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Sep 30 2010

Book review: The Grand Design (Part 4 of 4: Religious implications)

In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this review, I reviewed the physics in the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. In this last part I want to look at the book’s implications for religion.

The book seeks to address three questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? These are, of course, big questions. Many people will recognize these questions as those on which sophisticated religious apologists have pinned their hopes as being the last remaining mysteries which science cannot answer and for which god is the only answer. What the book argues is that this hope, like similar hopes before it, has been dashed, and that what is called M-theory and the no boundary condition have eliminated any need for god.

It is important to realize that M-theory was not invented in order to eliminate god from the universe, any more than Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection was deliberately created to eliminate god from the creation of species. Questions of god’s existence play no part in the normal workings of scientists. Despite what some religious people think, scientists do not spend their time trying to find ways to make religious people sad. Scientific theories rise and fall on the basis of how good they are in relation to empirical evidence and data, and their implications for theology are at best an incidental by-product or afterthought. As Hawking says, the “multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine-tuning. It is a consequence of the no-boundary condition as well as many other theories of modern cosmology.” (p. 164)

In his books, Hawking refers to god a lot. I suspect that this is partly a publicity ploy. He knows how to market himself by pushing people’s buttons and whenever an eminent scientist talks of god, people listen and buy their books. The very last sentence of his A Brief History of Time was, “If we find the answer to [why it is that we and the universe exist], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” This sentence has been widely quoted and led to hope among religious people that the world’s most famous living scientist was religious, though those who know him said that he was not a believer and that his use of the word god is in the same sense as Einstein used it, as a label for the laws of nature, not in any sense the way that religious people use the term as some kind of entity that actually exists and can do things. In reading that earlier book, it was not clear to me whether he believed in the existence of a god-like entity or not. I got the sense that he was using the word god in both real and metaphorical senses but tellingly, God was not listed in the index, the way that other people mentioned in the book were.

What his latest book does is definitely eliminate any hope that Hawking believes in god. As the authors say, “Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way… We claim, however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings.” (p. 172) This probably explains why this time around, religious dignitaries have been quick to dismiss him. Woo master Deepak Chopra, who has made a career out of mixing quantum physics with religious ideas to create a ghastly mess of confusion that religious people like because they think that god is hidden somewhere in his fog of words, is of course disappointed with Hawking’s conclusion.

Cosmologist Sean Carroll has a nice three-minute video that I’ve shown before that summarizes some of the points made in this review.

Of course, theologians and philosophers will rightly claim that Hawking has not proved that god does not exist. But that is a cheap point since science can never prove the non-existence of anything, whether it be god or Santa Claus or unicorns. What science has shown (even before Hawkng’s book) is that god is an unnecessary concept. As Steven Weinberg says, “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.”

I would actually put it in a shorter and stronger form than Weinberg. Science can never prove that there is no god but it has shown that there is no need for god. Disbelief in god is far more intellectually coherent than belief and thus should be the natural choice for any thinking person.

Although I said that there would be only four parts to the review, I have some final thoughts on the book and Hawking’s views that I will add as a coda tomorrow.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Richard Frost

    Mano:

    Would it be safe to assume, given your obvious disapproval of Deepak Chopra’s “ghastly mess of confusion” that you take a similarly dim view of Roger Penrose’s theory that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of quantum gravity?

  2. 2
    Mano

    Richard,

    I am not that familiar with Penrose’s idea, even though I did read his Emperor’s New Clothes. His argument seemed convoluted and difficult to follow. Daniel Dennett in his Consciousness Explained seemed to think that Penrose had missed the boat on this but I have not studied it enough to really add anything useful.

  3. 3
    Jared A

    I haven’t read Penrose either but someone I know was spouting his ideas and I detected bullshit so I did a little research on it. I found this paper on ArXiv that says that the timescale of quantum convolution is off by orders of magnitude from the timescale of consciousness. Since I’m not an expert I’m taking the conservative route and assuming Penrose is wrong.

    http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/9907009

    Anyone else with more background in this then me is welcome to better inform me :)

  4. 4
    Jared A

    Oh, and it has been my contention for no less than a decade that Deepak Chopra is boring and pretentious. I refuse to read another word written by that man lest I be forced to use stronger language, ghastly least amongst them.

  5. 5
    The Devil

    I think God will continue to be a necessary concept until that day when science can prove real immortality exists for each of us – that is, immortality for living, thinking, conscious individuals like us and not just for our species, genes or molecules – using purely scientific concepts. Even if science can explain the existence of the universe without going outside of scientific concepts, it has not explained the existence of consciousness and, most importantly, whether this specific individual consciousness of ours continues in some form after our deaths. The existence of God may not be proven or provable, but it is a concept that says we are immortal or can be immortal. It answers the problem of our individual mortality by answering the question of our individual immortality, regardless of whether we believe its answer. Science has not provided any such direct answer to this question yet. Deep down, all fears are mortal fears. God exists because fear exists. God is a necessary concept if it is the only answer we have to all our mortal fears. God will exist until that day science makes individuals immortal. Or prove they already are.

  6. 6
    Nigel

    I take on board your disapproval of Deepak Chopra´s ideas, but isn´t it also true that it has got people thinking about religion that might otherwise not have.

    With the steady decline year on year of the Church, surely it is not such a bad thing to have someone new looking at a religion even if they have been brought to it by someone who´s methods you don´t agree with?

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