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Review: The Grand Design

The Grand Design
The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking along with his co-writer Leonard Mlodinow go beyond A Briefer History of Time, which I reviewed recently, and enter the territory of philosophers. They claim that philosophy is the domain of physicists because philosophers have abdicated their role in society by not keeping up with scientific developments and knowledge. In this book, he and Leonard attempt to answer the question of if there is a God, if there is a Grand Design, and what it is.

I got this book out of the library, but it had such a long hold period that when it became available to me, I was in the throes of wrapping up some work and didn’t have the time I would have liked to read it. By the time I started it properly I had three days and a bit to finish. But it repeats some of the same ground as A Briefer History of Time, and it wasn’t too long, making it easier to read. I finished it before Overdrive went boing, time’s up.

Only the pressure of time got me to read it and to finish it.

It isn’t that bad a book. It’s just not as good as A Briefer History of Time. What Hawking forgets is that though philosophy may’ve abdicated the sciences — and I think a few philosophers would disagree vehemently on that point — science alone cannot answer these questions of being and grand design.

I had not noticed particularly in A Briefer History of Time that Hawking seems to believe that human beings do not have free will until I read it again in The Grand Design.

He writes: “Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets.

He goes on to talk of the well-known situation wherein a neurosurgeon electrically stimulates the brain of an awake patient and lo and behold they move a hand or their mouth. Thus, according to Hawking, speaking and moving hands are not by free will but by electrical impulses from the brain to the mouth or hand. Yes, well, we know about the impulses. But last time I checked there aren’t neurosurgeons with electrical probes hanging over the heads of each of us, poking this neuron and that to get us to speak…or maybe there are, and we just don’t know it…yet.

The point is that outside of the operating room what stimulates those nerves to fire to get us to speak? Is it only external stimuli? Are internal stimuli only external ones in disguise? To go further, what gets one depressed person to hide and not seek help and another equally depressed person to hightail it to the doctor’s office? Is it just a lack of external stimuli in the former situation? Is it the upbringing that makes seeking help a bad thing for the former patient and a good thing for the latter? But if so how do the laws of nature that govern matter and energy and our biological processes account for culture and attitudes? Do we say it’s simply a matter of entraining the neurons to fire in a certain way, yet things like birth order, peer groups, health, talent, skills, and luck will create people with different attitudes and even different cultural expression in the same family. So then do we say, well, their external stimuli were different and thus entrained their neurons differently. But we are still left with the idea that the act of seeking help comes from within and not from the neurosurgeon poking his probe into the brain.

Hawking believes that there is no God. Yet many of his arguments line up neatly with religious thinking. Free will is a prime example. I’m apparently told (probably for the umpteenth time, as I’m obstinate in my disbelief) that in my Christian tradition, our lives are preordained, that is, we have free will, but we don’t. While Hawking says it’s just our biological processes governed by laws of physics, religion says it’s our humanity governed by laws of God. It is like two people arguing heatedly when they agree on the result and only disagree on the method.

One of the ideas he is at pains to disprove, in order to prove that there is no God, is that people are at the centre of the universe, people are not special. I realise the Church had a problem with the idea that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, but it is very clear in the Creation story that human beings were not created to be the centre of the universe but to serve God’s Creation. Since people were rather thick on this concept, Jesus hammered it home in his teachings. To serve is a rather different idea than to be the centre.

Furthermore, I don’t understand how multiverses make us less unique in the universe. I get that what he’s saying is that we simply exist because of statistical probabilities. Still, the laws of physics or nature that gave rise to us are extremely fine tuned, so fine tuned that an error one way or the other and poof we boil away or freeze into oblivion. We are rare. Period.

And the discoveries of time confirm what many who have followed one God have known for millennia — God is outside of time, thus time cannot be strictly a linear construct. It is difficult for many of us to comprehend that in an experienced way, tis true. But the story of Abraham and Sarah clarifies how differently God views time than we do. The story Zarathustra told is partly about time and how human beings see time as linear and the present time as important, but God doesn’t. Experiments on prayer have shown how past time has been changed in the present (my head is starting to hurt). Again physics is lining up with ancient teachings.

Since he began the book with incomplete arguments I can poke holes in, I’m afraid I was not so impressed with his other arguments either.

He makes sense when he talks about looking at the cosmos from the top down, but he forgets that just as our current state influences the way we understand the Big Bang, so too do our observations and interpretations colour our views on life, past, present, and future. Two people can look at the same event and see completely different things because of their backgrounds, personalities, talents, age, experiences, etc., etc. Their observations show different histories — Feynman’s sum over histories effect, if you will. Thus he has not seemed to take into account the effect of his own life, upbringing, and having ALS have had on his interpretations in the top-down view of the cosmos, multiverses, and so on.

And at the end of the day, he has not explained the Big Bang satisfactorily to me, specifically, what came before. He writes that it was a spontaneous combustion in which time was space (thus why time did not exist before) and because of its spontaneity, there was nothing before. Yet he also states that empty space is not actually empty. So why would it be emptier or be a complete void (to use a Creation term) prior to the Big Bang? And as far as I know, spontaneous combustions don’t happen in the complete absence of matter and energy. So what elements existed that created the explosion? What were the conditions in the seconds before the Big Bang? A spontaneous combustion out of nothing makes no logical sense to me.

The brevity of the book is its downfall. These are deep arguments that have many entries to them — science, arts, literal, metaphor, evidence, myth. They require more space-time in a book to delve into them properly.

In the end, to me, Hawking is essentially saying that the laws of physics and nature correspond to the stories of Creation. That is not a very effective refutation of the existence of God in my humble opinion. At the end of the day, like so many writers, it comes down to this is my belief. And yours is wrong.

(I am posting this review but won’t be online to see and answer any comments for about a week or two, time in my present being a bit elastic.)

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