Review of 'The Grand Design' by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow - part 1: first thoughts
This is the first part of a review of 'The Grand Design: new answers to the ultimate questions of life', by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Initial impressions:
- It's beautifully produced and illustrated
- It's mostly well-written, with some good descriptions of the science
- It's a book about the big questions: 'How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where does all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?' (page 5) If it encourages us to think about these big questions, it will have accomplished something valuable.
Not so good points
When I was in the sixth form, I had a class-mate who was very arrogant: he had an opinion about everything, and an answer to every question. Unfortunately, he was also very naive. His thinking was shallow, and he often did not understand the questions, let alone the answers. This book reminded me of him. As soon as you move from the scientific specialism of the authors into questions of philosophy or history, it is just shallow.
As the review in The Economist says:
'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.'
Right on the first page of the book, the authors make the astonishing claim that
'Philosophy is dead... scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.'
OK. I'm fairly sure this will bring a smile to the faces of several thousand professional philosophers in universities around the world.
However, let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that they said it with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, and that this is a deliberate attempt at a wind-up, rather than being a serious claim. Even so, it still reveals the weakness of this book.
Philosophy is a discipline that involves thinking clearly about the structure of logical arguments themselves. And some of the philosophical claims that Hawking and Mlodinow make in this book are really naive and badly argued (or not argued at all).
'It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God...' (page 172)
(Ah... that's so new. Of course no one has ever thought of that question in the past few thousand years, or come up with an answer to it.)
We could say the same about their discussion of the relationship between God and the universe, natural laws, miracles, determinism and free will. Their ideas aren't well informed, aren't sophisticated, and aren't subtle. They should have read a couple of decent books on philosophy before they started writing.
All in all, this book isn't as deep as it thinks it is. There is also more to be said about the science in it, but I'll save that for another day.
More reactions to 'The Grand Design.'
And an interesting video response...