A Critique of Stephen Hawking’s Book, ‘The Grand Design’

“We exist for 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 evil, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always a multitude of questions: how can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? 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.” (Hawking, ‘The Grand Design’; cp. 2010)

  • An Introduction to Hawking

It seems to be true from the outset of these sorts of self-reflexive metaphysical questions that they are bi-products of a curious species speculating about the external world to which they live. Though we may traditionally attribute these questions to the discipline of philosophy, predominant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking offers us an eye-opening alternative: “Philosophy is dead… Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (pg. 5).

Dr. John Lennox in his 96 page critique of Hawking, “God and Stephen Hawking” (2011), rightly identifies him as “the world’s most famous living scientist” (chp. 1; Lion Hudson Publishing). To the field of theoretical physics, applied mathematics, and mathematical physics, Stephen Hawking is considered to be a modern day sage in terms of the work he’s done in models of quantum mechanical cosmological models (see S. Hawking and J. Hartle, “Wave Function of the Universe“, cp. 1983), quantum theory and black holes (see J. Baez, “Hawking Radiation“; cp. 1994), and many other endeavors of the like.

Hawking recently stepped down from the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, a position once held by Isaac Newton (now held by Michael B.Green). He has written a number of books available to the lay-physics reader, such as “A Brief History of Time“, “The Universe in a Nutshell“, “A Briefer History of Time“, “On the Shoulders of Giants“, “Black Holes and Baby Universes“, and many more.

Stephen Hawking was born on January 8th, 1942 in Oxford England. At age eight he moved to St. Albans (small town North of London) where he would later attend the St. Albans School at the age of eleven, then later move onto the University College at Oxford, where his father had once attended. His motivation at the time was to study mathematics (his father intended medicine), but the subject was not available at the University so he chose Physics instead.

He has done pioneering work with other Physicists regarding space-time theorems (see S. Hawking and R. Penrose, “The Singularities of Gravitational Collapses and Cosmology“; cp. 1970) that showed Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity implied space and time have their beginnings in the Big Bang and then will have their ends in black holes (a position he would later reject). Of course his contributions to the field of theoretical astronomy and disciplines associated with the like are practically endless, his work won’t be expounded upon here.

This critique of Hawking’s new book ‘The Grand Design’ is particularly aimed at his positivistic understanding of modern physics and it’s unchallenged reach for epistemic progress. This of course, is made manifest most infamously on page 5 of his book where Hawking writes, “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”


  • Critique of Hawking (I) 

In the beginning of the chapter entitled, “The Mystery of Being“, Hawking and Mlodinow draw our attention to the counter-intuitive nature of the quantum world. His discussion of a grand theory of everything is a contemporary version of string theory known as M-Theory. According to Hawking’s “introductory” definition:

M-theory is not a theory in the usual sense. It is a whole family of different theories, each of which is a good description of observations only in some range of physical situations… The different theories in the M-theory family may look very different, but they can all be regarded as aspects of the same underlying theory. (pg. 8)

This grand theory according to Hawking incorporates a multitude of other existing universes whose “creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.” William E. Carroll in his assessment of Hawking’s book, “Stephen Hawking’s Creation Confusion“, exposes this “new notion” of creation that Hawking offers apart [wholly] from scientific endeavors:

Hawking’s new book invites us to think again about what it means “to create” and what, if anything, the natural sciences can tell us about it. The assertion—which is broadly philosophical and certainly not scientific—that the universe is self-sufficient, without any need for a Creator to explain why there is something rather than nothing, is the result of fundamental confusions about the explanatory domains of the natural sciences and philosophy. (Public Discourse, “Stephen Hawking’s Creation Confusion“; cp. 2010)

This replacement attempt of natural theology and philosophy with science are not successful switches from the position of Hawking and Mlodinow. It most certainly seems that their claims from theoretical physics are leaving the empirical sciences and are thence concluded into the discipline of philosophy. Consider by similarity John Haldane’s critique of Hawking’s book, “Philosophy Lives” (First Things, 2011):

They are not replacing philosophy with science. Indeed, their discussion shows that, at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.

Of course the confusion that we see lies near the last page of the chapter:

Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why do we exist?
Why this particular set of laws and not some other?

This is the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. We shall attempt to answer it in this book. (pg. 10)


  • Critique of Hawking (II): “Origins of the Universe and Miscellaneous Models

In chapter 1 of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution” (cp. 2004), he writes, “In the beginning, there was physics” (pg. 33). Merely eight pages earlier, we are given an expounded definition: “Some 14 billion years ago, at the beginning of time, all space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe fit within a pinhead. The universe was then so hot that the basic forces of nature, which collectively describe the universe, were merged into a single, unified force. When the universe was a roaring 10^30 and just 10^-43 seconds old – the time before which all of our theories of matter and space lose their meaning – black holes spontaneously formed again out of the energy contained within the unified force field” (pg. 25). I hope the introduction here is clear.

This is the traditional model of how we understand the phenomenon known as the “Big Bang.” Though discussions regarding the arisal of antimatter particles, photons and etc. at certain epochs of the early universal expansion are required far more depth than what will be discussed here, the textbook model of the Big Bang is something I hope the common lay-person reading this blog post understands. The universe (somewhere around 13.7 billion years ago) partakes in a rapid expansion which give rise to galaxies, planets, stars and etc. which later ultimately brings us to where we are now. Discoveries of cosmic background radiation, red shift, “cosmic seeds”, and other evidences pointing to an expanding finite universe have put an end to the idea of a static, unchanging, and eternal universe which we thought we once lived. The idea that the universe had a beginning has baffled physicists for almost half a century.

Cosmologists routinely these days now have gained interest in this idea of “Before the Big Bang” (one discussion I thoroughly enjoyed was Brian Clegg’s “Before the Big Bang“; cp. 2011). William Lane Craig (though not a Cosmologist) has written rather extensively in this regard:

When I say, “There is nothing prior to the initial boundary,” I do not mean that there is some state of affairs prior to it, and that is a state of nothingness. That would be to treat nothing as though it were something! Rather I mean that at the initial boundary point, it is false that, “There is something prior to this point.”

The standard Big Bang model thus predicts an absolute beginning of the universe. If this model is correct, then we have scientific confirmation of the second premise of the kalam cosmological argument (“the universe began to exist”). (W.L. Craig, “On Guard”; cp. 2010, pg. 90)

This initial model is something Hawking describes in his early book, “A Brief History of Time” (1988). Though he subscribes to the view that “space-time is finite but has no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, [and] no moment of Creation” (see pg. 120, Bantam Publishing), he comments interestingly on the Friedmann model, or, the “hot big bang model.” His discussion of the “generally accepted history of the universe” is one of fair and expositive length (see Ibid. p. 120-126). Though it has been 25 years since Hawking has wrote his scientific epic, he currently describes the universe to have physical laws that are sufficiently explained by one grand, universal theory – which we referred to earlier in our discussion as M-Theory.

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