With all the hand-wringing about whether Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design changes anything — whether “philosophy is dead” and whether M-theory promises to explain the appearance of our universe in strictly physical terms — Sir Roger Penrose speaks. Because of his stature and relationship to Hawking, he is one of the most interesting commentators, and he is none too impressed. On the September 25th broadcast of Unbelievable?, Alister McGrath is carrying on in his exceedingly unctuous way when, with wonderful British politeness, Penrose interrupts: “I think it’s actually stronger than that. What is referred to as M-theory isn’t even a theory. It’s a collection of ideas, hopes, aspirations. … I think the book is a bit misleading in that respect. It gives you the impression that here is this new theory which is going to explain everything. It’s nothing of the sort. … I think the book suffers rather more strongly than many. It’s not an uncommon thing in popular descriptions of science to latch on to some idea, particularly things to do with string theory, which have absolutely no support from observation. They’re just nice ideas that people have tried to explore.”
On the whole, Penrose is less sanguine about the prospects for a theory of everything in the forseeable future. And so far, a number of Hawking’s colleagues seem to agree that The Grand Design is much ado about nothing, even apart from its philosophical infelicities. In his review at The Financial Times, Penrose shares a further concern about the subjectivist turn in Hawking’s thinking. He recounts a heady conversation in which Hawking proposed that black holes and “white holes” are synonomous. If it was news to you that there are white holes as well, this story underscores the extent to which a layperson like myself is at the mercy of their expertise. I am far from competent to evaluate the merits of such esoteric theoretical physics, to do the math and check the sums. And so, it is incumbent upon the specialists to be forthright about the speculative degree of a given theory. In this case, it looks likely that even with the endorsement of the esteemed Hawking, M-theory, in its current state, is unlikely to put to rest either the teleological argument (in terms of fine-tuning) or the cosmological argument (in its Kalám formulation).
In another remark on behalf of modesty, Penrose addresses whether he is a materialist by disposition. Justin Brierley, the host, asks, “Are you always searching for a materialistic explanation?” Penrose avers, “I don’t like the word materialistic, because it suggests that we know what matter is. And matter itself, if you know about physics, then matter already becomes something very strange and mysterious. It’s not as though this is eliminating a problem, to say: ‘Okay, we’re just made of matter.’ To a physicist, that’s hardly any kind of a solution. Because, the more we know about matter, the more obscure and dependent on mathematics it becomes. There is a sort of circularity to this, because in order to have access to mathematics at all we need to use our conscious understanding.”
It appears Sir Martin Rees also encourages skepticism toward Hawking’s claims beyond cosmology: “Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve know for 40 years and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic.” ~ “We shouldn’t attach any weight to what Hawking says about god” in The Independent (September 27, 2010).
In his debate with Christopher Hitchens, David Berlinski needles Hawking: “To paraphrase the claim that he now makes, having give up A through N, he now champions something called M-theory. The claim that he now makes is that the universe just blasted itself into existence following the laws of M-theory. I don’t deny what Stephen Hawking has said. I do not endorse it. I haven’t read the book, although I have read his other books. I respect Hawking as a reputable physicist who did his great work thirty or forty years ago. But I can tell you this. What is lamentably lacking in every one of these discussions is that coruscating spirit of skepticism that a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens or a Vic Stenger will bring to religious claims and that lapses absurdly when it comes to scientific claims. Surely we should have the sophistication to wonder at any, any asseveration of the form that the universe just blasted itself into existence according to the laws of M-theory, a theory that no one can understand, whose mathematical formalism has not been completed, and which has never once been tested in any laboratory on the face of the earth.” ~ “Does Atheism Poison Everything? A Debate“, hosted by the Fixed Point Foundation (September 7, 2010).