thoroughly in all sets of situations for all types of people. Psychology provides a better set criteria because its conclusions are based on observation rather than inference from a set of assumptions but none the less it is less than scientific. So we can go deeper still and in to the brain. We can look at the regions of the brain that are believed to be associated with decisions. We can look at the physiological process that takes place as you choose to buy the shoes. We can study the chemical reactions or the neurons firing and how they fire, why they fire. But this isn’t deep enough so to truly explain we must dig deeper. We must understand the structure of the neurons and the structure of the cells that cause the neurons to fire. We must then begin to look at the structure of the components of cells and then the structure of the molecules that make up the cells. The we must look at the structure of the atoms before finally looking at the structure of the quarks and we must understand these in order to see how these particles behave in order to know how they make up the atoms that make up the molecules that make up the cells that make up the neurons that make up the brain regions that make up your mind that makes you purchase the shoes.

 

In order to truly understand anything, if we want to go beyond the arbitrary, then we need to understand questions that those working at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider are seeking to answer. Fundamental questions about why we are the way we are and why we do what we do. These are not impractical questions, these are extremely practical, or at least as I see it. Understanding the full depth of knowledge is what makes it exciting. It is exciting when we get to the stage at which we cannot simplify things any more because this is when we get to real truth – or at least truth as we understand it at this point in time. This is what the Higgs Boson provides. It provides the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle of how we understand how we came to be. With our current level of understanding we cannot simplify any further. We have reached the bottom of the sandpit but the bottom is fundamental to how our sandcastle is built. There’s a beauty in that and there’s a practicality that only serves to enhance everything other aspect of our knowledge that we have built upon these underlying principles, these laws of nature. The quest to understand is why we left the caves of what we may not be sure but of something new and different. It is why we ended up inhabiting every corner of the planet and why we have for so long craved to explore beyond our atmosphere. It is why we seek out new lovers or new friends and it is why we laugh and we cry. Without discovery then the world would begin to lose its colour. And that is why I consider the discovery of the Higgs Boson to be a very meaningful finding.

 

Everything is arbitrary (…and why it matters)

Why do we do what we do?

We act in order to survive and replicate but the strategies that we pursue to do this are, essentially, arbitrary. The way that we explain things is arbitrary – it could have happened for many reasons. You and I will not see things the same way because we have be shaped by different experiences. We will attribute causality in different ways. We will seek evidence from different sources. We will have different emphases and biases. Was that luck or skill? Was that success or failure? Is it safe or risky?
 
Imprints are important to shaping the way we behave – the experiences that made us who we are along the way. These are the anchors that we use to make decisions based upon, they are the ‘factory settings’. They also determine the way in which we think and we act based on emotional responses (even if we like to think we are rational). These can create thinking traps – the thoughts that hold you back, that force you to bite your lip and wait and the words you use to justify your limitations. Or imprints can set you free. Jay-Z was just an average schoolkid until his 6th grade teacher told him he had a way with words. What if she had bit her lip and never spoken? How would the world be different?

Imprints too are just arbitrary events that have shaped you along the way. This raises the question: who are you? If your personality, your beliefs and your thoughts are shaped externally then is there an authentic you? Would you still think the way you do if you had caught that train, had spoken to that girl or had taken that risk?

Similarly if you aren’t who you want to be then you can change things. You are plasticine in your own hands that you can mould, if only you realised.

Shape your world, do not be shaped by your world. And if you manage this, you owe it to the rest of us to tell us how to do the same.

This is why defaults and social norms are so powerful. They imprint the path to take and affect our behaviour in ways we may never fully realise. Take a simple thought; Times New Roman was for years the default font of choice. What if the decision had been to go with Calibri or Comic Sans, how would the world be different? We know that your imagination responds better to the colour blue than black, how would the world have been different if everything was written in blue? The decision as to what font to use as the default was (probably) arbitrarily decided but this may have an effect on the way we behave, the way we think and the lives we lead.

Consider this; the organ donation rate in the United Kingdom is about 17% whilst the organ donation rate in France is about 99%. Why the difference? A stronger sense of solidarity within the French Republic? Or British rational self-interest?

How about simply the difference between an opt-in and an opt-out box on the form that you fill in when you receive your driving licence? No doubt this default was decided arbitrarily one day by a person who will remain anonymous but their decision on that day inadvertently resulted in a shortage of organs within the British health system whilst another decision has lead to a plethora within the French. It shows the extent to which we follow the road most travelled.

Why not change the default option then? Why not indeed. Yet changing the default is often a big dilemma, only because something existed before. “You can’t change it to blue, it’s always been black”. “You can’t take away my organs, that’s deceitful” “You can’t become an entrepreneur, that’s madness”. How would our behaviour and our imprints be different if that wasn’t the case that some things are arbitrary like this? If the opposite were the norm?

Ultimately the path in life that most people choose is arbitrarily decided based upon the decisions of people they will never meet and who will never be affected by their actions. Going to school and learning what you did is arbitrarily decided. Why maths and not meteorology? Why english and not emotions? Passing tests, getting in to college, going to work is arbitrarily decided by the ‘factory setting’ of the world we live in. It has developed from a default. And most people follow the default.

But the saddest thing of all is that most people never realise this…

Now how do you respond to this? Does this give you a feeling of ultimate fear or ultimate freedom? Because all I’m really saying is: there are no rules.

Do you agree?

I am sure that most people will disagree, but you aren’t most people. Most people accept their circumstances and will never test my theory. Maybe I am wrong, maybe there are some underlying rules to the world. Maybe. But nobody can prove me wrong without first trying to push their possibilities beyond those of everyone that has ever lived. Why not try it today? It doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering. Everything was once just a thought but it’s these small thoughts that can change everything. Just try to test a few rules that you think you have to abide by.

What will you test first?

 

What is this all about?

We all have a manifesto – a “why we are here?”. They may be inscribed on tablets, shouted from mountains or just kept to yourself, one hundred pages long or just one word. But whatever they are, they are there if you take just a moment to think about it. This is mine:

Life is supposed to be enjoyable, to be exciting and to be lived. The World would be an infinitely more exciting place if we all realised that the World is an infinitely exciting place. I want to give the World the how, what and whys of happiness.

So I am creating the World’s first Happiness Workout programme. But this doesn’t have to involve any sweat at all. This is a workout programme that allows everybody to cut out stress from their life, to recover and grow from set-backs and to develop the strength needed to taste every drop of life.

This began as a plan for myself. Starting with a desire to understand two questions:

1) Why aren’t I happy yet?

2) What can I do about it?

Answering this question has already taken me on a journey discussing happiness with everyone from the world’s leading academics, authors and public policy officials to friends, strangers and a scuba diving instructor. From 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament (twice) to Military bases, Buddhist temples, a desert island and the many sweaty nightclubs. And along the way I’ve already met CEOs with more material wealth than they could spend on themselves in a lifetime, families living in cardboard boxes under motorway bridges to models and people with multiple limb amputees. All with the initial aim of devising a way to answer my questions.

Many people will limit this by saying words to the effect of “if just one persons life is improved then I will have succeeded”. But I don’t agree. This would be fantastic but this is not success. Why stop there? This is the start of a Global movement. The most powerful force is an idea in motion.

Join the movement today and together we can do great things…

60 Minute Happiness

The World’s First Happiness Workout Plan – Coming Soon!

In a journey through the fields of neuroscience, behavioural economics, psychology and Buddhist meditation 60 Minute Happiness is a how-to guide to reducing stress, building your core psychological muscles and developing emotional strength.

In a series of simple exercises 60 Minute Happiness will give you the motivation and tools to lead a happier life.

Join the movement in late 2012.

Follow the author @ThomasCornwall on Twitter today for updates, sneak previews and related links. Or just come and say hi…