The Grand Design: A Quantum Leap

Author Greg Koukl Published on 11/01/2010

Quantum physics. Ugh. The term itself is enough to make grown men weep and send theologians scurrying. It can also send chills up the spine of the Christian marshaling evidence from science for the existence of God.

Stephen Hawking is the “quantum king.” The Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, his Brief History of Time, published in 1988, sold nine million copies. According to The New York Times, Hawking is “the most revered scientist since Einstein.”1

So when Stephen Hawking says quantum physics renders philosophy dead, theology unnecessary, and a Creator superfluous, the temptation is strong to roll over and wave the white flag of surrender.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, co-authored with Cal Tech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, makes all those claims, and more. One can’t read very far in the book, though, without wondering if he’s just stepped over the edge and tumbled down Alice’s rabbit hole.

It’s the feeling I had reading the transcript of an airing of “Larry King Live” when King, Hawking, Mlodinow, and Deepak Chopra opined about the book. At many points the discussion moved beyond esoteric to borderline incoherent. Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of the panel’s comments on “nothing”:2

Hawking: Gravity and quantum theory cause universes to be created spontaneously out of nothing. [Non-being creates being?]

King: Who created the nothing? ....Where did the nothing come from? [“Nothing” is created?]

Mlodinow: According to quantum theory, there is no such thing as nothingness. [Is this news, that “no-thing-ness” is not a thing?]

Chopra: Vashishtha said, infinite words come and go in the vast expanse of nothingness, which is consciousness.... I believe this nothingness is not an empty void. It’s the womb of creation. [What this means is anybody’s guess.]

If you’re confused by these remarks, you’re not alone. Hawking’s erstwhile colleague, Roger Penrose, said, “Quantum mechanics makes absolutely no sense.” Physicist John Wheeler (who coined the term “black hole”) said, “If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it.” Richard Feynman—cited frequently in Hawking’s book—famously quipped, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”3

Suicide #1

I think I can safely say, then, that anybody who makes dogmatic assertions based on their interpretation of quantum mechanics is simply wishing on a star, even an esteemed mathematician like Stephen Hawking.

There’s another reason no one needs to fear the quantum physics trump card. Philosopher William Lane Craig points out that, though the equations of quantum mechanics seem sound, there are nearly a dozen different interpretations of how the abstract math plays out in the real world, and all have equal claims to legitimacy.4

Even so, the basic assertions of The Grand Design deserve a response. When Larry King asked Stephen Hawking to state the most important point in the book, Hawking answered, “That science can explain the universe, and that we don’t need God to explain why there is something rather than nothing or why the laws of nature are what they are.”

In particular, Hawking and Mlodinow claim:

  1. Philosophy is dead.
  2. The laws of physics explain—and therefore determine—everything.
  3. Miracles are impossible.
  4. There is no free will.
  5. Objective reality does not exist.
  6. God is not necessary to explain the existence or the order of the universe.

As you will soon see, Hawking’s arguments fail completely. He stumbles badly out of the starting gate—his foundational claims are doubly self-refuting—and his contention that the universe doesn’t need God comes to nothing.

Philosophy R.I.P.

When I was eight years old, I ran away from home. Unhappy with parental restrictions, I thought I could fend for myself. While my mother wrung her hands and wept, my father calmly granted my request for freedom. He emptied my piggy bank into my pocket, shook my hand, and wished me well. I soon learned (in about two hours) that liberty came with a price, one too dear for a youngster to pay. I needed my parents.

On the opening page of his book, Steven Hawking the scientist tries to run away from home. “Philosophy,” he writes, “is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”5

Suicide #2

What Hawking doesn’t realize is that science cannot live on its own. It needs its parent, philosophy. The metaphor is apt because philosophy as a discipline not only gave birth to science; it also guides and guards the scientist so he does not get lost along the way.

Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What science is, how it operates, and what boundaries constrain it are each features of philosophy, not of science itself. For example, in chapter three Hawking lists the virtues of a good scientific model.6 A good model...

  1. Is elegant.
  2. Contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements.
  3. Agrees with and explains all existing observations.
  4. Makes detailed predictions capable of falsifying the model.

The list is a good one. The tally, however, is not the product of science, but of philosophy, specifically the philosophy of science. The scientist who dismisses philosophy does not thereby rid himself of its task. He merely condemns himself to do the philosopher’s job poorly.

Stephen Hawking proves as much by spending the first 63 pages—one third of his book—wrestling with philosophical questions (the title of his first chapter is “The Mystery of Being”) before he even begins to address the science proper. He pontificates on free will and determinism, reality and illusion, right and wrong, reason and logic—but he does so artlessly and, as we’ll see, hazardously.

Albert Einstein once quipped, “The problem with us scientists is that we are very poor philosophers.” Stephen Hawking proves him right. Had he taken philosophy more seriously, he might not have stumbled so quickly.

In his second chapter, “The Rule of Law,” Stephen Hawking argues a point about physics that, if true, dooms the rest of his work to utter insignificance.

Physics Is Everything

I once witnessed a magnificent spectacle created by falling dominoes. Legions of little blocks standing in formation morphed into a stunning work of art when the creator of the massive puzzle gave the first domino a flick. As one by one each domino fell against another in succession, a marvelous panorama unfolded before my eyes.

The picture that appeared was not the result of random events. It was determined beforehand by the specific order of the dominoes and the constraints of the laws of physics. Repeat the exact set-up, repeat the exact result.

Purely physical systems behave like that sea of toppling dominoes. Physical objects “collide” with each other throughout the universe in very precise ways based on their initial conditions and governed by uniform natural law. This is what allows science to operate in the first place. The deterministic nature of physical systems7 makes experimental repeatability possible.

Generally, science acknowledges two kinds of causes. The first is the kind of cause determining the configuration of the collapsing dominoes—event causation. The second (the finger flick) is the kind of cause that initiated the cascade to begin with—agent causation (a human agent, in this case).

Hawking and Mlodinow characterize the first kind of cause as “scientific determinism” (SD). Here’s how they describe it: “Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God.”8

Quite right. These two sentences sit side by side for a reason. By stipulating that natural law “fully determines” every event in natural history, the authors aim to squeeze God permanently out of the equation. Simply put, physics is everything. “The scientific account is complete,” Hawking told Larry King. “Theology is unnecessary.”

For Hawking and Mlodinow, though, event causation governs everything—even human choices. Determinism is absolute. There are no exceptions, even human ones. Everything, including human nature, must submit to the sovereignty of physics:

Since people live in the universe and interact with other objects in it, then scientific determinism must hold for people as well...9

Do people have free will? ....Though we feel that we can choose...biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets...10

Our physical brain, following the known laws of science...determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws.11

So it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion12 [emphasis added].

It’s hard to believe brilliant men like Hawking and Mlodinow do not see how destructive this move is to their own case, but I think you will see it readily.

Let me put the question this way: Did the laws of physics determine the order of the words on the pages of The Grand Design? Or did Professors Hawking and Mlodinow make that call? Did they ponder the evidence for their theories, consider the implications of the facts, posit conclusions, then choose the right words and select the precise order that would best communicate their views and persuade readers of the rationality of their own ideas?

Note that each of the emphasized words above denotes free acts of will made by conscious agents. Without genuine freedom, then pondering, considering, positing, choosing, selecting, communicating, persuading, and reasoning would all be impossible in the sense that we normally use those terms.

Therefore, in light of SD, the authors would have to opt for the first alternative—ultimately, the laws of physics wrote the book that bears their names no less than the laws of physics determined the arrangement of rocks resting on the surface of the planet Mars.

They have no other choice (no pun is intended here; I mean this literally). Remember, the only causation Hawking & Mlodinow allow for is event causation—dominoes fatalistically falling—which is rigidly deterministic.

The Big Squeeze

If Hawking is right about SD, then it is impossible for him to know it. Knowledge is a combination of true belief based on adequate reason.13 But reason plays no role in deterministic systems. Hawking’s convictions would not be conclusions, but rather the inevitable results of natural law compelling the molecules of his brain to cause his body to dictate the words that appear on the pages of The Grand Design.

Suicide #3

By the authors’ own admission, SD is central to the argument in their book (“This book is rooted in the concept of scientific determinism”).14 But SD makes arguments themselves impossible because the operation of reason requires free will. Consequently, everything that follows the assertion of SD (including the notion that “miracles or an active role for God” are impossible) tumbles down like a house of cards.

If you follow this point, you won’t need to read any more of this article—or any more of Hawking’s book. There is no reason to turn another page, because nothing that Hawking argues could possibly be known. Hawking could never know if his “M-theory” of the universe were true if his conviction is produced by the laws of physics instead of by the dictates of reason.

By squeezing out free will and genuine human agency in his attempt to squeeze out God, Stephen Hawking squeezes himself out of the picture as well. He disqualifies himself as author, scientist, man of reason (and also humanitarian, kind co-worker, loving husband, etc., but that is a different matter).15

The only way out is to surrender SD. Hawking can acknowledge the general uniformity of natural law, but admit the obvious—that agents (like himself) are not subject to its dictates. Rather, they can intervene to change the course of natural events. They can start the dominoes, stop the dominoes, or redirect the dominoes at will.

Clearly, agency is real, and it operates by a different dynamic than the natural order does. Arguments are not subject to the laws of nature any more than the laws of reason can alter the mass of a molecule.

And if human agents are not bound by physics, then why would a divine agent—who arguably authored the laws to begin with—be bound by them? More specifically, how does Hawking know miracles are impossible? He gives no reason. He simply declares it to be so (by asserting SD), and then belittles the alternative.

Leonard Mlodinow told Larry King, “There’s never been in any science experiment...any indication that everything in the universe does not follow physical laws.”16 But science experiments themselves—having been designed by human agents—are not the product of physical laws, but rather the will of the scientist.

Suicide #4

If Hawking and Mlodinow are right about SD, they are wrong about everything in their book, because knowledge is impossible in the rigidly determined world they affirm. Science itself is undermined by scientific determinism. However, if they are wrong about SD, then they cannot arbitrarily dismiss God as a possible player in the cosmic arena.

The logical implications of scientific determinism cause Hawking’s “grand design” to implode. His theories are doubly dead, however, because they commit suicide in yet another way.

Inside the Goldfish Bowl

In “What Is Reality?” chapter three of The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinow ponder the predicament of the goldfish.

The world appears different to a goldfish looking out from the inside of its bowl, than it does to us looking in from the outside. The “lens” of the glass has a distorting affect, bending the light and altering the images that appear on the other side. But which side is distorted, the authors ask, the fish’s or ours?

How do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?17

Since “there is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality,”18 the answer they give is that there is no way to know. The best we can do, the authors suggest, is simply to formulate a view—a model—that seems to work from our perspective, and leave it at that. Hawking calls this approach “model-dependent realism.”

This language here is misleading, though. In discussions about the ultimate nature of reality, the term “realism” generally means that the external world is real and that it exists, more or less, the way we perceive it to be. Even when there are distorting elements (like goldfish bowls), our perceptive and cognitive abilities allow us to make appropriate adjustments.

However, realism is precisely what Hawking and Mlodinow deny. “How do we know we are not just characters in a computer-generated soap opera?,” they wonder.19 No model of reality “can be said to be more real than the other.”20

“Our perception,” they point out, “is not direct, but rather shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains.”21 And this distorting influence is impossible for us to escape. All that can be claimed of any scientific theory is that it accounts for the facts better than others, nothing more. It could never be declared true in the ordinary sense of the word.

Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s hypothesis is a costly one, however. Note, first, that this is a radical departure from the canons of conventional science, and Hawking knows it: “Classical science is based on the belief that there exists a real external world whose properties are definite and independent of the observer who perceives them.”22 Without the ability to accurately assess the world, though, what becomes of the magisterium of science?

One also wonders what to make of the inviolability of Hawking’s scientific determinism if he is right about the implications of goldfish bowls. It seems even SD would have to be demoted to the status of distorted perception. Since scientific determinism “is the basis for all modern science,”23 that noble discipline is thus assaulted a second time.

Regardless, a much more damaging concern surfaces when we ask the following question: What are we to make of the point of chapter three itself, Hawking’s non-realism? It seems we have two possible choices. We can accept it as true, or we can reject it as false. Clearly, Hawking would have us side with him. But, oddly, he has not left that option open to us—even theoretically—because the minute we agree with him, we prove him false. Here’s why.

Suicide #5

If Hawking is right that all perceptions are distorted by the lens of the interpretive structure of our brains, then his own theory would be a result of those distorted (and, therefore, unreliable) perceptions. Perhaps, on the other hand, the professor's theory was the result of a moment of perceptual clarity in which he saw the world as it really was. But if those moments are available to Dr. Hawking, why are they denied to the rest of us?

As it turns out, Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s view is sabotaged in the same way all such postmodern views are: It self-destructs. They claim there are no accurate representations of reality. Then they ground their conviction on “facts” about perception, brain activity, and interpretive structures they take to be true, undistorted, and accurate to reality. Therefore, The Grand Design is refuted a second time, even before getting to the science proper.

A Theory of Everything

For someone like Stephen Hawking searching for a satisfying “theory of everything,” The Grand Design turns out to be a quantum leap of self-defeating incoherence that explains almost nothing.

By asserting scientific determinism, Hawking paints himself into a fatalistic corner where it is impossible for him to know anything at all. By opting for the anti-realism of model-dependent “realism,” he immediately falsifies the SD he has just asserted, defeats his own anti-realist speculations, and undermines everything else that follows. Hawking sabotages his own views three times, and each wound is fatal.

Any sound theory of everything needs to make sense of everything that needs explaining. It needs to account for the existence and order of the universe. It must make room for event and agent causation, and the consciousness that accompanies the ability to freely choose. It must make sense of the laws of logic, the basic reliability of our sensory abilities, and the unique human obligation of morality.

And it must speak to the deepest needs of our souls, because they also are a part of “everything” that needs to be explained.

There is a theory that will do it all—the view of reality held by Jesus of Nazareth, a view now called “Christian theism.” His basic understanding of reality resonates with our deepest intuitions about the way the world actually is.

We live in a universe created with a word by an intelligent, powerful, eternal Spirit. The existence of the world is due to His will. The magnificent design of creation is due to His wisdom.

Human beings are made in His image as moral creatures fashioned for a divine purpose. We are able to know which side of the goldfish bowl we're on because He's equipped our minds with a perceptual ability that connects us to the real world, making a discipline like science possible in the first place.

If Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow are really looking for answers, then Christian theism explains everything that needs explaining: existence, specified complexity (information), the uniformity of natural law, genuine acts of freedom, human dignity and purpose, acts of virtue and vice, rationality, true moral guilt, and ultimate meaning.

It has enough sophistication and explanatory power to satisfy the yearnings of the greatest minds of history—Augustine, Aquinas, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, to name but a few—yet enough simplicity in the foundational notions to be grasped by a child.

It also provides the most important answer of all, the solution to the human condition—forgiveness leading to that for which we all deeply hunger, the fullness of existence found only in an eternal friendship with God.

And no quantum leap is necessary to believe. Only a simple step of trust that is consistent with all the facts.