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The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

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The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

The cover of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawkind and Leonard Mlodinow

Bantam press

The Bottom Line

The authors do an exceptional job laying out the current thinking among many theoretical physicists about how the universe was created. The book's controversial thematic goal - that it attempts to show that God is not needed to create the universe - is unlikely to persuade many people who currently hold to a belief in God. The arguments at its core are inherently philosophical, an odd tactic for a book that declares "philosophy is dead" in the second paragraph.

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Pros

  • A lucid explanation of what physics tells us about the creation and development of the universe.
  • Authors provide a deep look at the philosophical thinking behind physics theories.

Cons

  • It is unclear what audience the book is really targeted at.
  • Certain logical inconsistencies come from over-reaching with the arguments proposed.

Description

Guide Review - The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

In their previous effort (A Briefer History of Time), theoretical physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow joined forces to explain what physics has been able to uncover about the development of the universe. In this collaboration they make an even grander effort: to explain not only the development of the universe, but also to provide a foundation for understanding its creation. It's an ambitious goal, but one which I think they fall a bit short of ... in part because of the honesty in their own approach.

In the second paragraph of the book, the authors declare that "philosophy is dead," and the book proceeds from there to outline the methodology of scientists and how this methodology has led to an understanding of the universe's origin where the laws of physics result in the creation of the universe. The problem is that this claim requires some inherent philosophical assumptions ... so the book is self-contradictory right off the bat. Philosophy is clearly not dead if it's at the heart of theoretical physics.

The authors are honest about how science works, which is where their philosophical arguments come into play. In explaining how scientists develop models, they describe their approach as model-dependent realism ... which is a philosophical interpretation of scientific models. Just to be clear: I agree that this is a very good philosophical interpretation, so I'm not criticizing them for applying it, only for trying to have it both ways.

Once we accept the idea of model-dependent realism, where does this take us? Basically, the authors explain how the current models of general relativity and quantum physics lead to contradictions, which are resolved by M-Theory ... which, in turn, appears to allow for a vast multiverse. In fact, it seems to demand that these parallel universes must exist. This explanation is all quite well handled and fairly easy to follow, even for the non-scientist.

This line of reasoning leads the authors to the conclusion that once you have the laws of quantum physics and general relativity in place, you cannot help but have a very large number of universes springing into existence. By the anthropic principle, the fact that we exist means that we must exist in a sort of universe that contains the parameters for our existence.

Thus, they argue, there's no need for a God to create or design the universe. The universe can, in a sense, create itself on its own bootstraps.

All of this leads me to wonder who the book is really aimed at. I believe this book might be quite useful to atheists and agnostics who are looking for a more full cosmological account to support their beliefs, but most of them are already quite familiar with these issues. Believers, on the other hand, will not be particularly swayed because they can just ask "Who created the laws of quantum physics and general relativity?" and it comes back to the same first-cause argument that this debate always collapses into.

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