Discussion of The Grand Design

We choose one book per month to read and discuss philosophically as a group.

January 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt

February 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity by Byron Reese (Nominated by RJG)

March 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: Final Notice by Van Fleisher

April 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Unbound Soul: A Visionary Guide to Spiritual Transformation and Enlightenment by Richard L. Haight

How do you rate The Grand Design?

1 star - poor, recommend against reading it
2 stars - fair, okay
3 stars - good, recommend it
4 stars - excellent, amazing
Total votes: 8

Roger Gibson
Posts: 5
Joined: November 26th, 2010, 11:20 am

Re: Discussion of The Grand Design

Post by Roger Gibson » September 17th, 2012, 8:01 am

The Grand Design

Scientists like Hawking are seeking to integrate quantum mechanics and relativity within one unified form of physics. Since the cosmos was so very small in the earliest phase of the Big Bang, the forces that now count for most in describing subatomic scenes governed Everything there was at very first. As the Everything we live in now is a later phase of the expansion of what there was some 13.7 billion years ago, we need to make the two styles of physics compatible if we are to produce a diachronically coherent physical cosmology. The confirmation of the existence of gravitons is an especially important quest at present. The latest developments in theories of temporal dimensionality have brought it about that not only Newton’s physics counts as “classical”, but even quite recent ones which continue to treat time as if it has a single linear “history”. The use of the colloquial word “everything” in the expression “Theory of Everything” is intended to ring disarming, I suppose. But if it is implicit in the epithet that a comprehensive account of all we need know could be given in a completely accurate physics, this is an offhand way of proclaiming a contestable form of scientism.

For much of the Modern Period, Newton’s physics was thought to explain how everything in the universe moved – how planets orbited the sun, how apples fell from trees, how the trajectories of cannonballs would go, and so on - throughout all observable motion. Newton himself didn’t think that his laws could explain Everything of importance, but there were many who thought he had explained the entirety of what we could hope to explain with certainty and/or mathematical precision. People still disagree about how much of the totality of what we could ever hope to know the word “Everything” in the last sentence might comprise.

By the twentieth century it was clear how far short of explaining Everything Newton’s physics had been – although even scientists persist in minimizing its shortcomings. The fact that Newton couldn’t give a detailed account of the behaviour of matter in chemical reactions – and thus in biochemical reactions - had effectively made philosophers like Hume dismiss as unreasonable any attempt to seek detailed knowledge of what we now call neurophysiology and genetics. By the nineteenth century enough was understood about chemistry to realize that the sun was not on fire, and Newton’s theories could not explain why it was hot. The twentieth century brought quantum mechanics and relativity which gave new evidence of the inadequacy of Newtonian mechanics to explain microcosmic and macrocosmic phenomena.

The epistemological principles of what Hawking calls his “positivism” should always officially temper claims to perfect certainty about Everything. Yet should the unified physics scientists like himself are seeking arrive, it looks likely that they will assign to it a pretty comprehensive closure over the world we seek to understand - superior to the closure that eighteenth century philosophes thought Newton’s laws of motion had achieved. It seems to me that the perspective of the authors of The Grand Design on that closure might well be coloured by a similar confidence in knowing how much and how little a human being can know – and in knowing nearly all of what can be known. This easily yields a tenor of ironically “reasonable” and “modest” omniscience.

There is an equivocal ellipsis about the usage of the term “cosmology” today. In an edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English published in 2010 the word is defined exclusively in terms of the kind of astrophysics that The Grand Design is about. That is remarkable when the word is still used in philosophy in a more open-ended way – to denote any account of the whole of reality, regardless of its style. Fairly recently the polymath Arthur Gibson published a work of “cosmology” in the philosophical sense God and the Universe (Routlege 2000). Prof. Gibson is a philosopher whose many remarkable accomplishments include work as an astrophysicist. Gibson doesn’t expect the task of cosmology to be exhausted in a “Theory of Everything” in the fashionable sense. He still sees value in the enterprise of composing a highly general account of the universe and the predicament of humanity in it - one that inter-relates all aspects of human knowledge and aspiration. He neither presumes nor expects that a 21st century cosmology will be systematically unified like the cosmology of Aristotle or Aquinas – nor like the cosmology Hawking and Mlodinov write. Gibson thinks we know enough by now to acknowledge that philosophers of eclectic erudition should be prepared to make room for counter-intuitive elements in their cosmology.

Hawking and Mlodinov see no value in philosophy.

Ironically, the earliest phase of Western philosophy is known either as the “Scientific Period” or the “Cosmological Period”. The two epithets both arise from the fact that philosophers then were primarily interested the nature and structure of what we call “physical reality.” My commas indicate that the modern meaning of “physical” finds no synonym in the seventh or sixth century BC. The Milesians, the Eleatics, the Pythagoreans, and the other early schools were interested in what the substance of the world was, in what might retain identity through change, in what the stars and the planets were, and so on. But exponents of philosophy, science, or any subject inevitably start to do cosmology when they talk about Everything. They do so in the perlocution of what they say– that is, in the drama of the final redound of what they assert, what they deny, and what they don’t mention. The work of these early Greek philosophers began to establish the categories of matter and mind which moderns inherit in transmuted forms. Democrituis, the last of the early “scientific” men, was a contemporary of Socrates. With Socrates and Plato a shift in philosophical interest takes place. Humanity becomes the proper study of man. Ethics and epistemology become more centrally important.

One reason why accounts of the material world were considered directly relevant to every type of ancient philosophy was that the Greek category of the Good was radically unlike ours. Although some Moderns – the Ethical Naturalists – think that the distinction between altruistic and self-fulfilling “goodness” will disappear under analysis, the Greeks did not presume that distinction, and the case for removing it would have made little sense to them. So for the Greeks an understanding of the structure and aetiology of how the world is was of value in deciding what people who would thrive in it should do.

All that I have just said - about history, philosophy and what astrophysicists think of it, and about physics, ethics, epistemology, and about Hawking, Plato, Gibson, and Pythagoras, and about perlocution, about positivism, and even about what “cosmology” might be - all have a place in cosmology.

It is an item of “cosmology” in the general philosophical sense that The Grand Design is intended to refute the argument that the Big Bang could not have caused itself and therefore was caused and designed by God. I am a Catholic, and like many contemporary Theists I don’t consider the argument from design demonstrative – even when boosted by strong or weak “anthropological” principles. There are difficulties in reconciling the transcendence of God with His featuring either as the cause of the cosmos or as an agent within a causal nexus of the phenomena. These difficulties cannot be ignored when we have to treat the Incarnation as a semantic miracle. The last section of The Grand Design describes the program called “the Game of Life”, designed by the mathematician John Conway, which the authors present as a refutation of the notion that the universe needs a god to cause it. The game shows how complexity can arise and can be sustained autonomously within a two-dimensional model of the universe with a few very simple rules. I am left wondering how, if this serves as a telling model of an aspect of physical reality, it is compatible with the second law of thermodynamics. More generally - I assume it is merely my lack of mathematical sophistication that makes it hard for me to understand why – even granting its crucially non-homogenous content - the state of the cosmos 100 000 years after the Big Bang appears to have been closer to “heat death” than its present state does – with complex galaxies in which there are quasars, gamma ray bursts, black holes, carbon, iron, people, art, and neurology. I cannot easily dismiss the thought that if contemporary science cannot accurately predict the weather on the Atlantic for the next four weeks it might be difficult to forecast the course of nearly 14 billion years of virtual cosmology that follows a virtual Big Bang. I am nevertheless prepared to accept that mathematical physicists are aware of problems like these and are satisfied that they have overcome them.

The main cosmological point I want to make now might be called either metaphysical or epistemological. It concerns the way in which scientists interpret the mathematically conceived theories Hawking and Mlodinov discuss into a world-view – whether this view is articulated or tacit. The originators of quantum mechanics warned that their theories wouldn’t make good familiar sense – in that they ran counter to the normal presuppositions we have about the nature of things. The concepts of position, of motion, logical substance, and of cause were all confounded in quantum theory. Although the discrete measures of quanta saved applied mathematics from the anomalies of the infinitesimal, the style of algebraic precision of mathematical physics had been radically altered – in a way that Einstein was never to rest easy with, even though he had been one of the originators of quantum mechanics. Yet - however strange the ontology of events where one photon goes simultaneously through two slits - we appear to understand what happens in an imperfect and bewildered way. It seems similarly not entirely impossible to make sense of geodesics, in imperfect analogy with the “curvature” of space, “universal laziness”, and figures of speech like “two hours from here.” It would also appear that our “grasp” of space-time might be improved by dwelling on the fact that a two-dimensional creature could wander forever over the three-dimensional surface of a ball without reaching an end to it, and that a creature that was three-dimensional could traverse an interior diameter of the ball and make a much shorter journey.

Yet it is conceivable that the analogies I have just been mentioning may do more harm than good. We should beware of analogies which are clear in themselves but which are speciously related to what they are taken to be analogous to.

Contrary to what is often said, formally valid arguments may rest on what are literally “analogous” structures. For instance the analogy – the similarity of structure - between the contrapositive law (1):

If {If p, then q}, then {If not-q, then not-p} (1)

and the conditional (2):

If {If a creature is a mammal, then the creature is warm-blooded} then, If a creature is not warm-blooded, then the creature is not a mammal} (2) shows that (2) has logically correct contrapositive structure. The maxim that “arguments from analogy are unsafe” belongs in discourse where scholars are “making a case” on the presumption that formal logic is a sterile discipline, and where what passes as “strict deductive logic” is in fact the earnest use of rational intuition. For instance Hume, writing in the dark ages of Western logic – is often credited with using such “strict deductive logic” in his sceptical philosophy.

(I don’t like to talk of “analogy” here without inserting those remarks.)

Generally, it is a mistake to think that the mere clarity of structure of some configuration that is supposed to be analogous to some other configuration guarantees that the analogy holds good between the two. This is obvious in the case of maps. A “map” of Norway that was perfectly circular would be entirely clear in itself, but totally inaccurate. When people draw symmetrical diagrams to “clarify” what they are saying in lectures or in books, the neatness of the symmetry in the diagrams should not be taken as evidence of any useful neatness and symmetry in their thinking.

I bring up the matter of analogy for a reason. I doubt the value of many of the diagrams used to illustrate the poly-dimensional geometry of advanced physics. Any diagram on a page of a book will have to be literally two-dimensional. Through the use of perspective drawing one can represent three dimensions on a flat surface, the way artists usually do in naturalistic pictures. Linear dimensions beyond three are often represented in diagrams linearly – sometimes traversing layers of what stand for “branes” in cuboids drawn in isometric perspective. If these diagrams make simply Euclidean sense in the understanding of those who look at them, they have given an entirely specious “grasp” of the alternative geometry.

Before I continue my critique of the use of analogous diagrams, I ask you to consider the following highly general likeness law (3) and hope that you will endorse it without prejudice:

For any two entities, A, B, which we wish to compare:

If A is like B, then B is like A (3)

Bearing your assent to (3) in mind, consider the following two diagrams:

Here we have (4), a simple time-line diagram, in which a three-dimensional object W is represented by a point moving along the line YZ: => Y ___________________________________ . _____________________________ Z (4)

Now consider diagram (5):

<= W . (5)

The key to diagram (5) is that the dot W, here is growing older, along with you as you observe it, and that each second that passes is to represent a distance of 1 cm to the left, so that, for instance, after 4 sec. W has “shown” a linear distance of 4 cm to the left. You have misread (5) if you think it shows a leftward motion of W: motion is a function of time and distance. The time W took ageing stood simply for distance according to the conventions of diagram (5).

If (5) simply won’t work as a diagram because things aren’t like that, how can diagram (4) work, other than misleadingly?

Now let us reconsider the analogy I mentioned earlier between the case of a three-dimensional creature cutting through a diameter of a sphere and the idea of a “worm-hole” that takes a trans-dimensional short cut through a space-time-like diameter. We are told that we can wander indefinitely through three-dimensional space without coming to the end of it, and that this is analogous to the two-dimensional creature wandering over the surface of a sphere. This analogy appears to be of some value. Yet if this analogy really clinched my understanding of the curvature of space-time, then it should make good sense to me that radiation from the Big Bang is arriving here from every part of the heavens, in all directions. Nevertheless, I cannot get my head round that.

When Lobachewsky and Riemann introduced alternative non-Euclidean geometries in the nineteenth century, Kantians said that, however interesting and consistent these new systems were, they were not like the innate “intuition” – in Kant’s peculiar sense - of space that were integral to human rationality as synthetic a priori truths. As it turned out, physicists found good use for the new geometries. Moreover anthropologists claimed that Kant’s notion of what universal human “intuitions” of space and time were like was culturally conditioned in a “carpentered” habitat whose denizens lived in cuboid rooms and buildings.

I offer no final ruling about these matters of cognitive psychology. What I have been trying to suggest in my previous examples and commentaries is that when scientists posit an array of dimensions beyond the familiar ones to render their novel applied mathematics conveniently consistent, they let themselves into new ontological fields. They face a problem of what to make of their own mathematics – of finding a knack to bring it into intuitively “warm” Verstehen. Such interpretation into insight about how things stand in the world must redound further epistemologically than the precise numerical relations within their equations. The internal correctness of those equations is not identical with the rightness of what cosmologists make of them. That is shown by the disagreement between Einstein and Bohr about what to read into quantum mechanics. Our abiding difficulty in finding sense - and all our legion failures to do so - all belong in cosmology, along with what success we achieve.

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