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Stephen Hawking's Grand Book -- Where Is the Design?

Posted: 09/08/10 12:40 PM ET

Co-authored by Menas Kafatos, Fletcher Jones Professor of Computational Physics, Dean College of Science Chapman University

Stephen Hawking occupies a position in popular culture comparable only to Einstein's eminence sixty years ago: he is our last wise man speaking with the total authority of advanced science. Until his new book, The Grand Design, appeared, co-authored with Caltech physics professor (and adept writer) Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking had left open the whisper of a possibility that God might be allowed to survive scientific scrutiny. Einstein had a strong feeling for the presence of awe and wonder at the far horizon of the cosmos and saw evidence for the existence of a unifying, rational presence in the mathematical order of the cosmos. But since then the universe of theoretical physics has become random, complex, paradoxical, and barren of divine presence. Therefore, when Hawking made worldwide news recently by declaring that "it is not necessary to invoke God... to set the Universe going," a blow was struck for the noisy camp of atheists while the world of devout believers had one more reason -- this time a crushing one -- to consider science as the enemy of religion.

Yet when you read the new book, it becomes clear that Hawking and Mlodinow are leading us on a journey to the very edge of "nothing," the underlying source of all space, time, matter, and energy, and the closer they get, the more their findings lend no contradiction to a universal presence, often referred to as God. The ultimate basis of material existence which physicists dub as this nothingness is the ground zero of creation. It is imbued with the pure order that generates mathematics; it gives rise to the laws of nature that govern and balance the universe; and it remains mysteriously above its own creation, monitoring quantum interactions beyond the speed of light. If that sounds a lot like God, it must be said that the richness of this pre-quantum realm is the best model physics has devised for the unknowable -- and that leads Hawking into a paradox. If "nothing" gives rise to the human desire for meaning, how can it be meaningless? If the universe operates randomly, and this randomness created human brains that do all kinds of non-random things (such as writing Shakespeare and saying "I love you"), how can the purposeless give birth to the purposeful?

The Grand Design surveys, with considerable brilliance and sovereign impartiality, the latest "network of theories," termed M-theory, about how the universe came to be. The public for popular science has heard about a proposed "theory of everything" and identified it with Hawking's name. In their new book, he and Mlodinow promote M-theory as "a fundamental theory of physics that is a candidate for a theory of everything," Yet in place of a single overarching explanation, we get a sort of heffalump. "There seems to be no single mathematical model or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe... Each theory in the M-theory network is good at describing phenomenon within a certain range." Perhaps the most striking piece of the network is the theory of multiple universes, a hypothesis that Hawking and Mlodinow favor. Yet what is more important for culture at large is that the "design" of their title is not what believers in God might hope for. Rather, it is a strictly mathematical possibility for explaining as much as can be explained.

They fail to address Gödel's incompleteness theorem that categorically implies that no mathematical model of cosmos can ever be complete. Ultimately, Hawking contends that our source cannot be fully known by the rational mind, and his version of M-theory offers so many alternate universes -- far more than the stars in the known universe -- that it must be out of reach of the rational mind -- it's like explaining glass by counting every grain of sand on the beach. Humans are trapped in one universe alone out of billions upon billions upon billions, confined by the particular laws of nature that created us. Our minds are unable to conceive of a reality beyond these laws of nature; therefore, the only design admissible to physics has no purpose, meaning, goal, or creator. It is pure, seamless mathematical possibilities arranged in superposition with an escape clause that there are other species of mathematics that fit other universes. Effectively, even if God does exist, we'll never know for sure since our minds can see only their own reflection -- a new twist on St. Paul's seeing through a glass darkly. One can hear the window to God's mind that was opened by Einstein being firmly, sternly slammed shut.

In part two of this post we will address the possible holes in the science that Hawking and Mlodinow call upon to support their contentions. The Grand Design is spare and elegantly sketched, yet dozens of important concepts lay hidden between the threads. More important for our culture is the authority that Hawking the icon brings to his brand of hyper-materialism. The multiverse that he describes is self-generating millions of past, present, and future scenarios entirely according to mathematical probability, and he blithely dismisses the all-too-human need for the cosmos to be a meaningful home, a nurturing place for love, truth, compassion, hope, morality, beauty, ethics, and every other value once ascribed to God. Since these qualities have no mathematical validity, the hyper-materialist feels free to banish them from his model. However, it's one thing to say, as most scientists will, that metaphysics isn't part of physics, since metaphysics concerns itself beyond space and time, while physics and science in general operate within space and time. It's quite another to claim that physics has demolished metaphysics. Hawking and Mlodinow avoid the cynical breeziness of some atheists and their understanding of the field is impeccable. But is there a way of viewing the universe that they entirely ignore that isn't religious yet retains the transcendence that is essential to spiritual experience? Just because you can't quantify compassion within present-day science doesn't make Buddha a fraud or an illusion.

The Grand Design is an intellectually delightful read with many insights, and yet it devastates hope. In an interview, Hawking says that "because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist." This sounds like philosophical naïveté. In Nature there are sounds self-generated by dividing one frequency in half, then half again and again -- following pure rules of mathematics -- but we don't say that sounds are why music exists. Photons aren't the reason that art exists. The missing ingredients of music and art -- intelligence and creativity, inspiration and invention -- can't be whisked up out of random swirls of gases subject to the law of gravity. There must be a point at which these ingredients are either created or, alternatively, a point where humans looked at the world and realized that intelligence and consciousness are primary to creation. A neat argument has been made by Sir Roger Penrose, the renowned Oxford physicist and often-time colleague to Hawking, that the seeds of consciousness are imbedded in the universe at the quantum level. Penrose speaks of mathematical truths, for example, as being a Platonic value. After all, mathematics is more than numbers: it is orderliness, balance, harmony, logic, and abstract beauty. You can't strip the numbers out and leave the rest behind.

Since Hawking and Mlodinow admit the pre-eminence of mathematics in their scheme, it's hard to see how they can get away with rejecting the qualities that go with it. And once you have imbedded harmony, logic, balance, etc. into the quantum fabric of the cosmos, there is no reason to exclude consciousness itself.

Hawking has lent his enormous fame to a blind chase, where countless invisible, totally hypothetical universes, springing up at every millisecond and extending in infinite dimensions, exist solely to keep consciousness out. For once you admit that the universe might be self-aware -- a theory that has its own credentialed supporters -- there is no mystery to why humans are intelligent, creative, and conscious. It's in the air we breathe; it's the scenery of the neighborhood where we grew up. Hawking and Mlodinow argue against an external God and on this we would agree with them. But their work actually may give credence to a unifying and creative principle that is part of the universe, not separate from it. The term God is loaded and doesn't have to be part of the argument here. We can settle with their "nothingness", which is far more mysterious and beyond the mind than the God of most religious thought.

Indeed, in the ancient Vedic tradition, the universe is self-generated, just as Hawking theorizes, and there is no end to how many creations unfold from nothingness. But that mysterious source, devoid of any measurable quality, is not unknowable. It is the closest thing to us, being intelligent, self-conscious, and creative. Otherwise, all of the world's creation stories, up to and including Hawking's, must invent a totally hypothetical process out of which the orderliness and creativity that surrounds us came into being. In an old Jewish punch line, God creates the world and says, "Let's hope it works." In Hawking's creation myth, nothing creates the world and has no idea what it's doing.

For many, The Grand Design will reach a disappointing conclusion by denying God through such a limiting understanding of the divine. Just as our concept of reality needs to be revised constantly, so also our understanding of God needs to be revised to keep in step. Ironically, by invalidating a superhuman, and external, Judeo-Christian God, M-theory may simply engender an immensely more complex God. If the old God can hide out of sight beyond the blue sky above, what keeps the new God from hiding behind a million multi-colored skies in other dimensions?

We'd like to be more specific in our challenges, offered with respect and an open mind. The authors of The Grand Design write that the theories in their book are based on "model-dependent realism." Model-dependent realism is the idea that a physical theory contains a set of rules that connects the elements of the model to observation. For example, a theory of gravity must match how an apple falls from the tree. This is common sense materialism. Quantum physics offers the possibility that an apple may fly upward rather than falling to the ground, but that model is based on observations, too, not of apples but of photons and electrons as the wave function collapses to create visible events. However, common sense materialism ignores a basic fact: models exist only in consciousness. There are no pictures or theories imprinted into the neurons and synapses of our brain. If there were, we'd all accept the same world picture and assign the same explanation to what we see. Everyone would agree on what is beautiful, and art would never change. If it did change, art would follow predictable rules. Obviously we do not agree on thousands of things. This is not a trivial deviation from mathematical purity. It is consciousness unfolding in a creative way.

Science is also in consciousness; it is an activity of conscious beings and doesn't exist independently of conscious beings. Hawking and Mlodinow bypass this fact, which is true for all arch materialists. Ignoring some of the trickier discoveries about the observer effect in quantum physics, their book goes on to say, "Both observer and observed are parts of a world that have an objective existence, and any distinction between them has no meaningful existence." They never define the observer, however. Is the observer material or nonmaterial? How can the observer have material existence without a mind, and if the observer has a mind (unlike a Geiger counter or digital camera) then it must share the same objectivity as the observer. The mindless observer who supposedly records data like a machine obviously doesn't exist. Mind, then, must be counted as a basic property of observer and observed along with atoms and quarks.

The authors go on as if subjectivity is included in their scheme: "There is no way to remove the observer -- us -- from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason. Our perception -- and hence the observations upon which our theories are based -- is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our brains." Let's assume that this somewhat contorted sentence isn't simply saying that the world looks pink if you wear rose-colored glasses. What could this "interpretive structure of the brain" possibly be? The brain is not a fixed structure like a lens but a living, evolving process that is shaped by experiences in consciousness. It would seem that by a sleight of hand Hawking and Mlodinow want to give us something quite strange: objective subjectivity. They are more or less forced into this position, since otherwise they would have to admit the shifting subjectivity we all experience as the world in here."

They continue: "The brain, in other words, builds a picture or model." But there are no pictures in the brain, which is filled only with electrochemical signals. Merely stating that the brain builds pictures, without telling us how that is possible, does not explain the basis of model-dependent realism. What strikes us is that by rigidly excluding consciousness, turning it into the elephant in the room that must never be noticed, The Grand Design distorts ordinary experience. We are told, for example, that free will is an illusion. "Recent experiments in neuroscience support the view that it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determine our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws. For example, a study of patients undergoing awake brain surgery found that by electrically stimulating the appropriate regions of the brain, one could create in the patient the desire to move the hand, arm or foot, or to move the lips and talk. It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law. So it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion."

This is the only reference to neuroscience in the entire book, and with that one experiment free will is dismissed. How about doing the same experiment and asking the patient to resist the desire? There is no capacity in lower animals to resist the offer of food if they are hungry. But human beings, fast, diet, gorge, pick at their vegetables, form weird tastes (ketchup milk shakes? fried alligator tail?), so that one man's meat is another man's poison. How can the same physical law create A and the opposite of A? In the earliest seminal studies of brain stimulation done by the pioneering neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, he explicitly refutes the experiment that Hawking cites. Patients in open-brain surgery had their motor cortex stimulated, causing their arms to rise upward. They were then asked to raise their arms, and all could tell the difference between a reflex and a movement they wanted to perform. "My arm just went up" is not the same as "I just raised my arm."

In any case, by so cavalierly dismissing free will, by implication they dismiss insight, intuition, creativity, inspiration, imagination, intention, self-reflection, conscious choice-making, and even model-making on which their entire theory depends. How can a deterministic universe create creatures that believe in free will? And in the glossary, quantum theory is defined as a "theory in which objects do not have a single definite history." Given that they see this theory as compatible with quantum mechanics, doesn't this definition in itself violate the principle of determinism?

Or to address the issue on a grand scale: "The laws of M-theory therefore allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending upon how the internal space is curled. M-theory has solutions that allow for many internal spaces, perhaps as many as 10 to the power of 500, which means it allows for 10 to the power of 500 different universes each with its own laws. To get an idea of how many this is, think about this: if some being could analyze the laws predicted for each of those universes in just one millisecond and had started working on it at the big bang, at present that being would have studied just 10 to the power of 20 of them." To disallow meaning, purpose, intelligence, free will, and creativity, this version of M-theory must create isolated, totally deterministic universes for every event that deviates from established mechanical explanations. This is rather like deciding that every new thought must enter its own cosmos, because otherwise, you'd have to state that they all came from one thinker who happens to have lots of whims, moods, wishes, and dreams. Yet such a thinker exists; Hawking and Mlodinow are two good examples, as are all the great physicists from Newton, to Einstein, to Heisenberg, Bohr, Dirac and the other great scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, who do more than mechanically repeat what has been fed into their brains. Part of the evaluation of physical theories is their elegance and simplicity. Doesn't the hypothetical existence of a zillion zillion universes, none of them every to be observed, violate both? Occam's' razor is turned into a bludgeon.

Yet one keeps coming back to the complementary ways that The Grand Design rings true with the world's wisdom traditions, as if peering over the edge into the mystery and drawing back at the last moment. Although Stephen Hawking caught the world's attention espousing a universe that "can and will continue to create itself out of nothing," he cannot exclude through observation or mathematics the nothing (no-thing) of the Vedic seers, which is not an empty void but the womb of creation. In the Upanishads it is called Brahman and described as both the field and the knower of the field. In the Bhagavad-Gita, God as Krishna says, "By curving back on myself I create again and again." Seven hundred years ago the Sufi mystic Rumi said, "We come spinning out of nothingness, scattering stars like dust" and "Look at these worlds spinning out of nothingness. That is within your power." Rumi not only understood creation from nothingness, but had the deeper insight to connect nothingness to consciousness.

In various guises the same transcendent source of creation is called Shunyata , Allah, Yahweh, Einsoff, or simply universal consciousness. Stripped of every shred of spiritual connotation, science is baked into the transcendent by mathematics itself, whose formulas seem to exist beyond the visible world, to be uncovered by minds that transcend appearance to delve into a realm beyond observation and data. In what way is this kind of transcendence different from religious transcendence? When Einstein spoke of the laws of physics existing in the mind of God, he was showing astuteness about mind, God, and science at the same time.

To expand our concept of God, it helps to look at the three main ideas that all religions are based on:

  1. A transcendent reality.
  2. The interconnectedness of all that exists.
  3. Embedded values of truth, love, compassion, and the other virtues that are experienced by human beings as handed down from a higher domain.
If anything, today's most inventive speculative science supports all three premises including the idea that Platonic values are embedded in spacetime geometry at the Planck scale. It is no surprise that we don't need to invoke an external God, to explain creation, if God is already the reality from which the universe creates itself. The Grand Design is at its most intriguing when it denies God yet posits the existence of all the ingredients, either explicitly or by implication, that an almighty creator would draw upon to create itself.

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