Oct 01 2010

Book review: The Grand Design (Some final thoughts)

In part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of the review of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, I looked at the science and at the implications for religion. In this last part, I want to tie up some loose ends.

The Grand Design is a very short book. In addition to being only 181 pages, the lines are double-spaced, the font is large, and it has plenty of white space and many illustrations, which makes the amount of actual text quite small. (My own book God vs. Darwin is 192 pages but I estimate that it has about twice the number of words.) The production values are high, with vivid, colorful photographs and illustrations on heavy-duty glossy paper and careful attention to layout.

Hawking’s books are curious. They are supposedly aimed at the general reader but even I, as a physicist though not a cosmologist, find them heavy going at times. When reading them, I find that if I know the material, the writing seems lucid and clear, but if I don’t know it already, it seems difficult and obscure, which is why I found the popular success of his A Brief History of Time somewhat mystifying. How much did non-physicists get out of it? Is there any truth to the jibe that it was top of the list of unread best sellers?

Although he tries, Hawking does not have Richard Dawkins’ gift for presenting technical ideas in a simple form. He does not have Dawkins’ elegant writing style either. Instead of humor and wit, Hawking substitutes a steady stream of somewhat sophomoric facetiousness that quickly becomes tiresome. For example, in talking about symmetries he says, “[I]f you flip a donut over, it looks exactly the same (unless it has chocolate topping, in which case it is better to eat it)” and “[W]e have observed that the moon is not made of cheese which is bad news for mice” and so on, almost on every other page.

There is an odd feature of the book that immediately hits you. Although there are two authors, the book jacket puts Hawking’s name on the cover in large type and Mlodinow’s much smaller, as if the latter were a ghostwriter. But Mlodinow is not an obvious ghostwriter, a role usually played by a freelance journeyman writer hired to produce a book quickly and polish the prose of the main author. He is a physicist at Caltech and himself the author of popular books on science, so it is conceivable that he was more of an actual co-producer of the science content. Furthermore, the style of writing in The Grand Design is similar to Hawking’s previous book A Brief History of Time, suggesting that Hawking was the primary author here too. I don’t know what to make of this difference in jacket type size, except that the publishers see Hawking as a brand name that sells books and so wanted to highlight it. Perhaps I am making too much of this.

Hawking’s knowledge of the history and philosophy of science is shaky, and he states flatly as fact many things that are mostly folklore. He unquestioningly adopts Karl Popper’s model of na├»ve falsificationism as how science works even though it has been pretty convincingly shown by other philosophers of science that the actual practice of science bears little resemblance to that theory. (I discussed this in some detail in my book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Belief.)

He seems to have great disdain for philosophy as a discipline, dismissively saying right in the second paragraph that “philosophy is dead” because it “has not kept up with modern developments, particularly physics.” (p. 5) He is basically picking up where he left off in his earlier A Brief History of Time where right at the end (p. 191) he quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein as saying that “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language” and describes this as a huge comedown for that discipline from the heights scaled by Aristotle and Kant. But not only did Wittgenstein never write such a thing (as philosophers were quick to point out), there is immense value in philosophy when it comes to clarifying ideas, developing logic, and sharpening language.

What is true (and, putting a charitable spin on it, maybe was Hawking’s intent but clumsily stated) is that philosophy’s value in addressing empirical questions has greatly diminished. Nowadays if one wants to learn about the origins of life or the universe, one would not consider asking philosophers, the way one might have done (say) two hundred years ago. The situation is even worse for theology since their views on the origins of the universe or the mind or consciousness are seen as even more inconsequential than those of philosophers. This is why the pushback from those two groups has come in the form of them trying to argue that there are still some questions about the world that are beyond the reach of empirical science and thus purely within the domain of philosophy and theology. They are steadily losing this battle.

But no one can have expert knowledge about everything and Hawking’s use of history and philosophy of science, though shallow, is meant to provide context and color for the science and to prevent his work from becoming a dreary science textbook. It does not impact the main point of the book. Hawking’s strength lies in his deep knowledge of the physics that is most relevant to the questions that he seeks to address: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?, and that he does not hesitate to state unequivocally what he thinks.

1 comment

  1. 1

    I thought you might be interested in Wednesday’s xkcd comic, which relates to how the media treats Stephen Hawking (and perhaps science journalism in general): http://xkcd.com/799/

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