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.