Hawking vs. God

The November 2010 issue of Scientific American is now out, with my brief article on the controversy surrounding Stephen Hawking’s new book with Leonard Mlodinow.

The book stated that it’s possible to answer questions such as why the laws of physics are what they are and how the universe arose from nothingness “purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings.”

Those statements, which were not at all central to the book (which contained statements that we at SciAm expected to be much more controversial) were seen as denying the existence of God, and created a storm of controversy. The whole story was especially curious to us because we published an adaptation of the book in our October issue (The Elusive Theory of Everything).

In the article I quote an interview Hawking gave to Larry King on CNN and Marcelo Gleiser’s NPR blog, as well as my own interviews with Mlodinow, Leonard Susskind, and the theologist Robert E. Barron.

For this story I had also interviewed Deepak Chopra (who reviewed Hawking and Mlodinow’s book in the Huffington Post and debated Mlodinow on Larry King), but sadly that paragraph got cut out because of space limitations.

Chopra told me that he shared Hawking’s disbelief in the type of anthropomorphic God that dispenses miracles–a God that he says has been “killed” multiple times in the history of science, not by Nietsche but by the likes of Laplace, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins. (“How many times can you kill God?” he said.) But according to Chopra the Hawking and Mlodinow’s materialism and excessive reliance on determinism leaves no space for phenomena such as free will, the existence of which they dismiss too “cavalierly.”

Incidentally, I loved the book (despite some substantial flaws such as a complete lack of bibliographical references or of mentions of the work of many important physicists). I found it to have some of the clearest explanations of fundamental physics I’ve seen anywhere, especially of the quest for a grand unified theory of the fundamental forces.

What I found shocking in the book is that the authors essentially say that, after decades of search for a theory of everything, it is time for physicists to give up (although they disputed that characterization).

What happened is that in their quest to unify all the laws of Nature, physicists have discovered many different possible theories–among them, several different versions of string theory–that each apply in a limited range of situations.

That could be as good as it gets, according to Hawking. Physicists hope to find one all-encompassing theory, called M-theory, that would subsume all those string theories and constitute the final theory of everything. But Hawking seems to believe that there cannot be a way to write down such a single theory, and that we have to content ourselves with a “network” of string theories.

The book also is one of the places where one can read about Hawking’s own fascinating but arcane vision of “top-down cosmology,” something I wrote about years ago in Physics News Update.

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