Hawking and Mlodinow take on philosophy and God

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their 2010 book The Grand Design [Hawking2010], present a highly readable and even somewhat entertaining summary of recent research trying to uncover the long-sought “theory of everything,” together with efforts to understand the implications of these theories on modern cosmology (i.e., the study of the origin and evolution of the universe). Hawking and Mlodinow argue that modern string theory (in particular, the “M-theory” of Edward Witten) leads to a huge ensemble of universes (the multiverse), so that we should not be surprised that our particular universe is life-friendly — however fantastic the odds, there are so many universes in this ensemble that one life-friendly universe (ours) is bound to appear somewhere (by the anthropic principle). They conclude, “If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search going back more than 3000 years. We will have found the grand design.” [Hawking2010, pg. 181].

Hawking and Mlodinow open their book with the provocative claim, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead” [Hawking2010, pg. 5]. What’s more, the book contains numerous jabs at belief in God, such as “the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit” [pg. 165], and “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going” [pg. 180].

But in spite of these eye-catching quotes and the book’s focus on string theory and the multiverse, the authors fail to fully acknowledge to the “lay” reader the profound difficulties that these theories face in gaining near-universal consensus acceptance in the physics and cosmology community. Not the least of these difficulties is the failure of M-theory to yield a single logically consistent universe, which was the original goal, but instead its implication of an ensemble of at least 10500 other universes with different structures and physical laws. And then there is the issue of experimental confirmation — so far no one in the M-theory community has been able to devise even a single convincing experimental test. In other words, the “if” in the next-to-last sentence of the book (“If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search…”) is a very big “if” indeed.

Recently several leading physicists have expressed grave concern that the field may be on the wrong track in pursuing these theories for so long without tangible empirical validation. This is discussed in greater detail at Multiverse and Anthropic.

It may be true, even if the string theory-multiverse construct of cosmology is ultimately upheld, that this does not require the intervention of a supernatural being or god. But surely this does not rule out the existence of God in a more general sense. Unfortunately, this subtle but important point will be lost on the vast majority readers of the Hawking-Mlodinow book.

It is worth pointing out that several published reviews of the Hawking-Mlodinow book by leading scientists and scholars have either been sharply critical or at best lukewarm [Carroll2010; Davies2010a; Garner2010; Horgan2010; Johnston2010; Lennox2010; Woit2010]. For example, scholar Dwight Garner, in a review published in the New York Times, comments that this book is “disappointingly tinny and inelegant” [Garner2010]. Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll concludes his review in the Wall Street Journal with the comment, “It is unfortunate that Messrs. Hawking and Mlodinow choose to open their book by picking a pointless disciplinary fight.” [Carroll2010]. John Horgan, who operates a blog commentary for Scientific American, describes the book in rather unflattering terms, concluding with “Hawking is telling us that unconfirmable M-theory plus the anthropic tautology represents the end of that quest [to solve the riddle of existence]. If we believe him, the joke’s on us.” [Horgan2010].

Astronomer Paul Davies, in his review in the U.K. Guardian, agrees that there may be no compelling need, based on current physical theories, to presume that a supernatural being created the universe. “But when it comes to the laws that explain the big bang, we are in murkier waters.” [Davies2010a].

Famed mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, perhaps the highest-profile scientist to comment on the Hawking-Mlodinow book so far, characterizes it as “misleading,” because the M-theory that is the basis for the claims on God is “not even a theory”, “hardly science,” but instead merely “a collection of hopes, ideas and aspirations” that have “absolutely no support from observation” [ICN2010].

Mathematical physicist Peter Woit, in an Internet review, is highly critical of the Hawking-Mlodinow book’s presentation of M-theory as the definitive theory of everything, and is even more critical of the book’s comments on God in light of the status of this theory. He notes that the Hawking-Mlodinow book begins with a reasonable explanation of what makes a good physical model: it is elegant, contains few arbitrary elements, agrees with all existing observations, and makes detailed, falsifiable predictions. Woit notes that M-theory satisfies none of these criteria. Woit adds that “the kind of pseudo-science going on here and being promoted in this book isn’t obviously any better than the faith-based explanations of how the world works favored by conventional religions.”

Hamish Johnston, a British physicist who operates the physicsworld.com website, agrees with Woit’s assessment of the status of M-theory, and is very concerned that the comments about God in the Hawking-Mlodinow book will hamper efforts by the British physics community to defend their funding in the face of serious threatened budget cuts. As Johnston explains, “a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory” [Johnston2010].

In summary, the 2010 book by Hawking and Mlodinow, while qualifying as a very readable and even mildly entertaining introduction to recent developments in physics and cosmology, presents M-theory (i.e., the latest version of string theory) as a more-or-less universally validated theory of everything, when it is not. Furthermore, the book takes provocative and unjustified jabs at both philosophy and religion. It is most unfortunate that a book that takes such liberties has been authored by such prominent scientists.

For additional details, see Anthropic, Big bang, Big bang theology, Hawking, and Multiverse.


  1. [Carroll2010] Sean Carroll, “The ‘Why’ Questions: Chapter and Multiverse,” Wall Street Journal, 11 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  2. [Davies2010a] Paul Davies, “Stephen Hawking’s big bang gaps,” The Guardian, 4 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  3. [Garner2010] Dwight Garner, “Many Kinds of Universes, and None Require God,” New York Times, 7 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  4. [Hawking2010] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, New York, 2010.
  5. [Horgan2010] John Horgan, “Cosmic Clowning: Stephen Hawking’s ‘new’ theory of everything is the same old CRAP,” Scientific American, blog article, 13 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  6. [ICN2010] [no author] “Scientist debunks Hawking’s ‘no God needed’ theory,” Independent Catholic News, 29 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  7. [Johnston2010] Hamish Johnston, “M-theory, religion and science funding on the BBC,” 8 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  8. [Lennox2010] John Lennox, “As a scientist I’m certain Stephen Hawking is wrong. You can’t explain the universe without God,” Mail Online, 3 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  9. [Woit2010] Peter Woit, “Hawking Gives Up,” 7 Sep 2010, available at Online article.

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