SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 144 - December/January 2010/11

New thoughts on the ultimate questions

The Grand Design

By Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Bantam Press, 2010, £10-99


Cycles of Time

By Roger Penrose

Bodley Head, 2010, £25


Reviewed by Pete Mason

STEPHEN HAWKING, one of the world’s most famous scientists, has caused quite a stir. The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life, co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, is a sustained attack on ‘intelligent design’ – not dissimilar to the medieval Christian view that the universe is "God’s dollhouse", as Hawking expresses it.

Robin McKie’s contention in the Observer (12 September 2010) that "there is hardly a mention of a deity in The Grand Design… until we reach the last chapter" is simply wrong. On the contrary, one of the questions posed on page one is: "Did the universe need a creator?" This forms a constant theme. The penultimate chapter, The Apparent Miracle, attacks British astronomer Fred Hoyle, an opponent of the big bang theory, who concluded that the universe had been "deliberately designed" because of the large number of ‘goldilocks’ conditions: those ‘just right’ for sustaining our universe, such as the development of stars and the elements of which we are made.

"Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods", Hawking and Mlodinow write. In 1277, following Pope John XXI’s instructions, the concept of ‘laws of nature’ was declared to be heresy because they conflict with God’s omnipotence. But "Pope John was killed by the effects of the law of gravity a few months later when the roof of his palace fell in on him".

Ancient Greek scientists, hounded as atheists, sought out natural processes. Anaximander argued that our universe arose as a seed which budded off a pre-existing unbounded chaos in a ball of fire. When, in Isaac Newton’s day, scientists discovered that there are billions of stars, it became possible to consider that pure chance had led to our star and the earth being just right for life. Yet the universe as a whole was in a ‘miraculous’ balance of forces, Newton realised, and made the Christian God the prime mover.

How could conditions turn out to be just right, for the universe not to collapse under its own gravity, for instance, and yet not to expand so quickly that stars could not form under gravity’s influence? One answer is that our universe was simply one of countless universes which seeded off from the pre-existing unbounded chaos.

Our universe happened to be just right for the development of life, while most other universe seeds would have failed to grow, or quickly burned out. In 1979, cosmologist Alan Guth argued that ‘cosmological inflation’, a furious fountain of energy, emerges from a pre-existing quantum chaos, from which universes bud off. This mainstream view was featured in a BBC Horizon programme (11 October 2010). Scientists are looking at the possibility of detecting other universes through their effects on ours. It follows, Hawking argues, that physicists will not discover their holy grail – a single formula from which all the basic laws can be deduced – and that the laws of nature of our universe are a chance combination of forces.

Socialists, particularly those new to the subject, will find Hawking’s book delightful and challenging. Delightful because Hawking’s 1988 bestseller, A Brief History of Time, appeared ambivalent about religious ideas. This allows McKie to argue, correctly, that "Hawking has never expressed a need for God in his equations and has only made previous mentions to tease his readers", while the Daily Mail claims that Hawking "had previously appeared to accept the role of God in the creation of the universe".

In 1988, Hawking concluded: "If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God". The suggestion that science can achieve this – and thus make all gods redundant – angered the religious establishment.

Today, intelligent design poses important political questions, at least in the USA. Hawking argues that there is no place for a creator. But, in the US, a fierce battle is raging over the teaching of intelligent design, a method of circumventing US constitutional restrictions and inculcating school students with a right-wing, anti-science agenda. "That is not the answer of modern science", the authors write, causing howls of rage in the pages of the right-wing press.

In the US, the artful anti-science academic and preacher, William Lane Craig, correctly sees nothing new scientifically between A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design. Craig who, like Hawking, suffers from a progressive wasting disease (though less severe), asks how, if the universe can come into existence from nothing, a root beer doesn’t do the same? Craig, in fact, knows the answer. Hawking, who communicates via a muscle in his right cheek, the only muscle he can control, explains that a root beer is full of positive energy (mass-energy) while the universe has equal proportions of negative energy (gravity) and positive energy. You cannot get something from nothing and the universe’s sum total energy remains zero. In the highly unlikely event of a root beer coming into existence in your fridge, an anti-matter root beer would come into existence at the same time. They might then annihilate each other, destroying your fridge. In our universe, it is thought, this annihilation happened but left a residual amount of matter which became our universe.

Craig asks what Hawking means by ‘nothing’? Hawking means the nothing of empty space. But scientists have shown that empty space is teeming with ‘quantum fluctuations’: subatomic particles that come into being in matter and anti-mater pairs and annihilate again. The nothing from the which the universe emerged in the big bang was that kind of nothing, but without our universe’s dimensions of space and time – pretty much ‘nothing’ by any reckoning. Craig responds: why couldn’t God have created these pre-existing quantum fluctuations? Hawking answers that we do not need to invoke ‘divine beings’, quoting the 18th-century French astronomer, Pierre-Simon Laplace: "I have not needed that hypothesis".

Evangelists of intelligent design, like Craig, a fellow of the US Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, the hub of the intelligent design movement, are not proposing some undefined god of chaos or quantum fluctuations. Their god is the personal, omnipresent, omniscient divine being of Christianity which, as Hawking has pointed out elsewhere, demands complete authority and subservience. Craig’s ‘reasonable faith’ doctrine states that the "supreme authority of the Bible, God’s inspired Word, make the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice... being disciples of Jesus means serving him as Lord in every sphere of our lives".

Hawking no longer believes it will be possible to assault the ‘mind of God’ because the analogy no longer holds: there is no single governing principle of nature which can be discovered. This is a development from A Brief History of Time. There is another development touched on in the book which will be more challenging to the reader, when Hawking examines the new philosophy emerging from the results of quantum physics. "Philosophy is dead", Hawking declares, philosophical questions about existence or ‘being’ are now the province of science. Philosophy has "not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics". We agree, but the path is a difficult one. (See Is Quantum Mechanics Materialist? in Socialism Today No.127, April 2009)

Hawking is sometimes too categorical, particularly over string or M-theory, which there is not space to touch on here. Inflation theory and M-theory have one significant opponent in Roger Penrose, a long time collaborator of Hawking. Penrose outlines the astonishing inspiration which led him to a cyclical theory of the universe in a new book, Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe.

In the Horizon programme mentioned above, Penrose announced that he recently reversed his longstanding belief that the big bang originated in a singularity, only now, it seems, in the sense that this singularity has a ‘before’, as there is in mainstream inflation cosmology – not forgetting that this is not a ‘before’ in terms of time (or the space) of our universe! Penrose explains that a space-time singularity represents a mathematical situation where Albert Einstein’s theory "gives up", and standard physics has no solution. Penrose’s own famous work on singularities in black holes and universes, he admits, "gives us no clue" whether matter will actually reach infinite density.

Cycles of Time is a complex mathematical treatment of the second law of thermodynamics and the big bang, addressed to Penrose’s peers and which requires specialist knowledge. Completely off the beaten track, Penrose continues his study of the singularity from which the universe emerged, addressing precisely the same point as Hawking: the extraordinary balance of forces at the origins of our universe. Penrose’s complex solution is elegant and highly speculative, and quite different to that of Hawking and Mlodinow.


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