Stephen Hawking, noted theoretical physicist and cosmologist, is one of the smartest guys in the world. He's also an astute marketer, as shown by the title of his newest book, "The Grand Design" (which I finished reading this morning).
Hawking and his co-author, physicist Leonard Mlodinow, are going to sell quite a few copies to clueless religious folks who see "design" on the cover and think, Ooh, great, some scientific proof for intelligent design!
They'll be disappointed when they get to the final chapter and read:
Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6. 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 torch paper and set the universe going.
Well, I'll offer a godless Amen to that.
It's nice to have someone who understands the nature of the universe so well speak so clearly and boldly about the utter vacuity of a God hypothesis. That said -- because it's true -- I do have to take issue with the contention that Hawking has explained why there is something rather than nothing.
Actually, the cutting edge M-theory which forms the conceptual centerpiece of "The Grand Design" only explains why there is the something called Our Universe, not why existence exists at all.
That second question seemingly is unanswerable, so this probably is why Hawking assumes that "why something rather than nothing?" pertains to the universe, not to the cosmos (taking "cosmos" to mean everything that exists).
In the book Hawking says that God has been used by religions to explain how the universe came to be. But this simply pushes the why? question back a level, leaving it unanswered, since we now have to ask "How did God come to be?"
So if something always has existed, it makes more sense to presume that this is the cosmos, of which our universe is a part, rather than some unseen, unprovable, and unknown mystery called "God."
"The Grand Design" doesn't break much new ground that I hadn't already trod in my reading of other books about the current state of scientific cosmology.
But Hawking has a knack for saying things simply and clearly. Since he has to speak through a voice synthesizer after laboriously typing out his thoughts, it's to be expected that he would have developed a taste for crisp conciseness.
The Big Idea in this book is the notion of a multiverse. It's what makes the supposed fine-tuning of the laws of nature a non-miracle. Sure, it's amazing how our universe is so well-suited for the appearance of living beings like us.
Hawking describes how neither the universe as a whole, nor the conditions necessary for carbon-based life, would exist if certain constants in nature's laws were just a little bit different from what they are.
Religious types see this as a Creator's intelligent design. Hawking, through M-theory, views the situation much differently.
If there is an infinity, or near-infinity, of "bubble" universes in the cosmos, then anything can and will happen -- including a universe with the laws of nature that we observe. Obviously we live in such a universe, or it wouldn't be possible for me to write, and for you to read, a statement on a blog post saying "obviously we live in such a universe."
The same reasoning applies to why we find ourselves inhabiting a planet, Earth, that orbits a star, the Sun, in a fashion that is Goldilocks-like. For example, we aren't so close to the Sun that we'd boil, or so far away that we'd freeze.
The temperature here, by and large, is just right. But of course it has to be, or we humans wouldn't be here, able to ponder why we're here.
There's a lot more in "The Grand Design" than the multiverse theory, lots of it utterly fascinating. At less than 200 pages, this is an excellent overview of modern scientific cosmology.
Here's some excerpts that talk about why an all-encompassing Theory of Everything probably isn't in the cards.
Hundreds of years ago people thought the earth was unique, and situated at the center of the universe. Today we know there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, a large percentage of them with planetary systems, and hundreds of billions of galaxies.
The results described in this chapter indicate that our universe itself also is one of many, and that its apparent laws are not uniquely determined. This must be disappointing for those who hoped that an ultimate theory, a theory of everything, would predict the nature of everyday physics.
...We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle.
The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and different forms in different universes. That may not satisfy our human desire to be special or to discover a neat package to contain all the laws of physics, but it does seem to be the way of nature.