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Hawking’s Grand Design – Cosmology Still Needs God?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 17, 2010

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”. It’s a mathematical non-answer to the meaning of life. Stephen Hawking references this in his new book The Grand Design, and in a strange parallel also suggests a mathematical answer, as theoretical physics essentially relies on mathematics. But does it work?

The Grand Design

Cards on the table, I’ve read a vast amount of commentary but haven’t read the book yet. [Edit: I’ve read it now, see below] So this is a review of the reviews, and it’s fair to say the reviews are mixed. There are some five star articles which praise the book as an easy read for a popular audience. Others castigate Hawking and Mlodinow’s book for being dumbed down too much, and for not actually explaining the science.

As I understand it, Hawking isn’t proposing anything new, this is simply a popular account of the current state of play. It happens the author is Stephen Hawking, and he gets a lot of media love. I wonder if a similar book by someone else would have got as much attention?

Blake, Grand Architect of the Universe

William Blake, that hoary old Mason: The Grand Architect of the Universe

Background reading: Cosmogony (Cosmogeny) is the study of the very start of the universe. Cosmology is the study of the whole thing and Wikipedia has a rather good summary of current ideas, although you might need a little science understanding to appreciate some of it.

Hawking and Mlodinow‘s current view is that one version of multiverse theory, M-Theory explains it all, however some reviews say the authors don’t really explain M-Theory, and just use it as a magic bullet. M-theory, as some critics have pointed out, is currently only a mathematical construct in theoretical physics, lacks predictive power and so far is untestable. As happened with its predecessor string theories, it would not be surprising if contradictions or incompleteness are found in the near future. There are also other possibilities under discussion.

Because they’re unobservable, multiverse theories are also untestable, blurring the line between science and speculation and making them controversial in the scientific community. Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt has called the multiverse “a dangerous idea that I am simply unwilling to contemplate.”

The same article also speaks of “the growing credibility of multiverse theory”.

So really, Hawking is saying “A few of us think the M-theory multiverse and gravity can generate this universe from nothing, and it doesn’t require a God. (But also doesn’t rule one out.)”

Poor on Science and Philosophy

There are some very positive reviews but I was surprised how many mediocre and even scathing reviews of the book there are by atheists, who want the book to succeed but find it derisory. From a couple of the better reviews:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing […] Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to […] set the universe going.”

This quotation from the book is a good summary of its main thesis. As a statement of our understanding of physics and cosmology this is very likely correct. … As a philosophical statement, however, this is a total disaster. The authors say early in the book that “philosophy is dead”. It certainly is— in their heads.

For instance, what is the meaning of “is” when they say that “there is a law like gravity”? Do they mean that gravity has a real existence, like you and me exist? In this case the creation of the universe is not really spontaneous, because the existence of gravity is necessary to it. …

It is possible that gravity and quantum mechanics allow the “spontaneous” creation of the universe and everything in it. This is, however, not a solution to the problem of existence, because the nature of the existence (or reality) of gravity and quantum mechanics is left unexplained. The authors are too ignorant of basic philosophy to understand this.

My two-star rating is not just because of the bad philosophy. It is to point out that there are much better books on this subject for the general reader. I particularly recommend Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality as an informal, but deep introduction to cosmology. I also recommend Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications as a book on the theory of everything. Deutsch’s book is particularly important because it is very sophisticated from a philosophical point of view. Of course, Deutsch’s philosophy is totally wrong, but it does not matter: Deutsch’s book is an important one, while the present book is lightweight fluff (just look at the illustrations!)

~ Filipo Neri (accessed from Amazon 12 Sept 2010, but now unavailable)

Another cites errors:

On philosophy, he takes many out of context. An example of this can be given on page 22, “Epicurus (341 BC-270 BC), for example, opposed atomism on the grounds that it is “better to follow the myths about the gods [than] to become a ‘slave’ to the destiny of natural philosophers”. Yes, Epicurus certainly says that; but, he was also a staunch materialist. He certainly didn’t reject atomism— he even created his own special kind. Again, on page 135, “Over the centuries many, including Aristotle, believed that the universe must have always existed in the order to avoid the issue of how it was [caused].” Aristotle believed God created the universe and set it into motion before retreating to self-contemplation. Above and beyond outright confusing statements, there are also many statements that are left without support, and kind of feel out of place. Claims that “[Pythagoras] did not discover the theorem that bears his name”— then who did and what is your point?

The science explanations are also exceptionally poor. …

On speaking of Ptolemy’s model being poor “it contains dozens of adjustable parameters whose values must be fixed to match observations, rather than being determined by the theory itself”. I’m just not sure I can conclude that M Theory or String Theory aren’t fixed to match observations. From the text it sounds like they are.
~ from Amazon

The book opens with the claim “Philosophy is dead”, which in context probably just refers to the particular area of philosophy that discusses the origin of the universe. I doubt philosophers are afraid they’ll be out of a job (echoes of the Hitchhiker’s guide, again). Several reviewers point out the book spends a great deal of time presenting what is actually philosophy, not science, and poor philosophy at that.

The God Question

Now for the big question, the one the book is marketed on: Does a multiverse pose a problem for belief? A very useful look at this topic written before Hawking’s book was published says multiverse theory “has failed to create the opposition between religion and the multiverse that [some critics] expect.”

Oxford’s professor of theoretical physics, Frank Close, writes, “I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God debate, either pro or con.” And the University of Surrey’s equivalent, Jim Al-Khalili, calls M-theory “tentative” in The Times, quoted here.

Physicist and science writer Paul Davies, referencing Hawking’s book says that the multiverse hypothesis doesn’t necessarily do away with the idea of God. While accepting that cosmology can probably now explain how our universe began— a claim I was unaware of— Davies writes: “A much tougher problem now looms, however. What is the source of those ingenious laws that enable a universe to pop into being from nothing?”

The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained— eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.

Davies concludes “there is no compelling need for a supernatural being or prime mover to start the universe off. But when it comes to the laws that explain the big bang, we are in murkier waters.”

It appears The Grand Design is a very easy popular book, with some serious flaws, and which doesn’t actually remove the need for philosophy, or perhaps God. I’d like to read it and see if there really are black holes in the book.



[Edit: Having read it, I think it’s a pretty good basic introduction and a good read. However, I agree with the criticisms – very poor on argument. My review coming.]


Have you read it? What did you think?

Blast from the past: Thomas Dolby | She Blinded Me With Science
(featuring the wonderful Magnus Pyke)

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16 Responses to “Hawking’s Grand Design – Cosmology Still Needs God?”

  1. dogcicle said

    great blog post.. i’ve seen many articles on the hawking book but i have avoided them until today.. thanks for making it more understandable

    • You’re welcome Dogcicle, glad it was helpful 🙂 I read so much about it that I thought “well, i might as well post what i think so far”. Thanks for your comment, please share this around.

  2. Right up my alley, of course. I avoid the math, which I suck at, in favour of the verbal descriptions. I saw Hawking give a lecture on String-theory at the University of Toronto. I have read Greene’ book but not this one. I believe in multiverses. A good book to read is ‘Warped Passages’ by Lisa Randall [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warped_Passages]
    You ask if anyone else wrote this book would it get the same attention. No – Hawking lends an air of expertise to whatever he says. Proof or not.
    Reviews can be biased – as you know. When you read it, you’ll make up your own mind.
    In Quantum Physics you don’t need a God or religion. What was attributed to theology is now science but because much cannot be proven, a leap of faith is required. My belief in God is not this leap nor is my God traditional.
    I love Quantum Physics. I never thought it was magic. It explains a lot.

    • Reviews can certainly be biased, which is why I read a LOT of them. Over twenty at least, including a few 5 star “this is the best book ever” reviews.

      I’ve certainly taken a slant on how I chose to report – as all writers do- it was these things that struck me as important, especially with subjects I’m interested in.
      The Grand Design is in the mail, and I’ll read it soon.

      I too think it’s perfectly ok to read “about” high end physics, as very few of us can do the maths. The key I think, is to read several books by respected authorities, which is what I’m intending to do at some point. Greene’s book comes recommened, so I’ll try that, as one of them, and Hawking’s as another.

      In my subsequent reading I’ve become slightly more open to the idea that quantum physics might mean consciousness can affect matter. I’ll have to learn more before I can be sure.

      • I wasn’t clear before – the math proves everything but because we can’t experience most, a leap is required. I feel that our senses are limiting anyhow.

        How you negotiate all off your reading is beyond me.

        • “the math proves everything but because we can’t experience most [quantum physics], a leap is required. ”

          Now THAT, I can thoroughly agree with, Romy 🙂

          How I “negotiate it all”? It’s a LOT of hard work and study, and admitting when I’m wrong or don’t know something 😀

  3. Oh, I thought you’re alwaze right. 🙂

  4. joshilan said

    no right or wrong when it comes to hypothesis

    mathematically deducted or not

    the only answer worth worshiping is the one you experienced for yourself

    Hawkin cannot determine God’s multi strata universe for you or I

    Only one that can determine anything ratify able is you yourself

  5. […] foresee a re-making of the universe at the endpoint of the future. The Physics of Immortality and The Grand Design led to fantastical speculations in my head. Perhaps the g0d of a cosmos where time is only one of […]

  6. […] If you’re wondering what a “multiverse” is, see my preview of The Grand Design. […]

  7. Why did Professor Hawking wait for over 20 years before acknowledging Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem as ruling out a complete Theory of Everything (TOE)?
    An all-encompassing TOE would not only include a logical derivation of the fundamental laws from a set of root mathematical axioms but would extend this logical derivation to every possible phenomenon in the universe as a mathematical statement.
    This is the definition of the TOE used by Professor Hawking, as evidenced, for instance, by his including the Goldbach conjecture formulated as a physical problem – in terms of wooden blocks – as part of “the theory of the universe”, as he puts it in his website.
    Applying Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem to the root mathematical axioms shows that the mathematical system is either inconsistent, which we can rule out, or that it is incomplete, ie, there are some true statements of the mathematics – manifest as phenomena in our universe – which cannot be deduced from the root axioms and, therefore, which cannot be predicted from the TOE either, since it is, itself, derived from the root axioms.
    The fact that a TOE derived from the root axioms of the type envisaged by Professor Hawking is incapable of predicting all the phenomena in the universe surely deserved a comment!
    In The Grand Design, again, no mention is made of Gödel, although this is less surprising if M-theory is regarded as a “conventional” TOE, which does not attempt to explain all phenomena.
    However, there is a final twist to the tale. While Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows that an all-encompassing TOE, which predicts all phenomena, cannot be derived from the root axioms, it is nevertheless true that a TOE which does predict all phenomena could, in principle, be written down without deriving it. It would simply not be possible to prove, in this universe, that what had been written down was, indeed, the genuine TOE. This, and other aspects of the TOE, are discussed in my website, http://www.godel-universe.com.

  8. Udaybhanu Chitrakar said

    Stephen Hawking’s Hotchpotch

    “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
    – Stephen Hawking in “The Grand Design”
    “As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
    – Stephen Hawking, Ibid

    That an entire universe can come out of nothing is not a scientifically proven fact, rather it is merely a speculation. This speculation is also based on a logically flawed assumption, the assumption that the void is a real void. Here scientists have assumed that our universe is a Godless universe, and that therefore the void is a real void. But it may be true that this is a Godless universe, or it may not be true. As the believers cannot claim that they know with certainty there is a God, so also scientists cannot claim that they know with certainty there is no God. However there is a definite way to know with certainty that there is no God. Here I am not claiming that there is a definite way to know with certainty there is a God, but I am only saying that there is a definite way to know with certainty there is no God. And this definite way is the scientific way. If scientists ultimately become successful in explaining everything in this universe, including its origin also, without invoking God, then we will have no other option but to admit that the universe we live in is a Godless universe. But there is a very big “IF” here, if they become successful. Until and unless they achieve their success here, they do not know whether they will be ultimately successful or not. So until and unless they achieve their success here, they do not know whether it is a Godless universe or not. All their earlier successes cannot give them any assurance that in future also they will be equally successful. If anybody claims that there is no reason as to why they will not be successful, then I will have to bring in Hume here, but I think it will not be necessary. It is like climbing a mountain peak. So long as you are not there at the peak, you do not know whether you will be able to reach there at all. But once you have reached there, you know with certainty that you have done it. So in order to coming to the conclusion that we live in a Godless universe scientists will have to be able to give scientific explanation for each and every single fact, every single event, or every single phenomenon of this natural world, and not a single fact, single event, or single phenomenon should be left unexplained. Covering a big part of the series by scientific explanation and leaving the remaining part unexplained will not do. If the scientists claim here that they have explained almost everything of this natural world without invoking any kind of god, then I will have to point out to them that the origin of the universe has not yet been explained in a properly logical way. Before proceeding further here I want to quote a single line (or, a part of it) from an essay by Keith M. Parsons, an atheist philosopher: “…prima facie the most promising location for a Creator would be in the “creation” event itself, the origin of the universe.” (No Creator Need Apply: A Reply to Roy Abraham Varghese (2006)). If the most promising location for a Creator would be in the “creation” event itself, then this Creator must have to be eliminated first from the “creation” event, because that act only can ensure that there is no such Creator. So until and unless this so-called Creator has been eliminated from the creation event by providing a most plausible, and natural, scientific explanation for it (A), we cannot have any idea as to whether the void is a real void (B) or not. This is because if there is a creator God, then as per the religionists that God is everywhere and therefore the void is no longer a real void. So let A be provided first by the scientists. Then only we can be sure that the void is a real void. Therefore A should always come first, and then only can come B. But in the case under consideration B has come first, and then came A. And that makes all the difference.
    Let me try to make my point more clear. Let e0 be the event zero, the origin/birth/creation of the universe, and let e1 to en be all the events that have so far happened in this universe after its origin. Let ne0 be the natural explanation for event zero, and let ne1 to nen be the natural explanations for events e1 to en respectively. Let us now suppose that scientists have already been able to provide ne1 to nen, but that they have so far failed to provide ne0. Will this situation allow us to conclude that there is no God? No, we cannot come to any such conclusion, because if there is a God then there will definitely be His hand behind the event zero. Yes, we can say this with absolute certainty, because God, if He is really God, and if He is really there, will not be our God at all, and neither will we recognize Him as such, if He has no control over our destiny. In other words, if this universe is not His creation. So in order to prove that there is no God one must have to show that there is no hand of God behind the creation event. All the other natural explanations ne1 to nen put together cannot prove that there is no God. But once ne0 is given, it is firmly established that God does not exist. Therefore so far as the question of non-existence of God is concerned, we can say that when ne0 has already been given, ne1 to nen will become unnecessary, and when ne0 has not yet been given, ne1 to nen are simply useless. And thus we can say that the necessary and sufficient condition for establishing the non-existence of God is that there will have to be a natural explanation for the origin of the universe (ne0). Therefore so long as ne0 has not been given, we cannot come to the conclusion that there is no God. And therefore so long as ne0 has not been given, neither can we conclude that the void is a real void. And therefore so long as ne0 has not been given, neither can we say that as virtual particles can appear from out of nothing, so also an entire universe.
    Here scientist Victor J. Stenger will perhaps say that so long as there is no proof for the existence of God, the default position is that there is no God. So in that case they are fully entitled to treat the void as a real void. But it might also be the case that this universe has actually been created by a God who is non-interventional, that is, after creating the universe He has withdrawn Himself, and has not intervened in it at all. In that case this universe will not display any proof of His existence. So from the mere fact that so far there is no proof of His existence it cannot be concluded that this universe is a Godless universe. In such a case the matter regarding the existence or non-existence of God can only be settled at the creation event itself. So scientists are in no way entitled to treat the void as a real void until and unless it is firmly established that this void is really a void, that is, until and unless the creator God is eliminated from the creation event by providing a natural explanation for it. Scientists usually say that as there is no evidence for the existence of God, so it is reasonable to believe that there is no God. Here I have very clearly shown that neither there is any evidence that something can come out of nothing. On the basis of this lack of evidence we can also say that it is reasonable not to believe that the universe has actually originated from nothing. We can also demand that scientists should immediately stop deceiving us in the name of science.

  9. […] I need to send a public shout-out to Lunagrrrl, who sent me her copy of The Grand Design, which I previewed here. I had good intentions of reviewing it again, but I can’t add much to what I wrote. Get […]

  10. […] Shermer‘s book seems to be a good read. His essential point is “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” He uses neuroscience, psychology, history and some sociology to explain what people actually do. So far, so good. There are various chapters with stories of people who believe in things like ghosts, ufos and God. He uses Leonard Mlodinow for beliefs on cosmology, and Mlodinow scratches his back in return, providing one of the publisher’s reviews on the cover of Shermer’s book. If you find this blog interesting, you might also like my review of Mlodinow and Hawking’s book. […]

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