Philosophy is dead, asserts Stephen Hawking in new book


Book Review

By Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

"The Grand Design"

Bantam Books, N.Y., 2010, hardcover 208 pp., $28 (often discounted)

(also available in audio and electronic display formats)

Down through the ages philosophers have asked, and have tried to answer, some pretty important questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Is their an objective reality? Where does all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?

Stephen Hawking, one of the world's best known physicists and a great thinker-in-general, has written, after almost a ten year hiatus, a short new book that gives some surprising new answers to these and other ultimate questions of life.

He and Leonard Mlodinow, his co-author, say that, in today's world, what was once the realm of philosophy is now the task of science. Philosophy is dead, they assert, because it has not kept up with developments in modern science, particularly physics. As a result, says Hawking, scientists have become the bearers of the torch in our quest for knowledge.

What he actually argues for is removal of the barriers that have stood so long between the fields of science and philosophy. His admiration of modern physics has to do with its ability to answer not just "how" questions but also "why" questions.

The wonderful thing about "The Grand Design" is that, in just under 181 pages, the authors, relying on science, give some credible answers to many of the so-called "great questions of life." Have you ever read a concise, scientific explanation of how and why you can't create a planet or a black hole out of nothing, while reading the how and why of creating an entire universe out of nothing?

Have you ever read a scientific explanation of why you exist?

Well, in this book you will!

Hawking and his co-author say a scientist must go much further than telling us when the universe began. The scientist must tell us how it began and why both the universe and we are here. The scientist must tell us why there is something rather than nothing.

Biologists have long told us that the laws of nature are so finely tuned that they allow for the existence of beings like ourselves but they don't tell us why there are such laws. With science as their candle in the dark, Hawking and Mlodinow tackle this "why" question head-on. And they do it in simple, non-technical language.

I'm not going to give away the whole book but I do want to give a few more teasers - ones that made it tough to put this book down, even for the required mental absorption breaks.

You will read in the 181 pages that, according to quantum theory, the cosmos do not have a single existence or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. And, to bend the mind even a little more, you will read that, in quantum theory, even mere observation of phenomena changes that phenomena.

When applied to the universe as a whole, this idea calls into question the very notion of cause and effect.

If the past takes no definite form and we create history by observing it, rather than history creating us - what does that all mean? The authors argue that we ourselves are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe, and they show how quantum theory predicts the reality of the "multiverse," meaning ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature.

If this isn't enough to either blow your mind or tempt you into reading this book try resisting this: Basic to the whole book is a section that challenges the conventional concept of reality, replacing it with a "model-dependent" theory of reality that the authors describe as "the best we can hope to find."

And for a last teaser: Included in the book is Hawking's assessment of M-theory, which he describes as the only viable candidate for a complete "theory of everything." If confirmed, the authors say, it will be the unified theory that Einstein and everyone since him have been looking for - the penultimate triumph of human reason.

A lot of readers will be uncomfortable with a lot of what is in this book. The material in the volume at the very least challenges common understandings and, for some, will threaten long-held and sometimes cherished belief systems.

But then again, down through the ages, hasn't that always been the case whenever a new, good science book came out?



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  • TORTOISE (Hinduism) and DRAGON (Taoism) are symbols for ENERGY or WAVE, both are analog with MAGEN DAVID (Judaism). "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is the metaphor, also Thawaf seven times circling around the Ka'ba and Sa’i oscillating along “the sinus” Marwah-Shafa during rituals of the Hajj (Abraham).
    "A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME - From the Big Bang to Black Hole" by Stephen W. Hawking is the best scientific interpretation of AL QUR'AN by a non believer. It is also a “genuine bridge stone” for comprehensive study of Theology. Surprise, this paradox is a miracle and blessing in disguise as well. So, it should be very wise and challenging for Moslem scholars to verify my discovery.
    NeoSUFI visionary strategic thinking.

    Posted by Tato Sugiarto, 08/24/2011 5:09am (4 years ago)

  • I believe philosophy in the traditional sense is dead not because it can't keep up with evolving times but because the common person either does not know the names of any philosopher other then Socrates and only because of their grade school introduction. When the words and meanings fall upon deaf ears what then is the point? Many people don't read or explore new knowledge of their own volition.

    If you've read Voltaire's Candide I'm proud of you. Please encourage others and your children to at least investigate the great philsophic writers and thinkers, I think you'll find great insight and perception.

    Posted by PhilDied, 04/20/2011 11:56am (4 years ago)

  • Why the "penultimate triumph of human reason"? What comes next? What would the "ultimate triumph" be?

    Posted by Joe, 04/10/2011 9:20pm (4 years ago)

  • M-theory, a collection of theories, which might fit like perfect puzzle piezes, that might have an answer or "theory of everything".

    Like a Genius, Stephen Hawking has unified the world´s knowledge and perceptions making an attempt to answer ancient, and present questions in humanity.

    I have listen to this audiobook several times, actually the audiobook has an excellent voice to listen to before going to bed.

    I don´t compete with Stephen Hawking, only his observations are so clarifying and simple that makes me think I could do something similar to him. If I had the will.

    What would Stephen H. say about will ?

    Is Will dead too?

    Posted by Daniel R. , 01/11/2011 12:55pm (5 years ago)

  • Metaphysics was always just unfounded speculation. Epistemology, ethics, theory of mind, philosophy of language are better addressed in cognitive psych than philosophy. Logic... mathematics. Philosophy of science... you might need to remind scientists that it even exists.

    So what do you have left? History and religion...

    Philosophy died in the mid 1800s when we started identifying functional areas of the brain.

    Posted by AdamWho, 01/02/2011 3:03pm (5 years ago)

  • Perhaps the author is just spoofing up about the question of death, as with six overkill already in position if a full exchange was to take place, neither science nor philosophy would do other than show death.

    Posted by jon, 10/06/2010 12:18am (5 years ago)

  • I think, Hawking also said that free will doesn't exist. This book will be unlikely to end the debate on what philosophy is and how the universe began.

    Posted by Sean Mulligan, 09/19/2010 11:08pm (5 years ago)

  • Jim makes a good point with that Lenin quote. I read the Hawking book and don't really know what his level of consciousness is about the class struggle or the fight to mitigate the horrible effects of capitalism on the vast majority or the fight to replace it with socialism.
    I don't see anything in the book, though, that calls into question the science of Marxism, which gives us a theory and numerous models of reality that have been proven correct time and time again - very largely because they explain what is going on and predict what we can expect to see. In short, Marxist theories meet the description Hawking gives of what a scientific theory is supposed to look like. And, more than that, they give us a guide useful for the necessary task of changing things for the better.
    Marxists and all other serious scientists welcome new discoveries. Newtonian laws of gravity, we eventually learned, don't apply on an atomic or sub-atomic level.
    It was always the ruling classes who resisted the advances of science - they were the ones who burned a hell of a lot of scientists and a hell of a lot of others at countless stakes. The real forces for progress, on the other hand, welcome any new light that science sheds on our world.
    What I found interesting was Hawking's assertion that the "new" model-dependent reality he advocates recognizes that just by observing reality we actually change it. A lot of people are reacting to this by saying it is a really "heavy," "intense" assertion.
    As a long-time communist, I couldn't help but think Hawking was sounding a lot like a Marxist.
    And Chester, as big a fan of Hawking as I am, I agree that it wouldn't hurt if he would apply more of his genius to the question of how we get rid of imperialism. The advancement of everything, including science itself, hangs in the balance!

    Posted by Jack P., 09/18/2010 1:31pm (5 years ago)

  • Does Hawking explain how we get rid of imperialism?

    Posted by Chester Steorra, 09/17/2010 9:31pm (5 years ago)

  • "One expression of the genius of Marx and Engels was that they despised pedantic playing with new words, erudite terms, and simple 'isms', and said simply and plainly: there is a materialist line and an idealist line in philosophy, and between them there are various shades of agnosticism." --V.I. Lenin

    Does Hawking just declare that idealism is over and done?
    Or is it difficult to tell which side of the fence he's taking?

    Posted by Jim Lane, 09/17/2010 5:48pm (5 years ago)

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