Books: Reality re-considered

A review of “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.

By Clay Fulghum
Special to the Rappahannock News

Physicist Stephen Hawking by his own account is best known for his appearances on “The Simpsons” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But the retired Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge – a post once held by Isaac Newton – has achieved stardom in scientific circles through his groundbreaking work in cosmology, especially on black holes, those regions of space with such intense gravitation that even light cannot escape from them.

Though nearly completely paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) and unable to speak, he has written several best sellers using a speech synthesizer to create his text. One of his books, “A Brief History of Time,” has sold more than nine million copies – not bad for a book on theoretical physics.

And he’s at it again. Hawking’s latest tour de force, called “The Grand Design” and written with physicist Leonard Mlodinow, topped The New York Times’ best-seller list when it debuted last year. That is a remarkable fact since the book has the potential to offend just about everybody. If readers take its teasing title at face value, they might expect to find favorable references to God, the Designer of it all. But they will be disappointed. In place of God, Hawking and Mlodinow proffer a complex mathematical entity dubbed M-theory, whose workings, they maintain, may eventually explain the ultimate source of everything. No confirmation for believers here.

On the other hand, those with a scientific bent, anticipating a brilliant exposition of how the power of science can reduce the mysteries of the universe to understandable terms, may also come away empty handed – as the authors actually go in the opposite direction. Hawking and Mlodinow contend that objective reality does not exist. According to them, what we think we see – our uniquely beautiful world, ticking along under the direction of the orderly laws of nature – is merely a model constructed by our minds using data provided by our senses and our instruments. The true nature of what exists, apart from our various modes of observing and experiencing, cannot be known.

And by the way, our universe is one of countless others, they say, each perhaps with different copies of ourselves living out different lives. So much for reduction to simplest terms.

That’s just for starters, as what all this comes to is nothing less than the demolition of the foundational principle of western science – that hypotheses should be testable. After all, no experiment can be devised to check for the existence of other universes, much less whether doppelgangers of ourselves are populating them.

Religion and “intelligent design” may take some hits in this new book, but old-fashioned science does, as well. The reason is that Hawking and Mlodinow have been inspired by quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that describes the behavior of matter and energy on the microscopic scale. And quantum mechanics is revolutionary – weirdly so – by all accounts. It suggests, for example, that our universe has no single history but all possible histories, and these histories can be determined even after the fact. In other words, the present can influence the past. In the physics of the microscopic world – which composes the macroscopic world – the arrow of time can go in both directions. As Hawking says, “It sounds like science fiction but it’s not.”

To date, quantum mechanics is the most successful theory in the history of science, giving rise to lasers, transistors, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, and the whole electronics industry. Why we don’t see its peculiar effects in our quotidian lives of automobiles and shopping malls is a matter still under discussion.

Physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said of his field: “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.” Maybe they don’t, but that hasn’t stopped it from giving our authors plenty of ammunition to use against “naive scientific realism.”

Physicist Stephen HawkingCourtesy photo
Physicist Stephen Hawking

Anti-realism is not new, of course. It’s just that it has never been adopted by science until now. Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant stated that “things-in-themselves” are unavailable to us. Our minds, supplied with sensory data, impose order onto the external world, conditioning it and modifying it. “(M)ental concepts are the only reality we can know,” says Stephen Hawking. It could just as well have been said by Kant.

Arch realist Steven Weinberg, one of the prime movers in the history of quantum mechanics and also a Nobel Prize winner, is no fan of Kant (or any other philosopher). And he has protested, in the pages of the “New York Review of Books,” the anti-realist stance put forth in “The Grand Design.” He believes “there is something real out there, entirely independent of us and our models.” But, he says, he has no good counter arguments to present against anti-realism. He is not in a position, he says, to argue that Hawking and Mlodinow are wrong. This is not exactly a spirited defense of the objective world.  

Perhaps, then, model-dependent reality will prove to be the only game in town. And since it has now been endorsed by some big names in physics, people who actually pay attention to the findings of science might start to worry. If what exists is just a mental construct, what’s left to depend on? Is there no ground under our feet any more?

There are other controversial and counterintuitive theories in contemporary physics. What will happen when these, as well, take root in the popular consciousness? How might our personal philosophies and our spiritual lives be changed?

We are likely to find this out in coming years, as science is fast leading us away from the certainties of the past. Thanks to Hawking and Mlodinow for giving us a heads up that a dramatic new paradigm shift is well underway.

Clay Fulghum is a former newspaper reporter and editor. A Rappahannock resident, she is a member of the Blue Ridge Muse group for artists and writers in all genres, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalists of the Blue Ridge.

It is not necessary to be a member of the UUBridge congregation to join this group. For further information about Blue Ridge Muse, call Clay at 540-987-3105 (or clay.fulghum@gmail.com) or Emery Lazar at 540-937-1789 (emerylazar@gmail.com).

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