When you set out to write a popular science book, as Stephen Hawking had presumably done in the recent "The Grand Design" (coauthored with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow), you generally should discuss... well... science.
When you've already made the statement "philosophy is dead" in the first two paragraphs of the book, you're not doing yourself any favors.
When on the first page you introduce the ancient Greek/early Church version of science as "the traditional conception of the universe," I'm bound to start losing my patience.
When you spend the next 80 pages bashing Aristotle for not knowing the scientific method (it hadn't been invented yet) and Newton for being a deist (a lot of science wouldn't have been done had the scientists themselves not believed in a God who set the laws of the universe in motion that we might even be able to measure them), dismissing myths and fables as feeble, uncivilized attempts at pseudo-scientific explanation (everyone knows fairytales are meant to teach, not to explain), and extolling the idea that "free will" is only a result of our inability to do the complicated calculations necessary* (sorry, guys, but scientific determinism went out the window with quantum mechanics), then you're lucky I have enough tenacity to finish reading.
This is, I'm afraid, the bane of modern science. Scientists don't talk about science anymore. Hundreds of people would pack lecture halls to listen to Feynman talk about QED, but now we brush him off with a mention of that crazy "Dick" Feynman and his psychadelic Feynman-diagram covered VW bus. We instead choose, like Dawkins and the rest, to use the grand name of Science to bludgeon honest philosophic inquiry. The point of science, the beating heart of science, is not to ridicule people into agreeing with atheism! The point of science is to discover truth, and they're mainly "local" truths, and they're often only empirical parameterizations of that truth. But we don't like to talk about science, apparently. We'd rather talk about why God can't be an old white guy in a robe.
With every new "science" book I read, I find we drift farther and farther away from what we should be doing: talking about science. I want people to know how fascinating science can be, how interesting, how wonderful, how beautiful. I want to show them how we can work things out, how sometimes nature seems simple and elegant and sometimes filthy and complicated, how we can use science not only to increase our knowledge but to better our lives. I want to make scientists. But the "ivory tower" zeitgeist seems to want to make minions to science instead.
The authors finally did get around to talking about science (in their case, M-theory and the idea of an infinite number of "histories" for the universe), and when they did, it was engaging, interesting, and fun to read. But they lost it all again in the last chapter, revisiting their earlier derisions, neglecting all else. The "grand design" will be found in M-theory, they state. "Spontaneous creation" is why the universe exists, and why we don't need a god to get it started for us. But how is their "spontaneous creation" any different, in the end, from a religious "spontaneous creation"? "Because it had to" and "Because God did it" are really the same thing.
"It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.... [I]t also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations.... Because it is so impractical to use the underlying physical laws to predict human behavior, we adopt what is called an effective theory.... In the case of people... we use the effective theory that people have free will."
Quantum mechanics indicates that while we can predict the most probable outcome of any given set of initial conditions, we can't know exactly which outcome will happen. The authors even discuss this point later in the text. So even if we could do all of the trillions of calculations necessary to "predict" someone's behavior, we still couldn't know it exactly - we could only know the probabilities that they would do one thing over another. And that's not the same as determinism. So their argument that free will is an illusion... is an illusion.
5 days ago