A Grand Design image

A Grand Design

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It’s settled down a bit now, but when Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow first released their book A Grand Design in September, it caused a flurry of news reports that basically amounted to, ‘Global Exclusive! Atheist Scientist says he doesn’t believe in God!’ And so, all of a sudden, the science versus God debate was back in the public sphere. Just like last time, a big cheese Oxbridge scientist, who never seems to have believed in God in the first place, effectively announced that his branch of science confirmed his anti-religious suspicions.

And just like last time, it left me feeling I must be missing something. Reading the exchange of articles that followed the release of A Grand Design, I felt a bit like someone who walks into a fierce debate over whether Hamlet is a character created by Shakespeare, or whether on the other hand he is merely the son of Gertrude. As I watched the heavyweight academics line up and announce their verdict on the matter, I found myself wondering, with more than a little perplexity, ‘Can’t he be both?’
 
If Stephen Hawking is to be believed, apparently not. What’s odd about this – and it goes back further than Hawking and Dawkins, Darwin and Paley, to Lucretius and even beyond – is the assumption that science and God are rival ways of accounting for things, so that the more science explains, the less there is for God to do. The idea that physical and personal explanations might be compatible, so that Hamlet can be both Shakespeare’s character and Gertrude’s son, either hasn’t occurred to Hawking, or has been rejected on grounds that he hasn’t explained.
 
I find that a little bit strange. If I come into work with a black eye and people ask how I got it, it is perfectly reasonable to give a purely physical explanation, and say, ‘because the blood vessels in my ocular area are working overtime to repair damaged tissue.’ But they might feel a bit short-changed with that reply, because physical explanations don’t remove the need for personal explanations. They will probably find a different type of answer (‘because I stared too long at this guy’s girlfriend in the pub last night’) rather more satisfying. And they certainly won’t think that the former removes the possibility of the latter.
 
That doesn’t mean that all physical events must have obvious personal explanations. Many do not. What it does mean, though, is that the existence of a physical explanation does not make a personal explanation impossible. So Stephen Hawking’s deduction – that because of M-theory, God does not exist – is something of a non sequitur, the equivalent of announcing the non-existence of Shakespeare from a study of Hamlet’s DNA.
 
Interestingly, the Economist appeared to concur. In a review article on 11 September, they commented acerbically:

There are actually rather a lot of questions that are more subtle than the authors think. It soon becomes evident that Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles … The authors’ interpretations and extrapolations of [quantum mechanics] have not been subjected to any decisive tests, and it is not clear that they ever could be. Once upon a time it was the province of philosophy to propose ambitious and outlandish theories in advance of any concrete evidence for them. Perhaps science, as Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow practise it in their airier moments, has indeed changed places with philosophy, though probably not quite in the way that they think.

 
Two weeks later, the Oxford mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, in debate with Alister McGrath on the radio show Unbelievable, went one further. He challenged not just the book’s atheistic conclusion, but also the science behind M-theory itself, describing the book as “misleading”, and M-theory as “hardly science” and “a collection of hopes, ideas and aspirations”. Time will tell whether Penrose’s or Hawking’s view of M-theory will win the day, but it appears that whatever the outcome, the conclusions that Hawking and Mlodinow have drawn amount to a simple confusion of categories.
 
God and science are complementary explanations, not rivals. Maybe, just maybe, something as grandly titled as a ‘theory of everything’ might have room for both.
 
The original version of this article originally appeared for The Times Online at ‘Articles of Faith’ in October 2010.

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