Saturday, December 04, 2010

Book Review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand DesignThe Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow landed on bookstore shelves in 2010 following a great deal of pre-release buzz from newspapers, blogs, and television. The authors’ conclusion was no secret: “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” and therefore, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”1 Have Hawking and Mlodinov found the theory of everything, as they seek to answer the ultimate questions about life? “How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?”2

The authors believe that science is the surest way to answer these questions, as other means have failed. “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.”3 They write that philosophy hasn’t kept up with the physics and can’t speak to such questions. Instead, the reader should look to science:  “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”4 While rejecting philosophy in word, Hawking and Mlodninow nevertheless affirm it in practice, adopting scientism as their philosophy.

So in a brief book (8 chapters at some 180 pages), Hawking and Mlodnivow describe their “candidate for the ultimate theory of everything, if indeed one exists, called M-theory.”5 According to this theory, our universe is not the only one. Instead, “M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.”6 And this idea is the main goal of the book – to argue that physical laws do the creating without the need for God. 

According to Hawking and Mlodinow, “Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life.”7 Throughout the book the authors paint historical vignettes of ignorant, superstitious ancients who invented fantastical deities to account for things that science has since answered. Whether savage tribesmen, popes, Greeks, or young earth creationists – the wisdom (and condescension) of science conquers all. Thus a false dichotomy of science or religion is erected that is no respecter of persons. 

Theirs is a universe governed only by the laws of physics. Asking for the origin of these laws is a non-starter for Hawking and Mlodinow, for “Unless one endows God with some other attributes, such as being the God of the Old Testament, employing God as a response to the first question merely substitutes one mystery for another.”8 In addition, on their view, there can be no exceptions to the laws of physics, for “A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene.”9 Furthermore, “these laws should hold everywhere and at all times; otherwise they wouldn’t be laws. There could be no exceptions or miracles. Gods or demons couldn’t intervene in the running of the universe.”10

After defining away the possibility of miracles and extolling the power of physical laws, the authors further support their position with scientific determinism: “given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God.”11 As Hawking and Mlodinow would put it, “This book is rooted in the concept of scientific determinism, which implies that the answer to [the question of miracles] is that there are no miracles, or exceptions to the laws of nature.”12 And hence the spiral from scientism, to determinism, to reductionism: “…so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”13 

Reading The Grand Design is a mixed experience. It is part history and part philosophy with plenty of discussion of physics. Most welcome is what readers of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time enjoyed before – a fascination and wonder at the universe. Much of the book is an absorbing tour through quantum physics. Along the way the reader also finds full-color photos, diagrams, and illustrations. A significant part of the discussion of M-theory involves the authors’ description of their approach, which they call model-independent realism.

Along with the quantum physics, however, Hawking and Mlodinow offer some quantum leaps: “Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing.” But, not to worry, “a few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars and, in at least one case, beings like us.”14 Thus, “We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe.”15 Rest assured, “Bodies such as stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing. But a whole universe can.”16 So why is there something rather than nothing? “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”17

The authors have set out – and achieved – their goal: “We claim … that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings.”18 The question is, are their answers correct? As for Hawking and Mlodinow, they are confident that the complete theory of the universe “will be a model of the universe that creates itself.”19

In sum, The Grand Design is fascinating and entertaining, even if somewhat anti-climactic. For Hawking and Mlodinow, scientism, determinism, and reductionism rule the day. Unfortunately, The Grand Design has rejected philosophy – and then done it poorly. For the rest of us, nothing still comes from nothing, and universes still don’t create themselves.

1 Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London, England: Bantam Press, 2010), p. 180.; 2 Ibid., p. 5.; 3 Ibid.; 4 Ibid.; 5 Ibid., p. 8.; 6 Ibid., p. 9.; 7 Ibid., p. 17.; 8 Ibid., p. 29.; 9 Ibid., p. 30.; 10 Ibid., p. 171.; 11 Ibid., p. 30.; 12 Ibid., p. 34.; 13 Ibid., p. 32.; 14 Ibid., p. 137.; 15 Ibid., p. 139.; 16 Ibid., p. 180.; 17 Ibid.; 18 Ibid., p. 172.; 19 Ibid., p. 181.

7 comments :

Sigit said...

I think it's just circling around, although they said they didn't admit philosophy, but in the end, they made their own philosophy, although at the first they using science method to the subject. In the end, they show unanswered question about the universe, which is could be answered only by GOD

Ex N1hilo said...

I can't wait till Hawking and company determine how it is that "nothing" fluctuates. A testable model will doubtless be forthcoming shortly. Should be interesting.

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~Ron

Ana said...

“M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.

Clearly, they are not using the word "nothing" in accordance to its literal meaning: the absolute absence of anything.

The absolute absence of anything would include that absence of "physical law".

They are using the word "nothing" in a superficial manner.

“A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene.”

To suggest that scientific law and an interventionist God are mutually exlusive, is a philosophical suggestion. They certainly cannot provide an empirical basis for their assertion.

Trent Collicutt said...

If there was nothing, what was there for physical laws to act upon?

Daniel said...

In addition, on their view, there can be no exceptions to the laws of physics, for “A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene.” Furthermore, “these laws should hold everywhere and at all times; otherwise they wouldn’t be laws. There could be no exceptions or miracles. Gods or demons couldn’t intervene in the running of the universe.”

This seems to assume that divine intervention would cause an "exception" to the laws of physics. This same logic, I believe, would argue that by placing my hand in the path of a falling baseball could not stop the ball from falling according to the law of gravity as this would be an exception, which clearly cannot happen.

Anonymous said...

Hawkings - a perfect example of the extremes in intellect lacking wisdom.

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