Book Review: The Grand Design

I picked up a copy of “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow several weeks ago and read it in a few days.  It’s not a big book as far as size goes (198 pages), though it does have some heavy philosophy in it.  It stuck with me and I thought I’d attempt a short review.  As a biological scientist I don’t have the background necessary to critique the book fully.  I can’t comment on all the heavy physics that rambles through the book.  I’m just an armchair physicist who reads a little to gain a foothold in the subject, sufficient knowledge to write believable science fiction.  But still the book did make an impression on me, an impression which others might find interesting.  Or might not.

One of the most interesting things the authors say, and right up front, too, (page 5) is that traditional philosophy is dead.  Philosophy, by their accounting, “has not kept up with modern developments in science,” and “[s]cientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery…”  This will probably come as a shock to traditional philosophers, and actually doesn’t sit fully with what Hawking and Mlodinow have to say in the rest of the book, relying somewhat on such classic philosophers as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinus.

Most of the book is taken up by a review of modern-day physics, going back as far as Aristarchus and Archimedes (did you know that Pythagoras did not discover the theorem that bears his name?) through Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton, and into the present with Einstein and a few others.  They put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the works of Richard Feynman whose most significant discovery was that every system (including, especially, the universe) has not one history but every possible history.  It’s as though everything that could happen, did happen.  If this sounds counter-intuitive, it’s supposed to.  Hawking and Mlodinow argue that the universe doesn’t follow the rules of common sense, especially when we delve into the structure of the atom or the early universe.

After the review of physics, the authors run head on into Intelligent Design, the current euphemism for creationism.  And that is the real reason for the book, to counter the argument that the world, the solar system,  indeed the entire universe was created by God (according to Archbishop Ussher, on October 27, 4004 BC).  There is no need to invoke a creator, they argue, the universe came into being by its own accord, through the laws of nature, laws we are coming close to understanding in full.  It had too, they say, there was no other course.

I’m not sure I agree.  I moderately understand all the laws and rules that the universe follows, though not all the physics and math behind them, and I understand that it’s meaningless to wonder about what existed before the universe came into being through the inflation that followed the Big Bang.  I understand the principle that the universe seems to be made for us, that we developed in this universe because conditions were just right for our development.  Had things been even slightly different, like, for example, the earth was slightly farther or closer to the sun, or the mass of the proton was different by only 10%, things would be so radically different we wouldn’t be here.  Life wouldn’t exist.  We are the life that developed on this planet.  Nothing else could come about.

But I’m not convinced that Hawking and Mlodinow have made their case.  I am not a creationist by any stretch of imagination, and I have always been willing to put my money on scientific principles, but don’t think this book will put to rest the argument about creationism vs. scientific verification.  No matter what a scientist says, a creationist can always argue that “God did it,” or “God did it first,” or some other proclamation.  The final results are not in; the argument is not closed.

That, however, is not a sufficient reason to drop the argument.  More research is needed, and I’m 100% certain we will eventually be able to describe how the universe came into being by scientific principles alone.  But if you want to argue that God is behind it, be my guest.

As an aside, the authors had an annoying tendency to not set off their adverbial phrases with commas.  (Example, “Until the advent of modern physics it was generally thought…”)

  1. #1 by Ron Krumpos on January 8, 2011 - 9:59 PM

    I assume that WordPress did not forward my comment to you. It is on Scientific American (Comment 25).

    • #2 by rogerfloyd on January 11, 2011 - 12:17 PM

      Mr. Krumpos, thanks for your comment. It originally came through as spam and was deleted after a few days. I normally don’t reply to spam because I get so many of them.
      It’s true, we do see the universe through distorted lenses, and different groups see things differently. My comments were not intended to refute that notion. I am not a religious man, though I do attend church regularly. Yet, I have a Ph.D. degree in a scientific field. As a result, the interplay between God and religion on the one hand, and the necessity for strict logical decision-making required by science on the other, has frequently confused me. I’ve never worked that out. So when someone (i.e., Hawking) comes to the conclusion that God is not necessary and the Universe is a result of a strictly logical series of events, I’m not totally convinced. With in the past few days, the Pope said that God was responsible for the big bang, injecting yet another version of the events into the conversation. It’s anybody’s game now. Throw out your own opinion and join the fray. It hasn’t been decided.

  2. #3 by Ron Krumpos on January 11, 2011 - 12:28 PM

    Let me try again… apparently WordPress decided I’m not spamming:

    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 my ebook on comparative mysticism].

    Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington were supporters of mysticism. A good reference is “Quantum Questions / Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists,” edited by Ken Wilber (Shambhala 1984, 2001)

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