A site of endless curiosity

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow – A few comments part 1

with 2 comments

The local public library in my area is pretty good.  They have a new books shelf and generally have just about every new book on the New York Times best seller list within weeks. 

A couple of weeks ago I saw The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow on the new books shelf.  No one had snatched it so far.  So, I checked it out to take a read.

When this book was released, there was a singular item in the news about this book.  The news item did not focus on the physics of the book but that the book denied that God had anything to do with the creation of the Universe. 

Let me be clear about this.  Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow do not deny that God exists – they just want to say that God was not necessary for the creation of the Universe.  It goes a little beyond this.  The authors want to make the point that it’s not just their opinion that God was not necessary for the creation of the Universe but that this assertion is a product of a series of discoveries by modern physics.

The Mystery of Being and the Rule of Law

The really great thing about this book is not the (superficial) history that you can find in this book or the (superficial) physics that you can find in this book but, for the average reader, how it sets the stage for readers to appreciate the larger issue of the sociology of knowledge and the concept of paradigm shifts over time.

The sociology of knowledge is part of a philosophy of science. The philosophy of science deals with the philosophical foundations of science and part of this is the sociology of knowledge.  One of the foundational works in this discipline was written by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Briefly, as applied to The Grand Design, the first three chapters:  The Mystery of Being, The Rule of Law, and What is Reality,  lays out (or at least demonstrates by a historical narrative), in a scant  59  pages the central challenges of the sociology of knowledge, the philosophy of science, and Thomas Kuhn’s concept of Paradigm Shifts .  It does this  by taking you though the history (briefly) from the Greeks (Thales of Mileta ca. 624 BC – 546 BC) to the rise of modern physics in the 1920’s.  It’s a journey of paradigm shifts among science and religion set in historical context.

In short, every culture, every generation,  and every society sets out the questions that can be asked and those questions that can’t be asked.  It goes deeper than this.  It’s not that this or that question can not be asked or spoken about (as in a heresy)  – it’s that certain questions are incapable of being thought. 

The paradigm (sociology of knowledge) in which one lives sets constraints on enquiry and discovery.  Does a fish know it’s wet?  The answer is no.  A fish does not know it’s wet because the environment in which it lives does not know not-wet.  The same is true of paradigms that people live in.  The paradigms constrain what can be thought.  There is  no outside-the-paradigm for fish and no outside-the-paradigm for those humans (in society; in culture) that live in one.

What is Reality

I need to state again that this is a very light (superficial) book.  If you have any background in high-school or college physics and/or the history of science you are going to read this book as cliff notes to cliff notes.  But, the value of its brevity is that it gets to the point on a number of critical areas of the paradigms of science and religion very quickly.  This book is a nice quick introduction to the problem of Reality and again the sociology of knowledge plus philosophical underpinnings of epistemology – what is knowledge, how do we know, and how do we know that we know.

The authors, Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, subscribe to the idea of “Model-dependent Realism”.  The question of “What is Reality” was taken up by the western philosophical tradition by the likes of John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant.  In Kant’s “The Critique of Pure Reason” one of the question addressed is, “What is the thing in itself” apart from the limitations of my perception?  What is Reality, really?  And can I know it given my sense perception?  (The authors use the example of a fish living  in a curved fish bowl.  What moves in a straight line in the world outside the fish bowl appears as a curved path to the fish because the distortion of the curved glass of the bowl.  The fish could come up with a model that explains and predicts the curved path of the movement of the objects.  So from the perspective of the fish, this is the Reality of how objects move – along a curved path.  To us, outside the fish bowl, objects move in a straight line.  Who is correct about Reality?  Now apply the same to our human view of the world.  Do our perceptions distort “Reality” in the same way that “Reality” is distorted when a fish watches an object move in a curved path while we see the same object move in a straight line?

What is Reality … Forget about it…

Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow have an answer – “Forget about it”.  You can’t know Reality.  The best you can do is build models.  The entities in those models are useful fictions.  For the authors, a good model is: 1) Elegant 2) Contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements 3) Agrees with and explains all existing observations 4) Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.  It is a NOT a requirement that there is a one-to-one on-to mapping of things in the model to things in Reality.

So, is light a wave or a particle?  In some cases it behaves as a wave; in some cases it behaves as a particle.  So what is it really?  Our models can only be built on what we can conceive and most of this comes from common experience of the macroscopic world.  What is light really, the “thing in itself” as Kant might as ask?  We don’t know.  But we do have a model that can explain observations, make new predictions, and is falsifiable.  Good enough for Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow.

Grand Unified Theory – the theory of everything

Is there a Grand Unified Theory – the theory of everything?  Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow say yes and no.  No in the sense that there is not one model that explains everything.  And, Yes, by using M-Theory which could be the theory of everything but which is made up of multiple models that overlap in some places and don’t overlap in other places.

The Take

The take for this first set of comments is this.  The book is a lightweight.  But, it’s brevity might hook you into reading more substantial books.  It is clear and to the point about the paradigms of religion and science and how these two paradigms know the world and how they differed in historical context and how they differ now in the 21’st century.  The authors are crystal clear on their opinion and set themselves up as a proxy for modern physics saying that:

  1. God was not needed for the creation of the Universe
  2. Miracles do not happen and there is no active role for God
  3. Man has no free will.  Free will is an illusion.

A big Plus-Plus to Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow on having the courage to have a clearly articulated point of view – whether right or wrong.  At least they put a stake in the ground for themselves and mainstream physics.  Want to know how they arrived at this profundity?  Read the book and judge for yourself.  The book is an easy read.  You should be able to read it cover to cover in four hours – that’s the duration of the unabridged audio version of the book

Stay tuned to this site for Part II on The Grand Design by Hawking and Mlodinow


A great introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge
The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion by Peter Berger

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

Written by frrl

November 8, 2010 at 10:33 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Waiting for The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow – A few comments part 2

    Where’s Part 2 ????

    Ah, Part 1 is easy to comprehend–but what about the rest of the book ??? Care to weigh in ???

    Nina Forrest

    March 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    • Part II will be coming. You want it harder to comprehend than Part 1 🙂

      This is a pretty simplistic book. Reviews of more sophisticated books on this subject are on the way.


      March 28, 2011 at 3:09 am

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