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Universal Uproar

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Universal Uproar

20.09.2010

The release of The Grand Design has caused quite a ruckus. Its authors – the British physicist Stephen Hawking and his American colleague Leonard Mlodinow – tell the story of the origin of the universe.  This is not their first joint effort – they earlier collaborated on A Brief History of Time.

Stephen Hawking is a living legend. This scientist, who is confined to a wheelchair and has lost his ability to speak, has made a number of amazing discoveries and he himself represents a victory of “the mind over the body”. Hawking is a master of the popular science genre and his books are a sure bet to become best sellers. In this regard his co-author is no less astute, having among other things scripted Star Trek: The Next Generation. So it’s no surprise that this new book is also brilliantly written.

The brouhaha around the release of this book came about for other reasons. In early September the Times of London published an excerpt from The Grand Design where the authors assert that the origins of the universe have no need for the hypothesis that God had a hand in it. “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. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

In this discussion, there is an allusion to the maxim of Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” Hawking and his coauthor claim to have, if not solved this mystery, then come very close to doing so. In short, the logic is as follows. They base their claims on the so-called M-theory, according to which there exist a multitude of universes.

Theologians, firm in their conviction of a divine creator, assert that life could not have come about coincidentally. But if there are an enormous number of universes, then the chance of the coincidental appearance of life greatly increases. This is the essence of the Grand Design, and there is no reason to call it divine. The universe appeared spontaneously.

The publication of this excerpt in the Times had the effect of a bomb exploding. And the central issue here is not the abandonment of the “hypothesis of God”. Many great minds of the past 200 years have been saying this – from Pierre-Simon Laplace, who coined this phrase, to Paul Dirac. The militant atheism of the latter gave rise to a joke among his colleagues: “There is no God and Paul Dirac is his prophet.” 

But Hawking was never considered to be among the militant atheists. In one of his previous books he even admitted that when scientists uncover the fundamental laws o nature, “then we should know the mind of God.” Of course, this could be understood as a metaphor, but it is certainly not from the dictionary of Richard Dawkins, author of the bestseller The God Delusion, which was recently translated into Russian («Бог как иллюзия»). But Hawking is making a more ardent statement than earlier. Dawkins welcomed the publication in the Times as a gift (albeit, not from on high). Darwin dealt a death blow to religion, he said, but physicists never showed solidarity on this. So Hawking has found himself some enemies.

Of course, British religious leaders could not stand idly by. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams brushed aside the arguments as unconvincing: “Belief in God is not about plugging the gap to explain how one thing relates to another in the Universe.” Physics alone cannot answer the question of why we have something and not nothing. And thus it cannot claim to have solved Wittgenstein’s mystery. The archbishop was supported by one of the British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sax, who said that science explains while religion interprets, and they shouldn’t go head to head. An astronomer of the Vatican, Jesuit Guy Consolmagno, shared similar thoughts: space and time follow laws, about which Hawking speaks, but is not God the reason why things take place as they do and not differently? Did he not create these laws so that there would be order in his creation?

The heated debates in Great Britain and beyond have resulted in one palpable result: the number of pre-release orders on Amazon.com started skyrocketing, quickly putting the book at the top of the list. Its fate to become a best seller was sealed before it even hit the bookshelves. 

There are no grounds to assume that Hawking and his colleague rejected the hypothesis of God for exclusively for mercantile reasons. Hawking never hid his agnostic views, and earlier he asserted that God does not meddle with the laws of nature, even if they are his creation. Now he is shifting the accent to divine nonintervention, but still within an agnostic framework. This summer in an interview he stated that if someone wants to suggest that the laws of physics are from the hand of God, Hawking would not protest. So Hawking’s position in any case seems far from aggressive.

But those who are involved in promoting the book were quite deliberate in choosing an excerpt for publication in The Times that questioned God’s role. They understood quite well that this would catch the public’s attention, spark heated debates and drive up sales.

Nowadays we hear much about declining church attendance in Western Europe and the triumph of secularism. And at first glance this appears to be the case. Newspaper surveys on the eve of the publication of The Grand Design confirmed that more than half of the respondents do not believe that God created the universe. However, the debates on worldviews leave few people indifferent. On the websites of European newspapers, articles about this book by Hawking and Mlodinow receive the largest amount of comments. And so long as these debates continue, we can say that the issue of faith remains at the center of the hearts and minds of Europeans. If this were replaced by apathy, then that would be a whole different world.

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