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Higgs’ Caution and Dawkins’ Unfalsifiable Fundamentalism

Graham Veale
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 British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs has cautioned scientists that Richard Dawkins brand of atheism amounts to “anti-religious Fundamentalism”. To be fair to Dawkins, social scientists and historians might find this claim a little implausible. Historically, “fundamentalism” can describe several groups; Protestant Fundamentalism refers to

 …a movement that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries within American Protestantism reacting against “modernist” theology and biblical criticism as well as changes in the nation’s cultural and social scene. Taking its name from The Fundamentals (1910-1915), a twelve-volume set of essays designed to combat Liberal theology, the movement grew by leaps and bounds after World War I.

Between the two World Wars, many fundamentalists retreated into a subculture which promoted “traditional” Protestant morality, separated from broader Protestant denominations, and became deeply suspicious of the secular academy. The movement evolved further after World War Two. Fundamentalists not only refused to have fellowship with Roman Catholics, Liberals and Ecumenicals; they also withdrew from evangelicals who did have fellowship with those groups.

 So much for the history lesson. Of course, Dawkins has little interest in how academics use the term “fundamentalist”. He understands that the wider public understands fundamentalism as an unthinking and rigid adherence to any set of ideas. He knows that the charge of fundamentalism could do his cause serious harm.

So, Dawkins is being forced to argue that he is not a fundamentalist; to do so, he needs a definition of fundamentalism that captures the popular understanding. He stipulates that fundamentalism means  unfalsifiable faith - very roughly,your belief is unfalsifiable if  no amount of evidence can show it is false.  Now, Dawkins might be a bit “passionate”, but he insists that he is an open-minded fellow, who follows the evidence wherever it takes him.

… please, do not mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Passion for passion, an evangelical Christian and I may be evenly matched. But we are not equally fundamentalist. The true scientist, however passionately he may “believe”, in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will.

 Actually, even Christian fundamentalists will insist that their faith is not unfalsifiable in principle – show them Jesus body in its tomb, and they will abandon Christianity. Furthermore, Dawkins atheism seems unfalsifiable. His famous “Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit” asserts that:

 “any God capable of designing a universe … must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide” (The God Delusion 2006, p. 147).

the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. (The God Delusion 2006, p. 158)

 It simply doesn’t matter what evidence we present to Dawkins – he will simply assert that God does not explain that evidence, because:

 “any God capable of designing a universe … must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide” (The God Delusion 2006, p. 147)

Dawkins certainly doesn’t feel the need to respond – or even acknowledge – the numerous scholarly and academic critiques of the gambit. Dawkins dabbles in a bit of theology when he speculates about what God would be like if he existed. He concludes that God would be like a giant brain, or a vast computer. Theologians and philosophers (including atheists!) have pointed out that – to put it as gently as possible – there are more plausible alternatives that Dawkins has not considered.

One would assume that the Professor, like a good rationalist, would put pen to paper and respond to these detailed academic arguments with some sound counter-arguments of his own. However, it seems that Dawkins would rather converse with Chief Rabbis and Archbishops, who are less likely to subject his arguments to rigorous critique .

Furthermore, rather than following the evidence wherever it goes,  Dawkins continues to assert that faith is belief in the absence of reason. This is amusing, because the historical evidence clearly shows that most Christians would not recognise his definition of faith. He would rather not check this Enlightenment myth against the facts. So, Dawkins seems pretty unfalsifiable on some points; if that’s the definition of fundamentalism, the shoe fits. Perhaps, with time, he’ll find it a bit more comfortable.