The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

The essence of the theory being proposed in this book is this: the Big Bang was not just the creation of our Universe. Simulaneously, there were many other universes, which operated on very different physical principles. Most of these failed to become coherent and collapsed, but at least one (ours) happens to operate in just such a way as to facilitate galaxies, solar systems, and evolving lifeforms. Effectively, the God hypothesis (intelligent design) is done away with by giving yourself an infinite amount of attempts at creation by chance, which take place in adjacent dimensions to ours. Interesting idea, but one which seems impossible to prove. Atheists will probably like it, and theists will view it as a convenient means of doing away with God.

From my own philosophical perspective (non-dualism), I’m more in touch with the Ground of Being as being something impenetrably mysterious, by virtue of it existing beyond the contraints of space-time. The pursuit of a “theory of eveything,” which is Hawking’s particular hobby-horse, seems like a fool’s errand – like attempting to write out the digits of pi, as if the infinite can be captured within the finite. Not going to happen. At the edges of our understanding there will always be mystery. That mystery, in relation to the Big Bang, is the non-dual essence from which duality springs. Religionists call it God. Scientists call it the singularity. We’ll ever get to the bottom of what it is, because we’re finite and it’s infinite.

It seems to me that Hawking’s hypothesis is based on the desire to maintain the idea of the Universe as a machine – a view we inherited through Newtonian mechanics. In science, materialism reigns, while consciousness is seen as an insignificant product of evolution. The flipside is the mystical perspective, where consciousness reigns, and material reality becomes real only as an experience of consciousness. I support a position of neutral monism in between, where the Ground of Being is neither matter nor conscousness but the mysterious essence that gives rise to both.

Putting aside the highly theoretical parts of The Grand Design, the book has much going for it. There is some stimulating historical material, charting science from the Ionian Greeks, through to Copernicus, to quantum mechanics. The latter, as usual, is very tricky to understand for a lay reader like myself, but I gained some new insight. The book is marvellously presented, with colour diagrams that help to make the science comprehensible. There is a very good explanation of the double-slit experiment.

The book coins the phrase “model-dependant realism,” and explains this as the view that certain things are true (real) within the boundaries of particularly defined contexts. The idea of matter as illusory is explained at length. Inadvertently, Hawking succeeds in demonstrating something that the mystically inclined among us perceive but often fail to articulate. This material was priceless.

One of the great quests of science is how to come up with a quantum theory of gravity – in other words, how to integrate general relativity with quantum mechanics. This continues to elude scientists. Hawking concedes that the quest for a single theory of everything might ultimately have to consist of a bunch of separate theories united through an understanding of model-dependant realism.