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Hawking’s new book

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is reviewed in the Economist here. It has always seemed to me that people are eager to have a physicist to idolize, like Einstein, and so have tried to idolize Hawking. But the popular writings of his that I’ve read strike me as unimaginative and clumsy, and the paeans sung to his genius are a little strained. His latest book sounds like more of the same. Here’s an amusing observation by the reviewer:

The authors rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that “philosophy is dead.” It is, allegedly, now the exclusive right of scientists to answer the three fundamental why-questions with which the authors purport to deal in their book. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? And why this particular set of laws and not some other?

It is hard to evaluate their case against recent philosophy, because the only subsequent mention of it, after the announcement of its death, is, rather oddly, an approving reference to a philosopher’s analysis of the concept of a law of nature, which, they say, “is a more subtle question than one may at first think.” 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 book also makes what has been taken to be an audacious claim, that physics has no room for God. I gather it’s been seen as a big deal because up until now Hawking has played to the crowds by dropping pious remarks on occasion. And now he’s decided to back the other populist horse, and join ranks with Hitchens & Co. One thing for sure: the great physicist is not so hot when it comes to anything outside of physics.

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3 Comments

  1. Kleiner says:

    I have not read the book, but the review Huenemann cites pretty well represents the reception the book has received in the philosophical circles I inhabit.

    Stephen Barr offered a thoughtful commentary on the matter:
    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/09/much-ado-about-ldquonothingrdquo-stephen-hawking-and-the-self-creating-universe

    In Barr’s view there is actually something to Hawking’s “scenario”, but the problem is that Hawking is asking and answering something that is quite different from what philosophers typically have in mind (chiefly, this spontaneous creation out of the laws of physics is a creation of something out of something, not what metaphysicians and theologians typically have in mind).

    Like

  2. Rob says:

    Yesterday:

    Leonard Mlodinow, co-author, with Stephen Hawking, of “The Grand Design.” Mlodinow is a physicist at the California Institute of Technology and author of “The Drunkard’s Walk.” Because of his physical limitations and the live format, we will only hear Hawking via pretaped audio.

    http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/09/stephen-hawkings-grand-design

    Like

  3. Source says:

    “The book is peppered with quips, presumably to remind the reader that he is not studying for an exam but is supposed to be having fun.”

    That is a fantastic line.

    Like

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