Spritzophrenia

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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.

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[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.]

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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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