Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow:
The Grand Design [2010]

      This book claims on the dust jacket to provide answers to these questions, among others:

The book clearly had some tremendously ambitious goals!

      To what extent were these and other goals achieved? Our group differed widely about this. Two people gave it fairly high ratings, three of us gave it quite low ratings, and the rest gave it middle or low-middle ratings. Overall, on a scale of 0 to 10, our group gave the book a rating of 4.6.

      Rich said he had quite mixed feelings about the book. While it was interesting, he was disappointed because he expected a lot more. He pointed out that for a book which is supposedly not giving credence to the existence of God, the book sure dwells quite extensively on that topic!

      Bob Gray enjoyed the book and felt that it was well written, had a good flow, and was a good presentation and history of the development of ideas on physics and cosmology. He liked the section near the end of the book which gave the analogy of the Game of Life (the computer animation-like program) to the universe, emphasizing the point that a few simple rules (or scientific laws) can lead to very complex and unexpected results.

      Rosie read the book on her Kindle e-book system. She agreed with Rich’s and Bob’s comments, and added that she thought the authors used wonderful metaphors. She liked the description of the double-slit experiment, and commended the book on several other specific points. But she felt for all the importance given to “M-Theory” (a supposed foundation theory of physics arising out of String Theory), it was hardly explained at all what this M-Theory is supposed to be. While she views the book as a wonderful introduction to the subject for those with no previous background, she said that it contains little that is new as far as our group is concerned.

      Kevin said he was much less enthusiastic about the book than the three earlier people. He noted that it was well written and had some nice pictures and illustrations, but overall he viewed it as just not that useful for our group. At times he even found the book simply annoying.

      Ron felt the book was pretty “so-so”, and wouldn’t recommend it to anybody else to read. He granted that the book was well put together with nice pictures, but he had strong criticisms of Feynman’s “sum over histories” version of quantum mechanics (which the book upholds), and the whole “model-dependent realism” approach. Ron said that the “M-Theory” seems pretty ad hoc to him (and I think several others of us agree with that!).

      Pablo Arbalaez wasn’t overly impressed by the book. He remarked that it is nice to think about the “big questions”, as the book does. But he commented that the book only gives you the illusion of understanding the theory being championed in it, and in the end you are expected to accept that theory pretty much on faith. He didn’t find many answers to the questions it raised for him.

      Kirby, who read the book on the “Nook” e-book reader, especially agreed with a lot of what Ron had said, though he was even more critical of the book. He commented that for him the book was downhill after the discussion of the double slit experiment (about one-third of the way through). He also agreed that M-Theory was not at all explained. In addition, Kirby noted that the discussion of the anthropic principle(s) by the authors was the same erroneous approach used by theists. Overall, he said, this was for him one of the least-liked books we’ve read.

      And then we come to Scott, who really strongly disliked this book, giving it only a 1 on our scale (and even that much only reluctantly). He said the book is really more of a philosophy book than a science book, and a bad philosophy book at that. In his view, the philosophical idealist (anti-materialist) assumptions of the authors are just a form of intellectualized religion, and the whole subject of cosmology has virtually become a branch of religion these days. It is a whole mass of wild theoretical speculation based on almost no evidence at all. While there is substantial evidence that there was some sort of a Big Bang, the Big Bang theory as it is actually upheld by cosmologists today assumes that it marked the “beginning” of the universe, and has so many absurd ad hoc patches to it (including the inexplicable period of stupendous cosmic inflation) that it should really be viewed as a joke. Similarly the notion that the universe is just one of many in some greater “multiverse” is another wild theoretical notion with no evidence to support it.

      According to Scott, the appropriate technical term for books such as this is bull shit.

      John, however, strongly disagreed and said he liked the book a lot. He views it as a largely successful attempt to summarize the current state of knowledge and thinking in theoretical physics and cosmology. He thinks most of the explanations given, such as with regard to the two-slit experiment, are quite good, and said the book improved his understanding of a number of things. He doubts that M-Theory is going anywhere, however. John felt that those of us who didn’t like the book misunderstood what it was attempting to do.

      Forrest enjoyed a few things of the book, such as the discussion of renormalization in quantum mechanics, which helped him get a little better grasp on that rather mysterious topic. He also found the comment that planetary orbits must be unstable in a space greater than 3 dimensions to be intriguing. But overall he didn’t like the book and only gave it a rating of 3. He viewed the book as mostly philosophy, all the way through, which seemed odd given that the authors said early on that philosophy is dead. Forrest also commented that people should stick to the fields they have studied and not assume they have a license to spout off about anything. In Hawking & Mlodinow’s case they have studied physics, and should have talked more about physics and less about philosophy. Forrest also viewed their comments about religion as way too simplistic and uninformed.

      Barbara gave the book a 9, which was the highest rating by anyone in our group. But the rest of us felt that she had not really understood the book. She viewed it as promoting the idea that God exists and created the universe. Although the authors explicitly reject this viewpoint, there are indeed many things about the book which might lead someone to this conclusion—including its very title The Grand Design.

      Scott thinks that the possibility of drawing such wildly different conclusions about the book illustrates a couple of important things: First, despite the explicit atheism of the book’s authors, their whole approach and way of thinking really does have a strongly religious flavor to it, or putting it another way, it is really an abstract, intellectualized form of religion. (That’s the philosophical idealism, he mentioned.) And second, it is something for us all to remind ourselves about, that a lot of our understanding of what we read and hear really is the result of our own individual filtering and twisting of ideas to make them fit our existing conceptions. We all try to force things into our existing conceptual schemes. (Scott can’t resist mentioning that this is one of the principles of Marx’s historical materialism.)

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