National Catholic Register


Unintelligent Reasoning

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s Grand Design Is Long on Assertion and Short on Argument

BY Jimmy Akin

September 26-October 9, 2010 Issue | Posted 9/18/10 at 8:33 PM


Albert Einstein famously quipped that God does not play dice with the universe. Stephen Hawking, Einstein’s successor as the iconic scientist of our time, has a position mirroring this.

His latest book, The Grand Design, argues that the universe is indeed governed by “dice” — but there isn’t necessarily a God rolling them. One could characterize Einstein’s position as “God, yes; dice, no” and Hawking’s as “Dice, yes; God, not necessarily.”

The dice, of course, are metaphorical. What is at issue is the claim, arising from the aspect of physics known as quantum mechanics, that, at the subatomic level, the universe is governed by randomness. Though Einstein was one of the founders of quantum mechanics, he resisted the idea that at the fundamental level the world behaves in a random fashion.

Hawking embraces this notion and, with co-author and fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow, argues that it makes the existence of God unnecessary to explain the existence of the universe. In this view, the universe and its laws arise spontaneously from randomness.

The two are not aggressive anti-theists of the Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens sort. They do not argue against God’s existence. They deal with the subject of religion respectfully, stating that it is reasonable to wonder if the universe was produced by a God or gods.

They frankly acknowledge that our universe and the laws governing it are so finely tuned to allow the existence of life that the sum gives the appearance of having been deliberately designed. There are passages in the book where, as an apologist, I found myself thinking, “Dudes, you’re making my case for me!”

Ultimately, though, the two argue that, despite the appearance of design in our universe, a Cosmic Designer is not necessary and the whole thing can in principle be explained in natural terms.

There is much to admire in The Grand Design. Hawking and Mlodinow convey a lot of high-end physics concepts in an accessible and unintimidating fashion. They don’t burden the reader with complex mathematics, and the writing style is easy to understand and laced with humor.

In one passage they explain the concept of symmetry by noting that “if you flip a donut over, it looks exactly the same (unless it has a chocolate topping, in which case it is better just to eat it).”

Though presenting physics concepts in an engaging and effective way, The Grand Design falls seriously short when it comes to philosophy and theology.

Right at the beginning of Chapter 1 the authors declare philosophy to be “dead,” stating that it hasn’t kept up with science. Really? All those philosophy departments in universities like Cambridge — where Hawking taught until last year — can close up shop?

The alleged demise of philosophy requires more than a single sentence of explanation to back it up — particularly when Hawking and Mlodinow are writing a book pregnant with philosophical implications and assumptions.

The whole enterprise of modern science is built on philosophical principles that cannot be demonstrated, and the two authors know this well. They spend considerable space discussing philosophical issues like what proposed scientific laws do and do not tell us about the universe.

Their own position, which they label “model-dependent realism,” is a philosophical interpretation of natural law — and one that has rivals.

Another glaring philosophical assumption that the two make is scientific determinism — the idea that the laws of nature fully determine what happens in the world. After raising the question of whether there might be exceptions to the laws of nature (miracles), the authors simply assert scientific determinism, stating that it is “the basis of all modern science.” This is an undemonstrated and undemonstrable philosophical assumption.

Whether or not there are exceptions to the laws of nature, their book does not tell us where the laws of nature came from, and even if one does not believe in miracles, one could still hold that the laws of nature were established by God.

So how do the two get around the fact that our universe looks like it was designed to allow life? (E.g., if the gravitational constant of the universe were just slightly higher or lower, there would be no planets where life could exist.)

They initially appeal to the work of Richard Feynman, the 20th-century physicist who argued that, in some circumstances, subatomic particles behave as if they are simultaneously taking every possible path between one point and another. Hawking and Mlodinow take this word picture literally and hold that these particles really are taking every possible path to their destinations.

Then they assert that something similar happens with the universe — that it simultaneously unfolds in every possible way, with every possible set of natural laws, and we just happen to occupy a variation of the universe where the random juggling of natural laws allows life to exist. Existence is not by design; it’s coincidence.

This idea of multiple parallel universes — or a “multiverse” — is familiar from science fiction, and it’s a trendy idea in physics today. The trouble is, it’s not remotely proved. We don’t have observational evidence for the existence of multiple universes, much less for an infinite number of them where the laws of nature are randomly set to every possible combination.

This amounts to appealing to evidence you do not have. If I were walking along a beach and found a message written in the sand — say, “Hi, Jimmy! Isn’t the beach fun?” — I could explain it as something written by an intelligent being. Or, if I postulate an infinite number of other beaches where the grains of sand are arranged randomly, I could say it was just coincidence. The problem is that I don’t have evidence for the existence of an infinite number of beaches, and to conjecture them to get around the implication of intelligent design is to build one’s case with non-evidence.

Hawking and Mlodinow deny that they’re postulating a multiverse just to avoid an intelligent designer, but they don’t offer any sustained arguments for its existence. Nor do they explain the higher set of laws that would be needed to generate a multiplicity of universes with their own local laws.

Ultimately The Grand Design is long on assertion and short on argument. The authors also fail to inform the reader of just how tentative, hypothetical and debatable a lot of their concepts are.

While the book may try to get across concepts in physics that are deep, its reasoning on philosophy and theology is shallow, and the book fails to offer convincing reasons why we should not take the apparent intelligent design of the universe to be exactly what it appears to be.

Jimmy Akin, a senior apologist at Catholic Answers, blogs at