The Grand Design
September 10, 2010 3:37 AM   Subscribe

An excerpt from Stephen Hawking's and Leonard Mlodinow's new book The Grand Design.
posted by lauratheexplorer (86 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
So I 'ad that Steven 'awkin' in the back of me cab the other night, an' I says to him, I says, "cor blimey, Professor 'awkin', wot's it's all about, ay?" - an' he says to me, "M-theory".

He took a long fuckin' time to say it, mind.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:13 AM on September 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


the New York Times ran a hatchet job on the book. I guess coming out and saying in public that to the extent that we know anything, this knowledge isn't very comfortable with convention theist beliefs is shitting in the punch bowl in the U.S.?
The arguments in “The Grand Design” — especially those about why God isn’t necessary to imagine the beginning of the universe — put me in mind of something Mr. Ferris said in his excellent book “The Whole Shebang” (1997).

“Religious systems are inherently conservative, science inherently progressive,” Mr. Ferris wrote. Religion and science don’t have to be hostile to each other, but we can stop setting them up on blind dates. “This may be an instance,” Mr. Ferris added, “where good walls make good neighbors.”
The NYT review reads like the author would have taken the pope's side in Vatican vs. Galileo Galilei.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:23 AM on September 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance had a very nice video about what Hawking and Mlodinow are talking about here. He makes the argument that the book is basically making the observation that there is basically enough theory right now to explain consistently (if far from conclusively at this point) and from a scientific perspective the existence of a universe like ours without an external agent. I have no idea if the tone of the book is as magnanimous as Carroll's explanation, but it's a good cocktail-party-sized description nonetheless.
posted by Schismatic at 5:45 AM on September 10, 2010


This month's Wired magazine interviewed Simon Singh along this line. As with everything that is mentally challenging, people have a tendency to revert to their "comfort level". Unfortunately, too many people can't distinguish between "knowledge" and "comfortable myth".


Wired: Why is it so hard to convince people, even when the science is so clear?

Simon Singh
: Science has nothing to do with common sense. I believe it was Einstein who said that common sense is a set of prejudices we form by the age of 18. Inject somebody with some viruses and that’s going to keep you from getting sick? That’s not common sense. We evolved from single-cell organisms? That’s not common sense. By driving my car I’m going to cook Earth? None of this is common sense. The commonsense view is what we’re fighting against. So somehow you’ve got to move people away from that with these quite complicated scientific arguments based on even more complicated research. That’s why it’s such an uphill battle. People start off with a belief and a prejudice—we all do. And the job of science is to set that aside to get to the truth.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:08 AM on September 10, 2010 [16 favorites]


the New York Times ran a hatchet job on the book.

The Economist wasn't impressed either.
posted by Slyfen at 6:26 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Regarding those unfavorable reviews, I think that there will always be those who are offended by the suggestion that the universe isn't really about us.
posted by grizzled at 6:33 AM on September 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


Wired: Why is it so hard to convince people, even when the science is so clear?

Except that there is no scientific proof for the existence or non-existence of God, gods, cosmic turtles, etc. Nor is there scientific proof for the limits of scientific knowledge. The whole set-up is kind of a put on; there was never going to be an scientific argument which said: "it's impossible for us to have a scientific theory on the origin of the universe, so the universe must rest on a chain of cosmic turtles." Getting back to Galileo, in a sense, I think the Pope is right: scientists really ought to have little to say about the cosmic turtles and might as well keep their mouths shut. It's just that religious people have difficulty living with a world in which religious forces are irrelevant to our experiences, where every miracle not only can be explained by science but *must* be explained by science.

It's interesting to note that Hawking's first major results were in showing that singularities were essentially inevitable in Einstein's theory of gravity for large scales i.e the universe. Ultimately, M-theory would explain the history of matter in universe (not just space ala Einstein.)
posted by ennui.bz at 6:35 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Children are gonna read this book and say, I guess life has no meaning, and then do gay stuff and suicide.
posted by fleetmouse at 6:37 AM on September 10, 2010 [15 favorites]


Except that there is no scientific proof for the existence or non-existence of God, gods, cosmic turtles, etc. Nor is there scientific proof for the limits of scientific knowledge.

I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree. I was simply making the point that a lot of people make it a point to stick their fingers in their ears and go "nah nah nah nah" when science challenges their worldview.

Getting back to Galileo, in a sense, I think the Pope is right: scientists really ought to have little to say about the cosmic turtles and might as well keep their mouths shut.

Absolutely disagree, here. If the Church says that Earth is the center of the universe, and science can prove otherwise, the Church is wrong. The Church also has the luxury of simply asserting things, while science has to show their work.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:46 AM on September 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


Cosmology will never be able to answer the fundamental question of ontology. Why is there something rather than nothing? It may be able to explain the origin of this universe or how the Higgs boson provides mass, but it just pushes the question back: Why is there a multiverse instead of nothing? This question can only be answered by the mythopoeia of the religions and cultural stories of the world --and that should be fine. Values and meaning are anthropocentric. We bring them to an indifferent (multi)verse.

I also think it's fine if the less religious employ "the Big Bang" is used as mythopoeia, it's no more arbitrary than "Let there be light" and bonus: there is some observable evidence to back it up.

Also, as someone who grew up in Creationistville, why do scientists insist on continuing to use metaphors and language that imply, if not a Creator, then at least a plan or design arbitrated by a mind or higher power. ("Well if you found a watch [or a universe] on a beach, wouldn't you assume a mind created it . . . ? etc. blah blah blah.) Creationists just read it as part of the implicit inescapable assumption of a Divine entity.

Now leave me alone while I go light a candle at my shrine to Ilúvatar.
posted by MasonDixon at 6:52 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Regarding those unfavorable reviews, I think that there will always be those who are offended by the suggestion that the universe isn't really about us.

No offense, but that seems to me a rather glib and unsubstantiated way to dismiss the reviews. The economist's main complaint is that there is too much hand-waving and not enough concrete evidence: hardly the criticism of a religious person offended by an atheistic or non-anthropocentrist bent. It also complains of the try-hard unfunny tone, which is echoed almost exactly in the NYT piece, and it seems a stretch to ascribe criticism of writing style to offense at the philosphy therein. As an atheist I'm quite capable of finding an exposition of that worldview I entire share painfully clunky, or a Christian's prose sublime, and I'm going to be generous and assume that people who review books for a living are capable of making a similar distinction.
posted by Slyfen at 6:56 AM on September 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


Regarding those unfavorable reviews, I think that there will always be those who are offended by the suggestion that the universe isn't really about us.

The only people this would affect at all are people with sort of a vague Deist first-cause belief, I don't think there many people like that though and they aren't the types to get offended anyway.
posted by atrazine at 7:03 AM on September 10, 2010


the NY Times is not the only review that is somewhat disenchanted with Hawkins and his latest work:

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/09/the-hawking-delusion
posted by Postroad at 7:03 AM on September 10, 2010


("Well if you found a watch [or a universe] on a beach, wouldn't you assume a mind created it . . . ? etc. blah blah blah.)

The watchmaker argument didn't come from scientists.
posted by atrazine at 7:04 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a Physics grad, and I edited the same university Physics newspaper as did Simon Singh when he was at my alma mater.

I disagree with his statement: "Science has nothing to do with common sense". It has everything to do with common sense.

Science isn't a static body of knowledge, it's a discipline, a process that requires huge amounts of time, money and effort, and is effectively the painstaking application of common sense to a higher degree than most people have the inclination to accept.

This is about laziness, misinformation and vested interests:

"I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television--words, books, and so on--are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science." Richard Feynman

I also disagree with Hawking's account in the link on 2 points:

1. This is a hugely over-simplified version of events:

"A famous example of different pictures of reality is the model introduced around A.D. 150 by Ptolemy (ca. 85–ca. 165) to describe the motion of the celestial bodies. Ptolemy published his work in a treatise explaining reasons for thinking that the earth is spherical, motionless, positioned at the center of the universe, and negligibly small in comparison to the distance of the heavens.

This model seemed natural because we don't feel the earth under our feet moving (except in earthquakes or moments of passion). Ptolemy's model of the cosmos was adopted by the Catholic Church and held as official doctrine for fourteen hundred years. It was not until 1543 that an alternative model was put forward by Copernicus."


2. "simplicity is a matter of taste" - no, it's a matter of practicality, or, if you like, economy. or if you like, convenience, benefit. Simpler laws and more all-encompassing theoretical ideas are not only more beautiful but save a heck'a time and effort.

Like Hawking and Singh, I'm English and can spot lazy philosophy a mile off (because it takes one to know one, of course!).
posted by KMH at 7:08 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


The offending passage doesn't claim proof. "According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law." (Emphasis added.)

I'm really shocked at the controversy over this because it's essentially what he wrote in Black Holes and Baby Universes. God is not necessary or sufficient to explain the origin of the universe, but a deeper understanding of physical law might be.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:12 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Slyfen: I read the linked excerpt to the book, and found the writing to be lucid, well supported, and interesting. I am very suspicious of the motives of people who read this and then don't like the "try-hard unfunny tone". Not everything has to be funny. Admittedly, as a stand-up comedy routine this book would not be getting a lot of laughs, but fortunately it wasn't intended to be a stand-up comedy routine.

Unlike yourself I have lost my inclination to be charitable to people who attack well-written atheistic writing, because I have seen the intellectual trickery and fundamental dishonesty which underlies such attacks. Many people have a vested interest in the success of religion. Religion is often supported by people who don't even believe in the religion that they support, but who do believe that human beings cannot be trusted to act in a responsible manner unless they live in the superstitious fear that a vengeful deity will do terrible things to them if they don't, using God as the great boogey-man in the sky. The human race has got to mature beyond the level of childhood.

Hawking is a great scientist and a great writer, and he has written an important book which has been immediately attacked by people who are vastly less intelligent and less informed than he is. So yes, I am uncharitable enough to question the motives of those reviews. If I am wrong, no doubt God will punish me.
posted by grizzled at 7:16 AM on September 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


The watchmaker argument didn't come from scientists

The way I read MasonDixon's comment, apologies if I am mistaken, was "why do scientists call their books things like 'The Grand Design' - doesn't that practically beg for someone to respond with the watchmaker argument?"
posted by Slyfen at 7:18 AM on September 10, 2010


I disagree with his statement: "Science has nothing to do with common sense". It has everything to do with common sense.

Maybe it's hair-splitting, but I took Singh's comment differently. He was certainly being hyperbolic; everybody uses commonsense to a degree - even scientists.

Science, like you say above, is a discipline. Common sense is very useful in devising hypotheses and experiments - " I already know this, so this should follow, and this is a way I can investigate that...."

The difference (and the real crux), is that a scientist doesn't take unexpected results as a defeat. Maybe the experiment was faulty, maybe the data was misread or miscomputed, or maybe the common sense knowledge is wrong. None of those options carries any more weight than the others; further investigation is needed.

That's science.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:27 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Cosmology will never be able to answer the fundamental question of ontology. Why is there something rather than nothing?

So why does God exist?
posted by LordSludge at 7:29 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Life is suffering... tee hee ha ha
posted by Senator at 7:30 AM on September 10, 2010


Why is there something rather than nothing?

This perennial question stopped being so impressive to me when I started asking myself "Why would nothing be a more likely state of reality than something?" and really thinking about that question hard. It leads to some deep waters but on the surface of those waters is the realisation that "something" impresses us more than "nothing" largely because we are "something" and we're pretty impressed with ourselves.

I can no longer identify any really solid philosophical reason for finding a "something" reality either more impressive or less likely than a "nothing" one.
posted by Decani at 7:31 AM on September 10, 2010 [6 favorites]


Indeed. I'd be surprised if something hadn't popped into existence because what's to stop it?
posted by fleetmouse at 7:36 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Science isn't a static body of knowledge, it's a discipline, a process that requires huge amounts of time, money and effort, and is effectively the painstaking application of common sense to a higher degree than most people have the inclination to accept.

You seem to have just inescapably defined science as something other than common sense.
posted by newmoistness at 7:38 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Benny, the problem that Feynmann identifies (link above) is that what we call "common sense" is really a highly artificial situation in which public understanding of science is already manipulated to great extent.

"a scientist doesn't take unexpected results as a defeat" - an ideal scientist doesn't, true. But for many, as Mark Shea points out, there are really "seven basic elements (Time, Space, Matter, Energy, Power, Funding and Prestige)".

I think Hawking's book will sell well, and fair play to him for jumping on the wave of marketing that supports all the Dan Brown-level books like Dawkins' with a most likely far superior book.

This debate (such as it is!) will never close in the terms in which it is currently framed, because religion fundamentally does not see itself as a natural philosophic (sorry, the old name for physics!) hypothesis, but as a wider questioning attitude to reality.
posted by KMH at 7:40 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


newmoistness: "You seem to have just inescapably defined science as something other than common sense."

~> It's common sense plus hard, painstaking work. See above for modern version of "common sense".
posted by KMH at 7:42 AM on September 10, 2010


There's actually some depressing work out there that "common sense"--concrete experiential knowledge--tends to trump scientific theory for both elementary-school students and about half of Harvard graduates. Both will explain the seasons of the Earth in terms of distance to the sun, relying on experience with heat sources like light bulbs, stoves, and radiators. Understanding the correct theory requires a bit of abstraction, and that's a hard leap for many people to make unless you can give them a concrete demonstration.

Certainly there's a long tradition in philosophy which treats the scientific method as an extrapolation of the same kinds of "common sense" forms of inquiry we use day to day. But the cognitive psychology evidence strongly suggests that these are different forms of knowing that we rationalize as similar.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:46 AM on September 10, 2010


...God as the great boogey-man in the sky. The human race has got to mature...

I quite agree with this worldview, FWIW, but it's really not relevant to my argument here.

Not everything has to be funny.

The point of the criticism of the tone is not that it isn't funny, per se, it's that it tries to be - needlessly, as you point out! - and fails. That's general painful in any context. And for the examples given, I agree with the assessment.

Unlike yourself I have lost my inclination to be charitable to people who attack well-written atheistic writing

That's not what I said, though. I said (or meant) that (a) I am quite happy for people to attack poorly-written atheistic writing, and (b) if I read a piece attacking poorly-written atheistic writing for being poorly written, until I see evidence to the contrary*, I will be charitable enough to assume that that criticism indeed stemmed from the critic finding it poorly-written, not because it was atheistic.

* Such evidence may be in the form of context (oh look, the author is a televangelist) or it may be gleaned from the content of the piece itself. I freely admit having done zero research on the background of the writers of these pieces. If you are aware of any such information I should be happy to be informed and revise my assessment accordingly. As for the content, I didn't really pick up any major religious-vested-interest-agenda in these pieces, at least not in the economist.

Hawking is a great scientist and a great writer, and he has written an important book which has been immediately attacked by people who are vastly less intelligent and less informed than he is

Well, that's the whole point, isn't it. A great scientist is not necessarily a great writer. Someone with a track record as a great writer is not necessarily a great writer with every new work. Someone being a great writer doesn't necessarily make their book important. Someone much less intelligent than a given writer can still criticise their writing. In fact, in the realm of popular science, that would seem to be the best place for criticism to come from! "Your aim here was to explain all your super intelligent science stuff in a way an intellectual inferior such as myself can understand, and... I don't."

I am uncharitable enough to question the motives of those reviews

Questioning the motives behind things you read is of course laudable. But assuming by default, and in the absense of anything specifically demonstrating it, that anyone with a negative crititical assessment of a scientific or atheistic text is motivated entirely by religious trickery and dishonesty, and they cannot possibly have any valid point about the textual style, is a step well beyond that, and strikes me as, ironically, very unscientific.

Basically, I am prepared to believe - not that I do believe it, without reading it myself, but I am prepared to - that Hawking, despite being a brilliant scientist with as accurate a view of the universe as you could find, has on this occasion produced a flawed book. It seems to me that dismissing this possibility by default, on what is essentially an ad hom basis, is rather close to elevating his output to quasi-religious dogma.
posted by Slyfen at 7:47 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


The way I read MasonDixon's comment, apologies if I am mistaken, was "why do scientists call their books things like 'The Grand Design'

posted by Slyfen at 3:18 PM on September 10


Certainly, Hawking is fond of tossing out the odd religious or cod-religious metaphor and it's probably unwise of him to do so. For example, his famous phrase "...then we would know the mind of God" revealed a truly depressing number of people all too ready to assume he was speaking literally rather than metaphorically. The same thing happened with Dawkins's "Selfish Gene". The number of folk who assumed he literally meant that genes operated with active intent was pitiful to behold.

People who are emotionally inclined to cling to unreasoned beliefs tend to grasp at such straws without troubling to stop and notice deeper or more nuanced intentions which, again, is why it's probably unwise for scientists to use them. Sad though, because hell, scientists ought to be able to wax a bit poetic or colourful when talking about big concepts. Especially given how often they're accused of being dry, unemotional Vulcans.
posted by Decani at 7:48 AM on September 10, 2010


We don't need God to explain the origin of the Universe. So why does he need to invoke God in the title?

It's easy (and fun) to poke at religious arguments about the creation of the universe, but I wonder if there's some other motive for many physicists repeated attacks on religion. If the point of the book is that there is enough physics to explain the creation of the universe without having to resort to some divine entity, then why call the book "The Grand Design," which implies the very opposite of that point? Is it to be ironic?

If physics can explain the origins and current state of the physical universe, then it isn't a design. Flowers are very beautiful, but they don't have a design. They have patterns and they have structure. But "design" implies deliberate creation. Furthermore, what's so grand about it? It just "is". If anything, the universe is grand because we see appealing patterns in it, but if the patterns were different, there'd be no us to see anything.

Likewise, why call the Higgs-Boson the "God Particle"? That's the stupidest lay term in the history of science. The particle has nothing to do with God or any of the characteristics usually ascribed to God.

A better title would have been "The Goldilocks Structure." But that won't sell books, will it. And more importantly, it doesn't elevate the science to some greater position of authority. There is something else going on here. From what I can tell the purpose of doing this is to replace the authority of religious figures with the authority of physicists and great scientists. It is not about replacing religion with physics - physics has absolutely nothing to say about the moral or ethical questions at that heart of religion. This trend is about shifting power among the people in those respective fields.

It isn't merely that the Universe has a "Grand Design", it's also that the physics behind it is so complex and esoteric that only truly advanced mathematicians and physicists can understand it.

The rest of us, who don't understand the math or the science, who haven't studied the data, we are simply accepting Hawking's word for it. We need physicists to interpret the "grand design" for us. Sound familiar?

We believe that Hawking is smart enough to understand these issues so we believe he is right. Even if we read this book, we are taking the "leap of faith" that the math behind it works out the way their statements in the book imply that it does. We have no way of knowing for ourselves, unless we suddenly embark on a multi-decade immersion into mathematics, physics and quantum theory. It doesn't matter that he in fact may actually be that smart and that he may be right, what matters is that for us, we believe that what he says is true, but we don't know it.

Scientists are wrapping their science in the language of divinity in order to steal the authority that that divinity still conveys. Stephen Hawking should have absolutely no authority. Science is about the theory, not the people who came up with the theory. but once we decide to listen to him and not others about issues beyond the narrow scope of his work, we are making a political choice, not a scientific one.

We don't need a God to explain how the universe was created. But many people do need a God to explain why they shouldn't act immorally even in situations where their immoral act will never be discovered and they will never be caught.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:48 AM on September 10, 2010


I disagree with his statement: "Science has nothing to do with common sense". It has everything to do with common sense.

I think part of the problem is that for most people common sense is a body of knowledge, not a way of thinking. The results of applying rigorous common sense as a method to the universe leads to many results that are counter to what we might expect from common sense as a body of knowledge.
Also, things that are common sense to someone who spent four years doing experiments and thinking about this sort of thing in Blackett may not be common sense to most people, because they haven't the same experiences to apply.
posted by atrazine at 7:50 AM on September 10, 2010


How very strange the debate here is. I read the Economist review yesterday, and it sounded like it could be a review of just about all the bestselling pop-physics books I've read over the last 15 years or so. Lots of hand-waving instead of evidence, presumably because we are not smart enough to follow the evidence, a weirdly stilted jokey tone, and big promises of new and stunning knowledge that somehow fail to ever quite materialize.

I am not a religious person. I am an athiest, who briefly studied physics. It never even occurred to me that the Economist review was somehow offended from a religious standpoint -- if anything they seem to be annoyed by the sort of odd and unnecessary insertion of words like "Design" into a scientific context that doesn't need them. See also "The God Particle," which has nothing whatsoever to say about god.

Just because we all support the further scientific investigation of our universe doesn't mean we have to think that all books written by scientists are good, does it? Or that a negative review is of necessity "attacking atheistic writing?" Couldn't it simply be attacking bad writing? Wouldn't that be the simpler hypothesis, and therefore the more beautiful one?
posted by rusty at 7:52 AM on September 10, 2010


but I wonder if there's some other motive for many physicists repeated attacks on religion

Well, I think that "Science can't really tell whether there is a God or not, now let me tell you about my latest results in m-theory over a cup of tea" wouldn't sell many books.
posted by atrazine at 7:54 AM on September 10, 2010


Pastabagel: The Goldilocks Enigma sold well enough, I think. I'm pretty sure that's not the only book to use the Goldilocks metaphor either.

But the rest of your point is interesting.
posted by rusty at 7:56 AM on September 10, 2010


If the point of the book is ...

Which is a whopping big IF on the basis of one cherry-picked paragraph from a book where there's only a few scant excerpts published outside of its pages. If the reviews are to be trusted, the controversial paragraph is a sideshow to to main discussion of the current state of the theory.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:56 AM on September 10, 2010


People start off with a belief and a prejudice—we all do. And the job of science is to set that aside to get to the truth.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:08 AM on September 10


And when science gets to the truth that runs contrary to common sense, then what? Science's job is done at that point. It is the role of science to say "Guess what? It turns out that all of us driving our cars is destroying the environment" (or whatever, you get my point). But that statement is made by a scientist acting in his role as a scientist.

It is absolutely not the role of science to say "Drive less." That is what people do. And that is my point in my above comment. Scientists are try to extend their authority outside of science into other spheres. I'm not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, as long as other voices are heard too, because on the subject of how we should organize ourselves today, everyone's opinion is equally valid, even if the motivations are very different.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:57 AM on September 10, 2010


The way I read MasonDixon's comment, apologies if I am mistaken, was "why do scientists call their books things like 'The Grand Design' - doesn't that practically beg for someone to respond with the watchmaker argument?"

Yes. This is what I was saying.

Cosmology will never be able to answer the fundamental question of ontology. Why is there something rather than nothing?

So why does God exist?


Which is why I said we were left with mythopoeia. Stories and narrative to make meaning since fundamental ontology is ultimately elusive.
posted by MasonDixon at 7:59 AM on September 10, 2010


This perennial question stopped being so impressive to me when I started asking myself "Why would nothing be a more likely state of reality than something?" and really thinking about that question hard. It leads to some deep waters but on the surface of those waters is the realisation that "something" impresses us more than "nothing" largely because we are "something" and we're pretty impressed with ourselves.

This is just playing with words. The basic fundamental underlying question is whatever it is you feel when you look up at the night sky and ask: "what the f* IS all this?" "is this all a dream? if so, who is the dreamer?" "why are we here and why do all these strange things happen?" "where did we come from before birth and where do we go after death?"

These sound like different questions, but in fact are simply facets of the same singular inarticulable question burning in the human heart. The answer may be 42, but the question cannot be fully stated, only approximated. Words cannot do it justice. Likelihood has not one jot's worth to do with it because the question is not about what's probable but about, to rephrase the question once more, what probability is in the first place.

The only way to escape this question is to cripple one's sense of wonder. Many abuse science to this end because it gives them a sense of unwarranted and comforting certainty. How ironically religious of them.
posted by shivohum at 8:02 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a metaphor, and a difficult one to get away from. The Goldilocks Structure isn't much better given that both key words imply a designer.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:05 AM on September 10, 2010


How very strange the debate here is... and then I read the NYT and Prospect reviews, which appear to be only interested in arguing about religion, and I see why it's gone the way it has. Sorry, my bad. Carry on having the irrelevant debate about this that the press has set us up to have. I'll be over here looking for something interesting to do.
posted by rusty at 8:05 AM on September 10, 2010


shivohum: The only way to escape this question is to cripple one's sense of wonder. Many abuse science to this end because it gives them a sense of unwarranted and comforting certainty. How ironically religious of them.

Science is the last place you want to go to if you want certainty.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:08 AM on September 10, 2010


The Goldilocks Structure isn't much better given that both key words imply a designer.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:05 AM on September 10


"Structure" does not imply a designer. A salt crystal has structure, but no "designer" created that salt crystal. We refer to our "skeletal structure" or "DNA structure". Cars and ornamentation have designs.

And "Goldilocks" is a metaphor for "just right". The story isn't that someone made her the porridge that was just right, the story is that she found one that was just right.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:11 AM on September 10, 2010


A negative review of Hawkings' book could, in theory, be attacking bad writing rather than attacking atheism, but I have read the excerpt from this book and it appears to be well written. I have also found Hawkings' previous work to be well written, although I don't regard Hawking as the greatest science writer of all time, I still prefer Carl Sagan.

To some extent it is true as Slyfen points out, that I am very quick to question the motives of those who attack Hawkings' book. I may have been hasty in judging the critics - I haven't read all of Hawkings' book, only the excerpt, and I too may have criticisms when and if I read the whole thing. However, I have seen so much unreasonable, self-serving, dishonest criticism of atheistic writing already, that I have come to expect the worst. I have already seen that the world is full of people who believe nonsense and are very arrogant about it, feeling only contempt for anyone who would challenge them. I am disgusted by this spectacle of idiocy, which I have seen repeated so many times by so many people.
posted by grizzled at 8:13 AM on September 10, 2010


I have already seen that the world is full of people who believe nonsense and are very arrogant about it, feeling only contempt for anyone who would challenge them.

And the worst part is that some of them are scientists, who should really know better.
posted by rusty at 8:16 AM on September 10, 2010


rusty: I'm with you. Having checked out the prospect feature, and re-read the NYT, the emphasis on the critics' "atheists vs god!" angle is more apparent. I'd read the economist feature earlier, and with that uppermost in my mind I was (and remain) a bit baffled how a review that is 50% "poor tone", 50% "too hand-wavy, insufficient evidence" could lead to a judgement that the criticism of the tone was rooted in distaste for its non-religious outlook.
posted by Slyfen at 8:16 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


and then I read the NYT and Prospect reviews, which appear to be only interested in arguing about religion

That is because the publisher's PR people have pushed that angle so they can move books.
posted by atrazine at 8:18 AM on September 10, 2010


shivohum - yes, exactly. Natural sciences and religious sense are 2 sides of this coin. I think it's healthy to keep them in tension, but ultimately if that wonder, whether expressed in expletives or not, is lost, the rope snaps and you veer to one or the other "side" with disastrous (but sometimes lucrative) results.
posted by KMH at 8:21 AM on September 10, 2010


Pastabagel: Structure" does not imply a designer. A salt crystal has structure, but no "designer" created that salt crystal. We refer to our "skeletal structure" or "DNA structure". Cars and ornamentation have designs.

A person invested in the TAG would say that the orderliness of those structures imply a deity to define that structure. So no, your title only marginally neutralizes the problem.

And "Goldilocks" is a metaphor for "just right". The story isn't that someone made her the porridge that was just right, the story is that she found one that was just right.

Found one that was just right out of three choices created by another character whose presence is understood, but not immediately tangible. It's hard to find a more compelling metaphor for Intelligent Design models.

I'm really struggling to come up with language that discusses the design, structure, intricacy, of the universe that would not imply a designer to someone who's predisposed to think in terms of one to start with. But by my dictionary, design (noun) does not necessarily imply a designer, and doubtless the distinction is made clear in the introductory text that we don't currently have access to.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:21 AM on September 10, 2010


Not that I think that secular people in the sciences should stay away from those metaphors. They are largely unavoidable given the current state of our language. Asimov had a great essay about carbon as the Goldilocks element for life in reference to the energies required to build covalent bonds, but it was abundantly clear from the nature of the essay that he he wasn't invoking or begging the question of a supernatural agent in doing so.

And it strikes me as a bit of a lazy and potentially dishonest argument to beanplate ambiguous metaphors based only on three words. I'd want to see the opening chapters where that meaning is laid out before jumping to any conclusions as to what is meant by design here.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:35 AM on September 10, 2010


KMH: Natural sciences and religious sense are 2 sides of this coin. I think it's healthy to keep them in tension, but ultimately if that wonder, whether expressed in expletives or not, is lost, the rope snaps and you veer to one or the other "side" with disastrous (but sometimes lucrative) results.

Really? Because the non-fiction I read from people skeptical of religion is positively soaked in wonder to the point of becoming florid.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:44 AM on September 10, 2010


Why are all you folks arguing about religion, besides the fact that the book gives us all sufficient excuse to defend our treasured worldviews?

What I think is interesting, and maybe what irritated The Economist, is that Hawkings seems to be flirting with philosophy but in the guise of science:

Though realism may be a tempting viewpoint, what we know about modern physics makes it a difficult one to defend.

The excerpt from the original post sounds like he is weighing in on the age-old idealism/realism debate with his idea of "model-based realism." Meaning, I guess, we choose a model of reality based on some guidelines he proposes like "simplicity." Although later in the excerpt, he admits that "simplicity" is a "matter of taste." Indeed.

What I find tiresome about most arguments over religion is that we all assume that we share a common meaning of words like "real," "existence," and "being" as if there can only be one meaning. (Usually from the realist viewpoint. Of course!)

It's interesting to see Hawkings implying that it's not that simple. Warms the confirmation bias cockles of my heart.
posted by cross_impact at 8:47 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


cross_impact: Why are all you folks arguing about religion, besides the fact that the book gives us all sufficient excuse to defend our treasured worldviews?

Because a large chunk of the buzz surrounding this book has attempted to frame it as yet another new atheist polemic when it's apparently just a popular work on the current state of cosmology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:52 AM on September 10, 2010


Yeah, I know. But we mefites are too smart to let the MSM distract us like that, right?
posted by cross_impact at 8:54 AM on September 10, 2010



A person invested in the TAG would say that the orderliness of those structures imply a deity to define that structure.


I'm not disagreeing with you that it could be construed that way, but that person doesn't understand English and their opinion and outlook should be completely ignored. While I'm opposed to misusing language for the sake of a divine or poetic-sounding title for a book about the diametric opposite of poetry and divinity, I am equally opposed to handwringing over deliberate misinterpretations made by some hypothetical radical element to further their idiotic agenda.

The technical term to describe the arrangement of parts or elements of a natural body is "structure." The term "design" is limited to works of art or manufacture. To use the word in an inappropriate context ("The Grand Design" of the universe) is just as bad as torturing the meaning of the word to conform to a pre-existing context ("structure" = orderly creator). Both are deliberate manipulations of the truth to further an ideology or mythology. They are both wrong. Use the term that properly conveys the truth. And then let the idiots argue with the truth. You play language games with the truth and then they are arguing with you, and that's an argument that they might actually win.


On a side note, I had considered the possibility that the title was deliberately chosen by Hawking to lure in soft-creationists ("See, even Hawking thinks there is a God!") and maybe convince them to see the truth. But if he thinks they would continue reading a book about cosmology and particle physics that argues against their deeply held beliefs, then he might actually be more delusional than they are.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:05 AM on September 10, 2010


@KirkJobSluder:

"Found one that was just right out of three choices created by another character whose presence is understood, but not immediately tangible. It's hard to find a more compelling metaphor for Intelligent Design models..."

Bleurgh! I don't like lukewarm Evangelical porridge! ;p

Intelligent design seems to me the exact opposite of the religious attitude exemplified by Chesterton:

"The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one.

The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite.

Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait."

The simplicity and Goldilocks-like "perfection" are superficial. The mystery is in the details.

I totally agree "the non-fiction I read from people skeptical of religion is positively soaked in wonder to the point of becoming florid". I'm only deeply read in the eminently skeptical and studiously agnostic physicist Feynmann (handy because his Lectures on Physics were my undergrad texts and full of slightly-off-topic musings and glimpses into the great man's wonder-filled soul. But if you read the stupefying account of how he lost his wife (sorry I can't remember the exact book reference), there you see the mysterious emergence of the religious fact in man.

The debates with Lorenzo Albacete (priest and Dr. of physics) are perfect for this sort of thing:

With the great Hitch

Bemusing an Evangelical
posted by KMH at 9:14 AM on September 10, 2010


Pastabagel: I'm not disagreeing with you that it could be construed that way, but that person doesn't understand English and their opinion and outlook should be completely ignored.

I'd say the person who doesn't understand English appears to be you. There's a whole bunch of problems in your post.

The first being that it's based on a magical correspondence between words and truth rather than a meaning that is negotiated via pragmatics and conventional use. The fact of the matter is that design-based metaphors are dirt common in the sciences because human-created designs are visible and ubiquitous in a way that scientific principles are not. If I say that atoms are the building-blocks of molecules, only a very naive person would argue that I'm literally talking about angels with levels and mortar stacking atoms.

Likewise, this is a very justified criticism of the new atheists. Religious liberals say, "I believe in God as ___." New atheists have a tendency to respond by saying, "it's unreasonable to believe in a God of the burning Bush," ignoring the fact that the religious liberal already defined what he or she meant by God.

These are not disagreements about truth, it's disagreement about the meaning of arbitrary signs that are created contextually rather than absolutely. You can't even begin to argue about the truth value of Hawking's statements until you understand their meaning, and without the opening chapters of his work, you don't have a clue as to which meaning he's advocating.

The second is positioning the structure of the universe as the diametric opposite of poetry and divinity. This isn't even wrong, and doesn't need to be addressed further.

These are freshman-level failures of sophomoric argumentation. So by your own standards, have a nice day, there's no need to respond further.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:44 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


How very strange the debate here is. I read the Economist review yesterday, and it sounded like it could be a review of just about all the bestselling pop-physics books I've read over the last 15 years or so. Lots of hand-waving instead of evidence, presumably because we are not smart enough to follow the evidence, a weirdly stilted jokey tone, and big promises of new and stunning knowledge that somehow fail to ever quite materialize.

Which is why it's a weird review of this book. All of the criticisms apply to practically everything in the genre of popular science: does the reviewer just not like the genre?

I don't actually doubt that it's not a good book, because I generally don't like the genre and I agree that Hawking both has contempt for metaphysics and isn't very good at it at the same time. But, he got away with enough of that in his first book that it hardly stands as a problem with this one.

I think the whole "Hawking comes out as an atheist" will sell books, but at the same time, the politically motivated kow-towing to crude religionists has permeated U.S. society so that even godless liberals at the New York Times find atheism distasteful.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:51 AM on September 10, 2010


KMH: I totally agree "the non-fiction I read from people skeptical of religion is positively soaked in wonder to the point of becoming florid". I'm only deeply read in the eminently skeptical and studiously agnostic physicist Feynmann (handy because his Lectures on Physics were my undergrad texts and full of slightly-off-topic musings and glimpses into the great man's wonder-filled soul. But if you read the stupefying account of how he lost his wife (sorry I can't remember the exact book reference), there you see the mysterious emergence of the religious fact in man.

Define "religious."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:03 AM on September 10, 2010


Designoid. (As Dennet might put it.)
posted by orthogonality at 10:25 AM on September 10, 2010


Someone needs to write a book called "Against Common Sense" that enumerates all the ways that common sense and intuition lead people astray. I hadn't thought about it before someone mentioned it in this thread, but it does seem that common sense, more than religion, is the enemy of science. (or that religion's objections aren't actually grounded in religion, but in common sense)
posted by empath at 10:32 AM on September 10, 2010


Now, see, here's why I love Metafilter so. Although my education is limited, and I likes me some science as well as some mysticism, I can read a thread about a book that may or may not be beyond my capacity (which is quite down after forming our replacements) and get a much more comprehensable slew of viewpoints from all y'all's well reasoned, mostly respectful, discussion/debates. Hail mefites! sometimes arrogant, pompous, and self important.... but always enteraining and often educational
posted by Redhush at 10:35 AM on September 10, 2010


It strikes me as something of a self-defeating argument because if religion is defined to include wonder and joy and God defined as that which inspires wonder and joy, then Hawking's endorsement of M-Theory is neither anti-religious or anti-theist.

But here, I call foul largely because I think people have the right to define their philosophical and religious leanings on their own terms, and equating love of deep-time cosmology to love of God strikes me as potentially disrespectful of both. But then again, I don't think all the flavors of religion should be equated either.

empath: Someone needs to write a book called "Against Common Sense" that enumerates all the ways that common sense and intuition lead people astray.

That would be an interesting project. I'd have to add the gambler's fallacy in there.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:39 AM on September 10, 2010


Science is the last place you want to go to if you want certainty.

Ideally that would be true. Too bad lots of people try to use it as a certainty club, and that on ridiculously inappropriate metaphysical questions like the existence of God.
posted by shivohum at 11:09 AM on September 10, 2010


Highly interesting 45 minute radio segment from On Point with Tom Ashbrook (npr) discussing Dr. Hawking's new work, genesis of the book, and some elements of the science (the shape and origin of everything) involved, with Leonard Mlodinow as the guest.
Seems like the work is addressing or focusing on the "tuning of the laws of our universe" (seemingly so perfect for us to exist and the laws that make the universe that we 'know'; many used to 'ask' "why?... pro'lly miracles!")

M-Theory, far as I can tell, many universes, each with a variation of the universal laws and constants. We exist in our 'perfect' universe because we exist in our universe.
posted by infinite intimation at 11:11 AM on September 10, 2010


Science is the last place you want to go to if you want certainty.

Ideally that would be true. Too bad lots of people try to use it as a certainty club, and that on ridiculously inappropriate metaphysical questions like the existence of God.


I guess it depends on what you mean by certainty. "Absolute" certainty? No. Certainty within a certain number of decimal places of precision? Yes.
posted by empath at 11:13 AM on September 10, 2010


shivohum: Ideally that would be true. Too bad lots of people try to use it as a certainty club, and that on ridiculously inappropriate metaphysical questions like the existence of God.

As far as I can tell (from the excerpts), Hawking isn't addressing the metaphysical question of the existence of God. He's addressing the question of how to solve the fine-tuning problem of cosmology. And if M-Theory is testable, that's a physical question similar to why some people get struck by lightning bolts.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:19 AM on September 10, 2010


These are freshman-level failures of sophomoric argumentation. So by your own standards, have a nice day, there's no need to respond further.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:44 PM on September 10


Okay, so now we're onto the attacks. I'm sophmoric? You think that Hawking chose the title "The Grand Design" simply because it was an instructive technical metaphor, never mind the fact that the book is released into a public debate about creationism in the sciences masquerading as "Intelligent Design"?

You can't even begin to argue about the truth value of Hawking's statements until you understand their meaning, and without the opening chapters of his work, you don't have a clue as to which meaning he's advocating.

First, the fact that you state "he's advocating" suggests that you agree with me that we are not talking about a book about science, we are talking about a scientist using the authority of science to advocate a personal opinion about something. Secondly, I'm not now nor have I ever argued with the position that he is advocating. I'm not even suggesting that I'm attempting to argue with "the truth value of Hawking's statements." I don't care what he's advocating.

I care that he is advocating something, anything, by using the language of theology and divinity to invest his statements and argument with an authority that they don't otherwise merit.

I'm not talking about the opening chapters of a book. They are not relevant. My point was about the use by physicists of the language of theology. I'm very clearly talking about the title of the book. The title is not an accident or a convenient choice of words. The title is what people are going to see first.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:33 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


A person invested in the TAG would say that the orderliness of those structures imply a deity to define that structure.

No, that would be an evidentiary approach. TAG is a presuppositional apologetic, possibly the most maddening apologetic tactic of them all. The gist of the hardcore version is that by demonstrating any knowledge or reasoning ability, the nontheist thereby gives evidence of the truth of the Christian worldview, which he has borrowed in order to make sense of the world. In other words, if you do not accept God as the axiomatic foundation of all your knowledge and understanding then anything you say is absurd and can be batted aside as irrelevant. Often the dreaded brain-vat will be deployed.

Refuting the argument requires either a sophisticated grasp of epistemology or a boot to the apologist's groin. In neither case are you likely to get through to him but you may get some visceral satisfaction from the latter approach.
posted by fleetmouse at 11:39 AM on September 10, 2010


Likewise, this is a very justified criticism of the new atheists. Religious liberals say, "I believe in God as ___." New atheists have a tendency to respond by saying, "it's unreasonable to believe in a God of the burning Bush," ignoring the fact that the religious liberal already defined what he or she meant by God.

posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:44 PM on September 10


I honestly have never seen this happen. In fact, as an atheist who argues religion quite a lot I always respond to criticisms such as "It's insulting to use terms like 'sky fairy'" or "Well, that isn't the god I believe in" by simply asking the person to precisely define what they mean by god so that I can deal fairly with their definition. The response has almost invariably been either evasion or a "definition" so ambiguous and amorphous it doesn't really define anything at all in a useful sense, and therefore can no more be argued against (or for) than a statement like "I think there's a power out there".

Every atheist I know personally is frustrated by this tactic, and that is possibly why their patience is sometimes tested to the point where they go after the definitions of god they can get a grip on, such as sky fairies and bush arsonists. And let us not forget that those gods demonstrably are still believed in by millions so it isn't like they're straw gods.
posted by Decani at 11:43 AM on September 10, 2010


I care that he is advocating something, anything, by using the language of theology and divinity to invest his statements and argument with an authority that they don't otherwise merit.

Isn't it equally possible that 'the language of theology and divinity' is being used to stir interest among a population which, as you pointed out, is attuned to the phrase? Do you have evidence that Hawking is trying to use the title as a way to pump up his own position over....well, whoever you think he's targeting? I have to say that 'The Grand Design,' when I first saw the title, made me think 'provocative' rather than 'authoritative.'

Frankly, I don't think that most scientists feel any need for the 'authority' of religion - SCIENCE! has plenty of social capital in its own right, even though it is presently under attack on a few narrow if fiercely contested fronts (evolution, global warming, stem cell research).
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:49 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is just playing with words. The basic fundamental underlying question is whatever it is you feel when you look up at the night sky and ask: "what the f* IS all this?" "is this all a dream? if so, who is the dreamer?" "why are we here and why do all these strange things happen?" "where did we come from before birth and where do we go after death?"

posted by shivohum at 4:02 PM on September 10


It isn't just playing with words. It is making the attempt to step outside our own selves, our own nature and our own concerns when considering ultimate reality. Actually, you kinda make my point about how we think the existence of "stuff" is impressive because we are made of stuff.

When we ask a question like "Why are we here?" we need to recognise that we have made an a priori assumption that there even is a "reason" for existence. It's an understandable thing to do, because in our limited human experience, things have explanations and reasons. The mental leap we need to make is to realise that what we are doing when we ask such questions is extrapolating our infinitely limited and localised nature and experience onto a universe that is inconceivably bigger and more mysterious than ourselves. When you think about it this is a sort of absurd yet understandable arrogance. It is the same understandable arrogance that led the ancients to think the earth was flat and the heavenly bodies rotated around it because, well, that's how it looked.... to them. To us. That was their - our - experience. And it wasn't good enough.

Neither is it good enough to simply state that the existence of "something" is more surprising than the absence of something, just because we - as living, breathing, thinking "somethings" - struggle to imagine "nothing". Consider that "nothing" might be a state of affairs at least as surprising as "something" and possibly more so. We've discovered all sorts of fascinating weirdnesses in the fabric of reality, odd "quantum fluctuations" in the void which actually seem to drive "things" into existence, almost as if "nothingness" were an elevated state of tension that demands resolution via the creation of "stuff". This cannot help but reinforce the purely philosophical notion that it is possible that "nothingness" may also have a certain improbability about it.

Studying modern physics demands that we drop this way of thinking. You cannot properly understand relativity or quantum phenomena unless you accept that reality does not work in ways that tally with our general human experience, our "common sense". It makes you understand that we are part of something not only larger and stranger than ourselves but also something very possibly larger and stranger than we can imagine. But we have to make the effort to imagine it if we are to make progress in understanding. I passed my quantum mechanics paper basically by beating myself about the head until I knocked the outraged common sense out of it - at least temporarily. I made myself think in maths and science fiction bizarro worlds. Because that's how the stuff of reality is, when you really get into it. Or at least how it currently appears to be. :-)
posted by Decani at 12:09 PM on September 10, 2010


Okay, so now we're onto the attacks. I'm sophmoric?

No, I've pointed out that your argument is nonsensical and sophmoric. It depends on a stubborn insistence that "design" has only one meaning, a misunderstanding of the relationship between language and truth, and a very stupid claim that certain metaphors of language have no place in the science.

You think that Hawking chose the title "The Grand Design" simply because it was an instructive technical metaphor, never mind the fact that the book is released into a public debate about creationism in the sciences masquerading as "Intelligent Design"?

I don't know why Hawking chose that title. And I suspect neither do you. Usually in this kind of discourse the definitions behind the key terms of the argument are laid out in the opening chapters. We are dependent on the people who have reviewed the work, none of whom seem to consider The Grand Design a new atheist polemic.

It's also worth noting that Hawking isn't a native of our land where public debate about creationism in the sciences isn't quite so heated.

First, the fact that you state "he's advocating" suggests that you agree with me that we are not talking about a book about science, we are talking about a scientist using the authority of science to advocate a personal opinion about something.

Of course not. His advocacy here (if we trust the reviewers) appears to be that M-Theory is a wonderful thing that, if experimentally verified, could solve the cosmological fine-tuning problem. Is he advocating a personal opinion about something? So what! The Declaration of Independence was co-authored by the leading scientific mind of the American colonies. We can read both works and come to our own opinion about whether his conclusions are justified or not.

I care that he is advocating something, anything, by using the language of theology and divinity to invest his statements and argument with an authority that they don't otherwise merit.

He's not using the language of theology or divinity here. There's nothing theological about The MGM Grand Hotel & Casino and nothing divine about the Rhode Island Institute of Design. A Grand Day Out is not a film about a religious retreat, unless you happen to worship cheese.

You are making a claim about his motives, his advocacy, his meaning, and his authority on the basis of a three word title, including "the." That strikes me as both unfair and unreasonable, and your rationalizations are absurd and silly.

I'm not talking about the opening chapters of a book. They are not relevant. My point was about the use by physicists of the language of theology. I'm very clearly talking about the title of the book. The title is not an accident or a convenient choice of words. The title is what people are going to see first.

It's a bad idea to judge a book by its cover. It's an even worse idea to judge a book by its title when you're unwilling to deal with the argument in which the terms of the title are defined.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:45 PM on September 10, 2010


In fact, as an atheist who argues religion quite a lot...

As an atheist, why are you arguing with religious people about God? I mean, god is an axiom. You either believe there is one (or more) or you don't. There's nothing to argue about. Sure you can go around and around for as long as you care to, but it's not possible to decide anything about it by way of argument or debate. There must be a better way to spend your time.
posted by rusty at 12:56 PM on September 10, 2010


Indeed. I'd be surprised if something hadn't popped into existence because what's to stop it?

I'll go you one further: prove to me, scientifically--or hell, even logically--that "Nothing" as a categorical absolute could ever obtain as a categorical state in the first place. The whole issue of "why is there something rather than nothing?" stopped bothering me once I realized the very idea of the possibility of absolute Nothing is logically incoherent and completely unsupported by empirical evidence of any kind. Nothing (with a capital 'N') is a conceptual chimera. Sure, there can be nothings of particular kinds (Q: "What's in the box?" A: "Nothing." where we really only mean "nothing" to denote the absence of anything we're interested in observing), but it doesn't follow rationally from this observation that there could ever be such a condition as "Nothing" abstracted categorically. I've personally come to believe that our most abstract conceptions of "Nothing" represent an unjustifiable over-generalization from experience that has no rational basis.

Interesting discussion. Not sure if Hawkin's claims should really be viewed as all that explosive, for reasons already better described in various comments up-thread, but I agree with the point about Scientists using language like "design" that plays into creationist mythmaking, and I'd also point out that just because a condition (i.e., the existence of God) isn't necessary, doesn't preclude it from obtaining, logically. There's wiggle room for good science and some form of good religion to co-exist, even in the most materialistic accounting of things. That's a good thing.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:08 PM on September 10, 2010


KirkJob,I think its difficult to claim that you can write a book that deals with the origin of the uni/multiverse, choose a title invoking the term "Design" and then claim to be using only Dictionary definition number #3's meaning for that term and pretend it has nothing to do with that word's milieu within the culture. It would require a special kind of obliviousness. This is a man, after all, who has appeared on The Simpsons, Star Trek TNG etc. and is pop cultural icon --on both sides of the pond-- in his own right.

(If this were not intended to be a popular work, but were published in a scientific journal where such jargon has a very particular meaning then I think you would have more of a point.)
posted by MasonDixon at 1:16 PM on September 10, 2010


It's not as if Hawking is the first guy to invoke a design metaphor:

Leonard B. Radinsky, The Evolution of Vertebrate Design

Carroll, Weatherbee, and Grenier, From DNA to Diversity: Molecular Genetics and the Evolution of Animal Design

There was a great book that I can't quite master the google-fu to find that compared and contrasted natural evolved structures with human-designed structures with a section on how leafs fold in the wind.

"... I want to make the case that the engineering perspective on biology is not merely occasionally useful, not merely a valuable option, but the obligatory organizer of all Darwinan thinking, and the primary source of it's power." -Daniel Dennet, Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

MasonDixon: KirkJob,I think its difficult to claim that you can write a book that deals with the origin of the uni/multiverse, choose a title invoking the term "Design" and then claim to be using only Dictionary definition number #3's meaning for that term and pretend it has nothing to do with that word's milieu within the culture. It would require a special kind of obliviousness.

Pastbagel is making extreme and inflammatory accusations about Hawking based on a connotation of a single word in the title. It's a word that appears about a half-dozen different times on my resume. If Hawking is setting himself up as an authority figure to dismiss metaphysical questions about god, get a copy of the book and support those accusations with stronger evidence.

But to answer your questions, design metaphors are sometimes useful for dealing with complex and abstract concepts, and some of us non-theists feel we have a right to mythopoesis on our own terms.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:05 PM on September 10, 2010


On the question of whether or not science and common sense are in tension: I think how you view this question depends a great deal on your own personal understanding of the meaning of "common sense."

The term, to my mind, has at least two distinct usages. The first is roughly synonymous with "conventional wisdom" and this is the sense of the phrase "common sense" that most often conflicts or exists in tension with scientific understanding.

But the second sense of "common sense" describes not so much a special category of received wisdom, but a particular complex of intellectual faculties. This second sense in which we use the term "common sense" describes the ability to make discriminating and coordinated use of three interrelated cognitive faculties: Intuition, inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. So common sense, in this secondary sense, means having the ability to judiciously synthesize and apply the techniques of empirical observation, intuition and discursive reasoning.

In this latter sense of the term, science has everything in the world to do with common sense. It's just that scientists look a lot more closely and make much more fine grained distinctions in their applications of the faculties that connect in what we call "common sense," and the result can sometimes be findings that seem to contradict cruder, lay applications of those faculties.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:08 PM on September 10, 2010


saulgoodman: Yes, I'm familiar with that line of reasoning. The problem is that unless you're systematically following a process, your intuition, inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning are going to be biased by both learned prejudices and inborn kinks in our cognitive process. Some people can rigorously train themselves out of common fallacies, and magicians operate by manipulating them. But as a general practice, "common sense" is hopelessly biased and error-prone.

It's a deep problem that I'm not certain that philosophy has significantly dealt with to any degree of satisfaction. Far too much theory rides on the assumption that humans are rational agents rather than rationalizing animals.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:24 PM on September 10, 2010


As an atheist, why are you arguing with religious people about God?
posted by rusty at 8:56 PM on September 10


Because I believe that belief in God and the religions associated with that belief are hugely damaging to humanity and to human progress and well-being. I feel moved to resist that.
posted by Decani at 7:11 PM on September 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


As an atheist, why are you arguing with religious people about God?

I find that arguing with people about interesting stuff is a good way to better understand the world.
posted by empath at 12:22 PM on September 12, 2010


rusty: As an atheist, why are you arguing with religious people about God?

It's my observation that very few of these arguments are really about god, instead they're about values that are claimed to be the exclusive domain of religion that atheists either cannot or dare not emulate, in this discussion, those values seem to be wonder, poetry, and the use of the word "design."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:46 PM on September 12, 2010


It's my observation that very few of these arguments are really about god, instead they're about values that are claimed to be the exclusive domain of religion that atheists either cannot or dare not emulate, in this discussion, those values seem to be wonder, poetry, and the use of the word "design."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:46 PM on September 12


I'm sorry, this is just so wrong it hurts. Are you really suggesting that atheists do not enjoy wonder and poetry and design? Are you really suggesting that? Do you think, perhaps, that Shelley did not enjoy poetry? That Feynmann did not enjoy wonder? That Linus Torvalds doesn't appreciate design?

Come on. If you want to attack atheists, do it on the relevant ground: does God exist or not?
posted by Decani at 3:28 PM on September 15, 2010


Decani: I'm sorry, this is just so wrong it hurts. Are you really suggesting that atheists do not enjoy wonder and poetry and design? Are you really suggesting that? Do you think, perhaps, that Shelley did not enjoy poetry? That Feynmann did not enjoy wonder? That Linus Torvalds doesn't appreciate design?

You're barking up the wrong tree here. I thought my little bit of sarcasm was a bit more clear, but evidently it wasn't.

I rarely argue with theists (or with self-professed agnostics for that matter) about god, because they rarey want to argue about god either(*). Instead, they tend to argue that either I'm lacking in some critical virtues and joys because I'm an atheist, or that my appreciation for that good life involves appropriating something that's the proper domain of religious life.

In this case, Pastabagel's outrage isn't that Hawking decided that god isn't necessary, but that Hawking used poetry and metaphor in naming his book. My point, as stated clearly up-thread is we atheists have as much right to use the language of wonder as theists. If I want to write joyful poetry about deep time or the Higgs, I'm entitled to do so.

(*) Ultimately I think argumentation is unlikely to change religious sensibilities. My best argument is that I live the good life without religion. So I'm considerably less interested in playing the Calvinball of theology than to make the case that, yes, I really do love my mother.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:33 PM on September 15, 2010


Whoops, this post.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:54 PM on September 15, 2010


Or for a classic case example, Pope Benedict's speech declaring that atheists will destroy what's good about modern culture.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:05 PM on September 16, 2010


You either believe there is one (or more) or you don't. There's nothing to argue about.

Perhaps if you're a dualist.
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 4:14 AM on September 18, 2010


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