This week I finished reading The Grand Design by Drs Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. I posted earlier on a review of their new book at ‘Evicting God – The Latest Attempt’ which generated an interesting comment thread.
Hawking and Mlodinow have a best seller on their hands (it’s already number one in hardcover non-fiction), and fortunately the writing style is vintage Hawking – compact, simple, and to the point - that includes his occasional humorous injections. The book is a first class, high quality production with generous use of lavish illustrations and the occasional cartoon that prevents us from getting too serious about the subject. Actually, the subject is serious since H&M have nothing less in mind than explaining the ultimate nature of reality to us.
At the start our intrepid authors state that their objective is to answer these questions –
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why do we exist?
Why this particular set of laws and not some other?
And they give it a mighty try, arriving in the end at a point that is close enough for government work. But along the way we learn so many things from such a short essay (the entire book is under 200 pages). We are given a surprisingly thorough overview of the history of human thought about existence and the universe. And even before that we are assured that “philosophy is dead”, and then have some pretty heavy duty philosophy poured over our heads for the remainder of the book.
Things become squirrely when we get introduced to quantum mechanics and find out that what we get is a lot more than what we see. Stuff no longer behaves like it ought to, it’s no longer just here or there. Stuff can be and literally is everywhere and possibly even everywhen, it all depends on the observer. We find that discernible reality falls out of the particular observation process to which we subject stuff.
This is where it gets really squirrely, and our dynamic duo decides to take a pass. We are told that stuff in reality exists everywhere (yes, the entire universe) in the form of a kind of likelihood wave (they spare us the intricacies of Schrödinger) of possibilities, some more stronger here than there. And that spread out wave collapses into a more or less concrete thing in one place or at one speed when we take a good look. The result is the reality that we perceive directly or through the readings of our measuring instruments.
Ever since Niels Bohr came up with quantum theory in the 1920s, people have been debating what really is the observation process that collapses quantum events. Can instruments do it alone? Does it require a critter also looking at the instrument? What kind of critter will qualify – i.e. does it have to have what level of understanding of the goings on? And on, and on. But H&M decide to skate past that little detail as they give us enough science to prepare us for M-theory – the current darling Theory of Everything (TOE), the holy grail of physics. To an educated layman this book is definitely a page turner; but back to our knitting.
Along the way we have detoured through a little bit of the philosophy of science, and maybe even the philosophy of philosophy, which it turns out is anything but “dead” as pronounced at the opening. The big revelation here is that we don’t ever directly perceive reality, as human beings we simply aren’t set up for that. If we see a bird fly, that bird is flying in our brain because there is no signal from our eyes reaching our brain that can be decoded by a third party into the image of a flying bird.
What our brain gets is a series of parallel neural signals that hit our visual cortex (at the back of your head), get spread out over an unknown configuration of neurons that talk to each other, and the configuration finally concludes that the image we are looking at is a flying bird. But at the gitgo, in that unknown configuration of neurons there had to reside some prior apprehension of a flying bird that the incoming signals corroborated, then filled out, and then drove to complete the total dynamic of what we ascribe as the reality of a bird flying in our visual field. That ‘unknown configuration of neurons’ is reality, a mental model of a scene that contains what we have learned to be a flying bird. And we continue to learn and store a bazillion mental models of all kinds of things, happenings, memories, … .
That, dear reader, is a short description of what philosophers of physics and the cognitive sciences call model-dependent reality. It’s the model that you have previously made, which takes in some pretty sparse observational data, that generates your reality. It continually creates and refreshes the environment (universe) that you perceive and deal with.
In the sciences such models are usually collections of mathematical equations some of which may be embedded into algorithms (q.v.). Newton’s theories of mechanics (how bodies rest and move), gravity, and light are such theories. So are Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the various embodiments of Bohr’s quantum mechanics. But all of these are described or modeled as realities in different domains of mass, speeds, energy, time, etc. You have to know which model to use when you start studying some aspect of the ‘real world’. There was no single model, no TOE, that brought everything together and presented a single model that explained all possible observations – there was no single picture of ‘reality’.
Then along came something called string theory that evolved into M-theory, and people declared it to be an authentic TOE. M-theory could do such things as pull together gravity working over spans of light-years and spooky quarks that made up protons and neutrons. It could also answer questions about how our universe began, and even more than that. The M-theory model could even be teased to affirm that any number of universes could pop into being and snuff out after a while. Since a gazillion universes of every type and sort could come into being, the authors tell us that that is exactly what has happened and is still going on. Our own universe is just one universe in a cosmos that is populated by an infinity of universes. Why is this claim important?
Well, this is where God (or Intelligent Designer for you sophisticates) comes in. Any given universe looks and behaves according to its laws of physics and the constants (special descriptive numbers) that are embedded in the laws (math equations). M-theory says that there are about 10^500 sets of unique laws of physics. That’s one followed by 500 zeros - a number bigger than even our current national unfunded liabilities. And again, why is this important?
It turns out that our universe is of an incredible design in that the combination of laws and physical constants is just so that if you nudged even any one of the equations or constants just a skosh, this universe and life as we know it would not exist. Any small change would yield a markedly different universe where the overwhelming odds are that no life could have come into being, let alone life that got smart enough to start asking questions like ‘why do I exist?’ The burning question since at least the 1950s has been, ‘the probability that such an extremely unique universe could have happened by chance is almost nil, and every aspect of our life on earth reveals very special provisions and a special history that worked together to bring us all to the here and now, everything we see speaks of a purposive design, who is the designer and why was such a design implemented?’
A lot of scientists were sanguine with the ‘obvious’ explanation, but not everyone. Their underlying thesis was that God does not exist, and if they could only look deep enough into their science, then they would see where God wasn’t. Now you don’t have to have that driving motivation to do good science, but by the last half of the 20th century you had a lot better chance of getting tenured and government grants if you threw in that added aspect for your proposed research.
No matter, M-theory came along about 1990 or so, and its model allowed people to argue that a gazillion universes could exist and therefore did exist – i.e. in reality the cosmos is a multiverse. And that meant that every conceivable type of universe with different laws and constants and histories could come and go. If this is so, then it’s almost certain that at least one universe such as ours would come along that would bear critters like us poking into the guts of what is, and voila! here we are (this is called the Strong Anthropic Principle). No God need apply – period, end of story, next case please.
But, long before this point in the book, the astute reader recognizes that no ‘why’ questions are being answered, only the usual ‘how’ questions of science. The good professors Hawking and Mlodinow belong to the school that doesn’t recognize that science is forever consigned to answering more and deeper questions of how something comes about. Why questions belong to teleology, the part of philosophy that deals with the discovery of purpose. Why questions are not the province of science – science can’t answer why something happened, it can only tell us how it could happen.
And here’s more the rub, why requires sentience to lurk somewhere at the beginning of something, the beginning of, say, a causal beam. And perhaps realizing that posing the questions in the ‘why’ form, and then backtracking through M-theory (the reality model) to a multiverse that could pop universes out of seemingly nothing, this model of reality would finally put paid to all this nonsense about God or Intelligent Design (ID).
However, smack dab in the center of the road to this happy conclusion are standing Occam with his razor (recently honed by Marcus Hutter 2005) and his pal Falsifiability (if there's no way to disprove it, then it isn't science), the final arbiters of what is science. A multiverse of a gazillion universes that contrive to pop and fade from existence from nothing is at best a reality contrived for but to satisfy a single agenda item. In contrast, ID is literally an infinitely simpler explanation both teleologically and probabilistically. And Falsifiability is completely out of M-theory’s reach. H&M posit an interpretation of M-theory that cannot today be taken as anything more than another patchwork collection of math models, that when properly applied can explain past observations. But it can still make no testable predictions of things yet to be experienced in this universe, let alone in any other universe of the gazillions that people can infer through its lens.
Hawking and Mlodinow conclude their book with –
If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search going back more than 3,000 years. We will have found the grand design.
IF indeed! And will we then have found the grand design? Perhaps, but in no case will we have resolved the Designer Question. IF M-theory is confirmed as a reliable model of this universe’s reality, and IF its capacity of generating a multiverse survives, then I’m afraid all we have done is discovered the next turtle in the stack of turtles on which the world metaphorically rests. And as the old codger in the story admonished the young reporter, ‘Oh no you don’t, you young whippersnapper, it’s turtles all the way down!’
At this point we could (but won’t) expand the discussion to a structured cosmos of hierarchical sentient and sapient designers wherein we in our universe may today be on the bottom layer, but maybe soon even that will change. In any event, there doubtlessly are other advanced civilizations some of whom permeate our galaxy, and perhaps even our entire universe. Maybe they can think thoughts that can meaningfully ask the Designer Question and understand its answer. But we are not there yet, and in the interval we have to go with what we’ve got.
So Professors Hawking and Mlodinow, great book and a nice try, but no cigar. God gets to stay.