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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Hawking's Grand Design and God's Not Dead

Stephen Hawking is one of the best-known scientists of our time. When he retired, he was occupying the same professorial chair that Isaac Newton once did. He is also an outspoken atheist.

In 2010, Hawking, in collaboration with Leonard Mlodinow, wrote The Grand Design, which became a best-seller, in spite of its non-fiction status and scientific content. The book argues that it is not necessary to suppose that God created the universe. It also says that "philosophy is dead," and suggests that the search for a unified field theory is futile, so it isn't exactly shy about attacking significant ideas. What they seem to mean by "philosophy is dead" is that some philosophers are not willing to agree with them on all points.

The Grand Design was referred to in the recent movie, God's Not Dead.  (See here for my review of that film. That review includes the pivotal quotation from The Grand Design, which was used in the movie. That quotation is the second and third sentences from the second quotation from the book, below.) God's Not Dead did not claim that the existence of God can be proved, but that His existence cannot be disproved. The Grand Design doesn't disprove God's existence, although the authors seem to think that it does, or that it almost does.

As indicated above, Hawking and Mlodinow weren't bashful. They claim, on page 32, that "recent experiments" have shown that our brains operate according to physical laws. There are no notes in the book, so I don't know what experiments they were referring to, but never mind. What other laws would our brains operate by? They claim that, because our brains operate by physical laws, "[f]ree will is an illusion," (p. 32) but are willing for us to act as if we really did have free will. That's a good thing, because if we don't have free will, Hawking and Mlodinow didn't, either, and they therefore believe the things that they do, not because they are true, but because of the physical laws operating in their brains. (And, by the way, if that discussion isn't a matter for philosophy, I don't know what is.)

The fundamental argument of The Grand Design is that there are really many, very many universes, according to M-theory, and that we exist in one of those that is compatible with life. All those universes came into being somehow, and here we are, in this one, the result of a cosmic accident. There are some serious problems with this notion. One of them is that even Hawking and Mlodinow aren't sure what M-theory is:
No one seems to know what the "M" stands for, but it may be "master," "miracle," or "mystery." It seems to be all three. 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. It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied. (p. 117)

The above is a quotation from the book. That quotation indicates that, whatever M-theory might be, if it is true here, it isn't true elsewhere. That, and their fuzzy description, don't inspire confidence in science based on M-theory.

Another serious problem is that there is no experimental proof for M-theory and its relatives. Granted, a few decades ago, there was no experimental proof for quarks, which were proposed as a way of making sense out of the many types of sub-atomic particles then thought to exist, and, hence, there was skepticism about their existence. But that skepticism has largely disappeared, and there is experimental evidence for the existence of quarks. However, quarks, so far as we know, are the same everywhere in the universe. Quark theory didn't propose that there were different kinds of quarks, or no quarks at all, in other universes. It's not clear that, even if other universes exist, we can access them in any way, which would be necessary, I think, to vindicate M-theory.

Then there's the matter of gravity. 
Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6. [Chapter Title - "Choosing Our Universe."] 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. (p. 180.)
But why is there gravity? If they explain that, I missed it, or didn't understand it. And even if gravity had the power to make the universe create itself from nothing, wouldn't the powers of gravity be different in all the other different universes, according to their own thesis? So why should other universes exist?

Another serious problem is that scientists, and others, are not universally in agreement with Hawking and Mlodinow's central idea, mostly because of the first two serious problems indicated above.

Peter Woit, of Columbia University, has written a severely critical review of The Grand Design. Woit wrote:
I’m in favor of naturalism and leaving God out of physics as much as the next person, but if you’re the sort who wants to go to battle in the science/religion wars, why you would choose to take up such a dubious weapon as M-theory mystifies me. . . . [T]hinking about it, [I] have to admit that the kind of pseudo-science going on here and being promoted in this book isn’t obviously any better than the faith-based explanations of how the world works favored by conventional religions.
Well put, except that there shouldn't be "science/religion wars." If we really understood God's revelation in Christ, in the Bible, through the church, and in nature (which science unfolds for us) we would see that our existence is best explained by accepting, by faith, that God planned for our universe, and us, to exist. See Hebrews 11:3, which is quoted in the graphic at the top of this post.

I know of no evidence that Woit is a Christian. For other criticisms of the book, see its Wikipedia article.

See also the recent opinion piece in Time, "Why Science Does Not Disprove God."

Thanks for reading!

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