Stephen Hawking needs no introduction. The disabled theoretical physicist who held the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years is known worldwide for his bestselling book ‘A Brief History of Time’. Outside of scientific circles, Professor Sir Roger Penrose may not be quite as well known, but he is another top theoretical physicist and the bestselling author of ‘The Road to Reality’. He is currently Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics which he shared with Stephen Hawking for their joint contribution to our understanding of the universe.
In a curious coincidence, on 23 September The Bodley Head Ltd will publish ‘Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe’ by Sir Roger, and on 9 September Bantam Press publish Stephen Hawking’s ‘The Grand Design: New Answers to the Questions of Life’.
Because of his fame in the wider world, Stephen Hawking’s book will probably receive the greater publicity, especially as it is his first major book in nearly a decade. But both books attempt to do the same thing in different ways: solve the mysteries of the universe.
In Hawking’s case, the title of the book has clear religious overtones. And from the publisher’s blurb, it is clear that Hawking is intent on offering science as an alternative to religious belief about the origins of the universe. Not content with answering the purely physical question of “When and how did the universe begin?”, Hawking goes further and enters metaphysical territory: “Why are we here? What is the nature of reality? Is the apparent ‘grand design’ of our universe evidence for a benevolent creator who set things in motion? Or does science offer another explanation?” Hawking is our “guide to discoveries that are altering our understanding and threatening some of our most cherished belief systems”. ‘The Grand Design’ “will inform – and provoke – like no other.”
Hawking seems intent on using science to supersede religion. But as he wanders into the minefield of religious and philosophical questions, it is increasingly clear that science comes up short. His book “explains the latest thoughts about model-dependent realism (the idea that there is no one version of reality), and about the multiverse concept of reality in which there are many universes. There are new ideas about the top-down theory of cosmology (the idea that there is no one history of the universe, but that every possible history exists).”
If science accepts that there are many versions of reality and a multiplicity of histories of the universe, science actually loses its ability to tell us anything useful about the world. Science has been successful because, in the main, it is able to tell us the truth about the world we live in. It tells us how things work, what they’re made of, and why things happen as they do, and to a certain extent how things got to be how they are today. But if there is no definite reality and no definite history, then science can no longer be a guide to truth. At this point it departs into speculation, and so has no more claim to truth than religion or philosophy.
Unfortunately, possibly because of his own difficult life experiences, it would seem that Hawking wants to challenge belief in a divine Creator by bending science to the task. In that respect, he follows another great name in science. Charles Darwin also lost belief in a God who personally interacts with people due to the suffering he experienced in life, and set out to devise a theory that would explain that suffering – a dog-eat-dog world of ‘survival of the fittest’. In Darwin’s view, God didn’t intervene in the world to prevent suffering so he can’t have been involved in the world at all – except as perhaps the one who lit the blue touchpaper to set the world in motion at the beginning.
Hawking, it seems, wants to take even that involvement away from God. Perhaps he has been influenced by Richard Dawkins, who has praised Darwin for explaining life without God, and is longing for someone to explain the universe without God.
Prof Penrose comes to the cosmic table from a slightly different direction to Hawking, but also seeks to explain the universe. His new book attempts to answer what came before the Big Bang. Hitherto that’s been acknowledged by most scientists as one arena that’s best left to God, since science has been unable to look behind that curtain. But Penrose aims to “show how the expected ultimate fate of our accelerating, expanding universe can actually be reinterpreted as the 'Big Bang' of a new one”. In other words, his theory is that time – and the universe – recycles itself.
It’s a very green-friendly sounding proposal, appropriate for the environmentally-aware times we live in. But I guess we would have to wait billions of years to find out if his theory is proved correct – until our universe itself ends – to find out if it has, in the process, created a new one all by itself!
It seems from the anticipated content of the book that Penrose is proposing something that approximates more to the Hindu view of the universe. The Hindu cosmology proposes that the big bang is not the beginning of everything but just the start of the present cycle, preceded by an infinite number of universes and to be followed by another infinite number of universes. Perhaps Penrose was reading his Rig Veda (Hindu scripture) before he came up with his idea.
Hawking’s rather loose view on reality might also accord more with Buddhism than atheism: Buddhists posit neither an ultimate beginning nor a final end to the universe, but see the universe as something in flux, passing in and out of existence, parallel to an infinite number of other universes doing the same thing.
Perhaps we should look not at highly speculative theories for a better understanding of the universe but at the hard facts that are more scientifically testable. What we do know is that the universe is incredibly precise and ‘fine-tuned’ for life on earth to exist. If the forces in the universe had been set up just a tiny bit wrong, there would be no “life as we know it, Jim” (apologies to non-Star Trek fans). The list of physical constants that are finely balanced in this way is as long as your arm. As Hawking says in his earlier book ‘A Brief History of Time’: “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”
Leading theoretical physics professor Paul Davies – another best-selling science writer – is more open about this. He states: “The really amazing thing is not that life on Earth is balanced on a knife-edge, but that the entire universe is balanced on a knife-edge, and would be total chaos if any of the natural 'constants' were off even slightly. You see, even if you dismiss man as a chance happening, the fact remains that the universe seems unreasonably suited to the existence of life – almost contrived – you might say a ‘put-up job.’”
Michael Turner, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and Fermilab, describes the fine-tuning of the universe like this: “The precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bullseye one millimetre in diameter on the other side.”
This incredible accuracy speaks of an Intelligent Designer behind the universe. Penrose holds no religious beliefs and is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association, yet he himself has to admit that both human consciousness and the fine-tuning of the universe are mysterious. In The Emperor's New Mind (1989), he argued that known laws of physics are inadequate to explain the phenomenon of consciousness, and in the film version of ‘A Brief History of Time’, he said: "There is a certain sense in which I would say the universe has a purpose. It's not there just somehow by chance. Some people take the view that the universe is simply there and it runs along… and we happen by accident to find ourselves in this thing. I don't think that's a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it, about its existence, which we have very little inkling of at the moment.”
Physicist Tony Rothman says: "When confronted with the order and beauty of the universe and the strange coincidences of nature, it's very tempting to take the leap of faith from science into religion. I am sure many physicists want to. I only wish they would admit it."
I’ll leave the last word to mathematical physics professor Frank Tipler: “When I began my career as a cosmologist some 20 years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.”