Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Desperation, coercion or just poor common sense?

Although Stephen Hawking’s book “The Grand Desing” (co-authored w. Mlodinow) has been around for at least half a year now, only recently I was able to get a looksy at it (borrowed from the local library).

No I am not going to rip it apart in this blog post. There are several reviews that show the flaws of this book already:

The first is from the famous apologist William Lane Craig: The Grand Design — Truth Or Fiction? offers a quite insightful review of the book.
Although usually I do not agree with Craig on everything he says (I do not like the Kalaam argument very much myself), this review is truly spot-on in my opinion. I recommend anyone to read it carefully (best after reading the book itself of course).

Another interesting review is the one written by philosopher John Haldane: Philosophy Lives (Why Stephen Hawking’s attempt to banish natural theology only shows why we need it).

Finally I would add philosopher Edward Feser’s Review of The Grand Desing. Mind you it’s only for National Review subscribers… unfortunately I am not one of them so I can only trust Feser did a good job (I am so curious to read it!).
However Feser wrote several posts on his blog dealing with the same topic as The Grand Design (origin of universe, why is there something instead of nothing, can something create itself… etc etc…): The dreaded causa sui and Causal loops, infinite regresses, and information.


Anyway, now that I shoved all the hard work to ‘debunk Hawking’ to more eminent and qualified people than myself, I still would like to make a comment.

First I want to say I do admire Hawking. He’s a brilliant man that in spite of his physical condition he has risen to be one of the greatest scientists of our age.

That is indeed why I think this book and the campaign around it is not becoming him at all!!!

When The Grand Design came out Hawking made the statement that ‘we did not need God to explain the beginning of the universe’. In the Italian edition of the book (I saw the cover recently while browsing online newspapers) this statement is put right on the cover.

Clearly it is a provocative statement, a clever, although cheap, trick to sell many copies of the book to the increasing flock of atheist and anti-religious sheep.

Yet the book fails under the weight of it’s claim and is, in the end a very poor book.
I would not even call The Grand Design a “popular science” book… it’s rather a mix of bad philosophy mixed with “speculative science”, i.e. a lot of speculation based on still doubtful theories and premises. Although to the authors’ credit I must admit that what science they explain is explained in a clear manner and with beautiful pictures to illustrate the text.

One thing is sure though: the bad philosophy in the book outweighs the scientific speculation. This is because even if M-Theory was correct and the multiverse view that Hawking and Mlodinow present would be hard fact instead of uncertain theory, their conclusion (i.e .God is not needed; the universe created itself) is still not supported, since, even if the physical world would be as Hawking himself thinks it is… it still would need a creator (the arguments for this are explained quite clearly in Feser's posts I liked above).

I will not go deeper into this. I already posted several reviews that explain this point better than me… and even so anyone who has read at least “Philosophy for Dummies” and then reads The Grand Design will understand the fallacy of Hawking and Mlodinow arguments.
Of course if you went to the Dawkins’s School of Philosophy… well then… I am sorry for you… (and recommend to you to read some serious works that introduce metaphysics).

Let’s get to the meat of it
As I said I like Hawking and I think he’s brilliant. However this book is too close to a “new atheism manifesto” to be a decent and unbiased (as it should be!) popular science book.
As an analogy it’s like expecting a popular economic science book and get a text that, although it does explain economics, also tries to prove that all countries should be like the (now defunct) USSR… and starts with that premise.

And that’s why I ask myself: Why oh why did Hawking write this book with Mlodinow?!

I have three theories:

1- Loss of common sense.
He’s getting old, his brain is getting soft and spews out this dribble.
It’s no chance I put this option last in my title: I do not believe it. I strongly doubt that Hawking is any less sharp than he was 10 years ago.
It’s still possible, mind you, but highly unlikely.

2- Desperation.
Old age and death take us all. He’s nearly reaching the venerable age of 70 years and, although he might still be in good health (except from his chronic illness that relegates him to a wheelchair), dusk is upon him.
Perhaps the older he grew the more convinced and staunch atheist he grew, or perhaps he has an obsessive need to really explain everything in the universe and one of these two possibilities (or both) makes him desperate to make a ‘final stand’ against theism, trying to prove that there is nothing beyond physics.
Is desperation the inspiration for The Grand Design? Hard to know.

3- Coercion.
Dawkins was more than eager to praise The Grand Design as the book that put the last nail in the coffin in theism, arguing that where biology started killing the arguments for God, physics finished the job.
Well eager-beaver Richard, as usual, speaks out of ignorance.
Biology didn’t affect theism (certainly not Classical Theism, anyway) and The Grand Design is not coming close to it either.
However such eagerness in Dawkins' claims makes me wonder if Hawking is not the poor victim of the ‘New Atheist desperados’, that they are themselves so desperate to punch holes into theism that would do anything to reach their (impossible) goal.
Hence I would not be surprised if Hawking is a victim of subtle coercion from colleagues and perhaps militant atheists in the academic world.
If indeed this is true (I can only speculate) than the ‘new atheists’ are reaching new lows (and that’s a pretty hard feat to accomplish, IMO!)

Of course I cannot say what possibility is (most) true or if Hawking was just careless in his endeavors to prove his theories and resorted to attack theism as a PR stunt. Who knows?

Would I recommend The Grand Design?
Honestly I think it would be better to read String Theory For Dummies or some other introductory book on String Theory or Cosmology, if you are interested in these topics. I’d also recommend Hawking older pop-science books.

The Grand Design is in my opinion the fruit of desperation, coercion and/or just poor common sense…

… so let’s try to forget this ugly incident and still remember Hawking in our hearts and our minds as one of the greatest physicists of the last 50 years and turn to his older works, which are worthy of praise just as the author himself is.

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