I’m not a physicist or a cosmologist. When Stephen Hawking’s recent book came out, and his media releases gave the impression that he had some new theory and had now shown in some new way that God didn’t create the universe, I made an unwarranted assumption. At first sight, I made the assumption that other atheists who were also physicists would latch onto Hawking’s claims with gusto.
Now, obviously Christians who are physicists – and those who aren’t – wouldn’t buy Hawking’s claim. But what has proved really interesting (to me, at least) is the way that atheists are turning on hawking. Not atheists in general necessarily. Internet discussion boards about how irrational and stupid religion is are, of course, stuffed to bursting point with triumphant comments about how amazing and devastating Hawking’s work is against religious faith. That would be a given regardless of what was between the covers of the book, I daresay. But those comments aren’t coming from physicists, they’re coming (usually) from students with too much time on their hands.
I have come to see that this was all bluster and bluff. The reality (not to be confused with rumour) is that Hawking’s claims are anything but the stuff of triumphant announcement. In fact some of the most highly regarded people in Hawking’s own field are portraying the book in a rather unfavourable light.
Roger Penrose is a good example. Along with Stephen Hawking himself, he’s co-author of The Nature of Space and Time (Princeton University Press, 1996).
As Penrose points out, M-theory isn’t even a wrong theory. It’s not even a theory. Here he is (with Alister McGrath) being interviewed recently on the Unbelievable radio show.
This is not the sort of thing you want to have said about what you call your theory!
Although the book is pop physics, the world of “pop” reviews has been pretty ruthless too. David Misialowski’s review is no more flattering than Penrose’s, but for different reasons:
In his new book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking has generated the most heat and light for his statement, found on the next-to-last page, that “it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
But for some people, a more controversial statement is found on Page One, in the second paragraph: “Philosophy is dead.”
If God is unnecessary and philosophy is dead, the field is clear for science to explain the world: to answer all the age-old questions like: “What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?”
These are the questions Hawking proposes to tackle in his book, armed only with science, because, as he writes: “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery.”
But then, in the book’s first sixty pages or so, Hawking mainly philosophizes, as he surveys the history of science and the philosophy of science.
Read the rest here.
Sean Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time , while not as overall critical as some, makes a similar criticism in his Wall Street Journal Review:
It is unfortunate that Messrs. Hawking and Mlodinow choose to open their book by picking a pointless disciplinary fight: “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.” The authors nevertheless quote a number of philosophers with apparent approval and engage in more than a bit of armchair philosophizing themselves. They advocate “model-dependent realism,” which asserts that the “reality” of various elements of nature depends on the model through which one interprets them. This is an interesting approach to ontology, but it won’t come as shocking news to philosophers who have thought about the problem. Answers to the great “Why?” questions are going to be subtle and difficult. Our best hope for constructing sensible answers lies with scientists and philosophers working together, not scoring points off one another.
The book was also subjected to a much less than flattering review in The Economist:
It is hard to evaluate their case against recent philosophy, because the only subsequent mention of it, after the announcement of its death, is, rather oddly, an approving reference to a philosopher’s analysis of the concept of a law of nature, which, they say, “is a more subtle question than one may at first think.” There are actually rather a lot of questions that are more subtle than the authors think. It soon becomes evident that Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles.
The main novelty in “The Grand Design” is the authors’ application of a way of interpreting quantum mechanics, derived from the ideas of the late Richard Feynman, to the universe as a whole. According to this way of thinking, “the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously.” The authors also assert that the world’s past did not unfold of its own accord, but that “we create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” They say that these surprising ideas have passed every experimental test to which they have been put, but that is misleading in a way that is unfortunately typical of the authors. It is the bare bones of quantum mechanics that have proved to be consistent with what is presently known of the subatomic world. The authors’ interpretations and extrapolations of it have not been subjected to any decisive tests, and it is not clear that they ever could be.
Of course, this is to say nothing of the careful criticism of this book made by those who are believers in God, like professor John Lennox.
Of course, there are those who in the name of science (but actually in the cause of atheist apologetics) immediately and tightly latched on to this book as definitive, a further nail in God’s coffin. I think there’s a lesson here, but that’s for another day. The blog post is really to register my interest over the way that Hawking’s book is being received.