David Boyce's Reviews > The Grand Design

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
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Aug 06, 2011

it was ok

As a cosmologist and a Stephen Hawking fan, I have a real issue with this book. His statement, that the Universe unpacks itself and therefore does not need a creator is based on some really flawed logic called 'model dependent realism'. MDR is a way of comparing reality to a model, if the model produces the same observable characteristics as observed in reality then the model is said to be as true as any other model.

Imagine this, if there was equal amounts of incriminating evidence that two people committed a crime and prosecution lawyers could build a case against both men then under MDR both are guilty of the crime irrespective of the fact that it only happened one way. By invoking MDR Hawking is blatantly ignoring the lessons of the past, that evidence makes or breaks models, and so far M-theory is unsupported by evidence.

In fact if you follow the line of Hawking's logic, rather than his conclusion, you can even say that Hawking categorically proves the existence of God - All be it as an MDR model of Universe creation. However he selectively ignores this and only looks at how MDR supports his religious beliefs. But, there are a lot of things wrong with this book. Let me explain....

Hawking contradicts himself. He says that Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and Newton saw that the laws of physics were the work of God and that this God was not the God the Old Testament. However we do not have enough written down about the religious beliefs off all of the above to know that this is true and this statement is certainly not true for Newton who was as Christian as you could get. Hawking is doing something quite unscientific here, he is trying to re-write history. It is an embarrassment to atheism that some of the greatest geniuses off all time could have a religious belief like the rest of us and so Hawking is trying to apologise for this by making out that somehow the religious beliefs of these scientists were different to that of the rest of the population.

Hawking suggests at some points that we must take the Universe at face value, that we must consider real only what is measurably real and then contradicts himself (when talking about the holographic theory) by saying that the Universe may be fundamentally different to how we observe it.

Hawking suggests that God doesn’t intervene, and defines intervening as a suspension of the normal laws of physics. But what about intervention using the laws of physics. What about a God that intervenes only rarely. Under MDR all are as real as a God that never intervenes. Hawking laughs at the idea that we might all be the figment of someone else’s dream, but under the logic he himself invokes, this theory is as real as M-theory.

Hawking describes how our perception of reality can be changed by placing upside down glasses on our faces. Our minds are so set in their ways that they refuse the new reality and change the input to fit with the model of the reality in our heads. In MDR the model each person has in their heads is a real reality. Reality is unique to each observer. If God exists in my model, it is true for my Universe, if he doesn’t in yours then God really is absent from yours.

Hawking describes how St Augustine concluded that the Earth was young due to the ages of people in the bible, but at the time there was no recognised evidence to suggest otherwise. According to MDR young Earth creationism was the reality, since no other model existed. He says that young Earth creationism in the present day is as real as the big bang theory. But Hawking is breaking his own logic here. In today’s day and age we have a lot more evidence that the Universe began with something like the big bang which means that under MDR, this model is considered to be MORE real.

Hawking describes how Hubble’s model of the Universe was accepted because it was the most natural model but naturalness and elegance is purely subjective. In MDR plausibility is not measured. Hawking mentions how the laws of nature determine a range of probabilities of various futures and past, and yet avoids the issue about how a selection is made. Somehow a selection IS made.

Hawking describes how the Universe is comprehensible because it can be modelled. This is not true. Only the model is comprehensible. The Universe is not the model; the Universe is infinite and by its very nature incomprehensible and thanks to quantum physics not even entirely measurable.

The bits that really make me cringe, and I have a degree and a PhD in this, is where Hawking gets his science wrong. Hawking suggests that the standard model “agrees with all current evidence”, but this is not true. Experiments have observed that the neutrino has mass, and the standard model cannot account for this.

Hawking suggests that inflation in the early Universe really did happen, but recent observations by his old friend Roger Penrose have cast serious doubts over this. Hawking also suggests that this Universe is casually disconnected from the other possibilities, and so what we experience is just one possibility. However M-theory suggests that gravity information leaks between membranes, thus collapsing the universe into one possibility. This one.

Hawking suggests the Universe has 4 dimensions of space time as the result of our selection. In his words the Universe is like this because this is one of the possibilities it could have been and our selection is this. But as Einstein said, “God doesn’t play dice”. To suggest that some thing’s have no fundamental reason for existing is like saying “Everybody stop all scientific research, because there is no fundamental reason for any of this”.

Hawking also suggests that the act of creation is understandable purely within the realm of science, but doesn’t mention that we have no science that works at t=0. The science goof that nearly had me eating my kindle in apoplexy was when Hawking suggests that black holes have positive gravitational potential energy. If that were true, the milky way would be spread around the Universe.

Hawking does do well at talking his way out of the fine tuning argument. He effectively kills that argument dead and I agree we do not need God to explain why the Universe is perfect for our existence. But my reply is that, people shouldn’t have been using that line of apologism in the first place because it doesn’t make theological sense, let alone scientific sense. According to Christian doctrine God made creation for himself, he did not make it for us.

Hawking does well at explaining how quantum mechanics and relativity on intermediate scales produce Newtonian like physics. This is the Hawking we know and love and this book should have been full of this kind of stuff. Instead it is full of laughable pseudoscience and theology. Model dependent realism is not robust enough for Hawking’s confidence in it and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny or close inspection.

The theological work in this is very much of the style of Dawkins and others who successfully disprove Gods of their own imagining. They create a God, give it powers and then disprove the God that they have created. But they don’t get anywhere near the God that people worship in churches. Hawking’s intellect outstrips his own imagination and it really shows in this work. I am very happily the other way around.
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Alexander >"...is certainly not true for Newton who was as Christian as you could get..."

Say whaaaat?


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