Book Review: A Brief History of Time – By Stephen Hawking

Hawking Brief History of Time.pngletter-aABrief History of Time is Stephen Hawking‘s attempt at taking the advances of science throughout history and presenting them in a readable fashion for the layman.

In a very readable and even often humorous manner Hawking lays out this history, tracing its roots all the way back to Aristotle, through Galileo to Newton all the way up into the modern age. At each juncture he lays out the thought of the period and describes how each advancement came upon us, moving from a geocentric to heliocentric model of the universe, through the formulation of the first laws of nature up to things such as red shift and the anthropic principle, general relativity, quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle and black holes.

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The goal in all of this is to lay out an understanding of how the universe works as well as how we came to view it in this manner. Much of latter half of the book is devoted to exploring specifically the various theories which surround our universe and its conception, with the [as of yet unattained] goal being the formation of a grand unified theory of everything. Yet as Hawking notes “It turns out to be very difficult to devise a theory to describe the universe all in one go. Instead, we break the problem up into bits and invent a number of partial theories.”

Still scientists hold out for such a theory, this is indeed the goal of science: “A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence… If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.”

Overall the text reads on about the same level as a high school science textbook, only in a few chapters might the reader become somewhat frustrated in the diction being used but such instances usually don’t last long; such cases are made up for by Hawking’s amusing talks about certain science fiction scenarios which arise due to various principles.

Due to the way in which the sciences are constantly advancing, and the fact that the book was first published over twenty years ago, one might be able to argue that its ideas may be slightly outdated, however it still serves as a solid introduction (or refresher for those who made it through high school physics) to the theories which have been put forth by the scientific community to explain our universe.

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Memorable Quotes:

“Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis; you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.”

“As far as we are concerned, events before the big bang can have no consequences, so they should not form part of a scientific model of the universe. We should therefore cut them out of the model and say that time had a beginning at the big bang.”

“With the lack of a unified theory have made progress by finding various partial theories that describe a limited range of happenings by neglecting other effects or approximating them.”

“‘Why is the universe the way we see it?’ The answer is then simple: If it had been different, we would not be here!”

Specific Criticisms

In critiquing the writings of one who is at the forefront of a field which non-specialists (myself included) cannot hope to gain full understanding of, I do not hope to critique the actual scientific aspects of the book. To do so is simply outside my sphere of knowledge. Thus, it is in the places where Hawking ceases to be a scientists and becomes simply another philosopher or theorist (including theoretical physics, which is governed just as much by simple logic as it is by any science) that I will attempt to deal with him.

A few minor critiques might be of the models which are put forth the universe. For instance one of these models is Friedmann’s balloon model of the universe, which is an attempt to explain the phenomena of red shift which makes it appear as if everything in the universe is expanding away from our central point in the universe (Light shifts towards the red end of the spectrum when moving away from something and no matter which way we look we see this shift, making it seem as though everything in the universe is moving away from us, which would thereby put us at the center (Hawking notes however that such an idea was dismissed as being arrogant, as if hubris were a legitimate reason for dismissing an observation)).

The balloon model sets up a system where every point is moving way from the others and is meant to account for this red shift. Yet such a model simply cannot hold even a cursory glance as clearly one direction would be void. Granted, this is not a critique of Hawking himself per se.

Yet another such minor critique is of the idea positing the the big bang. This is seen as a logical necessity when observing that the universe is expanding; yet it begs the question in not factoring in the possibility of a beginning which doesn’t start from scratch (or more pointedly, doesn’t originate in a singularity). The big bang is simply an assumption from an expanding universe. Other such critiques may include that the ‘relativity of time’ is only such at the most superficial of glances, or that the uncertainty principle in fact does not introduce any randomness to the universe if indeed there is such a being as God.

Going on one might critique the idea that “disorder will tend to increase with time if the system obeys an initial condition of high order.” What here defines a ‘disordered’ state? The example being given assumes one correct state, but what determines this state? Man? If we acknowledge Kant then we must admit that all such ‘order’ is only an imposed order by the mind of man, that we cannot suppose an objective state of ‘disorder’ (which is only such through our human lens).

He goes on to state that “So the disorder of the pieces [of a puzzle in a box which is being shaken] will probably increase with time if the pieces obey the initial condition that they start off in a condition of high order” Even this isn’t a necessary increase in disorder, it is one which is being consciously created (and built on a human idea of ‘order’) – the example could easily be reversed to argue that order increases with time. The entire idea of entropy isn’t one which can be objectively formatted onto the universe.

Related to this is the comment that “[If the universe were becoming more orderly with time (or if it were contracting rather than expanding)] This would mean that disorder would decrease with time. You would see broken cups gathering themselves together and jumping back on to the table.” This idea simply fails to take causality into account in any way. At this point one must wonder if Hawking’s basic principles of logic are even in action at all, or if he’s simply lost himself within theory.

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Here I enter what I might call the primary critique, which is of Hawking’s musings about God. A handful of quotes will serve to convey Hawking’s ideas on the matter:

“With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws.”

“So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. but if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”

“[allowing] the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation… If the no boundary proposal is correct, [God] had no freedom at all to choose initial conditions”

Yet each quote shows that while Hawking may be at the top of his field while discussing physics he is simply bumbling blindly when he steps outside of that field, especially when he attempts to discuss anything relating to philosophy or theology.

The first quote isn’t really much of an issue, one might simply point out that with God operating outside the bounds of time the use of ‘intervention’ is nonsense statement. Even if God simply set the laws in motion by which the universe runs then [if omniscient] each interaction of these laws would constitute an intervention (even if indirect) by God.

The latter two quotes show that Hawking simply missing the point when discussing the need for God. The idea of the eternality of the universe is not a new one. Various early Greek philosophers posed that perhaps the world had no beginning, but is simply a infinite sequence of causality going back in time. Hawking’s ‘boundless’ universe is no more innovative than the infinite regression of the Greeks, nor does it do any better at squelching the need for a God. Indeed, even if the universe has no beginning and no ending, indeed no boundaries at all and is entirely self-contained, that still fails to account for how it came to be at all. Though of course the need for a creator is hardly the principle proof for God; it is for this reason that Hawking simply fails to grasp the point when he thinks a lack of creation has any effect on the existence of God.

The last quote also brings forth the minor issue of God’s freedom. If God is the one who designed the rules it is hardly logical to state that he is confined by a certain limit. One may simply use a sort of anthropic principle here. We may observe a universe in which it appears as though God is limited by certain conditions, and yet we only perceive this to be the case because he instituted those specific conditions.

Hawking may rock face as a scientist, but he fails miserably once he steps outside those bounds.

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It is finally of note a few comparisons which one might make between the words of Hawking and the words of somebody such as Cornelius Van Til. Van Til posits that: “Thus there is one system of reality of which all that exists forms a part. And any individual fact of this system is what it is primarily because of its relation to this system. It is therefore a contradiction in terms to speak of presenting certain facts to men unless one presents them as parts of this system.”

Compare that idea with Hawking striving for a grand unified system of the universe. For Van Til that system is the system of God. Meanwhile Hawking is forced to admit that scientists must settle for partial and contradictory explanations for parts of what they hope will someday form an overall system. They simply serve to verify what Van Til said half a century before them.

Elsewhere Van Til notes that “It is totally inconsistent with the idea of creatureliness that man should strive for comprehensive knowledge; if it could be attained it would wipe God out of existence; man would then be God.” And that “Facts and the truth about their relationship to one another can be known by man, Satan contended in effect, without getting any information about them from God as their maker and controller.”

This is essentially the exact argument which Hawking lays out as the goal of scientists.

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PCABoba

Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

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