So I picked up the new Hawking / Mlodinow book, The Grand Design. I have a feeling this book will generate much discussion on (a)theist blogs, so I want to be sure I’ve read the arguments in earnest. Thus, a new book series [no I haven’t given up on reviewing The Atheist Afterlife, either].
As far as the aesthetics go, well… it’s a nice book: hardcover, 6×9″ format, with black-and-white and full color illustrations interspersed throughout on quality, encyclopedia-feeling stock. I guess that’s why they charge $30.00 for it! Personally, I prefer the utility of a trade paperback; the last thing I want to do is muddy this thing up with highlights and notes. The book is only about 200 pages long, so I figured I’d devote a post to each chapter, and then follow those up with a cohesive review. In this first installment, we’ll discuss chapter 1, which serves as a short introduction.
Short as it may be, don’t let the brevity of the introduction fool you, for the authors make some bold – dare I say extraordinary – claims. Like many who’ve traversed the question of origins, the authors begin by proffering their iterations of life’s basic questions:
How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? [p.5]
Though they don’t tell us the answers quite yet, there sure do imply their opinion of who’s most qualified to answer:
Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. [p.5]
Really now? Well, I did not know that. Perhaps the authors are speaking rhetorically? Perhaps this foreshadowing is evidence of an impending sermon on scientism? Perhaps the authors are forgetting that philosophy is to science as a surfboard to a skateboard? I suppose we’ll see as the story unfolds. Maybe philosophy is dead. Either way, I must admit it confused me to hear “How does the universe behave?” as a question for philosophy, because the behavior of the natural world is the domain of science. Any ideas?
Chapter One – titled The Mystery of Being – alludes to the inherent limitations in any single theory or model and compares M-theory to the Mercator projection used for world maps: as one can’t show the whole of the Earth’s surface on a single map, no single theory offers an accurate representation of observation at all levels. Accordingly, M-theory is actually comprised of several overlapping theories, each applicable in a given range. The programming concept of variable scope comes immediately to mind: where one variable leaves off, another picks up. Some variables have global scope, others only local. The authors refer to M-theory as a candidate for a cohesive TOE [theory of everything], and insinuate that M-theory may offer answers to the question of creation:
According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science. [p.8-9]
I don’t know about you, but I think those are some pretty bold claims! I can’t wait to see the support. I must admit that my first reaction was to wonder what type of data they might be looking at, that might enable a claim that seems to have absolutely no respect for Ockham’s Razor. It would seem that all possible universes arising from nothing is maximally more complex than just one universe arising from nothing, but, we’ll see. They’re the experts, and that’s why I bought the book.
The authors close this chapter with,
To understand the universe at its deepest level, we need to know not only how the universe behaves, but why.
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. Unlike the answer given in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ours won’t be simply “42.” [p.10]
I always give writers bonus points for a good sense of humor, but all jokes aside, I wonder if why is an appropriate question for scientists. Isn’t science supposed to focus on the behavior of the natural universe? Do you think “why-type” questions are better left to philosophers or scientists? Why or why not?