Thursday, November 11, 2010

104. Book Review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (& Leonard Mlodinow)

The Grand Design
By Stephen Hawking (& Leonard Mlodinow)
Random House, 2010
Review by Christos Kefalis

Stephen Hawking has frequently been called the most eminent natural scientist of our age. Justifiably so, since the renovation of all natural science by someone stuck in a wheelchair, his brain being the only remaining functional part of his body, is something we do not see every day. Besides showing the limitless horizons of the human mind, Hawking offers precious proof of the strength of the will and of the creative potential of humanity, which will fully blossom only in a different society, free from exploitation, vulgarity and the mean motives borne of the pursuit of profit.

Hawking’s recent book, The Grand Design, written in cooperation with Leonard Mlodinow and published in September 2010, offers tangible proof of the way leading authorities in science, led by the very logic of their research, end up in clearly materialistic positions and conclusions. It does not therefore only possess an enormous importance for the development of epistemology and natural philosophy, but should also be extremely welcome to Marxists and materialist thinkers in general.

An attempt to evaluate everything Hawking says in his new book would be rather premature. However, extracts of his main positions and analyses already published are quite enough to form an understanding of the gist of his thought.

Hawking declares explicitly in this work in favour of the irreconcilability of natural science with the God hypothesis, stressing that the idea of a Creator is totally useless and that natural laws suffice to explain the whole movement of the universe. As he puts it himself:
It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going. Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.[1]
The reference above to “creation from nothing”, as Alan Boyle aptly remarks in a brief but comprehensive review of Hawking’s argumentation[2], does not at all imply that the universe emerges in a magical way out of nothingness. Such a picture would be shallow mysticism rather than an explanation and would not add much to the debate about God.

Hawking argues that in our study of the origins of the universe we should proceed from present to past, starting from the present situation and our knowledge of natural laws and not from a hypothetical zero-point, which would necessarily be something radically different from what we know. He calls this “top-down cosmology” and constructs a model of “cosmic creation” based on opposing forces and the specific role of gravity.
Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes.[3]
Hawking approaches thus the basis of materialist dialectical thesis about the coexistence of opposing features in all parts and phenomena of nature, whose mutual struggle causes development. “Nothingness” in that picture does not imply non-existence, but the two opposites, which in a typical addition would nullify each other, but are in fact engaged in an eternal, enduring conflict. It is essentially the same picture of the Heraclitian fire that turns on and off, and of the self-organisation of matter through this process.

Richard Dawkins, the distinguished materialist biologist, hailed Hawking’s book as a confirmation of materialism and atheism in the field of cosmology, a continuation of the tendency of ousting God from science which has practically been completely ascertained in biology through Darwinism. “Darwin kicked him out of biology, but physics remained more uncertain”, Dawkins said. “Hawking is now administering the coup de grace[4].

In fact, we are not faced here with the partiality of a militant atheist, who hastens to hail as decisive a work which is in agreement with his own view. An identical estimation is being made in the Times presentation: “Modern physics leaves no place for God in the creation of the Universe, Stephen Hawking has concluded. Just as Darwinism removed the need for a creator in the sphere of biology, Britain’s most eminent scientist argues that a new series of theories have rendered redundant the role of a creator for the Universe”.

Ruth Gledhill, Times correspondent about religious issues, also notes that, in distinction to the sharply polemical style of a Dawkins, Hawking follows a more sober approach. “His argument is likely in the long term to be more dangerous to religion because it is more measured than The God Delusion[5].

All these are essentially correct. And despite the fact that the materialist worldview ensues from the whole development of science, and has been proclaimed and defended by many great natural scientists – more notably by physicists like Weinberg, Kaku, Gell-Mann, Smolin and biologists like Crick, Mayr and Dawkins – its unreserved support by the most outstanding scientific authority of our time is indeed a landmark which cannot be ignored or underestimated by anyone.

Commentaries in the Greek press, like that of Vima, recognise the importance of the occasion, making reference to “the famous British scientist (who) has finally accepted the view that cosmology and theology are incompatible”. At the same time however, an attempt is made to present Hawking as having made a radical turn, with claims that he had formerly expressed deist positions and only now “has changed his mind”. As proof, a former declaration from his 1988 book A Short History of Time is quoted: “The discovery of a complete theory would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God”[6].

In fact, there is no such radical turn and “change of mind”[7] by Hawking. On the contrary, with his last work he develops and elucidates a direction already existent in his former publications, a direction materialist and atheist in essence. Even in the aforementioned work, Hawking had definitely stressed that the idea of God is superfluous and the universe is limitless:
There are no abnormalities where laws of physics break down; there is no need for some new laws which will determine the limiting conditions of space-time; therefore it is superfluous to invoke a God. One could say `The limiting conditions of the universe are that the universe has no limits'. The universe contains itself and is not influenced by anything external to it. It is neither creatednor destroyedIt EXISTS[8].
Hawking’s references to “the mind of God” in that work were meant as a synonym to natural order, having the character rather of a verbal remnant, which may confuse a bit, but does not fundamentally alter his then already materialist approach. However, it is most significant that this occasional form of expression is definitely abandoned and that consequently, the great scientist now stands on materialist positions in a more consistent and deeper way. Boyle is again right therefore when he remarks that “The Grand Design puts together ideas that Hawking has been trying out for a long time[9]. It is indeed a step of integration and synthesis in his thinking, the essence of which consists in that while formerly Hawking had considered the idea of God superfluous, now he deems it vain and harmful, engaging in a systematic attempt to show that science is radically opposed to it.

This is a major advance from the past situation when science left an open window for divine creation, in the sense that big bang theory was incomplete and could be misinterpreted, by the Popes, etc., as describing “the moment of God’s act”. Formerly this could appear as an equally legitimate interpretation to the materialist one, or at least as a possible alternative. What Hawking is telling us now is that cosmology itself suggests the materialist interpretation. This, objectively, is a decisive blow to all theology.

A serious objection which can be raised to Hawking’s ideas – besides the somewhat inexact choice of the book’s title – is his conception of the evolution of the universe on the basis of a “many universes” or “worlds” model, which ensue from the Big Bang and can develop and coexist in a parallel way, while being completely different from each other. As he himself puts it in his presentation of the work:
In The Grand Design we explain why, according to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence, or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. We question the conventional concept of reality, posing instead a “model-dependent” theory of reality. We discuss how the laws of our particular universe are extraordinarily finely tuned so as to allow for our existence, and show why quantum theory predicts the multiverse–the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature. And we assess M-Theory, an explanation of the laws governing the multiverse, and the only viable candidate for a complete "theory of everything”[10].
M-theory, the most recent scientific advance in the search for the “unified theory”, may indeed forecast a “multiverse”, and modern physics and cosmology have given a meaning to the notion of “parallel physical entities”. The hypothesis of “dark matter”, e.g. – a from of matter comprising about 90% of the overall matter in our visible universe, which can interact with the rest of matter only through gravity and is therefore not visible – is substantiated by a number of data and introduces a new notion of material differentiation, which is not only quantitative, a result of the different structuring of a number of elementary units, but qualitative as well, containing the acceptance of elements of reality that are not directly linkable to each other. Yet, by introducing dark matter, cosmology in fact precludes an infinity of other possible matter forms that might be hypothetically conceivable but have no real existence, at least in our universe.

Certainly, while it is possible to broaden our view so as to include various seeming paradoxes of our world revealed by science, the hypothesis of parallel worlds, without a necessary connection or similarity with each other, presents a much greater difficulty, as it does not blend with experience and disrupts the unity of nature.
A way out of the difficulty could be found in the dialectical conception of the world as a complex of “interconnected spirals”, formulated by the Russian idealist philosopher P.D. Ouspensky[11]. That concept is perfectly compatible with the proof of the spontaneous formation and evaporation-explosion of black holes we owe to Hawking himself, leading to a pulsating model of the universe, in which big bangs can be viewed as local contractions and expansions. Such a model may leave scope for a greater variety of material phenomena and forms than those observed in the visible part of universe, since particular spirals will differ from each other. At the same time, however, the demand to preserve a connection between the spirals places a severe limit on this variety, abolishing various hypothetical versions of universes, as it is clear that only forms compatible with the necessary type of connection between the spirals’ will be allowed.

However, we are entering here the area of philosophical hypotheses about the universe, the formulation of which may help scientific investigation, but cannot solve its concrete problems. Only cosmology itself, with its further advances, will answer such questions.

Modern physics, in the course of developing its theories and making them all the more subtle, has evidently reached such a level of complexity and mathematical abstraction that its tools and models are comprehensible only to a narrow circle of experts. Its conclusions and inferences though, the questions it puts and the world view it is constructing – thanks to the popularising work of its representatives – are readily understandable by the average person. They are the same questions which troubled human mind from the beginnings of philosophical thinking and became the object of struggle between materialism and idealism, the dialectical and the static-metaphysical worldview.

The fact that the most eminent modern authorities like Hawking answer these questions taking a decisively materialist position is one of the most important facts of our time. It confirms that the dispute between materialism and idealism has become ripe for solution, just like the dispute between progress and reaction in our age.

It is of course impossible to exhaust the questions posed by modern natural science as it would be futile to attempt to deal with all the problems raised by Hawking’s new book. From the standpoint of Marxist philosophy, such an undertaking would require an excellent knowledge both of natural science as well as of dialectics. Yet, it is the duty of materialists and progressive thinkers to seriously study such monumental works, in order to acquire a better knowledge of the nature of reality, a knowledge invaluable and necessary in the struggle to change it.
[Christos Kefalis is a chemist and Marxist writer from Greece. He is also the editor of October and Our Age, a collection of essays on the October Revolution and its aftermath, soon to be released by Topos Editions in Greece.]

[1] Quoted in Michael Holden, “God did not create the universe, says Hawking”,
[2] Alan Boyle, “Hawking says god not needed. So?”, Boyle favours deist views, but this only emphasises in this case Hawking’s argument, the materialist content of which is presented with precision by a conscientious opponent.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] See Hannah Devlin’s presentation in The Times and relevant articles as quoted in “Hawking: God did not create the universe”, The Richard Dawkins Foundation,
[6] See “The Universe did not need a Creator, says Hawking”, To Vima, 3-9-2010.
[7] The view about Hawking’s “change of mind” appears in most commentaries of the international press as well. See, e.g., Michael Holden, l.c., Jennifer Quinn, “Author Hawking says God not needed for creation”, and Liliana Dumitru-Steffens, “Stephen Hawking and The Grand Design”,
[8] St. Hawking, The History of Time, Greek edition by Katoptro, p. 207, capitals put by Hawking.
[9] See Boylel.c.
[10] Quoted by Liliana Dumitru-Steffens, l.c.
[11] See P.D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe, London 1978, p. 451. Ouspensky was a mystic and staunch opponent of materialism, but he was also distinguished by a keen dialectical instinct, having been the first who gave the long standing metaphysical ideas of “other dimensions” a realistic formulation compatible with the ideas of modern science.


Ron Krumpos said...

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 my e-book on comparative mysticism]

Uchitrakar said...

Philosophy is dead. Is Logic dead also?

How did the scientists come to know that an entire universe could come out of nothing? Or, how did they come to know that anything at all could come out of nothing? Were they present at that moment when the universe was being born? As that was not the case at all, therefore they did not get that idea being present at the creation event. Rather they got this idea being present here on this very earth. They have created a vacuum artificially, and then they have observed that virtual particles (electron-positron pairs) are still appearing spontaneously out of that vacuum and then disappearing again. From that observation they have first speculated, and then ultimately theorized, that an entire universe could also come out of nothing. But here their entire logic is flawed. These scientists are all born and brought up within the Christian tradition. Maybe they have downright rejected the Christian world-view, but they cannot say that they are all ignorant of that world-view. According to that world-view God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. So as per Christian belief-system, and not only as per Christian belief-system, but as per other belief-systems also, God is everywhere. So when these scientists are saying that the void is a real void, God is already dead and non-existent for them. But these scientists know very well that non-existence of God will not be finally established until and unless it is shown that the origin of the universe can also be explained without invoking God. Creation event is the ultimate event where God will have to be made redundant, and if that can be done successfully then that will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that God does not exist. So how have they accomplished that job, the job of making God redundant in case of creation event? These were the steps:
1) God is non-existent, and so, the void is a real void. Without the pre-supposition that God does not exist, it cannot be concluded that the void is a real void.
2) As virtual particles can come out of the void, so also the entire universe. Our universe has actually originated from the void due to a quantum fluctuation in it.
3) This shows that God was not necessary to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going, as because there was no creation event.
4) This further shows that God does not exist.
So here what is to be proved has been proved based on the assumption that it has already been proved. Philosophy is already dead for these scientists. Is it that logic is also dead for them?