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"The Grand Design"
by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010, Bantam)

Book Review

Richard Terrell

The current book of sensational discussion is Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design," written with fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow. Hawking is the Superstar of Science, and Mlodinow wrote scripts for "Star Trek." The book's release has fueled resurgent discussions about the question of God's existence, owing to the authors' claim that the existence of the universe, including the "why" questions formerly reserved for philosophy and theology, require no positing of a divine, creative intelligence.
The book is filled with fascinating descriptions of the strange and wonderful ways of nature. Although the discussion is "dumbed down" for the sake of generating a lay-audience for the book, it is still difficult for the non-specialist to get a wrap on some of the more weird aspects of Quantum physics. This review will attempt a dumbed-down interpretation of my own tenuous grasp of what Hawking and Mlodinow are saying.
Hawking and Mlodinow are very smart guys, for sure, and they know lots and lots about physics. As I understand their presentation, we exist in a universe that is just one of an unimaginable number of universes (10500) that have been created spontaneously and simultaneously out of Gravity. Out of so many universes, it is highly likely that at least one of them would support life, and we just happen to be in that one (or one of those). In this context, it should not surprise us that the universe we are in should look like it was designed especially for us and our understanding.
This vision constitutes what Hawking/Mlodinow identify as "M-theory," which stands for the idea of multiple universes (or a "multiverse.")
The authors make interesting and provocative claims, such as: "the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called a quantum superposition." And this "has passed every experimental text to which it has ever been subjected."
What I get out of this is that just about anything is possible somewhere in the universe or somewhere in the multiverse, because different sets of laws would pertain, depending on where you were (if, in fact, you could exist at all). What is certain, however, is that the reality of God is unnecessary to explain any of this.
I'll concede that the authors unfold in entertaining fashion a vision of "how" things came to be, but I am not at all convinced that they have handled the "why" questions very well at all ("why is there something rather than nothing," "why are we here?") What I did notice is that along the way, Hawking/Mlodinow resort (rather typically, in discussions of this sort) to rather unscientific concepts, like "luck," "lucky," and "good fortune" when addressing the apparent "fine-tuning" of our universe to the support of intelligent, carbon-based life. We've seen all that before, from lesser minds than Hawking's. But where does it all come from in the first place? Hawking's and Mlodinow's answer is Gravity, which seems to be an ultimate, eternally existing reality that allows something to proceed from nothing. That Gravity is a "something," however, seems to be skipped over, and "why" there should be that power is not explained. It is the given law, eternally and absolutely existing. "Because there is a law like 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."
But this is not the sense in which human beings ask these existential questions, which come from meditation on the human condition. This rootedness of the "why" question provides the context for the significance of the question in the first place, but the authors seem not to recognize or even realize this. The authors here smuggle a "how" in as an explanation of a "why" question, all the time rather arrogantly declaring that "philosophy is dead." Their final shot at this is to say that "we human beings . . . are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature." But we already have that from Bertrand Russell and Jacques Monod, et. al. It's just that now, with The Grand Design, we get it with less pathos, accompanied rather by some amusing cartoons, colorful pictures, and some very flat attempts at humor in the narrative.

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