Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Grand Design

Over Christmas I finished the book "The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Hawking and Mlodinow claim at the beginning of the book that "philosophy is dead." They assert boldly that science is leading the way to find answers to questions regarding origins that were once the domain of philosophy: Why do we exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? and Why this particular set of laws and not some other? They conclude that God is no longer needed as an explanation. Hawking and Mlodinow believe that M-Theory is the best candidate for a unified theory of everything that can answer the questions of our existence.

Regarding the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the authors state in this oft quoted passage:
Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6. 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.

Luke, at Common Sense Atheism, reviewed The Grand Design and discusses an unfulfilling aspect of the book, noting that no where does it actually explain how something comes from nothing. When Hawking and Mlodinow describe the spontaneous creation of the universe, they describe it arising from "quantum fluctuations" which cause "microscopic" universes to arise and then either disappear or "expand in an inflationary manner." As Luke's review notes, this quantum vacuum is not "nothing" in the sense most of us conceptualize it.

I was interested that Hawking and Mlodinow acknowledge the strong anthropic principle, which "suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves." This brings up very real questions about how the universe managed to be so fit for life, given the great unlikelihood that chance alone could account for the necessary highly specified variables being in place, such as the strength of the strong nuclear force as well as the electromagnetic force, the number of space dimensions, and the cosmological constant. However, Hawking and Mlodinow state that if M-Theory is true, then the statistically unlikely becomes likely, as our universe is one of a multitude of universes that exist. They admit that work still needs to be done to substantiate M-Theory. However, they appear confident that it will prove to be the grand unifying theory of everything, which has been the holy grail of physicists since Einstein. It's fascinating to think we may be capable of understanding our origins. However, I was certainly not left feeling as if we understand them yet.

Some are quick to dismiss fine tuning as one of the stronger arguments in favor of intelligent design. However, Hawking and Mlodinow appear to concede that the fine tuning of the universe poses a difficulty for those seeking a naturalistic explanation of the universe, given the statistical improbability of it all. Of course, M-Theory potentially answers the challenge of fine tuning, but it still remains to be seen.

As always, I enjoyed Hawking's ability to explain technical concepts in easily accessible and entertaining ways. While the book may be premature in asserting M-theory to be the answer to life's deepest questions, it will at least serve to open the public up to M-theory as a possibility. (If they weren't already aware of it from the likes of Star Trek.)


  1. I chuckled at the part where Hawkings declares philosophy to be dead. I did a bioethics internship a few years ago and did lots of reading into philosophy. It was actually quite hard at the time, for a quantitative person like me to appreciate philosophical ethics, particularly ethics that didn't involve some way to verify the truth, like using the Bible, God and the 10 commandments for instance. Evidence of my more fundamentalist days huh! Nowadays, I am growing to appreciate philosophy better as my doubts have increased. Philosophy is definitely not dead. Those poor philosophers...most of them aren't Christian anyways - I wonder why Hawkins insults them!

    Thanks for the review. It sounds like you came away still with doubts. I suspect I would too. I haven't read any books from an atheist perspective, just blogs. I think I would react similarly to CS Lewis where he says, in essence, that the grass is always greener on the other side (I can't recall the exact quote, something about in atheist moods he considered Christianity and in Christian moods he was wondering about atheism.

  2. "Against the very nonreligious field of philosophy (73% of philosophers identify as atheist, according to one recent survey),"

    Funny...just read this! from

    sorry for the link. gotta run!

  3. The link you gave was interesting. Maybe some fields of philosophy are more dead than others:)
    Hawking actually discusses philosophy quite a bit for it being dead.
    I'd be interested in your thoughts as well as any other readers thoughts on m theory or fine tuning. I wish I had a science background to make better sense of it.

  4. I'm sorry - I can't really help with either of those. I had never heard of them until I entered the theology world. But I was a chemistry major and a biochemist in grad school, so not much of a "physics" background aside from my one year of physics 101.

  5. In "The Grand Design" Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same "eternal" event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the "seeing" which differs.

    In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from on comparative mysticism]

  6. Ron,
    Thanks for stopping by.

    I have no background in mysticism, so I struggle to understand your terminology. Are you saying that the role of the observer in quantum mechanics supports the experience of mystics?

    Does the mystic's belief in divine essence come entirely from awareness of it through mystical experiences (which I take it is called suprarational consciousness?)?

    Am I correct in assuming that you disagreed with Hawkings' conclusion that the universe could arise out of nothing?

  7. You asked three questions. My answers are no, yes and no. Quantum mechanics does not support mysticism, but Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington did.

    Suprarational simply means beyond rational, a consciousness independent of reason, logic and images. It is direct cognition, unmediated discernment, with certainty.

    My personal belief, and in general that of Hinduism, Buddhism and some Western mystics, is that this Universe is infinite and eternal, with no beginning (or ending).

  8. Ron Krumpos,
    I asked about quantum mechanics because I've talked with individuals who believed that the fact that observers affect outcomes supports the belief in some type of consciousness being responsible for the universe. I am trying to figure out what to make of it.

    How does your belief in an infinite universe fit with Hawking's description of our universe emerging out of a quantum vacuum? It seemed to me that he never really conceived of there being nothing, in the most absolute sense. I have no physics background, so I was struggling to make sense of him.

    I am interested in thinking about spirituality from a more mystical approach because the Christian religion I grew up in, rooted in historical events and bound by doctrinal creeds determined through reason, is not holding up well to my scrutiny. I am left with a desire to make meaning of my life and to value and be mindful of the transcendental experiences I have as I go throughout my day, whether it involves others, nature, music, or meditation. Whether or not this can all be explained through naturalism is what I'm trying to sort through.

  9. Do not try to make sense of Hawking. He has a devilish sense of humor and is adroit at mind games (as well as a brilliant theoretical physicist).

    As to your last paragraph, do not try to compartmentalize your transcendental experiences. Accept them as glimpses into the underlying reality of being itself. My book might help you to better understand this.

  10. Philosophy is dead. Is Logic dead also?

    How did the scientists come to know that an entire universe could come out of nothing? Or, how did they come to know that anything at all could come out of nothing? Were they present at that moment when the universe was being born? As that was not the case at all, therefore they did not get that idea being present at the creation event. Rather they got this idea being present here on this very earth. They have created a vacuum artificially, and then they have observed that virtual particles (electron-positron pairs) are still appearing spontaneously out of that vacuum and then disappearing again. From that observation they have first speculated, and then ultimately theorized, that an entire universe could also come out of nothing. But here their entire logic is flawed. These scientists are all born and brought up within the Christian tradition. Maybe they have downright rejected the Christian world-view, but they cannot say that they are all ignorant of that world-view. According to that world-view God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. So as per Christian belief-system, and not only as per Christian belief-system, but as per other belief-systems also, God is everywhere. So when these scientists are saying that the void is a real void, God is already dead and non-existent for them. But these scientists know very well that non-existence of God will not be finally established until and unless it is shown that the origin of the universe can also be explained without invoking God. Creation event is the ultimate event where God will have to be made redundant, and if that can be done successfully then that will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that God does not exist. So how have they accomplished that job, the job of making God redundant in case of creation event? These were the steps:
    1) God is non-existent, and so, the void is a real void. Without the pre-supposition that God does not exist, it cannot be concluded that the void is a real void.
    2) As virtual particles can come out of the void, so also the entire universe. Our universe has actually originated from the void due to a quantum fluctuation in it.
    3) This shows that God was not necessary to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going, as because there was no creation event.
    4) This further shows that God does not exist.
    So here what is to be proved has been proved based on the assumption that it has already been proved. Philosophy is already dead for these scientists. Is it that logic is also dead for them?

  11. The God-believers say:
    When there was nothing, there was God. When there will be nothing again, there will still be God.
    Whereas atheistic cosmologists say: When there was nothing, there were quantum laws. When there will be nothing again, there will still be quantum laws.
    These quantum laws are spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal, all-pervading, unborn, uncreated and immaterial. Only that these laws lack consciousness.
    These quantum laws are spaceless, timeless and immaterial, because when there was no space, no time and no matter, there were still these quantum laws.
    These quantum laws are all-pervading, because these laws act equally everywhere.
    Quantum laws are scientists' God.