Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hawking's The Grand Design: an epic fail (Part I)—UPDATED

In his June 16, 2010 post on the website of the National Catholic Register, apologist Mark Shea began, “Stephen Hawking is a brilliant physicist … and an absolutely room temperature average member of the British intelligentsia when he stops talking about his field of expertise and starts talking philosophy and religion.”[1] Indeed, Hawking has already publicly revealed that in his forthcoming book, The Grand Design, he’s going to waste his formidable intelligence by trying to reheat the “self-explaining universe” omelet.

The CNN Online article gives us little of Hawking’s argument to work on; to give credit where credit is most likely due, Hawking has most likely striven to make the connections between string theory, multiple universes and the weak anthropic principle flow together. And doubtlessly he does so in prose that strives to be engaging even while his explanations remain just a bit over the layman’s head. (I read A Brief History of Time—twice—and must admit that, while I kept my head above water for three quarters of the book, I drowned well before I got to the last chapter.)

But when your conclusion is that a rabbit not only pulled itself out of the hat but pulled the hat out of thin air as well, it doesn’t take a physicist to realize that at least one error has been obscured by the technicality of the language.

Where to start? It’s possible for specialists to nitpick M-theory, one of several variants of string theory, which postulates an 11-dimensional construction to the universe. Alas, it’s too complex a subject for a man who fell apart in college algebra. Suffice it to say that right now, for many physicists, it’s so far from being concrete and consistent that it’s not so much a Theory of Everything as it is a haphazard collection of guesses. It may not be true; it may not be useful even if it is. That’s not to say I discourage its pursuit: the history of science is littered with techniques and facts discovered in the pursuit of wrong ideas. My point is that it may be many decades, even generations, before we can prove it true or false, during which time it will produce little more than doctoral dissertations: hardly firm ground on which one should base a declaration that God is dead.

The big problem, though, is that to get to this declaration, Hawking apparently passes through the “many worlds” tunnel:

It was the discovery of other solar systems outside our own, in 1992, that undercut a key idea of Newton’s—that our world was so uniquely designed to be comfortable for human life that some divine creator must have been responsible. But, Hawking argues, if there are untold numbers of planets in the galaxy, it’s less remarkable that there’s one with conditions for human life. And, indeed, he argues, any form of intelligent life that evolves anywhere will automatically find that it lives somewhere suitable for it. From there he introduces the idea of multiple universes, saying that if there are many universes, one will have laws of physics like ours—and in such a universe, something not only can, but must, arise from nothing. Therefore, he concludes, there’s no need for God to explain it.[2]
In essence, Hawking is making the argument that if you win the lottery, you shouldn’t be surprised no matter how high the odds are against your winning it. But the reason someone wins the lottery even with staggering odds of 172,000,000:1 against is that it’s designed to be won. If a world capable of producing intelligent life would have eventually arisen, then it’s no great stretch of the intellect to conclude that the universe was intentionally designed to produce life.

However, even this argument assumes that life arose from natural processes. As Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker point out, leaving the physical and chemical difficulties aside, the argument assumes that “the spontaneous assembly of DNA is like getting a perfect deal in bridge rather than being like tossing a perfect cardhouse in [the midst of] a hurricane.”[3] Three-point-eight billion years—the length of time since the Earth cooled enough to support life—sounds like it’s enough time for anything probable to happen. The problem, though, is proving that the random formation of working DNA strands is even possible, let alone probable to any degree. Without that possibility, a googol of years and a googolplex of worlds won’t suffice.

And that’s where the naturalist argument slams up against the wall: how do we get from a rich pool of protein blocks to single-cell biota through randomness? For the helix can’t perform its magical operations without being in a cell, which means you really can’t have one without the other. The cell, far from being just a blob of chemicals, incorporates an amazingly intricate dance of specialized molecular engines, each moving not randomly but purposively. Its operation is so complex that to suggest the first cell simply fell together by accident is not only ludicrous but scientifically lazy. The inability of randomness to explain cell generation forced Antony Flew, one of the most influential skeptics of the twentieth century, to reluctantly accept the existence of a God.

The “many worlds” hypothesis itself is problematical. Because we have no tools to directly observe the sub-atomic level, the whole field of quantum mechanics is dedicated to shaking the “black box” of the atom to see what comes out, and how it comes out, in order to explain what’s going on inside. The fundamental equation—the wave function—is by necessity a statistical construct that attempts to cover all the possible states of all the possible particles (superposition) to yield a reasonably reliable prediction of outcomes because the exact state of each particle is unknown and, according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, unknowable.

The error creeps in when the scientist treats the mathematical necessity of superposition as an ontological necessity. The wave function is said to “collapse” when a particle is measured; in fact, the equation becomes irrelevant because the behavior of the particle is now a known rather than a probability. But the “many worlds” hypothesis depends on the wave function having a preter-real existence such that it doesn’t collapse at the moment of measurement; instead, all the possible outcomes are realized at the same time through the creation of alternate universes.

This violates a fundamental rule of reason: a thing can’t both be and not be at the same time and in the same manner. If a quark has an “up” spin, it can’t have a simultaneous “down” spin … not even in the “black box”. Erwin Schrödinger attempted to point out the problem of treating superposition as an ontological reality by a thought-experiment putting a cat into a “black box” with a 50/50 chance of coming out alive; he argued that such a line of thought made necessary the conclusion that the cat in the box was both alive and dead. The fans of superposition ignored his skepticism but kept his cat. Eugene Wigner attempted to repair the position by putting his friend in the box with the cat; this somehow morphed into the common belief that the mere observation of particles changes their behavior. The silliness has progressed to where at least one scientist has stated, in all seriousness, that the moon really isn’t there when no one is looking at it.

Under the current theory of the self-creating cosmos, mass is created by the interaction of gravitational and scalar fields, according to the principle of mutual interaction. This, I believe, is where Hawking is heading. However, the error here is a confusion of mass with matter, or rather with the treatment of the two concepts as interchangeable. That is, SCC theory explains how matter becomes mass, especially planets and stars, but doesn’t explain where the matter comes from. It certainly doesn’t fit—or even begin to treat—cell construction; astrophysicists seem to feel unwilling or unable to understand atoms as they relate to molecular biology, as if the inner workings of the atom have no bearing on how protein chains become DNA strands. Yet one of the goals of physics as a science is to unite the subatomic universe with the macroscopic universe under a Theory of Everything, and such a theory can’t be complete if it doesn’t explain cell/DNA formation.

Update: February 13, 2010

Philosopher Edward Feser points to another physicist, Ethan Siegel, who essentially makes the same mistake Stephen Hawking made. I'm not particularly proud of this two-parter, and I think I do a much better job in "The contingency problem".

But Feser does even better, by referencing a story Richard Feynman told of "a painter who assured him that he could make yellow paint by mixing together red paint and white paint. Feynman was incredulous. As an expert in the physics of light, he knew this should not be possible. But the guy was an expert painter, with years of practical experience. So, ready to learn something new, Feynman went and got some red paint and white paint. He watched the painter mix them, but as Feynman expected, all that came out was pink. Then the painter said that all he needed now was a little yellow paint to 'sharpen it up a bit' and then it would be yellow."

"Nothing" means nothing ... not even laws of physics, which only express how something interacts with something else.

Delenda est Partu Meditato
[1] The original post confused the Register with the National Catholic Reporter (also known as the Distorter and National Catholic Fishwrap). My apologies to the Register, along with my fervent hope that it will continue its success under the ownership of EWTN.
[2] CNN and other online journals have the annoying, space-wasting habit of parting related sentences out into their own paragraphs. So, to save space (and be ornery) I’ve condensed them here.
[3] Hahn and Wiker, Answering the New Atheism (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2008), p. 18. The comparison stands in opposition to Richard Dawkins’ argument that nothing is truly impossible … just at most very, very, very, very, very, very improbable.


  1. ok well i think that you dont understand the book. so let me start with this, if you take water stariaght from the sea and evaporate it, let it fall back down while on the way passing through an electric current ( all processess that happen naturally before the evoulution of mankind) you will create amino acids which are the building blocks or RNA which will inevitablly become DNA and thats what gets life started. Next the odds of the a planet like ours forming out of a multiverse of 10 to the 500th power like the equations predict, yes the chances are very high. so no I wouldent be suprised by the planet forming, and yes the big universe can be linked to the sub atomic universe it has to other wise it wouldent exist.
    What would it be made of? All things in physics can be explained by smaller portions of physics.

    these are just a couple of things that I dont think your understanding about the book. Which is understandable Stephan Hawkings books are not for the faint of physics. But in my personal opinion I think its a very strong theory and I dont know rf you actuaaly read the bok but if you have not I strongly suggest you do it is a great book that gave me a whole new outlook on the way i see everything, and as much as you probably dont want to hear this since reading that book I have come to the conclusion that I have been wasting my life on theoligy. Tommarow ( being sunday) I will be climbing a mountian since I know longer feel like i need to go to church. I have always wanted to climb a mountain and never did but that book was the begining of my new life and in my new life I CLIMB MOUNTAINS. That feels really good to say.

  2. Once again, you succeeded in assuming what needs to be proven: that DNA forms from protein blocks through random natural forces. Furthermore, DNA doesn't act sua sponte; it needs the surrounding context of the cell, which must also be constructed from the random processes you invoke for DNA formation. Without the mechanics of such a natural process, attributing the beginning of life to random natural processes is as much a declaration of faith as Credo in unum Deum.

    It's not a question of my not understanding the physics, but rather that Hawking has mispresented the basic relationship of gravity to matter. As I point out in "The contingency problem", mass is a property, or accident, of matter, and as such can't pre-exist it; gravity is the action of mass on space-time, and is therefore not something that can "create" mass ex nihilo because it depends on the existence of mass for its own effect.

    Congratulations on climbing mountains. Go to church first.

  3. Hi,
    I could be late with this answer, but I only found this Site now, and here is my answer:
    If someone only waits to find some pretext to give up on God and not to "climb the mountain", so there will be anything available to find for that matter.
    I have been objectively studding it for years and here is my conclusion;
    The “string theory” (billions of existing parallel universes??)somehow seems very much like not being any truly genuine, scientific approach, and it looks like some kind of desperate escape from the "sinking ship" as the last possible rescue.
    It the light of all that, and professor Hawking's statement, we can only say that under any speculative theory and imagination almost everything is possible, but let me conclude here with the words which, as far as I remember, were said by certain Nobel Prize recipient, Francois Mauriac: “whatever this professor is saying is much less probable then we,poor Christians,believe in”.

    Kind regards,

  4. Hello Anthony:
    There is no way to edit my post from 02/06/11, so would you please correct the last sentence (the quotation) in it for me, so it could look correct? - I authorize you to do this for me, please. I believe it is missing “what” in it, in the original, and I mean the following quotation:
    “whatever this professor is saying is much less probable then ..... we, poor Christians, believe in”. Also, some words at the end need separation after comas.


  5. A.R.: Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately, at this time I don't have a way to edit other people's comments ex post facto. Don't worry; I don't take off points for spelling or grammar. :^)=)


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