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…”)