Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design

A model of the universeMany silly things have been written and said about this book, mostly by people who haven’t read it. Too bad, it’s a very short and easy read...

The central claim of the book, the one on which the marketing campaign has been centered, is that God is not necessary in order to explain the universe. That’s nothing new: when Napoleon asked Laplace about two hundred years ago why he wasn’t mentioning the Creator in his work, he famously answered:

“I had no need of that hypothesis”

In 1670, Spinoza also hypothesized that the world could be understood without God having to play any role in it.

Hawking’s claims are not very different. Never in the book does he say that there is no god. This hasn’t stopped most clueless commenters to assume that he did but he simply did not. Concluding that God exists or not is left as an exercise to the reader. The shrinking relevance of the concept is of course nothing new, it has been going on for centuries but the erosion has never seemed to be an obstacle to the true believer.

To be fair, there are jabs at religion in the book (which is not the same as jabs at God), such as this one:

“In 1277 Bishop Templier of Paris, on the instructions of Pope John XXI, published a list of 219 errors or heresies that were to be condemned. Among the heresies was the idea that nature follows laws, because this conflicts with God’s omnipotence. Interestingly, Pope John was killed by the effects of the law of gravity a few months later when the roof of his palace fell in on him.”

What Hawking does claim is that the relatively recent discovery that the total energy of the universe is zero, coupled with the existence of a law such as gravitation, are enough to explain the creation of our universe. There is actually not much here that isn’t already familiar to people who have been following the progress of physics.

Many commenters have pointed out that he doesn’t explain why there is a law of gravitation. Well, they either haven’t read the book or haven’t been paying attention. He does give an explanation, which is that a quantum cosmological model such as the one from superstring theory he’s using, has to include all possible physical laws. Still, I would agree with those commenters that he’s not going deeply enough to explain the origin of physical laws. That doesn’t mean that there are no naturalistic explanations, just that the book does not provide a fully satisfactory one. In that way the central claim of the book is a little overblown as it really only pushes God into a smaller gap.

Hawking in general does not enter into too many details and that would be my main grief against the book. There is a lot of hand-waving going on, which too bad as the science behind what he’s saying is worth explaining. Because he doesn’t explain, many readers may think he’s just making things up.

There is an insistence in the book on adopting what the authors call model-dependent realism, which is a philosophical parti-pris that because all we know of reality is through our sensations, we cannot have tests of reality that are completely independent of the models we build to account for observation. This is actually not very controversial but it has already been misinterpreted by the likes of Deepack Chopra as validation of their own crazy ideas that the mind was somehow creating reality. Hawking could have been more precise: he could have predicted that pitfall and avoided it by clearly stating what he was not saying.

I’ve been focusing in this review on the negatives (oh, did I mention the lame attempts at humor that could have been entirely avoided?). Still, I recommend the book as the positives vastly outweigh my nitpicking. It is a good and pleasant read. It does present solid arguments (although they could be supported by more actual scientific contents) and does push back the role of God in creation. It is also a good introductory text for those who want to understand the current state of cosmology. A modern and honest person should read it, if only in order to be able to speak of it intelligently.

Archived comments

  • Mehfuz said on Tuesday, February 1, 2011

    Its a great book though. Specifically defines our scientific existence :-)
  • Udaybhanu Chitrakar said on Sunday, July 24, 2011

    Philosophy is dead. Is Logic dead also? "Because there is a law such as 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." - Stephen Hawking in “The Grand Design” “As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously 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 light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” - Stephen Hawking, Ibid Here three questions can be asked: 1) Which one came first, universe, or laws of gravity and quantum theory? 2) If the universe came first, then how was there spontaneous creation without the laws of gravity and quantum theory? 3) If the laws of gravity and quantum theory came first, then Hawking has merely substituted God with quantum theory and laws of gravity. These two together can be called Hawking's "Unconscious God". Therefore we can legitimately ask the question: Who, or what, created Hawking's unconscious God? Not only this, but there are other problems also. If the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes spontaneously appearing from nothing, then initially there was nothing. Then wherefrom appear those laws of gravity and quantum theory to allow universes appearing spontaneously from nothing? In which container were those two laws of nature? Now regarding the M-theory: I have already written something on multiverse theory (not yet published anywhere). There I have come to the conclusion that if there are an infinite number of universes, then only within that infinite number of universes there will certainly be at least one universe in which life will emerge. If the number of universes is only 10 to the power 500, then it is very much unlikely that any one of them will support life, because no universe will know which set of values the other universes have already taken, and if everything is left on chance, then there is every probability that all the universes will take only those set of values that will not support life. There will be no mechanism that will prevent any universe from taking the same set of values that have already been taken by other universes. There will be no mechanism that will take an overview of all the universes already generated, and seeing that in none of them life has actually emerged will move the things in such a way that at least one universe going to be generated afterwards will definitely get the value of the parameters just right for the emergence of life. Only in case of an infinite number of universes this problem will not be there. This is because if we subtract 10 to the power 500 from infinity, then also we will get infinity. If we subtract infinity from infinity, still then we will be left with infinity. So we are always left with an infinite number of universes out of which in at least one universe life will definitely emerge. Therefore if M-theory shows that it can possibly have 10 to the power 500 number of solutions, and that thus there might be 10 to the power 500 number of universes in each of which physical laws would be different, then it is really a poor theory, because it cannot give us any assurance that life will certainly emerge in at least one universe. So instead of M-theory we need another theory that will actually have an infinite number of solutions. Now the next question to be pondered is this: 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? Giving death-sentence to an already-dead God is a joke perhaps!
  • bleroy said on Sunday, July 24, 2011

    Oh boy. I have a headache now from so much facepalming. Udaybhanu, your comment, I'm sorry to say, is a word soup of rhetorical games. When Hawking does science popularization, he's expressing scientific ideas with English words, which helps laymen to understand concepts, but loses much in translation. What you are doing here is attempting to argue against those scientific ideas, but you are really only arguing against their English, lossy expression. This is vain. Your first question, "Which came first, universe, or laws of gravity and quantum theory?", seem to me to be equivalent to asking "Which came first, the laws of addition or natural numbers?" "First" is quite tricky to define, when there is no concept of time. Your second and third questions are relying on the assumption that your first question makes sense, which it doesn't, so I'll pass on them. About your speculations, this here: "If the number of universes is only 10 to the power 500, then it is very much unlikely that any one of them will support life" is entirely gratuitous and unsubstantiated. You don't know that. 10 to the 500th is a very, very mind-boggingly large number. It does not fit in the brain, really, you have to write down some math to make any sense of it, but another difficulty is that doing probabilities on an event that happened only once as far as we can know, is futile. I don't know why you think it's important that a universe "knows" what "set of values other universes have already taken". I suspect that you are misinterpreting the idea that some have emitted that there could be a form of cosmic natural selection. The idea is that universes that are configured so they disappear very fast will never have time to spawn variations of themselves, whereas those sets of constants that favor stability will spawn more descendants, which will have constants close to its own. It's an interesting idea, but it's not even necessary, as there is no need for all universes to belong to a single, connected multiverse. As for your speculation that a theory, in order not to be "poor", has to include an infinite number of universes, it seems to rely on the naive assumption that life is infinitely improbable. You don't know that. When you say "How did the scientists come to know that an entire universe could come out of nothing?", finally we get an interesting question, but immediately after asking it, you assumed that there is no good answer and felt the need to follow-up with stupid questions such as "Were they present at that moment when the universe was born?" and peremptory assertions: "their entire logic is flawed". You should really read Hawking's book, it's a rather short and easy read. One of the things he explains, and that is a relatively recent discovery, is that the total energy of the universe is zero, thanks to the negative energy of gravitation. That makes it possible to construct a model of a consistent universe such as our own where time has a beginning. It does not mean that it emerges from a pre-existing void, it actually means that there is no need for anything to pre-exist, and that this very notion of "pre-existing" is utterly absurd as there isn't even any notion of time to define it. It has little to do with virtual particles in a quantum void. When we say that "nothing" is unstable, we don't mean that there is a mysterious medium where this instability exists, we mean that the solutions to the equations as we know them are not empty. This relies on converging lines of evidence, from observation of the quantum world, our understanding of gravitation, observation of background cosmic radiation, measurement of the expansion of the universe, etc. We did not "have to be there" in order to infer those things, no more than you would have to have been there to infer that your parents had either sex or artificial insemination about nine months before your birth. Your assertion that "These scientists are all born and brought up within the Christian tradition" is beyond ridiculous: there are cosmologists all around the world who have been brought up in all cultures, of which Christianity is but a small fraction. If what you are trying to say is that science itself is a purely cultural product of Judeo-Christian tradition, I would, like Sokal, urge you to test this post-modern theory of yours by jumping from a 6th floor window. Again, cosmology and the multiverse are *not* the result of a desire to kill God, it's the result of following the evidence where it leads us. There is nowhere, anywhere, the hypothesis that God does not exist in these theories. The multiverse does pop out of string theory, not out of a desire of string theorists.