Higgs on Dawkins’ “Fundamentalism”

One of this past year’s biggest science stories, of course, was the news from the CERN that a signal consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson had been found in data from the world’s largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider. The Higgs was named after physicist Peter Higgs, who was one of the first to describe the role of the proposed particle in giving other particles their masses.

I do not know much about him personally, but Dr. Higgs seems to be a fairly sensible fellow. For instance, when the Higgs boson was given the nickname the “God particle” in a book by physicist Leon Lederman, and the name was picked up by the press, Higgs was among those who lamented its misleading implications.Peter Higgs (MFO/G-M. Greuel)

Now he has weighed in with some gentle criticism of Richard Dawkins’ more strident “atheistic fundamentalism.” Despite being a non-believer himself, Higgs says,

“What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”

Higgs’ comments are found in the Guardian’s coverage of Higgs recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, and goes on to report:

[Higgs] agreed with some of Dawkins’ thoughts on the unfortunate consequences that have resulted from religious belief, but he was unhappy with the evolutionary biologist’s approach to dealing with believers and said he agreed with those who found Dawkins’ approach “embarrassing”.

This sympathy between atheistic fundamentalism and the religious fundamentalism it chiefly reacts to is not a new observation. Both cases share a reductionist view of reality, choosing interpretation through a narrow principle—strict materialism in one case, an erroneously shallow biblical literalism in the other—which fails to do justice to the depths of reality.

However, in an attempt to avoid fundamentalism, there is another error that is frequently pursued instead: that of an improper “open-mindedness.” Higgs says, for instance, “Anybody who is a convinced but not a dogmatic believer can continue to hold his belief.” This tolerance towards belief while rejecting “dogmatism” is a theme that has seemed to be getting more common lately, but this seemingly reasonable position is really just a confusion—as can be seen from Higgs saying, immediately after rejecting dogma, that one can “hold their belief.” As Chesterton said, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

It is not, therefore, holding to dogmas (or certainties, even religious ones) that is the problem, because the whole point of intellectual investigation is to find certain truths to cling to. The problem, rather, is in reducing reality and its investigation to a false simplicity. Dawkins makes much of the notion that his view is based on evidence. Catholics ought to wholeheartedly agree with his demand for evidence, but the Catholic ought also to recognize that more kinds of evidence are convincing than simple scientism. Materialism, it turns out, might not be a position that is reached by following the evidence, but is rather an a priori philosophy which rules out some kinds evidence—dogmatically—from the get-go.


(Image: MFO/G.-M. Greuel)

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