Not So Grand Design

The Grand DesignThe Grand Design by Stephen W. Hawking
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t really know what to think of this. Hawking talks about the universe in pure incoherent terms. The explanations he uses are usually the kinds of things you take as axiomatic in sci-fi novels as the authors way of setting up a background for a complex world.

It also reads a bit like a fanatical espousing; a dubious theory called M-Theory is put forward as being the ‘only possible’ candidate for a universal theory explaining the whole of the workings of the universe in one go.

Newtons laws are only capable of explaining reality within a certain frame. and as object get smaller and we move to the atomic level, Newtons laws crash and are replaced with what we call quantum physics. After this introduction we are taken into what are possibly groundbreaking versions of the universe that are implicated by the presence of this weirdness that perpetuates the quantum world.

Without really explaining exactly how, Hawking suddenly takes us from the somewhat understandable conclusions reached by the latest science in quantum physics through a gamut of assumptions and propositions and ‘ideas’ to the conclusion that the universe can create itself.

Plainly unconvincing and driven with ifs, even Hawking’s perceptions of God and religion seem to me to be based on some early Christian idea of it. He triumphantly exposes some of the weaknesses of the Catholic church’s version of astronomy. Somewhat akin to Galileo propounding Copernicus and sticking it to the face of the Church. He is like a physicist of the renaissance, still sticking it ti the church in a time where even the church knows that only some of what it says is probably correct.

The good: he explores creation and brings forth a powerful theory that can possibly shed light on how (and in the methodology how) it all came about. Unfortunately, by repeatedly bringing in God to the equation and by unconvincingly trying to tell his readers that he does not ‘need’ to exist, Hawking succeeds only in undermining and distorting his message.

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  1. PravNJ said:

    Enjoyed reading this post 🙂 thought I’d reply not in defense of Hawking but to provide some clarity on the matter.

    Hawking speaks of God in entirely metaphorical terms. His “perception” of God as you put it obviously is that of a Christian God. Hawking was born in the UK and not in India or the Mid East so yes the “language/vocab” that he uses to talk about confidently in a written work would have to be in terms of the metaphorical Christian God, the Christian creation myths etc etc. Now if I wrote a book about such matters I would only be willing to talk about concepts that I understand more completely than say a concept I don’t understand (in my case a Christian god as opposed to say Vishnu) but as far as pop sci goes many other notable Scientists (for the layman only gets a trickle of the cutting edge ideas) have used other concepts of “God” when discussing the Universe, “creation” etc.

    Steven Wienberg opens his classic pop sci book “The First Three Minutes” with a story about the Norse creation myth, Particle Physicst Murray Gell Mann went as far as calling his particle classification system “the 8 fold path”, Physicist are a whimsical bunch and tend to use these concepts as metaphors to communicate ideas to the layman (who mind you is continuously obsessed with religion). BUT if you read any of their research papers you will be hard pressed to find any reference to “a god” let alone a Christian God.

    With regard to your Renaissance statement. It reminded me of something entirely unrelated but would probably be interesting to mention here nonetheless. During the renaissance it was quite normal to believe in god. Newton may have set the foundations of classical mechanics but he was also an alchemist and a religious scholar (not a theologian but pretty close), Copernicus was a monk etc. 300 years later in the time in Einstein religion still played a somewhat important role. Even though Einstein himself was not religious he likened the pursuit of knowledge with respect to uncovering the mysteries of the universe to a religious experience. I have to agree with him on this. I have had religious experiences as well as scientific epiphanies (?) and I must say that they are very similar. It is very hard to explain this to someone who is very religious and rejects science completely or to someone who has had no religious experience. You have to really do the math to understand what I’m talking about 🙂 Einstein called it glimpsing the face of God. It’s the only language he could use to describe the feeling one gets when all the formulas click together and the Physics start to make sense 🙂 sure he was probably talking “metaphorically” about a Jewish or Christian God but can we really blame him for that? such statements come from the kind of experience on has had. And if one has had a similar experience one would be able to relate to it instantly. Hawking is trying to do the same thing. Connect with his readers 🙂

    Oh come now bashing the church is fun. They must be held responsible for what they did to people like Bruno. The “weaknesses of the Church’s view on astronomy?” The church had no “scientific” views on the matter (having an observatory at the Vatican doesn’t count) 🙂 last I heard they were quite crazy over the idea that some mystical space fairy spawned the universe in 7 days. One should never get tired of bashing the church. But seriously I have to disagree with you in terms of what the general public believes these days. Take the majority of (evangelical) Americans for example. They still believe that the earth is as old as a the bible claims it to be (few thousands of years versus the actual billions). True the catholics have moved on but the crazy evangelicals still take the bible quite literally. Hawking is more of a positivist. One more thing. Even though the catholic church adopted a geocentric view early on (which was challenged by Copernicus), this “fact” is never explicitly stated in the Bible. The Bible is so deficient that it doesn’t even mention “the universe” its just “the earth, sun moon and stars”. This was Plato’s idea from centuries back and the Church adopted it because geocentricty (in addition to being very “intuitive”) meant that somehow the earth enjoys a special place in the universe. The lesson to be learnt: the Church is always (and always will be) several steps behind everyone else simply because they reject evidence and use “faith as the basis of understanding”. Examples galore: enabling the spread of AIDS in Africa by calling the use of condoms a sin, calling homosexuals sinners etc etc.

    Ok onto M-Theory. There are three camps. People (Physicists) who think its not worth the time. People who think its worth exploring and has potential as a theory AND people who think that it might be a so called “theory of everything”. Now this third category (to which Hawking belongs) have this idea (a relic of the heady times during the 80s when Physics was expanding in leaps and bounds) that somehow (in simple terms) that the different forces of interaction do not need a “patchwork” of theories (current situ) but somehow can be explained by a GUT – Grand Unified Theory. These “purists” have good reason to “believe” in this paradigm. Magnetism and Electricity are explained by a unified theory. And thus this was the dominant school of thought during the 80s. For Scientist from such a school (Ernest Mach,Einsitein, Hawking etc – the so called Positivists) M-theory thus has the potential to be a GUT. It is a potential candidate simply because it looks like it may be able to “explain” (mathematically) all the forces by a single set of principles. M-theory uses non euclidean geometry (just like in relativity theory) and many more arcane branches of math to accomplish this task. If proved correct by experiment (and we have a long way to go) then it would mean that yes such a description of the universe is indeed valid (doesn’t mean that reality behaves like that it just means that our “description” of reality is that of higher dimensions, branes and whatnot).

    Now this may be the dominant school of thought but there have been many debates (even within the current framework, Hawking himself was famously challenged by Lenorad Suskind, who started off as a plumber in the Bronx and went on to become a really successful Physicist), thus M-theory is a work in progress and theres a long way to go. It may have seemed dubious to you because

    (a) It cannot be fully appreciated without the math. Even someone like Hawking cannot fully communicate the concepts to the layman without the math
    (b) It requires that you spend a lot of time coming to terms with the concepts

    But you are in good territory. The initial reaction to M-theory has always been skepticism and doubt. I’m not sold on it either and I refuse to pass judgment without looking at the math.

    Finally if the GUT concept is not your cup of tea (heres the deal.since the data is not in anyone can form an opinion about M-theory 🙂 so you are entitled to it, BUT once the data does come in one side will win the debate and the others will lose) you should look up the debates between Nancy Cartwright (not Bart Simpson’s voice!) and Stephen Hawking. Nancy argues that theories indeed resemble a patchwork quilt and Hawking’s positivist assertion that there should be GUT out there is false. The debates can be found in Roger Penrose’s “The Emperor’s New Mind” pop sci magazines and in more technical research journals. In short there is no real consensus only the simple fact that Hawking gets good PR and that he has a knack for reaching out to the layman. This is nothing sinister. Its just that a lot of people listen when he speaks.
    He was wrong several times before and he might be wrong this time (my money’s on the ex plumber :P)

    All your other criticisms stem from this lack of understanding of the situation at hand IMO.
    Also take everything you read in a pop sci book with a grain of salt (a bag perhaps), these are meant to capture the imagination of the reader true but ultimately the real work goes on in journals, symposiums and in universities, whatever said and done pop sci books are meant to sell as many copies as possible and reflect a personal opinion of the author, its that simple 🙂 so theres much sensationalization involved (could be the editor’s fault?)

    Cheers and best

  2. PravNJ said:

    These “purists” have good reason to “believe” in this paradigm. Magnetism and Electricity are explained by a unified theory. And thus this was the dominant school of thought during the 80s. For Scientist from such a school (Ernest Mach,Einsitein, Hawking etc – the so called Positivists) M-theory thus has the potential to be a GUT

    This makes it sound like Einstein and Mach lived through the 80s 😛 my bad. The school is quite old actually

  3. In “The Grand Design” Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same “eternal” event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the “seeing” which differs.

    In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from on comparative mysticism]

  4. Loshini said:

    lolx. and i thought your ideas on toilet paper were mind boggling 😐

  5. Duke said:

    Look mate, you’re a Muslim which requires you to place blind belief in the existence of a supreme being called “Allah” – so of course you won’t find reading about what Hawkings has to say a pleasant experience. Before rejecting what he has to say outright – and placing all your faith in some medieval text like the Quran – it would behove you to consider his arguments, and the arguments of many other atheists out there. Try:

    Granted it deals more with Christianity, but the same principles apply when considering Islam.

    • Whacko said:

      It would be better if you stuck to facts and propose an argument based on what i said rather than hypothesizing about my beliefs, which you obviously know nothing of.

  6. PravNJ said:

    This Ron Krumpos fellow is a loon 🙂 you should moderate comments

    • Whacko said:

      thanks 🙂 will keep that in mind

  7. Ron Krumpos said:


    I was introduced to mysticism by Nobel physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Look him up…he’s no loon. Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington were supporters of mysticism. A good reference is “Quantum Questions / Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists,” edited by Ken Wilber (Shambhala 1984, 2001).

  8. Whacko said:

    @praveen just getting round to responding to ur first comment, sorry abt the delay. I understand that even physicists might want to stick to the familiar when talking theology. But my point is Hawking simply attacks already established weaknesses in Christian theology. He does not succeed in disproving the existence of God.

    And yes i know exactly what ur talking about when u talk about scientific discoveries leading to an epiphanic religious moment. It is not only science that does this actually. Any form of reasoning with the self be it scientific, religious or philosophica will lead to that same conclusion. And thats how u become ‘religious’ in the first pkace. To not think this is to suffer from an atheistic fallacy of refusing to believe ‘religious’ people are capable of scientific reasoning.

    Imo any religion if it is to be proven true, has to be compatible with proven science (note that i said ‘proven’ and that means leaving out evolution theory). And that also means only one religion can be true. atheists tend to group all religions into one basket and that is as fallacious as religious people assuming atheists worship science!

    I think science is cool and essential for a religious person. Cause if ur religion is the truth, then how can it contradic blatant scientific fact, right? This is where i have found Islam to hold water, and very tightly as well. Science afterall is just the collection of human knowledge to date. And ‘science’ as a concept only originated during the enlightenment. Before that all of ‘science’ was grouped in to general seeking for knowledge. And therein we see the giant polymaths of the history of learning like the Greeks and the early islamic scholars like Ibn-sena (avicena to u) Musa Al-Khwarizmi, Al-nafis and the list goes on. These islamic scholars were key in preserving and developing the observations of the greeks during the ages when Europe was in ‘darkness’. Something a lot of modern scientists forget. This happened in the heyday of the Islamic empire, showing that Islam at least, is one religion that is compatible with science

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