The Grand Design

This book has already caused a stir. You might have seen the front-page banner headline in the Times: "Hawking: God did not create the universe". The article went on: "Did the universe need a creator? The answer given by Britain's most eminent scientist is a resounding no." So, what was the fuss about?

The Grand Design consists of a potted history of science from the earliest times to the present. To accomplish such a broad sweep in barely
200 pages is a tall order. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, Stephen Hawking, with the assistance of Leonard Mlodinow, works his way in an engaging and leisurely manner through to the emergence, in the 17th century, of the idea that everything that happens in nature is governed by laws of nature. From then on, the treatment becomes patchy, examples of excellent exposition interspersed with passages where the ideas and technical terms come so thick and fast, one wonders what target audience they had in mind.

The culmination of this lightning tour is M-theory. M-theory is based on the notion that the fundamental constituents out of which everything is made are not point-like particles, as previously assumed, but tiny, vibrating strings. Unfortunately, these strings are expected to be so small that we shall never be able to see them and hence verify that they are indeed strings. They are required to vibrate in ten spatial dimensions, seven of which are curled up too small to be seen. M-theory is believed to be a physical law capable of spontaneously producing, out of nothing, not only this universe, but a large number of other universes - universes we will never be able to see. What does M-theory look like when written down? No one knows; it has yet to be formulated. It is just a gleam in the eye. And yet Hawking hails it as "a candidate for the ultimate theory of everything . . . the only candidate".

It is not difficult to understand why the book has caused controversy. On the very first page he declares that "philosophy is dead". Curious, seeing how the book is permeated throughout with philosophy. For example, Hawking claims: "Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." The assertion that scientists will be able to explain everything and there is no need for other kinds of thinking is itself an expression of the philosophical position known as "scientism". His description of scientific theories as mathematical models of reality is an understanding we owe to professional philosophers of science. And his bald statement that we are "no more than biological machines and free will is just an illusion" is merely a reiteration of one particular stance taken up in the debate about free will and determinism.

Hawking then turns his fire on theology. He claims that the universe arises out of the operation of M-theory, hence there is no need for God. He reached a similar conclusion about God in his earlier book A Brief History of Time. There he pointed out that there was no time before the Big Bang, and therefore there could have been no pre-existent cause of the Big Bang. This led to his rhetorical question: "What place then for a creator?" It certainly gets rid of a god who has always existed, and who at some point in time decides to light the blue touchpaper and bring the world into being. But this is just an Aunt Sally. What serious-minded theologian holds such a view of God?

As far back as the 5th century, St Augustine saw that time was a property of the universe and would therefore need to have been created along with the rest of the universe. In effect, Hawking is muddling two words: "origins" and "creation". Though these might be used interchangeably in everyday conversation, in theology they assume distinctive meanings. "Origins" is about how things get started - the Big Bang - but that is of little interest to a theologian. The creation question is quite different: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

In The Grand Design, the authors claim they have taken this objection on board and addressed that question: the answer is M-theory. Hawking and Mlodinow have done nothing of the sort; they have merely given a somewhat different account of how the universe originated. That leaves unanswered the question of where M-theory is supposed to have come from. M-theory is a physical law - an intelligible physical law. Might it not have required an Intelligence to set it up in the first place?

Hawking claims that invoking God as creator simply raises the question of who created God. This statement is based on what philosophers call "a category mistake". God is not an existent object like a universe. God is the source of existence, or, in the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, the "Ground of All Being".

The last sentence of the book finishes with the phrase "we will have found the grand design". According to my dictionary, a design is something that is planned and has a purpose; it requires a designer. That would seem to imply that God is alive and well, and still in charge. But that hardly makes for an eye-catching newspaper headline.

Russell Stannard is emeritus professor of physics at the Open University. His book "The End of Discovery" is published by Oxford University Press (£14.99)

The Grand Design
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
Bantam Press, 208pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit