Friday, September 10, 2010

The self-creating universe

The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking's new book, co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow, isn't getting a whole lot of respect. At First Things Stephen M. Barr, himself a physicist, writes "Much Ado About 'Nothing': Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe," indicating that there is nothing new in their theory and that "the ideas propounded in Hawking’s book constitute no threat whatever to the Jewish and Christian doctrine of Creation."

And then The Economist's reviewer:
.... The authors rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that “philosophy is dead.” It is, allegedly, now the exclusive right of scientists to answer the three fundamental why-questions with which the authors purport to deal in their book. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? And why this particular set of laws and not some other?

It is hard to evaluate their case against recent philosophy, because the only subsequent mention of it, after the announcement of its death, is, rather oddly, an approving reference to a philosopher’s analysis of the concept of a law of nature, which, they say, “is a more subtle question than one may at first think.” There are actually rather a lot of questions that are more subtle than the authors think. It soon becomes evident that Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles.

The main novelty in “The Grand Design” is the authors’ application of a way of interpreting quantum mechanics, derived from the ideas of the late Richard Feynman, to the universe as a whole. According to this way of thinking, “the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously.” The authors also assert that the world’s past did not unfold of its own accord, but that “we create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” They say that these surprising ideas have passed every experimental test to which they have been put, but that is misleading in a way that is unfortunately typical of the authors. It is the bare bones of quantum mechanics that have proved to be consistent with what is presently known of the subatomic world. The authors’ interpretations and extrapolations of it have not been subjected to any decisive tests, and it is not clear that they ever could be.

Once upon a time it was the province of philosophy to propose ambitious and outlandish theories in advance of any concrete evidence for them. Perhaps science, as Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow practice it in their airier moments, has indeed changed places with philosophy, though probably not quite in the way that they think. [emphasis added]
Understanding the universe: Order of creation | The Economist, Much Ado About “Nothing”: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe | First Things