Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design" – the review, part 1

I've been wanting to talk about Stephen Hawking's newest book for a while now, but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it. So after a few minutes of deep thought and staring blankly into space, I've settled on tackling it in small sections. I want to hit on the major key concepts of the book as well as discuss some of the theistic rebuttals to it, but I just feel like doing one huge blog would be tedious for both myself and you, my totally awesome readers. Both of you! I want something you can digest in a few minutes, not something you have to devote an afternoon to reading. So in part one, I just want to give an overview of the central concepts of the book.

But first, a quick disclaimer: there's nothing really new in this book. And it's not intended to be all that new. It's really a pretty light read compared to something like Warped Passages by Lisa Randall, which is some 450 pages of tiny text and no pictures. The Grand Design is much shorter, filled with illustrations, and essentially just gives a conceptual overview of developments in physics. It may be a bit of a disappointing read to someone who keeps abreast of developments in science, although Hawking's perspective is certainly fascinating in its own right. But at its core, this is a popular science book meant to bring some heady concepts to the most broad audience possible. And being that Hawking posits that the God hypothesis is scientifically obsolete and that philosophy is dead, he's undoubtedly rattling the feathers of stodgy academics and theologians. 

What is reality?

Hawking begins the book with a goldfish. Imagine the goldfish, living in his little bowl, seeing everything through the curved lens of the thick glass. If the goldfish were superintelligent, he could development systems of mathematics to understand his world and the warped world he observed through the glass. We like to think that the fish has a warped perspective on reality. But here's the big question: how do we know that we're not living in our own "fishbowl"? How do we know that the reality we perceive is the "true" one?

C.S. Lewis argued that unless God exists, we have no way of knowing whether reality is real. Hawking argues that the question is irrelevant. There is no way to know, in any sort of ultimate conclusive way, what reality is. Philosophical musings on the subject are a waste of time ("philosophy is dead", Hawking says somewhat hyperbolically). To that end, Hawking proposes what he calls "model-dependent realism": it's only meaningful to ask what agrees with observation, and different models may work better in certain situations.

Physicists have long been searching for a mathematically elegant theory that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics. Hawking argues that the "theory of everything" that physicists are looking for may not in fact be a simple, elegant set of equations but rather a network of overlapping theories that work in different contexts. The network is M-Theory, which is a concept that should be familiar to anyone who's tuned into physics over the last decade or read anything by Brian Greene. So it's pointless to ask whether our view or the goldfish's view is the correct one; we simply use different overlapping models of reality in different circumstances.

Part 2 - The universe has all possible histories

Part 3 - The not-so-miraculous design

Part 4 - A finite universe without a beginning

Part 5 - M-Theory and final thoughts


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