Many thanks to reader David Parker for sending me a copy of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010). Not a book worth buying, but graciously accepted gratis! When physicists need money, they scribble books for popular consumption. But who can blame them: doing physics is hard while writing bad philosophy is easy.
Numbers in parentheses are page references.
The first chapter, "The Mystery of Being," gets off to a rocky start with a curious bit of anthropomorphism: the universe is described as "by turns kind and cruel," (5) when it is obviously neither. Imputing human attitudes to nature is unscientific last time I checked. And then there is the chapter's title. I would have thought that the purpose of science is to dispel mystery. But let that pass. The authors remind us that we humans ask Big Questions about the nature of reality and the origin of the universe, e.g., "Did the universe need a creator?" (5) True, but the past tense of that question betrays a curious bias, as if a creator is a mere cosmic starter-upper as opposed to a being ongoingly involved in the existence of the world at each instant. It is the latter that sophisticated theists maintain.
The Big Questions traditionally belong to philosophy, but we are told that "philosophy is dead." (5) Unfortunately for the authors, "Philosophy always buries its undertakers," as Etienne Gilson famously observed in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937, p. 306) He calls this the first law of philosophical experience. Memorize it, and have it at the ready the next time someone says something silly like "philosophy is dead." As a codicil to the Gilsonian dictum, I suggest "and presides over their oblivion."
Philosophy is dead, the authors opine, because she "has not kept up with modern developments in the sciences, particularly physics." (5) To get answers to such questions as Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? and Why this particular set of laws and not some other? we must turn to physics. (These three questions are listed on p. 10) It will be very surprising if physics -- physics alone without any smuggled-in philosophical additions -- can answer the first and third questions. But it will never answer the second question. For we are conscious and self-conscious moral agents, and no purely physical explanation of consciousness, self-consciousness and all it entails can be derived from physics alone.
What I expect the authors to do is to smuggle in various philosophical theses along with their physics. But if they do so -- if they stray the least bit from pure physics -- then they prove that philosophy is alive after all, in their musings. What they will then be doing is not opposing philosophy as such, but urging their philosophy on us, all the while hiding from us the fact that it is indeed philosophy.
That's a pretty shabby tactic, if you want my opinion. (And there you have it, even if you don't want it.) You posture as if you are opposing all philosophy which you claim is "dead," which presumably means 'cognitively worthless,' and then you go on to make blatantly philosophical assertions which are neither properly clarified as to their sense, nor supported by anything that could count as rigorous argumentation. For example, in Chapter 2, the authors opine that "free will is just an illusion." (32) The sloppy 'reasoning' laden with rhetorical questions that leads up to this obviously philosophical assertion is nothing that could be justified by pure physics. I will come back to this when I discuss Chapter 2.
Quantum theory is brought up and the suggestion is floated that "the universe itself has no single history, nor even an independent existence." (6) It has "every possible history." A little later we are introduced to M-theory:
. . . M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather,these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. (8-9)
The writing here is quite inept. If the authors want to say that these universes came into being out of nothing, they should say that, and not say that they were created out of nothing. Creation, whether out of nothing or out of something, implies a creator. It is also inept to speak of 'intervention.' If God creates a universe, he does not intervene in it; he causes it to exist in the first place. One can intervene only in what already exists. Such sloppy writing does not inspire confidence, and suggests that the thinking behind the writing is equally sloppy. But even ignoring these infelicities of expression, it is a plain contradiciton to say that these universes comes into being out of nothing and that they arise naturally from physical law. Whatever physical law is, it is not nothing! That's clear, I hope. So why don't our physicists say what they mean, namely that these multiple universes came into being , not from nothing, but from physical law. That would be noncontradictory although it would prompt the question as to the nature and existence of physical law or laws.
Another apparent contradiction worth noting: After mentioning quantum theory in the Chapter 1, the authjors assure us in Chpater 2 that "scientific determinism" is "the basis of all modern science." (30) How this is supposed to jive, I have no idea. But hey, when the idea is to make a fast buck, who cares about such niceties as logical consistency?
Not only did many universes come into existence out of physical law (or is it out of nothing?), but "Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states at later times, that is at times like the present . . . ." (9) Most of these states are unsuitable for the existence of any form of life. It is our presence that "selects out from this vast array only those universes that are compatible with our existence." (9) That's a neat trick given that universes "have no independent existence." (6) If so, then we have no independent existence and cannot function as the "lords of creation" (9) who select among the vast array of universes.
But I want to be fair. Perhaps later chapters will remove some of the murk. There is also this consideration: Even bad books are good if they stimulate thought. But don't buy it. Borrow it from a library.
As I always say, "Never buy a book you haven't read."