Hawking’s fight against religion: a lost cause?

Reading Stephen Hawking’s latest book is a little like watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The first time through it seems sophisticated and intelligent; it’s exciting, daring and rewards those who pay close attention. When dwelled on and repeated, however, you quickly realise that it was disjointed and made absolutely no sense at all.
For Inception this was not such a problem, after all it was a science fiction film designed primarily to entertain and entertain it did. Hawking’s book, however, has much loftier aspirations, namely to demonstrate that God is ‘unnecessary’. It does this by appeal to M-theory, the hypothesis being that the universe simply created itself in the Big Bang and that there is no need to postulate a bearded intervener to light the torch.
The first problem then, is that the concept of the creator God who designed the world in seven days has been challenged before in many more eloquent ways. To suggest that the universe may have created itself is simply to define what some people, such as Pantheists, might call God and thus the issue becomes a semantic one, not alleviated by the lack of definition given in The Grand Design.
Hawking narrates the book with the condescending sneer of an arrogant thirteen-year-old explaining the mechanics of sexual intercourse to one of his juniors. Evidently so secure in his conclusions, he hastily skims over the fact that various other physicists, most notably John Horgan, have challenged the very notion of M-theory as ‘highly improbable’ and even described its underlying premise of the anthropic principle as ‘cosmological creationism’. This seems somewhat ironic given Hawking’s objective here.
The real problem with this book though is that its proposal is no more grounded in science than a belief in God may be. The M-theory comes in an infinite number of different variations and has the potential of creating an infinite number of universes. We simply cannot comprehend infinity and cannot apply scientific thinking to it. The amount of ‘faith’ required in adopting Hawking’s viewpoint begs the question: why is this theory any better than the next one?
Here, Hawking commits the fundamental error of misunderstanding the functions of both philosophy and science. He boldly claims in the opening pages that ‘Philosophy is dead’: that metaphysics has become physics. As far as I see it, however, philosophy can never die. Yes, problems that historically belonged to philosophy have been explained by science, but with such solutions having been found, brand new questions arise that are still well within the concerns of the philosopher. Science is the quest to explore how the world works; philosophy asks what the significance of this is.
The strongest section of the book is its introduction which consists of a fascinating and informative review of historical conceptions of the universe from Ancient Greece, through to Copernicus and ending with an account of quantum theory and string theory. If this measured tone had continued throughout, the book would have been all the better for it.
But ultimately, The Grand Design is a pop science book. It is not an astronomical treatise and its conclusions should not be interpreted as if it were. The title of the book and the marketing of the material were designed to exploit the public’s curiosity about religious questions. What guarantees a best-seller more than a few references to God? In reality it would have been a far better project if it had avoided such issues and instead provided a more in-depth analysis of M-theory. Hawking is, after all, a brilliant scientist. What he shows here, however, is what a dreadful philosopher he can be too. If you are one of those people who creamed themselves reading The God Delusion then this may well prove to be an interesting read for you. For anyone else, save yourself eighteen pounds and buy Inception on DVD instead- it has as much science in it as Hawking’s book and many more explosions, which (take note Stephen) all have obvious causes.

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