Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review of The Grand Design, Part 2

This is one of those days when I'm particularly glad to have guest writer Daniel Ventress offer Part 2 of his review of Hawking's The Grand Design. Christmas morning, I spent 5 hours (3-8 AM) in the emergency room when my kidney stone made what seems to have been it's last move -- and I hope it's gone now. Then, late Monday, I began a 36 hour stint in bed with food poisoning. I just ate my first meal in over 40 hours a few minutes ago.

So needless to say, I wouldn't have been up for writing an entry anyway. So, special thanks, Dan. :)


Having reviewed the first chapter, we found Hawking and Mlodinow to be vastly ignorant of philosophy, and in the second chapter they extend this ignorance to history as they once again attempt to dabble in areas outside of their area of expertise. The thing that struck me as being particularly odd is how this book not only contains absolutely no footnotes or endnotes whatsoever, but does not even contain a bibliography. Such absence of reference is profoundly unscholarly and un-academic especially considering Hawking and Mlodinow’s frequent dabbling in areas in which they know absolutely nothing. In a breath-taking display of ignorance, bigotry, and historical illiteracy, Hawking and Mlodinow paint a picture of ignorant, simple-minded ancients who invented mythology, religion, and deities to explain the workings of the world and science arising from the astute deductions of the observant few:

“In ancient times it was natural to ascribe the violent acts of nature to a pantheon of mischievous or malevolent deities. Calamities were often taken as a sign that we had somehow offended the gods… Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, p25

“…once grasped, the patterns made it clear the eclipses were not dependent on the arbitrary whims of supernatural beings, but rather governed by laws… The idea arose that nature follows consistent principles that could be deciphered. And so began the long process of replacing the notion of the reign of gods with the concept of a universe that is governed by laws of nature, and created according to a blueprint we could someday learn to read.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p24, 26

Whilst this ‘just-so’ account of the origins of science and religion are comforting to those inculcated with the pernicious myth that the two are at odds with another, the views presented in the first three pages of their second chapter are entirely at odds with the facts. The claim that belief in gods arose from ignorance and that science arose from intellectual curiosity opposed to this ignorance is complete and total nonsense. Starting with their proclamation that science did not begin until the classical Greek period in Ionia, Hawking and Mlodinow display throughout their chapter they have no knowledge about history whatsoever.

The claim that belief in deities, and thus religion, began through ignorance is simply purely speculative. The problem with trying to explore the origins of religion is that religion pre-dates writing and thus evidence is scanty and largely non-existent. Thus Hawking and Mlodinow’s proposed explanation is nothing more than baseless speculation. Secondly, how one comes to belief in something is irrelevant to the truth of that thing. Even if Hawking and Mlodinow were correct, then at best they would show that the ancients believed in deities for faulty reasons, but would do nothing to show that their beliefs were actually false. This is known as the genetic fallacy, which is an informal logical fallacy where a conclusion is assessed solely on its origin, rather than by its merits. Now, such accounts might actually be true, but are completely irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the conclusion itself. As for the claim that ancient people were ignorant of the workings of nature, this is totally and wholly absurd. Ancient persons were fully aware of the regularity of nature, as evidenced by their mythology. Ancient mythology reflected how the people in question understood the world around them. Pagan religions revolved entirely around such natural phenomenon. For example, a frequently occurring myth amongst pagan religions were based on vegetation cycles, such as the murder of Osiris, or Persephone being kidnapped by Hades.

These myths are meant to represent cyclical natural cycles, such as the flooding of the Nile in ancient Egypt, or the general pattern of seasons. Ancient people attributing certain theological interpretations to these natural events do not in any way make them stupid or ignorant of the workings on the universe. On the contrary, these myths reflect the inherent understanding of the regularity of nature. We can, on the other reject these theological interpretations by using philosophy. For example, the notion of simplicity in explanation, Vis a Vis Occam’s Razor, is a philosophical principle. Most pagan religions needlessly involve a pantheon of deities, as opposed to a single deity. In fact, in certain mythologies, the gods are not even responsible for creation, such as in Greek mythology, were everything, including the gods themselves, nucleate out of a primordial chaos. Thus involving deities would seem superfluous if everything came into being on its own. We would then be confronted by two rival hypotheses, the creation of everything out of pre-existing primordial chaos, or everything being the creation of a single deity. We could continue to shave away unnecessary features until we are left with an explanation that explains the data and nothing more. Note how I have not made recourse to science or scientific explanations at all. Science indeed makes use of such a principle, but such a principal is neither uniquely scientific nor is it inadmissible in other contexts.

Hawking and Mlodinow make the entirely unwarranted assumption that such theological explanations are somehow at odds with scientific explanations. That is to say, they make a false dichotomy between natural law and teleology. The ‘laws of nature’ are purely descriptive, and most certainly do not cause anything as to suggest otherwise would afford them an ontological status wholly at odds with Hawking and Mlodinow’s self-chosen naturalism (as it would imply platonic realism.) For in order to stand in causal relations, laws of nature, such as the laws of physics, would need some form of concrete existence in order to have properties that allow them to exert influence over other things. Thus, under a naturalistic, materialist philosophical framework, the only available explanations for why the universe behaves in the way that it does is either down to physical necessity or blind chance. Whereas if we do not a priori presuppose naturalism, we can admit intentional design into our pool of live options. Hawking and Mlodinow have most certainly not made any kind of case for why we should accept naturalism, and so why we should reject intentional design from the pool of live options is anybody’s guess. This actually forms the basis for the teleological argument for the existence of God. Either the complexity we observe is the result of design, or it is the result of either physical necessity or chance. This is a purely philosophical discussion, and whilst science can certainly help us in such a discussion, it does not have the final say on the matter.

What then of Hawking and Mlodinow’s views on the history of science? Once again we find nothing more than overweening ignorance in fields about which the authors do not have the faintest understanding. They make no reference whatsoever to any kind of historical source and just continue to assert their just-so stories about history as if their word was the final matter on the subject. Well, as a student of history, I can tell you that it isn’t ‘just-so’ and that the word of two physicists is not enough to overturn historical facts. Hawking and Mlodinow cite a number of classical Greek figures, whom they believe embody the modern scientific ideal as close as possible.

“Thales first developed the idea that the world could be understood, that the complex happenings around us could be reduced to simpler principles without resort to mythical or theological explanations.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p27

“According to legend, the first mathematical formulation of what we might call today a law of nature dates back to an Ionian named Pythagoras… the frequency… of a string is inversely proportional to the length of the string.” p27, 28-29

“Apart from the Pythagorean law of strings, the only physical laws known correctly to the ancients were three laws detailed by Archimedes… by far the most eminent physicist of antiquity.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p29

Their revisionist scheme of the history of science continues much in the same vein. Extolling the virtues of various Greek philosophers and promoting them to the rank of ‘scientist’ or ‘physicist’ purely down to the fact that Hawking and Mlodinow agree with their philosophical outlook. They go on to reference Anaximander, whom they refer to as being the first to refer to “humanity’s first inkling of evolution” (Hawking and Mlodinow, p30) Empedocles, and also to Democritus, who postulated the atom and believed that everything was the result of the collision of atoms, and Aristarchus, whom Hawking and Mlodinow claim was the first to challenge the idea that we are not special inhabitants at the centre of the universe. Hawking and Mlodinow’s version of the history is so skewed and out of touch with reality that I scarcely know where to even begin. Perhaps the first order of business is to point out that astronomy is a practice that archaeological evidence shows pre-dated writing itself.

Contrary to Hawking and Mlodinow, attempted explanations of natural phenomenon being based upon observations and numerical data can be traced back to the Sumerian period, roughly 5,500 years ago. Ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Babylonian peoples had fairly accurate knowledge of agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, and even medicine in some respects. Not to say they had everything done and dusted, but Hawking and Mlodinow’s picture of ignorant simpletons stupefied by the workings of nature is simply wholly inaccurate. The Greek philosophers merely continued the endeavour that had long been established in human history, the effort of understanding the universe. Thales’ not making reference to “mythological explanations” is correct, however Thales, like other Greek philosophers, still believed in a supreme divine mind which gave order to the chaotic elements from which everything arose.

Hawking and Mlodinow claim that Democritus was the founder of atomism, when it actual fact it was Democritus’ teacher, Leucippus. However, this is only a minor blunder on their part. They falsely ascribe the philosophical notion of determinism as being part of atomism and in an incredible piece of irony, claim that atomist Epicurus opposed atomism on these grounds. I have to wonder how they managed to get things so completely wrong, when Epicurus was himself an atomist who, contrary to Hawking and Mlodinow, tried applying atomist principles to human behaviour. You can read more about Epicurus here: Hawking and Mlodinow also claim Aristotle opposed atomism on the grounds that he could not tolerate the idea that human beings are composed of soulless, inanimate objects. This is, of course, incorrect. Aristotle opposed atomism because he believed that the ‘void’ postulated and required by atomism violated physical principles. However, Hawking and Mlodinow’s ignorance of history does not end here.
“The Ionian idea that the universe is not human-centred was a milestone in our understanding of the cosmos, but it was an idea that would be dropped and not picked up again, or commonly accepted, until Galileo, almost twenty centuries later.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p32

This is another myth that has been doing the rounds recently in New Atheist literature. It is, for one reason or another, been claimed that the earth being the centre of the universe is somehow a central aspect of religion. Furthermore, it is claimed that since it has been shown that the earth is not the centre of the universe, than mankind has lost the special, privileged position it once thought it had, and thus religion is bunkum. Never mind that this is completely untrue, with absolutely zero basis in fact whatsoever. Indeed, this is one of the more peculiar and jarring myths propagated by the New Atheists, and one that has proven to be particularly hard to suppress despite its palpable falsehood. First of all, even if this were a belief of ancient and medieval persons, how would the falsehood of this ideal at all lead to the falsehood of any particularly religion, let alone theism as a whole? Secondly, the idea can be falsified without recourse to science at all. After all, centrality is not equal to importance, and one’s location in physical space does nothing to determine how important someone or something is.

However, it turns out that this idea was not one held by geocentrists at all. Ironically enough, prior to the advent of Copernicanism, the centre of the universe was considered the dumping ground at the bottom. As Peter S. Williams notes in A Sceptics Guide to Atheism, a common objection to Copernicus’ theory was that it elevated humanity above its station and Galileo argued that the Copernican theory promoted humanity. (Peter S. Williams, A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism, Paternoster, (2009), p128-132) Secondly, earth is significant, not because of its location in space (which is wholly irrelevant) but due to its location within the solar system. It inhabits a region known colloquially as the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ and even this special place is only one of around 200 requirements for the development of life. Earth is privileged in that it is the only planet in our solar system that contains not just life, but intelligent life, and is likely the only habited planet in the galaxy.

Hawking and Mlodinow, however, are quick to denounce the Greek natural philosophers for what they see as their two most egregious shortcomings:
“As insightful as some of their speculations about nature were, most of the ideas of the ancient Greeks would not pass muster as valid science in modern times. For one, because the Greeks had not invented the scientific method, their theories were not developed with the goal of experimental verification… Also, there was no clear distinction between human and physical laws.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p32, 33

That’s right, despite trumping religion (at least according to Hawking and Mlodinow) the Greeks are stupid in a different way. They didn’t have the scientific method, and they ascribed agency to the laws of nature. In what can only be described as one of the most bizarre and palpably untrue historical claims made in the book so far, Hawking and Mlodinow claim that the people in ancient and medieval times believed that unconscious objects were conscious and that this view was adopted by Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas. Of course, it is a little unclear if they mean Aquinas adopted this view, or if they just mean he believed that the laws of nature arose from the intentionality of a personal agent. They do, however, attribute the former view to Kepler bizarrely enough.

I shall deal with the issue of the Greek’s lack of the scientific method first. This is only a problem if your chief concern is finding out HOW things worked, yet, as Hawking and Mlodinow themselves note, the ancients were more concerned with WHY. Hawking and Mlodinow take issue with the fact that the ancients believed that the laws of nature were intentional. However, instead of explaining what is wrong with this idea, they spend the next few pages badmouthing Aristotle, claiming that his theories had “little predictive value.” Hawking and Mlodinow continue to perpetuate historical fables with no basis in fact:

“The Greeks’ Christian successors rejected the idea that the universe is governed by indifferent natural law. They also rejected the idea that humans do not hold a privileged place within the universe… a common theme was that the universe is God’s dollhouse and religion a far worthier study than the phenomena of nature… Among the heresies [condemned by Bishop Tempier in 1277 on the orders Pope John XXI] was the idea that nature follows laws, because this conflicts with God’s omnipotence.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p36

Hawing and Mlodinow still have not specifically outlined what is wrong with ascribing teleology to the laws of the nature, and, as we discussed earlier, the ancients and medievals did not think that humanity occupied a special place in the universe (although modern science has, ironically enough, shown that the earth is rather special indeed.) As for the rest of these claims, they are once again totally devoid of any familiarity with history whatsoever. Once again, their ‘just-so’ account of the Pope ordering the Parisian bishop, Tempier, to ban the idea of nature obeying laws is, as with their other attempts to dabble in the field of history, completely wrong.

What they are actually referring to are a series of condemnation between the 13th and 14th centuries, primarily those between the years 1210 and 1277. Roughly sixteen lists of censured theses were issued and put together into systematic collections. Whilst the condemnations of 1277 are linked to Pope John XXI, whether or not he actually supported them is unclear and has been disputed. Interestingly enough, among the teachings considered heretical were the physical treatises of Aristotle, whom Hawking and Mlodinow spent a good few pages badmouthing. Even more ironically, historians generally regard the condemnation of 1277 as being a step forward for science, as it allowed scholars to break free from the restrictions of Aristotelian science. So, despite their attempts to vilify the medieval scholars as being gullible followers of Aristotle, nothing could be further from the truth. Scholastic philosophers such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham noted the flaws in uncritically accepting Aristotelian philosophy and so began developing their own ideas (notably the principle of parsimony, Ockham’s Razor.)

Hawking and Mlodinow attribute to the origin of the concepts of laws of nature “as we understand them today” (Hawking and Mlodinow, p37) to a number of 17th century thinkers, notably Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and in particular, Descartes. Hawking and Mlodinow, however, seem to think that such views presented problems for the teleological view of God’s divine providence, and whilst this did perhaps bother Newton, this view is simply mistaken. Hawking and Mlodinow, of course, take issue with Newton, Descartes, et al. finding ways to include God in the running of nature. Having come to the climax of their blatantly false historical revisionism, Hawking and Mlodinow proceed to finally define natural laws:

“In modern science laws of nature are usually phrased in mathematics. They can either be exact or approximate, but they must have been observed to hold without exception – if not universally, then at least under a stipulated set of conditions.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p 41

They then ask three questions: what is the origin of the laws, are there exceptions to the laws, i.e. miracles, and is there only one set of possible laws? Hawking and Mlodinow note that Descartes, Newton, Kepler, and Galileo all believed that the laws came from God. They then complain, however, that unless God possesses properties other than merely being the originator of the laws of nature, then employing God as an answer to question 1 merely one-ups the problem. Of course, the only property we need attribute to God in addition to being an intelligent designer is that He is the uncaused first cause.

Regarding the second question, Hawking and Mlodinow make the rather odd claim that Christians stood in opposition to Descartes in supposing that God intervened in the goings on of the universe. It is an odd claim because Descartes was a Christian thinker, yet this is only a minor error in comparison to their other blunders so far. As if to remind us of their profound and monumental historical illiteracy, Hawking and Mlodinow, make the following claim in answer to question two:

“It is Laplace who is usually credited with first clearly postulating scientific determinism: given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God. The scientific determinism that Laplace formulated is the modern scientist’s answer to question two. It is, in fact, the basis of all modern science, and a principle that is important throughout this book. A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p43-44

Where do I even begin with such demonstrably false assertions? Their citation of Laplace as being the first to propose scientific determinism is, as usual, mistaken, and at odds with their earlier claim that the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus were deterministic. The context in which they bring up a quote by Laplace is also equally wrong. They seem to think that Laplace eliminated God entirely from the workings of the universe, when in reality Laplace really meant that no miracles are needed in keeping the universe going, a belief that is hardly controversial amongst Christians today. Sure, some Christians believe that God created the universe miraculously, but even they do not maintain that the regular goings on of the universe require God’s constant miraculous intervention. How this excludes the possibility of miracles or a “direct role for God” is not clear for if God is the author of the laws of nature, then surely He is free to intervene when He wishes?

Hawking and Mlodinow assert that scientific laws aren’t laws if a supernatural being can freely choose to intervene, but how this is so is never explained or argued for, it is just asserted to be true as if Hawking and Mlodinow’s word were enough to make this so. The law of gravity holds regardless of whether I let a ball fall to the ground, of if I choose to intervene to catch the ball. My act of catching the ball does not falsify the law of gravity, so why think that God acting in the world falsifies the laws of nature? Furthermore, the claim that the view that Hawking and Mlodinow espouse is a presumption of science is completely false. It is not at all a presumption of science as only are there are many scientists who are committed believers in God, many of whom specifically believing in the Judeo-Christian God. In reality, this is a philosophical issue that cannot be determined by science. Hawking and Mlodinow continue on, however, asserting that determinism can explain personal agency:

“Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets… It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p45

Once again, this is simply the result of sloppy philosophy. There is absolutely no amount of scientific evidence that suggests that determinism is true. Determinism is a philosophical position, and one that must be argued for, not merely assumed and lamely justified with the bare assertion: “science says.” Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “science shows” that humans are the helpless puppets of physical laws, and note experiments conducted where various sensations and desires can be simulated by stimulating the brain in different ways. Of course, how this proves determinism is not clear. For example, whilst a certain chemical might cause to feel the sensation I associate with love, this chemical does not cause me to love my girlfriend. Or a scientist might stimulate my brain in such a way that I strongly feel the desire to move my leg, but it does not follow that this stimulation will necessarily cause me to move my leg. These feelings and sensations need to be acted upon, and no scientific experiment has shown that our actions are the result of physical stimulus. We can readily defy sensations and desires, furthermore, this ‘just-so’ account does not account for our beliefs, the role our beliefs play in our decisions and actions and they do not account for consciousness.

The philosophical view that our mental states are the results of purely physical phenomenon is deeply problematic for the simply reason that no purely physical explanation of consciousness exists. Philosopher Jason Holt, himself a materialist, admits that this is a belief that is not widely held today:

“Materialism is a nice theory. It’s simple, elegant, fruitful, coheres well with out body of scientific knowledge, and relatedly, anchors the mind to the physical world. But materialism has its pitfalls. Practically no contemporary philosopher believes it. I’m an exception.” – Jason Holt, The Machine-Made Ghost, from William Irwin, ed., The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the Real, Open Court, (2002), p68-69

The problems with this purely philosophical view are legion, for instance, the problem of consciousness (as previously mentioned), Then there is the fact that such a view does not account for intentionality or qualia. Of course, true to their post-modernist philosophy, Hawking and Mlodinow go on to assert that it is still okay to go on believing in free will, since trying to calculate human behaviour via physical laws is too impractical and postulating free will is a good explanation for the apparently random behaviour of human beings. In other words, they are asserting that it is rational to hold to false beliefs if these beliefs are of practical, pragmatic benefit. Whilst such a view is once again asserted without argument, the main failing here is that such a view, ironically enough, would mean that it is rational to hold theism even if it were false, given that one of the pet theories of new atheism is that religion ‘evolved’ amongst humans for some kind of practical purpose.

Hawking and Mlodinow briefly discuss the third question by briefly referencing men such as Descartes and Einstein, whom Hawking and Mlodinow assert believed that the laws of nature were chosen for reasons of logical necessity. They, however, go on to say that answers to questions one and two will be left to further chapters, before repeating their bare assertion that miracles are impossible and that determinism is true. To sum up, this chapter is nothing more than an attempt at providing an account of the history of science in order to try and bolster Hawking and Mlodinow’s belief in determinism, yet they systematically managed to get just about everything about the history of science wrong whilst simultaneously making sloppy philosophical pronouncements under the pretence of being “scientific” when in actual fact they are nothing of the sort. What pains me more than their many egregious errors and palpable failures, however, is that there are probably a good number of gullible lickspittles and other mindless automatons will no doubt lap these falsehoods up as if they were fact. I truly weep for the world if the average person’s knowledge of history, philosophy, and science is this abysmally bad.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Depth Review: Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design," Part 1

Today's Ticker is a guest piece by Daniel Ventress, whose done some stellar voice work for us on TektonTV. He's also a keen student -- and he'll be doing a series for us on Hawking's book The Grand Design.

While I don't agree with every single point here, I think you'll find it worthy of serious consideration.



For those of you who have not heard, Stephen Hawking has opted for taking the ‘Richard Dawkins Approach to Debating Science and Religion.’ (TM) What I mean is that a man who is generally well-established and fully qualified within an area of science (Dawkins is a biologist, Hawking a physicist) has, for one reason or another, decided to dabble in areas outside of their expertise. Not that there is anything wrong with this. Laymen are perfectly free to enter into the conversation on a given topic. However, they should approach it as laymen, and both Dawkins and Hawking are laymen when it comes to ANY topic outside of their jurisdiction. This is a point that my good friend Nick Peters likes to raise, and indeed HAS raised in his response to Dawkins’ latest book, ‘The Magic of Reality.’ My field of study is History; I am a history student. As such, I am expected to abide by certain scholarly specifications when I tackle my assignments. As any academic or expert is able to tell you, in order to complete university programs, and in order to gain tenure and get your work published in peer reviewed journals, you NEED to be rigorous and critical when you tackle issues relating to the subject.

Laymen therefore need to be particularly careful when approaching areas outside of their areas of expertise. Yet in Hawking’s new book The Grand Design (as with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, etc.), we do not see this. Instead we see a total lack of familiarity not just with specific issues within the field, but a familiarity with the entire subject itself. This is the central failing of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. Laymen dive right into areas that they have no experience in, and make bold, rash, and often particularly stupid statements. For example, the New Atheists often claim to hold to ‘enlightened ideals,’ by which they mean the values of the Enlightenment philosophes – Voltaire, d’Holbach, d’Alembert, Diderot, Hume, et al. Yet, these Enlightenment figures did not hold to democracy, a value the New Atheists pay lip service to. Voltaire believed that the masses should not be taught to read and that enlightened values should be filtered down to the masses slowly. Indeed, d’Alembert remarked that one did not need a good deal of philosophy to tell that societies, particularly large states, required clearly defined social hierarchies, with the ‘grands’ at the top. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Michel Onfray, Piergiorgio Odifreddi, Victor Stenger, AC Grayling, Polly Toynbee, and many more, all feel inclined to expose their monumental and overweening ignorance in fields outside of their expertise.

However, this is dwarfed by an even bigger error: their refusal to accept correction in the face of multiple stringent criticisms of their lacklustre and slapdash efforts. It is almost an act of public defiance of the academic establishment, waved about as if it were a badge of honour to spout nonsense. Yet, the same individuals are not only incredibly hostile to anyone commenting on THEIR own fields of study, they think all such views are not just wrong, but stupid, and also ‘evil and dangerous.’ Now, there are certain individuals, such as Kent Hovind, who try to make pronouncements in scientific areas, despite not being a scientist. It is understandably frustrating to see such a thing. Why then, do the New Atheists feel inclined to engage in the same nefarious activities as those they claim to despise? It therefore pains me to see a man of such esteem and standing of Stephen Hawking sink the to depths of these other individuals. Whilst certain individuals, such as Hawking’s former colleague Roger Penrose, have expressed doubts that the views expressed in The Grand Design are really Hawking’s own (as opposed to that of co-author Leonard Mlodinow), I shall take William Lane Craig’s approach and treat it as if they were his own views. After all, his name is on the cover. So, with that said, let the journey commence!

Chapter 1: The Mystery of Being

The first chapter is only a short one, yet it is full of so many egregious errors that I am not quite sure where to begin. Indeed, many critiques of Hawking’s work have been focused mostly on the statements made in this one chapter. Hawking and Mlodinow begin by considering a number of deep and profound questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? On the very first page of the very first chapter, Hawking and Mlodinow make one of the most self-contradictory claims it is possible to make. This error is so plain and basic that it should be obvious to anybody with a modicum of intelligence, yet, for some reason, is totally invisible to Hawking and Mlodinow.

“Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p13

These three sentences are so incoherent that I can scarcely believe a man of Hawking’s intellectual calibre is even capable of coming up with it. Someone with even a vague familiarity with philosophy should be able to tell you, the statement ‘philosophy is dead’ is on every level a PHILOSOPHICAL statement. It is therefore fundamentally self-contradictory, for in order to proclaim philosophy dead, you must engage in, yes, that’s right, philosophy.

Indeed, it is incredibly ironic that they proclaim philosophy to be dead, when the entirety of the first chapter is nothing but pure philosophy. Philosophy of science granted, but philosophy all the same. The statement regarding scientists being the bearers of the torch of discovery in the quest for knowledge is another thinly veiled philosophical statement. Essentially, what Mlodinow and Hawking are saying here, is that scientists are now the go-to experts in matters concerning what is true. Yet the entire subject of knowledge and what is true is a branch of philosophy known as epistemology. Science is but one of method of acquiring knowledge, yet in order to determine its accuracy in providing knowledge you need to engage in philosophy. Thus their claim that philosophy is dead is contradictory in at least two different ways. In order to determine if the statement, ‘philosophy is dead’ is true, then you need to engage in philosophy… yet this would suppose that philosophy is not dead at all. Secondly, in order to determine the validity of science as a method of gaining accurate knowledge, you again need to engage in philosophy.

Now, moving on to the claim that philosophy has not kept up with modern science, this is patently false and once again shows to demonstrate Hawking and Mlodinow’s lack of familiarity with contemporary philosophical literature. Many contemporary philosophers ARE acquainted with modern science. For example, William Lane Craig interacts fully with contemporary cosmological models, personally communicated with the leading experts, such as Alexander Vilenkin, et al., regarding his version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument to ensue that everything is in accord with modern physics. Not to say that all contemporary philosophers are, however. Such sweeping generalisations are, of course, fallacious… yet this is what we find Mlodinow and Hawking doing.

Ironically enough, it is often scientists who are incredibly ignorant in fields outside of their own areas of expertise, as books such as The God Delusion and Letter to a Christian Nation demonstrate. We have writers such as Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger claiming that Jesus never existed, or that a ‘reasonable but not well supported case’ can be made to show that He probably didn’t. Such overweening and monumental ignorance is profound in that there is currently no historian alive who so much as doubts Jesus’ existence as a historical person, let alone outright claim He never existed at all. The scientific equivalent would be someone claiming a reasonable case could be made that the sun goes round the earth or that the earth is flat. Hawking and Mlodinow’s books is a prime example of someone not keeping up with modern philosophy, as the next few pages of their books demonstrate. Hawking and Mlodinow claim that in their book, they are going to provide the answers suggested by “recent discoveries and theories” (Hawking and Mlodinow, p13) to the questions raised earlier.

What follows on the next few pages is a discussion noting the difference between classical and quantum mechanics, which then springboards into yet another philosophical discussion on realism vs. antirealism. They note that according to the “traditional” view of classic mechanics, we can specify the precise position of objects in time and space. However, they point out that this view does not account for the behaviour of objects on the atomic and sub-atomic scales; Quantum Mechanics is needed. They also note that there are multiple interpretations of QM. However, they then appeal to the interpretation offered by Richard Feynman, that no system has a single history. They claim that according to this view, the universe likewise has no single history, and not even an independent existence. They go on to note that whilst this view is radical, the traditional classical view is based on common sense, but that common sense is not based on the universe as revealed by the instruments that allow us to look at atoms. What is their reasoning for accepting this view, you may be asking. Well, according to Hawking and Mlodinow this view is “probably the most intuitive description” (Hawking and Mlodinow, p15.)

That is right, after denouncing common sense as not being in line with modern science, they then appeal to intuition to justify their anti-common sense view. It seems as if Hawking and Mlodinow were not content with their previous statement whereby they declared philosophy to be dead whilst simultaneously engaging in philosophy. This blatantly obvious self-contradiction is utterly mind-boggling. It gets even worse, if you can imagine.

“Until the advent of modern physics it was generally thought that all knowledge of the world could be obtained through direct observation, that things are what they seem, as perceived through our senses. But the spectacular success of modern physics, which is based upon concepts such as Feynman’s that clash with everyday experience, has shown that that is not the case.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p15-16
This statement manages to be wrong in the following different ways. The belief that all knowledge can be obtained through direct observation is a purely modern phenomenon. People, particularly the philosophers whom Hawking and Mlodinow are all too quick to denounce, have recognised for a long time that there are additional ways to gaining knowledge. The belief that knowledge requires empirical observation is actually a philosophical belief that pretty much every new atheist holds, which they falsely attribute as being “scientific.” The claim that modern physics is based on counter-intuitive concepts such as Feynman’s is not only untrue (physics, as with all areas of science, is based on observation, testability and experimentation), but is self-defeating in the sense that their justification of Feynman’s interpretation of Quantum Mechanics was that it was the most “intuitive.”

Intuition is knowledge that can be known a priori without recourse to reason based ultimately in experience. Yet, Hawking and Mlodinow spurn “every day experience” and “common-sense.” They even spurn observation, which is fairly odd given that observation is a major part of scientific inquiry. How then, do we acquire knowledge? If observation, intuition, common sense, experience, and even our senses (and by association, our ability to reason) do not provide us with accurate information about reality, then how do we know what reality is really like? What is the solution that Hawking and Mlodinow offer?

“The naïve view of reality therefore is not compatible with modern physics. To deal with such paradoxes we shall adopt an approach that we call model-dependent realism. It is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. But there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation, with each employing different fundamental elements and concepts. If two such physical theories or models accurately predict the same events, one can not be said to be more real than the other; rather, we are free to use whatever model is most convenient.” - Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p16

The sheer level of absurdity here manages to outstrip just about everything in the preceding pages. Firstly, the repeated insistence that modern physics is somehow incompatible with “naïve realism” is mistaken. Hawking and Mlodinow are appealing to events on the atomic and sub-atomic level. As of yet, we have absolutely no idea how objects at this scale actually behave, as the mere act of observing atomic and sub-atomic particles changes them. As such, there are multiple interpretations of why this is, with the Feynman idea of multiple histories being one. Whilst earlier Mlodinow and Hawking claimed that his is the most “intuitive” view, they are now taking the approach that states that no one model can be said to be more real than another. In other words, this totally undercuts their entire case in yet another way. In order for the Feynman interpretation to be true, then “model dependent realism” would have to be false. However, “model dependent realism” is even more problematic than this.

The view they describe really is not any form of realism at all, but is on every level profoundly anti-realist. The position they are actually describing here is fundamentally post-modernist; that is to say, it denies the objectivity of truth and reality. This is ironic, in that the new atheists are committed to the idea that there IS an objective reality… namely their reality. Hawking and Mlodinow are the first to openly embrace a post-modernist position. Let’s think about this for a moment. On this view, two competing models are no more real than the other as long as they both explain the data. This is fundamentally absurd. Let us consider two views: the Friedman-Lemaitre big bang model and Young Earth Creationism. In the big bang model, the universe really IS 13.7 billion years old, and really did come into being 13.7 billion years as a hot dense state and is expanding. Whereas Young Earth Creationists maintain that the entire cosmos is 6,000 years old, and that it only APPEARS to be old. Both explain the data, yet both are not equally true as the two are mutually incompatible. Thus, it seems odd to me why Hawking and Mlodinow endorse such a self-contradictory and fundamentally anti-scientific view.

Of course, had Mlodinow and Hawking engaged in a little philosophy, then they may have avoided making such a palpably egregious failure as this for there is a level of enquiry within philosophy that comes above physics by the name of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the nature of being and the world. We can therefore distinguish between competing models using, that’s right, philosophy. Let us consider the difference between Young Earth Creationism and the Friedman-Lemaitre big bang model. Young Earth Creationism is problematic in that, in order for it to be true, then that would mean God intentionally created the world with an appearance of age, which would make God a deceiver. Thus, we can dismiss YEC on purely metaphysical grounds. The same can be done with different interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. We can dismiss certain models as they are metaphysically impossible/implausible. This leads me on to a brief discussion about the relation between Science and knowledge.

It is often claimed by new atheists that Science is the only way to knowledge. Yet, not only is this incorrect, it is also self-contradictory. You cannot use the scientific method to demonstrate logical truths or mathematical truths, as science pre-supposes both logic and mathematics. You cannot use science to demonstrate metaphysical truths such as: ‘there are minds other than my own’ or ‘the world was not created 5 seconds ago with the appearance of age.’ You cannot use science to demonstrate ethical or aesthetic truths, as neither the good nor the beautiful are accessible to the scientific method. Lastly, you cannot use the scientific method to demonstrate the validity of the scientific method, as to do so would be circular reasoning. Back to Hawking and Mlodinow, it seems odd to me that they too elevate science as being the supreme arbiter of knowledge, when they embrace a philosophical position that is at every level anti-realist, and thus fundamentally anti-scientific.

Yet, despite their commitment to the denial of objective truth and the denial of objective reality, Hawing and Mlodinow seem fairly confident that they have a candidate for a final “theory of everything”: M-theory. According to Hawking and Mlodinow:

“M-theory is the only model that has all the properties we think the final theory ought to have, and it is the theory upon which much of our later discussion is based… We will describe how M-theory may offer answers to the question of creation. According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does no require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, (2011), p17, 18

This is, of course, absolutely bunkum. Whilst I am by no means an expert on theoretical physics or cosmology, I do know enough to know that absolutely nothing about this is in any way correct. M-theory is by no means the only final “theory of everything” and it is by no means the best. Prominent physicist Roger Penrose, who has actually worked with Stephen Hawking, had some rather stern words to say about M-theory on the Christian Premier Radio program, Unbelievable. After theologian and biologist Alistair McGrath referred to M-theory quite charitably as a “staging post along the long road of scientific discovery” and that at the moment it looked “quite hopeful” but “further work needs to be done,” Penrose chimed in that it is actually “quite stronger than that.” Penrose noted that what is referred to as M-theory “isn’t even a theory.”

Within science, the term ‘theory’ has a well-defined scientific meaning. In science, a hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a set of data, yet it is only called a theory once it has been confirmed by observable data. Thus, we have a theory of gravitation, a theory of evolution, and so on. As such, Penrose was quick to point out that M-theory has no support from observation whatsoever, and if it is indeed even possible to be tested, it is certainly a long way away from doing so. However, Penrose was quick to qualify this that M-theory will not necessarily always be purely hypothetical, although it might very well end up getting refuted. What then of the rest? The claim that M-theory predicts multiple universes arising from nothing through physical law is pure nonsense, not to mention is inconsistent with previous statements made in the book so far. It is true that M-theory predicts 1500 possible worlds, but as for creation out of nothing as a result of physical law? This is completely self-contradictory, not to mention metaphysically impossible.

Now, in physics, scientists often misleadingly use the term ‘nothing’ when in fact they are actually referring to something completely different. For instance, Alexander Vilenkin uses the term ‘nothing’ to describe a pre-existing meta-stable state that the universe emerged from in his own semi-classical quantum gravity model. More commonly, people use the term ‘nothing’ to refer to the quantum vacuum, which is a sea of energy that pervades our space-time. Neither of these are actually nothing, which is defined as the complete and total absence of being. As such, the notion of anything coming into being is completely and utterly absurd. After all, I am not in any danger of having a bear magically popping into being out of nothing on m front lawn. If something can come into being out of nothing, then it becomes inexplicable as to why this does not happen all the time. Non-being has no restrictions, since being an absence of being it has no properties.

Finally, Hawking and Mlodinow’s appeal to physical law is likewise faulty. Now, science is an enterprise devoted to the explanation of physical phenomenon. A physical law is like a theory, except unlike a theory, it is much more well established. For instance, the laws of thermodynamics describe the effects on material bodies, and on radiation in space, of transfer of heat and of work done on or by the bodies or radiation. As such, for there to be physical laws, there need to be physical phenomenon for these laws to describe. Therefore, physical phenomenon coming into being out of nothing cannot be the result of physical law by definition. Secondly, physical laws do not themselves cause anything; they are purely descriptive. The real reason why physical phenomenon behave the way they do is a mystery. All we know is HOW they behave, not WHY. This is a fairly simple and basic mistake, and one that a little philosophy could have helped Hawking and Mlodinow to avoid. Thus we come to the end of the short first chapter, and so far I am not impressed. Hawking and Mlodinow manage to contradict themselves on so many levels that it would take advanced calculus to accurately calculate every facet of their self-contradictions.