“Philosophy is dead.”
So declares physicist Stephen Hawking in the early pages of his new bestseller, “The Grand Design.”
He continues: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”
It’s a grand statement to open “The Grand Design,” except that for many, it doesn’t ring true. In fact, one of the fastest growing areas in academics is the discipline of philosophy of science, and it seems that the vast majority of best-selling “science” books are not, as they claim, really about science, but instead about what the science may be telling us. In other words, they’re essentially philosophy books. “The Grand Design,” as it turns out, falls into this category, and is a metaphysical treatise from a great thinker who happens to be a world-renowned theoretical physicist.
“The Grand Design” is a very well-written book, and largely enjoyable to read, but for anyone seeking concrete answers to the questions posed by Dr. Hawking, it ends in disappointment. While the book is filled with explanations and examples of quantum experiments and their highly successful track record (which is the most enjoyable section of the book), the conclusions drawn by Hawking (and co-author Leonard Mlodinow) at the end ignore his own instructions at the beginning of the book. In fact, the book creates more new questions than it answers. This is due in part to the fact that the authors build their argument around M-theory, which is unverifiable by measurement and is considered by many to be little more than mathematical metaphysics. Scientists in any field should first and foremost concern themselves with evidence verified by test-based results. The fact that Hawking is trading on his credentials as a scientist to put forth a philosophical treatise has raised some eyebrows in the scientific community.
And before someone cries foul and points out that I’m not a physicist, I’d point out that quite a few physicists have claimed that once one has a basic understanding of what quantum physics entails, the layman is every bit as capable as the physicist in offering explanations for what it might actually mean. When it comes to quantum physics, non-physicists with a general understanding of the experimental facts of quantum physics—facts about which there is no dispute—can offer opinions about what it might mean with a validity matching that of physicists.
Dr. Hawking and Mlodinow open the argument by explaining that since we don’t really know what existed prior to the Big Bang, and because the physical laws that govern the Universe didn’t come into play until some time during the first second after the singularity, we really aren’t in a position to accurately predict anything about what existed before that. To this point, Hawking has remained true to his scientific background, and true to statements he’s made earlier in his career, such as “I don’t demand that a theory corresponds to reality, because I don’t know what it is. Reality is not a quality you can test with a litmus paper. All I’m concerned about is that the theory should predict the results of measurement.”1 So far, so good.
He then notes that his own theory—the very one which forms the basis for this book—is currently untestable and unlikely to ever yield a model that could be tested. And then, without a moment’s hesitation, he proceeds to launch into a book that proposes a theory for the creation of the Universe based upon the law of gravity, a law which Hawking and Mlodinow have just finished telling us came into existence after the singularity. If readers are paying attention, they should find themselves saying, “Hey! Didn’t he just claim that those very same physical laws wouldn’t be of any use in building a testable model?”
It’s important to point out that Hawking and Mlodinow propose to use this theory—one based upon mathematical metaphysics—to answer some huge questions that have puzzled mankind since he acquired the ability and need to contemplate his own existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist?
Before attempting to answer these questions, Hawking first provides us with some background information to help the reader better understand quantum theory. Since the earliest “knowable” state of the Universe consisted of tightly-packed elementary particles, the Big Bang itself must have been a quantum event, as the classical laws did not appear until after the singularity. Once the reader has this background information firmly in hand, Hawking then presents his own model for what might have happened. It’s at this point that one should question Dr. Hawking’s motives, even if one is a loyal fan of the great scientist, because it’s here that Hawking begins to write about his theory as though it were demonstrable fact.
From this point forward, Hawking’s language and word choice clearly suggests that he firmly believes it to be a demonstrable fact, and once he begins writing in this mode, his earlier, carefully-worded caveats are completely ignored. M-Theory is no longer an untestable model of a unified theory. It appears to become the firm belief of Dr. Hawking that this is indeed how the Universe began, and he lays it out with authority. If this was not what he meant to imply, then it was a gross oversight not to say so. Hawking’s mind and his grandly-realized ideas draw tremendous respect from the general public, and for him to so strongly argue for something for which he cannot provide any evidence is, to put it lightly, a bit irresponsible. His words carry weight, and when he speaks, people listen. Anyone who has followed the controversy since the release of this book knows exactly what I’m talking about. Hawking not only lays out a metaphysical argument against a creative intelligence, but has recently gone on record with anti-faith comments not supportable with any facts or science. If one is going to use science to make a point, one should provide scientific evidence to make that point. Hawking simply counters one metaphysical idea with an opposing metaphysical idea, and counts on his considerable reputation as a physicist to add weight to his argument.
From a scientific point of view, the primary problem with Hawking’s argument for a universe “from nothing” is that he builds his case with quantum physics. Hawking and Mlodinow have chosen a single interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation, although this is only one of many possible interpretations. Hawking’s idea isn’t entirely without merit, however, but it does take huge leaps of logic. While quantum theory is one of the most successful theories known to science, its success resides in the study of small elemental systems, not large objects, and not entire universes.
It’s been noted that if we were to try to test quantum theory on large objects, such as objects the size of golf balls, we’d be dealing with distances and speeds such as a millionth of an inch over the course of a century. Hardly the sort of situation that lends itself to a testable model. Most of the criticism of Hawking’s theory is that it attempts to use a theory that works on small systems such as one composed of protons and electrons, and apply it to something the size of a universe. It’s akin to suggesting that since a basketball can be bounced, Jupiter could also be bounced providing you could find a surface large enough from which to bounce it. What is possible in the quantum world doesn’t automatically extrapolate to the classical world.
Additionally, Hawking largely ignores another aspect of quantum physics, one championed and explored by fellow physicist Roger Penrose. Penrose has gone on record claiming that no unified theory of the Universe will ever be complete without accounting for consciousness. Penrose even takes this idea a step farther, and to Hawking, perhaps a step too far. Penrose believes that the only thing linking the quantum world with the classical world is consciousness…human consciousness. This is a startling statement, but then we must remember that quantum theory tells us that the reality of the physical world depends upon our observation of it.
Some physicists like to soften this idea by suggesting that the reality of the physical world appears to depend upon our observation of it, but others insist that the first statement was entirely accurate, and completely supported by empirical evidence. Quantum experiments have demonstrated with 100% accuracy that our observation of what is to be measured actually produces the physical reality of what is to be measured. It’s a startling reality that is referred to as “the skeleton in the closet” of modern physics.2 This idea, when really explored, suggests some mind-blowing conclusions pointing toward teleology, which is why most physicists like to steer clear of it, Hawking among them.
In fact, while Hawking does briefly mention the role of consciousness in quantum mechanics, he mostly sweeps the issue under the rug. If you were to look at the index of the book, you’d find no references to “mind” or “consciousness,” although this issue is one of the central mysteries of quantum mechanics. While mentioning John Wheeler’s work with delayed-choice experiments, the writers do not mention that Wheeler’s original conjecture suggested that his successful experiments implied an observer-dependent universe.
Perhaps one of the most profound questions ever asked in a science book can be found in John Polkinghorne’s book, “Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction.” As he cautiously leads up to the issue of the conscious mind and its uneasy marriage with the quantum world, he asks: “At most times and in most places, the Universe has been devoid of consciousness. Are we to suppose that throughout these vast tracts of cosmic space and time, no quantum processes resulted in a determinate consequence?”3
If the importance of that question didn’t grab your attention, you weren’t paying attention, and I’ll ask you to read it again before proceeding. If you knew the answer to that question, you’d know the very answers to the questions asked by Hawking earlier.
If it’s true that the physical realities of the classical world depend upon our observation of them—and keeping in mind that quantum experiments prove this to be absolutely true 100% of the time—then the most logical conclusion drawn from this evidence suggests that mind is the originator of matter, and not the other way around, as the materialist view claims. If one wished to argue in favor of this idea, one would have the most successful scientific theory ever on their side. Therefore it’s no surprise that Hawking, who no doubt is completely aware of this fact, chose to ignore its implications in his book, while pushing ahead with a metaphysical theory about how a universe can spring into existence “from nothing.”
The fatal flaw in Hawking’s theory has been pointed out again and again by his critics, who come from all belief systems. The flaw in his theory goes beyond the theist/non-theist argument, and runs head-on into a brick wall grounded on simple logic. Hawking’s entire argument for a universe that springs into existence from nothing is flawed because it presupposes an already-existing, information-rich system that includes gravity. Keep in mind that Hawking has already warned us that we cannot speculate about what existed before the singularity using physical laws that appeared after it.
Hawking’s “nothing,” as it turns out, isn’t really nothing after all. Nothing is total non-being, total blankness. On this fact alone, Hawking’s theory falls flat, as it requires the preexistence of an eternal system that he fails to explain. This doesn’t prevent him from making a very grand claim by stating that a universe can appear out of “nothing.” If the reader has been paying attention and is aware of this fact while reading the conclusions made in the book, then Hawking’s conclusion is groundless, and is reduced to metaphysical musings built upon a house of cards. One needn’t be a physicist to figure out that Dr. Hawking leaves many contingencies unexplored. Simply paying attention to what Hawking said earlier in this book and others is sufficient. His argument for a “universe from nothing” fails on logical grounds, as it contradicts his earlier statements (which are supported by scientific data). Hawking already realizes the issues and has previously stated as much: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”4
In the end, the existence of the Universe and its original cause doesn’t lend itself to a testable model, and remains hidden by layers upon layers of contingencies. It’s at this point that the philosophers step in, scientific or otherwise, and it’s here that the battle rages, perhaps endlessly. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, Hawking’s idea isn’t without merit, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a brilliant mind at work. His contributions to the scientific world are immeasurable and have helped cosmologists move forward in leaps and bounds. But for reasons known only to Stephen Hawking, simply trying to explain the Universe and the physical processes that keep it going aren’t enough for him. He also feels the need to disprove a concept that clearly vexes him, and it’s nowhere more apparent than in “The Grand Design.” For now, anyway, God appears safe from Stephen Hawking.
Quantum physics has opened an entirely new world that only now is becoming known to the general public. Some of the questions raised by this fascinating world seem best addressed by philosophy. Science can tell us how it works, but science appears confounded by why it works the way it does. Yet for many, the findings of science are enough to sustain them. Scientific discovery provides a sense of wonderment that makes them feel they’re a part of something truly amazing, part of a beautiful and mysteriously connected system capable of producing their own intelligence and ability to wonder. For others, we comprehend the same scientific facts, feel the same sense of wonder, and beyond it, through the mist of our earthly senses, see the hand of God.
1 “The Nature of Time and Space,” by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, p. 121, Princeton University Press.
2 “Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness,” by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, p. 13, Oxford University Press.
3 “Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction,” by John C. Polkinghorne, p. 51, Oxford University Press, USA.
4 “A Brief History of Time,” by Stephen Hawking, p. 190, Bantam Books.