Stephen Hawking’s Cosmic Slot Machine (Part I)
I’ve read a number of books by Stephen Hawking (pictured) and Leonard Mlodinow, writing both together and separately. I’ve enjoyed them. They’re informative and funny, and they make clear some pretty deep concepts of physics and mathematics—without burdening you with a bunch of equations (that’s some trick).
But their new book The Grand Design was a disappointment.
It’s a short read, which is fine, though I was surprised when I discovered that the last 25% of the already-short book to be composed of back matter (an exotic form of matter discovered by publishers; it consists of glossaries, indexes, author bios, acknowledgements, and the like).
Despite its brevity, it does a good job making clear some pretty far-out physics concepts, many of which are also treated in similar works, including Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s previous books. It is also nicely laced with humor.
What is disappointing is the way the book treats philosophy and theology.
Right at the beginning of chapter one they declare philosophy “dead,” saying that it hasn’t kept up with science. This is just sad, because The Grand Design is heavily involved with philosophy and philosophical ideas that are far from settled. For example, the authors spend a good bit of time arguing for their interpretation of what natural laws do and do not tell us about the universe (a view that they term “model-dependent realism”). That’s a philosophical position because it involves concepts that cannot be demonstrated empirically—in the laboratory, by scientific means. It’s also clearly something that isn’t settled because they feel the need to contrast and favorably compare their view to the rival views realism and anti-realism.
Then there’s the place in the text where they explicitly raise the question of whether there are exceptions to the laws of nature (miracles). After reviewing the history of thought on this question they then just simply declare that there are no exceptions—a view called scientific determinism—saying that this is the basis of all modern science. I’m sorry, but this is another philosophical idea. You can’t prove that there are no exceptions to the laws of nature because the laws of nature cannot be deduced in advance but have to be learned by observation (a point the authors make when they contrast Thales with Aristotle). But even if you have identified the way natural law works 99-point-however-many-9s-you-want percent of the time, in order to say that there are no exceptions to them you’d need to know the entire history of the universe, and you don’t.
There’s a whole butcher’s shop of philosophical meat to be carved into here.
Then there’s the fact that science itself is dependent on various philosophical disciplines like epistemology (the study of knowledge), philosophy of science, ethics (can you fake your lab results?), logic, metaphysics, and more—all of which contain hotly debated rival theories.
So it’s just sad to see two such smart guys making such an absurd (and deliberately provocative) statement.
The thing the book is getting press for, though, is not its treatment of philosophy but of theology: specifically, that God is not necessary to explain the origin of the cosmos.
In previous books the two have displayed some openness to religious ideas. For example, Hawking has said previously that a God might be needed to set up the laws of the universe, but he has now changed his mind on this. He and Mlodinow aren’t hostile to religion in the book. They’re not espousing “the New Atheism” and its militant hostility toward God. In fact, they don’t argue against God’s existence (i.e., provide arguments purporting to show that God does not exist). They simply claim that the God hypothesis is not necessary to explain natural law and the existence of the universe and life.
That’ll be the subject of our NEXT POST.