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.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

What truth-seeker’s library would be complete without A Brief History of Time, the famous physics book that became a best-seller with the general public. I approached this volume as a lay reader, having quite a poor knowledge of physics (sadly, I failed my GCSE Science back in school).

The book opens brilliantly, with an easily digestible chapter on how our cosmology has evolved over time, from the Greek philosophers to the present day. Next we learn about the interrelationship between space and time, how we discovered that both are not fixed and absolute, but flexible. We move to the discovery that the universe itself is expanding, and how this points to an event in the distant past that we call the Big Bang. After all this great stuff, unfortunately the book starts to slowly slip out of my control. By the time I’m hitting the chapter on black holes (about mid-way through the book), I’m eighty-percent lost. I continued ploughing my way to the finish line, not understanding most of what I was reading, but keeping by eye out for digestible tidbits – which did show up occasionally.

There’s nothing actually wrong with this book, other than the fact that there seems to be some confusion about who the intended readership is. I find it amusing that the author pauses to define the word “ellipse” in an early chapter, when several chapters later he is blinding us with terms like “quantum fluctuation.” It’s difficult to see how a book of this nature gained such popularity with lay readers, other than some very effective marketing. It’s really aimed at physics students.

Even so, as a lay reader, I gained an invaluable deeper appreciation of the nature of space-time, one which complements and enhances my own philosophical understanding of the universe. The Big Bang is not “something out of nothing,” as theists commonly misunderstand. It is all the energy of the universe compressed to infinity – where form and duration collapse, becoming an infinite all or one. There is something very profound about the nature of energy, as something that cannot be created or destroyed, when we consider that “God” (whatever that is) cannot be created or destroyed. The Big Bang is also the point at which the laws of physics cease to function. Materialistic atheists should take note that this is providing a very large clue about the limits of science in its capacity to ever provide us with a total worldview.

Regarding the mathematical complexity of much of the book, I also gained an appreciation of just how much of what science asserts is highly theoretical and subject to error. Great changes in theory frequently occur at a level far beyond my understanding of physics. But it is safe to say that the fundamentals are here to stay.

A hard read, but well worth it.