Friendly Fire: What are they saying about Stephen Hawking’s latest book?

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.

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27 thoughts on “Friendly Fire: What are they saying about Stephen Hawking’s latest book?

  1. Hmm, I’m evidently not as cynical as I thought I was because that reaction doesn’t surprise me. Only the most rabid zealots want to try and go to bat for the Mudhens – there’s little point supporting something you can’t reasonably defend even if it does reach conclusions you agree with. After a while you must get tired of wiping egg off your face – which makes you much more cautious about what you latch onto.

  2. Glenn you missed an important comment by the physicist/cosmologist/philosopher Victor Stenger. I commented on it at Hawking’s grand design – lessons for apologists? but his original “review” of the “reviews” – which of course are more reviews of press releases than the actual book, can be found at Hawking and the Multiverse.

    I have my own copy of the book now and there is actually a hell of a lot more to debate than anything that got into the news reports. He says a lot about philosophy – which, if you think about it – is to be expected as he give a brief history of the development of physics. And some of this has to do with the necessary break of science with the old, non-materialist, philosophy that occurred in the scientific revolution.

    He actually says a lot more about god beliefs than I expected. So there is plenty there for theologians to get upset about – far more than in the news reports.

    Finally, Glenn, you are too modest when you say: “I’m not a physicist or a cosmologist”. Haven’t you conclusively proved Gallileo was wrong?

  3. Ken, indeed – it is ironic that he has so much philosphising to do when he says the discipline is dead! Thanks for underscoring that point. Kudos.

  4. Ah, Glenn. That just shows you actual advantage of reading the book. He doesn’t say all philosophy is dead – but some forms obviously are.

    More a matter of “The King is dead. Long live the King.”

    Tough for the old king or philosophy but great for a modern, more scientific philosophy.

  5. Ken on Hawking and Mlodinow: “He doesn’t say all philosophy is dead”

    Hawking and Mlodinow:

    We each exist for but a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of question: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about
    them some of the time.
    Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.

    Hawking, and Mlodinow, The Grand Design – opening paragraph

    Ken, you said you had read the book.

  6. Interesting you stop at that exact point, Glenn. Up until then you have quoted the whole book!

    And of course there are another 180 pages in which, as your quoted reviewers point out, the authors discuss philosophy and epistemology a fair bit.

    As they point out (just a bit after you stopped quoting); “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” extremely important fact arising out of the modern scientific revolution. Those philosophies (and I include the theological ones in this) who don’t recognize this and don’t incorporate a scientific epistemology are indeed dead.

    Just to clarify – I did not say I have read the book yet, merely bits and pieces. I said I had purchased it.

    I am currently reading something else – there is no rush. However, it reads very easily so I don’t imagine I will take too long when I actually start.

    It certainly looks interesting – certainly most reports are actually not fairly representing what the book says. Nevertheless, I have an open mind so I won’t necessarily be disappointed to find aspects I disagree with. Actually I find that with most books I read.

  7. Ken, you said that the book never claimed that all philosophy was dead! Stating that philosophy is dead is to state just that.

    You countered my observation with your alleged observation (and observation we now see is incorrect), because I lacked the advantage of having read the book. Now you admit that you haven’t read it.

    But whatever. Different day, same old Ken.

  8. Well, it is certainly true that from the perspective iof discovering reality the theological philosophies are dead. No doubt about that. Just not completely buried yet. A bit like the walking dead, I guess.

    Meanwhile, of course, science continues it’s work for humanity – and there is a lot of positive philodohy in that. Even while the walking dead snipe from the sidelines.

  9. I see Ken, so your saying a cosmologist spends much of the book discussing a different subject to that he is qualified in. Would you accept then that those who have studied philosophy can legitimately take him to task when he gets this wrong? For example if Hawking fails to address adequately contemporary philosophical defences and accounts of the thesis that laws of nature are best understood as laws of God.

  10. Matt, much as it might upset you and you ilk the authors do in fact address that theological claim and show it is a non-answer.

    “this is no more than a definition of God as the embodiment if the laws if nature.” It “merely substitutes one mystery for another.

    What you have to face up to is theological philosophy can’t answer this question. It fails completely. As the book points out this is now the job of science. And it is making progress. Even someone like Davies argues that (and he has been given a lot if money to speak kindly about religion)

    Let’s face it the church used to claim that the idea that nature follows laws was a heresy because it conflicted with it’s gods omnipotence.

    All this obviously upsets you. But consider this. Religions have had to listen to science in the last few centuries. They eventually have to take these findings on board, adjusting their dogma accordingly. Even though this accommodation is forced by reality rather than willing.

    Even the childish theological reaction to this book shows how religion cannot ignore science. They are forced to respond.

    But when was the last time science was forced to adjust it’s theories and ideas by theological discoveries? In fact those last two words are a oxymoron. Scientists don’t normally give a stuff about the the issues theologians babble on about – until these become a threat to the functioning of open enquiry and democratic society.

    This is really only pointing out the obvious point made in this book that theological philosophy is dead. It has been replaced by science and philosophy is now the richer for it.

  11. Excuse but I am confused, Hawkings says Philosophy is dead, so what? He may be bright but he is just a guy. He believes/speculates a lot about M-theory [untestable/unobserved], others in his field disagree with him. Whats so special about him that he can authoratively make absolute truth statements, is he now divine?

  12. The authors more or less make these points Jeremy and Glenn. “Theory,” unfortunately, does get used rather loosely in these fields, although everyone usually acknowledges that.

    The authors say “people are still trying to decipher the nature of M-Theory, but that may not be possible.”

    They after all do describe it as a “candidate” for the theory of everything. In other words their commitment is not as strong as the media and some reviewers claim.

    My concern is not with the alleged promotion or speculation on M-theory. After all speculation and being mistaken are desirable aspects of science.

    My concern is philosophical – I think their talk of model-dependent realism is, or could be dangerous. It is a book for the general reader (and general well written as such) and OK they will inevitably over simplify things. But thieir examples used in introducing the concept (particularly geocentricism vs heliocentricism) smacks of an instrumentalist approach. The examples are presented in an instrumentalist way which I don’t think is correct and is actually misleading.

    Such a approach may be valid in string theiry and the other current contenders at the moment but that should not be used to justify any change in scientific epistemology.

  13. What you have to face up to is theological philosophy can’t answer this question. It fails completely. As the book points out this is now the job of science. And it is making progress. Even someone like Davies argues that (and he has been given a lot if money to speak kindly about religion)

    I see so Hawkings examines the arguments actually put forward by philosophical theologians, offers competent rebuttals and so justifiably draws the conclusion they fails…. Really.

    I venture to beat that Hawkings does not show this at all.

  14. It’s rather comical that you reference Stenger of all people. Glenn mentions plenty of reviews by scientists who are at least a few pay grades above Stenger, but of course we should listen to the unabashed atheist apologist who hasnt done any research in well over a decade instead of the best scientists today. So creationists are gullible for Giving AiG or ID theory a hearing, but valuing Stenger over some of the world’s most renowned physicists and mathematicians is not?

  15. Matt,
    You should at least skin the book if you get a chance. The media hype is just that…hype. It’s not nearly as good as some of his previous books and is consistently poor phlosophically. If it weren’t for the two references to God that keep getting quoted, it wouldn’t have even made the news (or the bestsellers list).

  16. Kyle that was a chaep shot about Stenger. The man is retired FFS. Next you will be saying the same thing about me. Perfectly true but of no relevance. It’s a perfectly normal aspect of life. Bloody silly of you.

    And why get upset about Stenger? He has made possibly the most sensible comment – not pretending to have read the book. And I do look forward to his review when he has. He is an excellent writer and does get to the nib of these issues. (Perhaps that is why you hate him?)

    I have read the reviews by Penrose, Carroll (2) and Krauss (who Glenn ignored). They are all people I respect (and all atheists so on your performance you should hate). Penrose is a rather amusing lecturer and a great mind but his review was irrelevant to mere mortals like us who are likely to read the book. And Stenger’s article actually included extracts from these reviews – I thought at first Glenn had lifted them from Stenger (except for Krauss).

    Matt, theological philosophers are irrelevant. They have not solved any real problems or discovered anything. You are like the guy in the race who us being passed and has grabbed and trying to hold his opponent back.

    It is silly to think that someone discussing modern cosmological and physical discoveries and speculating on fundamental aspects of reality should give people like you the time if day. You are irrelevant.

    As Kyle said.  Perhaps you should read the book. Personally I think there are philosophical aspects of concern – real concern on real scientific issues. None of them are about gods as far as I can tell.

    I referred to this in my previous comment.

  17. Ken, it is hardly relevant that I “ignored” Krauss. I also mentioned others that you didn’t. Big deal. And as for this: “Matt, theological philosophers are irrelevant. They have not solved any real problems or discovered anything.”

    You are unbelievably ignorant. But since you’re taking shots at issues well outside any field that you have experience with, it’s best just to ignore your comments like this one. I mean, it would be daft of Matt or of me to expect you to realise that the de dicto/de re distinction or the existence of necessary truths (for example) are issues that were hammered out by theologically minded philosophers. How and why would you know that – you don’t know anything about philosophy. And yet here you are, foolishly claiming that such philosophers have solved nothing. What a comfortable, dark and ignorant worl you inhabit, Ken. Dark and ignorant, but nice and cosy with no new information to threaten or scare you. Just as you like it, no doubt.

    And to think, you have the audacity to accuse other people of taking cheap shots! And to make it even worse, you make statements that reveal total ignorance on your part – a genuine black hole of knowledge in philosophy – and you say that Matt is “nothing,” trying your best to be personally spiteful, all the while drowning in your own ignorance. You picked dirt science. Great. You didn’t pick philosophy. Suck it up, Ken. Trying to get nasty and personal on a web blog isn’t going to help you or compensate for your lack of knowedge in subject you like to speculate about. Move on.

    Graham: See the title of this blog entry. There’s an apostrophe.

  18. “Meanwhile, of course, science continues it’s work for humanity”

    I thought science mostly worked for dollars, tenure, recognition, who-ever is paying for the research, etc

  19. Glenn, I think Graham was referring to Matt’s mistake. He keeps getting Hawking’s name wrong.

    I didn’t say Matt was “nothing” just that he is irrelevant to the field covered by this book. I bear no spite towards Matt – far from it. I do think he (and you) should lighten up, though.

    Unfortunately Matt needs to be told his comments are irrelevant because he is always objecting to scientist authors who mention the obvious fact that god hypotheses are just not required to undertake reality. If he had power he would ban scientists from talking about these important areas of science without training in theology.

    It is a childish reaction to the simple fact that theological degrees are no longer required to research origins or reality. Matt would be hopeless in this research, his training is completely inappropriate. And that his why his criticisms are irrelevant.

    Noticeably you were unable to make any real response to my point that theology these days plays absolutely no role in discovery and understanding reality. This is the job of science. And while religious dogma in the end has to take notice of scientific discovery and amend it’s teachings accordingly (although it may take hundreds of years) no theological discovery is ever of any use to science. It is irrelevant to science.

    It’s very noticeable to me that you guys remain oblivious to the possibility of real philosophical mistakes in this book. All you can think about is that the book finds no use for your god belief. That is hardly philosophical criticism.

    So the criticisms and ranting of a NZ theologian are hardly going to be of interest to Hawking and his co-author – are they? But they might increase book sakes locally.

    Jeremy, I guess the idea of contributing to the well-being of humanity is strange to you. Can’t get your head around it, can you?

  20. “Noticeably you were unable to make any real response to my point that theology these days plays absolutely no role in discovery and understanding reality.”

    What? Ken, I explained a) That you’re ignorant of philosophers who are theologically minded to the point where you’re not in a place to know whether this is true or not, and b) That there are examples (I gave two), but since you know nothing about the subject area, why would anyone expect you to know this? You’re “irrelevant” when it comes to knowing about philosophy.

    Why did you miss the examples? Is it because you didn’t understand them since they’re in the field of philosophy – a field you have no background in? This is getting more predictable by the day…

  21. Ken,
    I hold no hatred toward atheists, and have consistently recommended Hawking, Dawkins and Penrose when they are doing science and not trying their hand at philosophy. Carroll is also often really good (and better at philosophy than the rest).

    It’s no “cheap shot” at Stenger to say that it would be gullible to take his word over those who are among the world’s most elite, whenever he no longer is a scientist, but an atheist promoter. I’ve only read his “God: The Failed Hypothesis” and “The New Atheism,” but both excel in missing the point (they both are extremely uncharitable in their reading of others and more often show he does not understand that which he is responding to…if you demand examples I will provide them…but that’s ultimately irrelevant to my point.

    The point is that Stenger who took off his hat as a scientist over a decade ago in order to write books on atheism, engage in radio and public debates and speak for humanist conferences should not be considered an unbiased commentator over and against the reviews cited above. It is perfectly akin to quoting Kurt Wise in response to a book by Dawkins. Sure, Wise has some pretty strong credentials, but you know his review is going to be extremely biased and probably not worth reading. Any reader who would do such is pretty gullible.

  22. Kyle, I do not take Stenger’s word over the others at all. You only claim that because of your knee jerk reaction to his name. And you seem to miss the point entirely that Stenger’s article relies on quotes from Carroll, Krauss, Penrose, etc. Effectively he is endorsing those comments, or at least bringing attention to them. He certainly doesn’t diss them, does he? You are away with the birds to think he is likely to be biased against the authors any more than the others. I personally would have expected people like Penrose and Woit to have more professional bias than Stenger on these issues. (Often, but not always, retirement can make one more objective because ambition is no longer a factor).

    You guys see conflicts which just aren’t there. When Stenger reviews the book I also expect him to make similar criticisms to the others. In fact, if I do a review, my criticisms might be similar – I am sure they will be philosophical. But that is the nature of honest reviews – there is always something that can be and should be criticized.

    The advantage of Stenger’s review will be, I think, that he has written extensively on many of the issues in this book, origins of the universe , the nature of the laws of nature, “fine tuning,” mutiverse concepts and cosmology in general. His writing is also extremely accessible. And I suspect he may actually go into some of the philosophical issues (issues you guys seem completely unaware of because of your preoccupation with gods). So far, I have found reviewers seem to restrict their responses to what has been quoted in the media – which I find disappointing because it misses what I think are the real problems in the book. Probably a bitt early for more thoughtful reviews.

  23. Kyle – since you had this illusion about Stenger’s article here is a link to it: Hawking and the Multiverse. Have a read – it will put you straight.

    Just quoting the last 2 paragraphs which might help convey the flavour to you:

    “In fact, the meta-laws have a plausible explanation. In the twentieth century physicists realized that there was a direct connection between the most important laws of physics and the basic symmetries of space, time, and the abstract space of quantum state vectors. These symmetries are required for any physical model to be independent of the special point of view of any observer. Any objective universe, therefore, must be governed by these meta-laws. Furthermore, the “bylaws” that are different from universe to universe result from the spontaneous breaking of some of the symmetries when the universe cools.

    So, at least according to the reviews, Hawking and Mlodinow haven’t said much that physicists and cosmologists haven’t already heard before. However, thanks to Hawking’s notoriety, at least more people will now have heard that science has plausible answers to how the universe came about naturally without the need for a creator. Hopefully this will include those theologians and apologists who continue to wrongfully insist that modern science has demonstrated a need for God.”

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