Recently, after I heard a non-Christian colleague or two express interest in reading Stephen Hawking’s new book The Grand Design, I proposed a book discussion after work one day. A few Christian colleagues liked the idea, and we were off.
For those who don’t know, in this book, Hawking and his co-author Mlodinow attempt to explain the origin of the universe in a completely naturalistic way, in other words, without reference to God or any other supernatural explanation. The non-Christian colleagues who were interested in reading the book noted that very project as the reason why they wanted to read it.
What was curious to me was that once I invited (in a very non-chalant way, I add, so you can’t say my manner or tone put them off) these colleagues to the book discussion, they suddenly became very uninterested. One of them completely blew me off. Hmmm…odd.
At any rate, I recently finished reading the book in preparation for the book discussion. Science really isn’t my forte’, and Hawking is a giant in the field. I therefore know my limits and can’t really comment on the viability of the science content in the book. I know very little of Quantum Mechanics, so when Hawking and Mlodinow are speaking about things such as the structure of an atom or the results of experiments with electrons, I’ll obviously defer to him.
Given my inexperience with the subject matter and their expertise, it would be a great act of hubris for me to debate H&M on those matters.
However, there’s a good bit of philosophy in the book. In fact, the book turns out to be mostly philosophy, not science, which is weird, given the fact that the authors pronounce philosophy “dead” in the second paragraph. Philosophy is my field, and there are plenty of philosophical mistakes and shoddy justifications to go around in the pages, so I can venture a few comments about that.
To put it most simply, H&M get themselves into very deep philosophical waters several times in the book, and they seem either totally unaware or totally apathetic toward that. The reason why I say that is that time and time again, they make very controversial assertions on HUGE philosophical questions and topics, and almost every time, they venture very little if any justification for their views, and sometimes they totally miss the point. These are questions on which very accomplished scholars have written volumes back and forth, and each time, H&M give only a slight attempt at backing up their assertions, and sometimes, there’s no attempt at all. A few times, the justification that is offered is more strange than the assertion itself.
**NOTE: to access the links above, use “pugnacious” as the ID and “Irishman” as the password.
Soon after they confidently pronounce philosophy dead, they launch into a few chapters about the realism vs. anti-realism controversy in the philosophy of science. This is a second-order debate–in other words, a philosophical query about the nature of science, not a scientific question proper–about the status and reality of unobservable entities in scientific theories. Realists think that, if a scientific theory employing use of unobservable terms (like “electron,” “quark,” and such) is predictively successful, that gives reason for thinking the terms actually refer to something real. In other words realists believe those unobservables are real in those cases. Anti-realists tend to stick with just observables when it comes to belief. If a theory referring to unobservables in explanation is predictively successful, A.R’s do not think that is reason to actually believe in those things.
Since anti-realism goes against the common-sense grain, the temptation might be to write it off, but though I am not an anti-realist for the most part, I admit that there are many scholars–such as
Harvard’s Bas Van Fraasen (formerly at Princeton and Yale, now at San. Fran. St. U)–that employ sophisticated arguments on it’s behalf, and it’s highly unwise to dismiss them or act like they don’t exist.
H&M step into this debate and attempt to sidestep it with what they call “model-dependent realism.” They say it differs from anti-realism, but it turns out that it is an extreme form of it. They attempt no justification of it except to say that it “helps solve” a few “problems.” They describe the view, but this is not the same as justification.
Their comments surrounding one of these problems are some of the most strange in the book. While pondering what it means for a table in a room to “exist,” they ask how one can be sure the table continues to exist when no one is in the room observing it. How do we know that it doesn’t disappear when no one is watching, only to reappear when someone re-enters the room? According to H&M, the model that declares that the table continues to exist is “simpler” and it comports with observing the table upon entering and re-entering the room (a model in which the table disappears when no one is watching agrees with observation too, by the way)…and this is about as much as we can say. We cannot say, though, that such a model accurately describes reality.
This realism vs. anti-realism is a topic on which volumes have been written, and this is all they can offer?
I am not saying they should interact in depth with every scholarly voice out there on these questions…but is it not too much to ask that they at least interact with some, and that, where they do not, they temper their confident assertions by simply noting that there are legitimate counter arguments out there?
An instance of this is their defense of the “multiverse” explanation of the anthropic principle. Roger Penrose, a former collaborator with Hawking, has written a critique of the multiverse hypothesis. Even if responding to the critique in depth is outside the purposes of the book, why didn’t H&M even give a mere mention of the critique?
Another philosophical sticky spot is their declaration of determinism, another topic on which Craig writes. They offer a very thin justification of their determinism, but never mind that…more problematic, it gets them into a very gnarly external conceptual problem (a logical problem in other academic disciplines that interact with science): if determinism is true, then what about the words within the pages of the book? Those must be dertermined too, along with the reader’s assent/dissent of H&M’s arguments. If determinism is true, H&M were determined by the chemicals to write what they wrote, and the readers are determined by the chemicals to agree or disagree. Truth and rationality have nothing to do with it. How can we be confident that their views are true? They weren’t arrived at via rational thought.
Craig puts it much better than I can when he says,
I wonder, for example, why they think that anything they’ve said in their book is true, since, on their view, they were determined to write it. Everything they say is the product of blind physical causes, like water’s gushing from a pipe or a tree’s growing a branch. What confidence can they have that anything they have said is true—including their assertion that determinism is true?
Determinism erodes any sort of rationality or justified true belief, yet H&M must write as if rationality is possible, as if it is possible to rationally persuade someone to choose to agree with a view of reality that is true. Thus their whole project is at odds with their determinism.
Read the links by Craig to get a sense of the other issues with the book.
There were two main reasons why I ventured into this unfamiliar territory. First, there’s the element of engagement. This book has been widely discussed and touted in the media and popular culture. Hawking is one of the most influential scholars of our time. Having read this book will hopefully open up many opportunities to engage with non-believing folks on the questions that matter, such as questions of origins and life’s meaning. Bible friends, when you get a chance to engage with the world about spiritual things on it’s own terms, jump at the opportunity.
Secondly, when you interact with smart people that disagree with you (in this case, none other than Stephen Hawking), if they make good points and employ solid reasoning, that can lead you to question your own views. On the flip side, if your views and beliefs have the advantage of being backed by logic, reason, and truth, putting them up against the best of the other side will reveal that, and thus confidence in your beliefs will be strengthened. Either way, you come out ahead. Since ideas have consequences and the truth matters immensely, whether your philosophical “opponents” are right or you are right, it sure does help to know that. Pitting your worldview up against the viable alternatives can be a good way of coming to the truth. It’s a win-win either way, because I want to know the truth no matter who possesses it.