The Grand Design

by Brian 15. March 2011 21:18

When we think of apologetics, case-for arguments come to mind. But sometimes the apologetic enterprise is about guiding towards what is true by steering away from what is false. As C. S. Lewis wrote: Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.[i]I can think of no better example of this in recent months than a response to the book written by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Having just finished The Grand Design (TGD), the primary message of the book is still very clear in my mind: Science is the only means of discovery; philosophy is dead; God is unnecessary.

One would expect minimal impact from facile rehash sprinkled with the words quantum mechanics. But throw in the media support for Hawking and anything attempting to undermine theism these days, and I am not so sure. When the new philosophy is addressed by the greatest scientist in the world, you have mass appeal ad verecundiam. Though sales of TGD are not likely to surpass Hawking’s previous book, A Brief History of Time (which sold over nine million copies), many will read this new work and be influenced by it. And even though I’ve seen a good deal of criticism online, I am also seeing a lot of positive posts on Amazon and Goodreads. Christians might fail to recognize the potential impact here. A pastor of a large church could preach to a different congregation each week for his entire career and not convey a perspective to as many individuals as just one popular book like Hawking’s last one. Do the math!

To be fair to the authors, I should tell you parts of the book were good. I enjoyed the physics and cosmology overview as well as revisiting some of the moments from science history. I also appreciated the author’s strong affirmation of cosmic fine-tuning. But the rest of the book was downright sloppy and in this blog I intend to cover what I thought were the most egregious areas.

  • Traditional philosophy is dead. The oracle of the new philosophy is the scientist.
  • M-theory is our best hope for a unified theory
  • The Hartle-Hawking no boundary model does away with the cosmological argument
  • The multiverse does away with the teleological argument from fine tuning
  • Realism is dead. Antirealism is in.

Traditional philosophy is dead
Right at the outset the reader is hit with an astonishing paragraph:

“What is the nature of Reality? Where did all of this come from? Did the Universe need a creator? … Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.[ii]

Hawking has a Ph.D. in natural science and Mlodinow a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. Although neither of the authors are experts in philosophy, we should expect men of their caliber to at least have a cursory understanding of the field. Two of his three opening questions are primarily philosophical! A good philosopher will draw from science in answering these questions, but it is naïve to think a good scientist could tackle them without philosophy. I was so taken aback by this opening statement my mind grasped for some kind of plausible explanation for their position. But after reading the book and wading through one bad assumptive argument after another, it does appear the authors wandered out of their league. Here is a sample of what they try to embark upon in this book relying heavily on (or falling squarely in) the domain of philosophy:

  • Model-dependent realism (which is an odd sort of scientism + antirealism)
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Are the laws of physics prescriptive or descriptive?
  • Scientific determinism, freewill and the reality of miracles
  • Ontological relativism and observer-created reality
  • Applying aesthetics in determining the superiority of theories
  • The extrapolation of Feynman’s sum over histories into an ontological model

Since there is practically no new science in TGD (it rehashes what has been known for years, and even decades), one can reasonably say the novel material in this book is almost entirely philosophical! So what audacity for the authors to start out with the claim, philosophy is dead.

They like M-theory; the no-boundary model and the multiverse
I will not attempt to argue the merits of m-theory, which has been around for about 15 years.  It is worth noting however, some of the world’s leading theorists in the field hold this work-in-progress very tentatively [iii]. The jury is still out for string theory as a whole and m-theory in particular. But then don’t take my word for it, see Hawking and Mlodinow’s own words:

“People are still trying to decipher the nature of m-theory. But that may not be possible. It could be that the physicist’s traditional expectation of a single theory of nature is untenable, and there exists no single formulation.[iv]

Yet despite the tentativeness of ten-dimensional string theory and the uncertainty of the very nature of m-theory, the authors base a large part of their metaphysical worldview on it by applying their particular physical interpretations to these models with no observational support[v] and then gratuitously extrapolating.

In TGD we also see the 1983 Hartle-Hawking no-boundary proposal reheated. Again, there is nothing novel here. It is the same quantum gravity idea proposed in Hawking’s last book[vi].  Using imaginary numbers for the time variable allows Hawking to round off the beginning point of the big bang singularity. In TGD, the authors describe this by using the South Pole as an analogy. The South Pole is much like any other point they say, and nothing is south of the South Pole[vii].  Therefore, no absolute beginning to universe is necessary – problem solved. Even though a physical interpretation of this mathematical trick using imaginary numbers is tough to swallow, we’ll see how the authors believe model-dependent realism takes care of this. For more information on the Hartle-Hawking model and how it applies to the cosmological argument, check this out.

Then we get to Hollywood’s favorite from cosmology – the multiverse. Paul Davies’ treatment of this in The Goldilocks Enigma is far better than what is presented in TGD. So I won’t go into too much detail as you can read more about it here. I was surprised though by the author’s metaphysical extrapolation of Feynman’s mathematical path integration tool into an ontological model. They write (and note the tangential defensiveness):

Some people make a great mystery of this idea, sometimes called the multiverse concept, but these are just different expressions of the Feynman sum over histories[viii]…The multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine-tuning. It is a consequence of the no-boundary condition as well as many other theories of modern cosmology.

Apart from the brash dive into metaphysics from the so-called new bearers of discovery, the physical interpretation is dubious at best. Simply because a particle could take more than one path from A to B, as described by Feynman’s path-integration, doesn’t mean a particle actually takes all possible paths.  Feynman and others might assume they do, for the purposes of applying the tool, but the paths are not observable. The idea a particle actually takes an infinite number of possible paths is just one physical interpretation of the mathematical model – and an odd one at that.

In the double–slit experiment Feynman’s ideas mean the particles take paths that go through only one slit or the other; paths that thread through the first slit, back out through the second slit, and then through the first one again; paths that visit the restaurant that serves that great curried shrimp, and then circle Jupiter a few times before heading home; even paths that go across the universe and back.[ix]  Really?!

The authors fail to mention other interpretations and leave the reader thinking Feynman’s sum over histories substantiates the multiverse. This get’s downright funny when you consider model-dependent realism which essentially says for Hawking, a particle actually does take all possible paths. But for someone else who interprets the same mathematical models differently, the particles do not – and neither interpretation can be said to be more real than the other!

So that I am not accused of argumentum ad ignorantiam let me be clear in saying that I am not claiming m-theory, Hawking’s quantum-gravity model and the multiverse are false because they haven’t been proven true. What I am saying is one cannot leap from tentative mathematical models to one’s preferred physical interpretation with no observational support and then leap again to profound metaphysical conclusions without doing so hastily and gratuitously. And you certainly cannot do it without entering the realm of philosophy!That is precisely what has been done in TGD.

Let’s get real
Hawking and Mlodinow’s model-dependent realism was by far the most bizarre part of the book for me. Here’s how they describe it:

 

It [model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. But there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation, with each employing different fundamental elements and concepts. If two such physical theories or models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other, rather, we are free to use whichever model is more convenient…According to model-dependent realism; it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation.[x]

 

The authors give an example by comparing the 13.7-billion-year-old-universe model versus the young-universe (literal Genesis interpretation) model and say the old-universe model is more useful, but still, neither model can be said to be more real than the other[xi]. Ha! I’d love to hear how the new-atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins feel about the idea their perspective is no more real than the creationist’s! But seriously, the authors come across disingenuous here. Are we really supposed to believe Hawking and Mlodinow do not consider their interpretation more real than the creationist’s? Furthermore, the authors appear to equivocate with their terms: model, theory, physical-theory and hypothesis. They seem to use them interchangeably. But regardless, the statement: If two such physical theories or models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other, seems to disregard other factors for weighing a proposed explanation for an observed phenomenon, like: simplicity, scope, fruitfulness, conservatism along with testability[xii]. Such evaluation would involve meta-science, which may be why it is overlooked.

The fact is, one of the two hypotheses; the 13.7-billion-year or the literal-6-day-creation, is more real than the other! A careful reading of the author’s statement “one cannot be said to be more real” might lead one to conclude they are being somewhat reasonable by suggesting the problem is merely epistemic – that is to say, one is more real, we just do not know which. But that is not what they are claiming. Hawking and Mlodinow are saying neither model is more real ontologically. The authors are antirealists and reject the notion of an observer-independent world[xiii]. There is only one reason I can think of for them to choose this route: They recognize the huge gulf between their tentative mathematical models and the profound metaphysical statements they make. The only way to bridge this gulf is to do away with realism altogether and then judge their models using a narrow scientific perspective. By disregarding the philosophy of science, they can ignore qualities like conservatism which would compare and contrast their metaphysical conclusions with other knowledge-systems to see how well they hold up.

In conclusion, Hawking and Mlodinow set out on a very ambitious journey to make their case for what they believe are the answers to some very profound metaphysical problems. Why is there something rather than nothing? The authors do not answer this and only present one possible view as to why there is something rather than something else[xiv]. Is God unnecessary? According to TGD, He should be replaced by some sort of cosmic life principle, a First-Law, Physics (with a capital ‘P’); or a Force which is more at home with Star Wars than reality. Has cosmic fine-tuning been addressed? No. Although the book does a good job in emphasizing the problem, they leave the reader with the dubious multiverse – a hypothesis Roger Penrose has said is worse than useless in explaining the anthropic fine-tuning of the universe. Finally, just when I thought postmodernism was dead, it is resurrected by scientists!



[i] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1949), 50

 

[ii] Location 42 of 2387 Kindle edition

 

[iii] Go to http://afterall.net/clippings/491891 for excerpts from Roger Penrose. Also see Paul Davies in the Goldilocks Enigma.

 

[iv] Location 1179 of 2387 Kindle edition

 

[v] Roger Penrose - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/bdf3ae28-b6e9-11df-b3dd-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1FVNqJmyB “M-theory enjoys no observational support whatever”

 

 

[vi] A Brief History of Time pg. 136

 

[vii] Location 1361 of 2387 Kindle edition (also in A Brief History of Time pg. 138)

 

[viii] Location 1383 and 1659 of 2387 Kindle edition

 

[ix] Location 731 of 2387 Kindle edition

 

[x] Location 61, 436 of 2387 Kindle edition

 

[xi] Location 483 of 2387 Kindle edition

 

[xii] Schick, Theodore; Vaughn, Lewis (2002)

 

[xiii] Location 351, 412 of 2387 Kindle edition

 

[xiv] They never address creation from real nothingness – a quantum vacuum is not nothing

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About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, an owner of ISC, lead architect of MapDotNet, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs, hot air baloons, lawn furniture)

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