Stephen Hawking – The Grand Design (review)

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 27, 2010 in Reviews,Science

If you read only the news stories on Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design, you might be forgiven for thinking it focuses on the claim that

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

But this claim is only discussed in two chapters. Nor is it a new claim. Hawking’s atheism, and his (not so rare) belief that recent physics shows the universe can create itself from “nothing,” have been known for over a decade.

Moreover, the book does not even argue that the universe created itself from nothing, as nothing is usually conceived. Instead, Hawking argues that the universe will create itself from the pre-existing vacuum energy of “empty space,” which, is not really empty. Some physicists might idiosyncratically call that “nothing,” but philosophers and ordinary people certainly would not. Moreover, on Hawking’s model, this quantum vacuum energy is only known to exist after time 0 (the “beginning” of the universe). So if you’re looking for an explanation of how the universe could create itself from nothing, you won’t find even an attempt at the answer in Hawking’s book.

Another much quoted sentence from the book is:

Philosophy is dead.

One will thus be surprised to read the book and discover that it is about 40% philosophy. Hawking summarizes the history of philosophical thought about mind and epistemology. He discusses positions in philosophy of science such as realism and anti-realism, and spends several chapters laying out a new-ish philosophical position on the nature of science called “model-dependent realism.”

Eventually, this comes to a discussion of M theory, which is touted as the best candidate for a “theory of everything,” and as a theory which says the universe can create itself from the quantum soup.

But most physicists describe this section as far too bold. M Theory is barely even testable yet, let alone confirmed above and beyond its competitors.

Thus, the book doesn’t provide a convincing defense of its central theory (M Theory), nor does it even discuss how the universe could create itself from literally nothing.

Instead, Hawking’s book is another enjoyable romp through modern physics, and one to be read as some people’s interpretation of very fuzzy and inadequate data, rather than as “a brilliant physicist with an answer.” For my money, the best section is the one on Conway’s Game of Life, which is superb.

In this way, my reaction to The Grand Design was the same as my reaction to Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. If you expect the book to make the argument it was advertised as making, you will be disappointed. But it’s still an enjoyable dive into some of the latest theories and arguments in its subject.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher October 27, 2010 at 5:49 am

What competing theories? I am not a physicist, but the way it seems is that m-theory is pretty much it as far as TOE’s go.

I understand your point and you make it well Luke. This book, like ABHT, is supposed to introduce you to some concepts in physics, which is enough to get you interested. Then you can peruse them further if you want to.

Also, (I could be wrong, but) I think that many physicists would say that a classic conception of nothing is like its classical concept of time: naive and wrong. M-theory predicts a “landscape of nothing”, which is discussed in Leonard Susskind’s book The Cosmic Landscape.


Luke Barnes October 27, 2010 at 6:01 am

I love the Conway’s Game of Life …

Does Hawking actually say that M-theory is “empirically justified”? That would be a huge surprise. M-theory is a perfect example of a theory that has absolutely no empirical justification. Even its supporters point to its mathematical beauty as its main selling point. I’ve just finished reading “Road to Reality” by Penrose, who is less than impressed by M theory.

For Bill: the classical conception of the *vacuum* (i.e. empty space) is very different to the quantum conception of the vacuum. Neither is equivalent to what should rightfully be called “nothing”. M-theory predicts (perhaps) a landscape of vacuum states, but these are certainly “somethings”, as they have properties. Here’s a good quote from Martin Rees:

Cosmologists sometimes claim that the universe can arise ‘from nothing’. But they should watch their language, especially when addressing philosophers. We’ve realised ever since Einstein that empty space can have a structure such that it can be warped and distorted. Even if shrunk down to a ‘point’, it is latent with particles and forces – still a far richer construct than the philosopher’s ‘nothing’. Theorists may, some day, be able to write down fundamental equations governing physical reality. But physics can never explain what ‘breathes fire’ into the equations, and actualised them into a real cosmos. The fundamental question of ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ remains the province of philosophers. And even they may be wiser to respond, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, what ‘whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent’.

from: Just Six Numbers


Bill Maher October 27, 2010 at 8:45 am


No he doesn’t say its empirically justified. He says if it is true, then it will solve a lot of interesting problems (paraphrasing here).

I would be careful about quoting Wittgenstein on that line though Luke. That quote is in line with the development of logical positivism, which dismissed god, ethics, metaphysics, and a great deal of physics as completely meaningless (which is less than false).


lukeprog October 27, 2010 at 10:39 am

Luke Barnes,

That’s a good quote, thanks! And actually, I’m not sure Hawking says M Theory is empirically justified anywhere, but he does say it’s the strongest candidate for POE by far. I changed the language of my post.


Charles October 27, 2010 at 11:38 am

Didn’t buy this one. When it comes to M-theory, is Hawkins even an expert?


Shane Steinhauser October 27, 2010 at 2:24 pm

I lost a lot of respect after learning that Hawking doesn’t think scientific theories describe reality. Also I’m confused as to how physicists can say that the universe began to exist without some sort of theory that can unify quantum mechanics and general relativity into a grand unified theory. Quantum mechanics is useful for predicting how small things work, and relativity is good for predicting how massive things work. QM cannot predict how massive things work though, and relativity cannot predict how small things work. The singularity at the big bang was both very small and very massive. So how exactly are physicists able to say that the universe began to exist? It makes no sense to me, and the claim by physicists that the universe began to exist appears to be the piltdown man of modern physics.


Michael October 27, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Hawking’s discussion of “model-dependent realism” is the most interesting part of the book. I was surprised to find Hawking and Mlodinow use it so extensively without much development.

It sure seems like it might be similar to ideas I was starting on as well. For example, fine-tuning seems to me to depend on the model/representation of reality rather than on reality… if the constants which appear to be finely-tuned in one set of models don’t even exist in other models, then in what sense is fine-tuning a feature of reality rather than a feature of our model/representation of reality?

Their example of quarks is instructive. Do quarks exist? They sure do in/on some models of particles and they make sense in those models, but are quarks out there? How would we decide?

Also, there is no reason to believe there ever was “nothing” (either prior in time or prior in any other way), whatever that is. If Hawking and Mlodinow’s fledgling view of model-dependent realism works out, then how could there be since there certainly is no such entity in string-theory?


michael October 27, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Ok, party foul to post twice in a row but…

I think some of the criticism of The Grand Design misses the mark. Hawking and Mlodinow’s argument is a little more substantial. If one takes model-dependent realism seriously (and they devote quite a bit of space to it), then their argument is:

String theory (with gravity) ought to be sufficient as a foundation for explaining all data we could face about the Universe. On model-dependent realism, no more than is contained in that model is needed.

Questions about what caused reality or what is prior to the universe or what might come after the universe make no sense on this view – there is nothing outside the model because the model is sufficient to explaining the data.

This move seems very like how Hawking argued from the Hartle-Hawking open boundary solution … he concluded that it made no sense to ask what came before the Big Bang because time itself emerges in the Big Bang on that solution. An early version of model-dependent realism at work?

Of course, if multiple substantially different models turned-out to explain the data equally well, then … issues. But I expect that embarassment of riches might be a while off yet – got to get 1 working model first…

I also think this is why Hawking concludes that philosophy is dead. He states it’s because science has been doing all the heavy lifting in our understanding of reality for a long time now, but there is another reason. If the above argument works out, then a model which explains all the data, combined with model-dependent realism, would leave nothing for philosophy.


josef johann October 28, 2010 at 2:27 am

what competitors to M theory?


wissam October 28, 2010 at 6:07 am


do you think that the “life chauvinism” objection succeeds against Robin Collins’ version of the fine-tuning argument, or does said version dissolve the objection?


Michael October 28, 2010 at 7:23 am

The question was for luke, but… of course “life chauvinism” defeats Collins’ argument. A bunch of other responses do too.

Collins’ argument “works” not just for the existence of life but for the existence of the planet Jupiter (more likely under theism), the existence of electrons (more likely under theism), the existence of mass (more likely under theism). In his responses to multiverse ideas, he does the absurd move of arguing that models themselves (string theory, quantum theory, Special Relativity, etc) are life-permitting therefore better explained by the theistic hypothesis. That makes his argument specious.

Presumably he would respond by noting that the theistic hypothesis only has God interested in making a universe that is life-permitting rather than a universe that is Jupiter-permitting combined with a claim that a Jupiter-loving God is an ad-hoc hypothesis, created after-the-fact. But “life chauvinism” defeats both of these answers. Living beings will of course fashion theistic hypotheses in which they are the object.


cl October 28, 2010 at 11:53 am

One will thus be surprised to read the book and discover that it is about 40% philosophy.

Yeah, I wasn’t surprised, since science is founded on philosophy, but I did find that ironic after the “philosophy is dead” remark.

Shane Steinhauser,

I lost a lot of respect after learning that Hawking doesn’t think scientific theories describe reality.

Well, he didn’t exactly say that – at least I don’t recall him saying exactly that. I think he used the word model and I think he wasn’t necessarily speaking in the context of observational science. For example, I don’t think Hawking would doubt that objects actually exist and fall towards the ground as described by the theory of gravity. Rather, I got the impression that he was mainly alluding to theories pertaining to the universe at large. Even so, this had the opposite effect for me: I gained a bit of respect because I felt Hawking was being open minded as opposed to rigid. It’s an interesting idea to say the least, this model-dependent realism.


Mazen Abdallah October 28, 2010 at 6:05 pm

‘Philosophy is dead’
This is, i suppose, a response to all the critics of New Atheists who don’t bother arguing any points raised but claim they are critiquing it philosophically.

The only true ground critics of Atheism can stand on is by exploring the Big Bang and claiming to be analyzing it philosophically. This is mostly because given the availability of data we know all we can about the Big Bang in the scientific sense and we can call bullshit on most creationist claims when sufficient data is available. So rather than dismiss these people as hacks who are basically using negative evidence, he dismisses philosophy as a whole. Strange tactic.

As for the book’s central arguments, quantum physics has become pretty much the shortest retort to Craigian inquiry. It’s overused and often stretched out to answer more questions than it does, but simultaneously destructive to the Big Bang creationism case. Since the quantum laws refute our current understanding of causality, they make the premises of the cosmological argument weaker. Stenger points out that even if proponents of the theory concede follow-up questions after presenting quantum theory (e.g. don’t causeless quantum events still require prior matter?), they still successfully critique the first premise.

I would think as skeptics all we have to do is point out flaws in certain ideas rather than compete with them by putting forward our own. You don’t need a TOE to critique a man in the sky theory.


Bertram Cabot, Jr. October 30, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Hold on there, skippy! You say the books don’t really argue what their titles advertise?

Why, that would suggest some kind of deceptiveness on the part of atheists! And we know they are better than every one else! My friend Josh over at the Dawkins site will tell you that!


AgeOfReasonXXI December 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm

“nor does it even discuss how the universe could create itself from literally nothing.”
What is “literally nothing”? Non-being? But then it is just a concept since non-being cannot be, that would be self-contradictory. It’s not something that the Universe can come out of. So, of course, physicists don’t postulate ‘nothing’ as non-being! How can they start with ‘something’ that isn’t anything?
I don’t understand why this silly objection that’s been constantly raised by theologians like Craig is often picked up by atheists alike as some sort of a profound insight.


Lucian December 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Here’s something in a similar vein…


Steve Johnston February 5, 2011 at 7:19 am

To see how Model-Dependent Realism works in the Software Universe that we are all immersed in, see my latest posting on softwarephysics at:

Model-Dependent Realism – A Positivistic Approach to Realism


Julian February 12, 2011 at 12:30 am

… he concluded that it made no sense to ask what came before the Big Bang because time itself emerges in the Big Bang on that solution. An early version of model-dependent realism at work?

Augustine of Hippo would agree that it would be useless to ask what happened sequentially before the beginning of the universe – which we now call the Big Bang – since he and probably most theists of his school describes God as outside of time. He would, I think, disagree that there was nothing before (causally) before the Big Bang.

This may be unimaginable to concieve of causes without reference to time, but it is no bigger imaginative leap than those which quantum physicists often ask us to take.
I suppose that where imagination fails us reason may still guide us blind.

This is, therefore, a philosophical question whether we like it or not. The scientific method demands that it is blind to all things outside of the ‘whole show’ of physical reality, including time, and there are many (unless you pressupose that they do not exist because they are outside of the ordered cause and effect of this world).

By the way this is a refreshingly good level of discussion. It is rare to see somewhere on the internet where personal abuse doesn’t constitute an argument. Keep it up.


Udaybhanu Chitrakar July 16, 2011 at 7:56 am

Philosophy is dead. Is Logic dead also?

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
- Stephen Hawking in “The Grand Design”
“As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
– Stephen Hawking, Ibid

Here three questions can be asked:
1) Which one came first, universe, or laws of gravity and quantum theory?
2) If the universe came first, then how was there spontaneous creation without the laws of gravity and quantum theory?
3) If the laws of gravity and quantum theory came first, then Hawking has merely substituted God with quantum theory and laws of gravity. These two together can be called Hawking’s “Unconscious God”. Therefore we can legitimately ask the question: Who, or what, created Hawking’s unconscious God?
Not only this, but there are other problems also. If the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes spontaneously appearing from nothing, then initially there was nothing. Then wherefrom appear those laws of gravity and quantum theory to allow universes appearing spontaneously from nothing? In which container were those two laws of nature?
Now regarding the M-theory: I have already written something on multiverse theory (not yet published anywhere). There I have come to the conclusion that if there are an infinite number of universes, then only within that infinite number of universes there will certainly be at least one universe in which life will emerge. If the number of universes is only 10 to the power 500, then it is very much unlikely that any one of them will support life, because no universe will know which set of values the other universes have already taken, and if everything is left on chance, then there is every probability that all the universes will take only those set of values that will not support life. There will be no mechanism that will prevent any universe from taking the same set of values that have already been taken by other universes. There will be no mechanism that will take an overview of all the universes already generated, and seeing that in none of them life has actually emerged will move the things in such a way that at least one universe going to be generated afterwards will definitely get the value of the parameters just right for the emergence of life. Only in case of an infinite number of universes this problem will not be there. This is because if we subtract 10 to the power 500 from infinity, then also we will get infinity. If we subtract infinity from infinity, still then we will be left with infinity. So we are always left with an infinite number of universes out of which in at least one universe life will definitely emerge. Therefore if M-theory shows that it can possibly have 10 to the power 500 number of solutions, and that thus there might be 10 to the power 500 number of universes in each of which physical laws would be different, then it is really a poor theory, because it cannot give us any assurance that life will certainly emerge in at least one universe. So instead of M-theory we need another theory that will actually have an infinite number of solutions.
Now the next question to be pondered is this: How did the scientists come to know that an entire universe could come out of nothing? Or, how did they come to know that anything at all could come out of nothing? Were they present at that moment when the universe was being born? As that was not the case at all, therefore they did not get that idea being present at the creation event. Rather they got this idea being present here on this very earth. They have created a vacuum artificially, and then they have observed that virtual particles (electron-positron pairs) are still appearing spontaneously out of that vacuum and then disappearing again. From that observation they have first speculated, and then ultimately theorized, that an entire universe could also come out of nothing. But here their entire logic is flawed. These scientists are all born and brought up within the Christian tradition. Maybe they have downright rejected the Christian world-view, but they cannot say that they are all ignorant of that world-view. According to that world-view God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. So as per Christian belief-system, and not only as per Christian belief-system, but as per other belief-systems also, God is everywhere. So when these scientists are saying that the void is a real void, God is already dead and non-existent for them. But these scientists know very well that non-existence of God will not be finally established until and unless it is shown that the origin of the universe can also be explained without invoking God. Creation event is the ultimate event where God will have to be made redundant, and if that can be done successfully then that will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that God does not exist. So how have they accomplished that job, the job of making God redundant in case of creation event? These were the steps:
1) God is non-existent, and so, the void is a real void. Without the pre-supposition that God does not exist, it cannot be concluded that the void is a real void.
2) As virtual particles can come out of the void, so also the entire universe. Our universe has actually originated from the void due to a quantum fluctuation in it.
3) This shows that God was not necessary to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going, as because there was no creation event.
4) This further shows that God does not exist.
So here what is to be proved has been proved based on the assumption that it has already been proved. Philosophy is already dead for these scientists. Is it that logic is also dead for them?


Sanjeev Kumar January 2, 2012 at 6:08 am

People seem to be taken in by the high sounding theories and philosophies that Hawking has written in the book. Everyone seem to be pretending to understand what they don;t understand so as to hide their ignorance. Tons of arguments can be put forward to undermine his philosophy cum theory at various levels.

1. Who created the laws of gravity in the first place?
2. Can a system of gravity and quantum mechanics create itself out of the blue and suddenly give rise to the universe? or multiverse?
3. How could an unconcious empty vacuum suddenly decided to frame the extremely complex and elegant laws of physics in order to create the universe?
4. Why should we use the bandwagon of counterintuitive thoughts to say that this is all possible?
5. Does not the creation of so many universe violate the Occam’s razor?


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }