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.

No comments:

Post a Comment