Theory of everything explains nothing

Stephen Hawking’s new book “The Grand Design” has been all over  the press in the last week. His last book  “A Brief History of Time” published in 1988 ended with the door left open for God the Creator. This book slams that door shut. It concludes that God is not required to explain the creation of the universe. The laws of physics can do this perfectly well without the need for a divine creator. He writes “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist”. The book puts forward M-theory, a multifaceted collection of string theories, as the ultimate theory of everything.

There is an old joke that goes like this: A man walks into a bar. The bartender asks him what he wants. “Nothing,” he replies. “So why did you come in here?” “Because nothing is better than a cold beer.” This joke is the backdoor entrance to the long standing philosophical debate about whether nothing is in fact something or literally no thing at all.

We can rephrase the question mathematically like this: is zero a number? Hawking’s book says that you don’t need God to explain how to get from zero to one. That is a perfectly logical numerical sequence. But where do the numbers come from? Who created those?

“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the whole world.” That is the opening sentence of Robert Kaplan’s exquisite book “ The nothing that is” which is a far more illuminating read. It is a history of the concept of zero. The number zero is something that we all take for granted, but imagine how hard it is to do simple addition without it. The Romans had no zero; what is MCMLXXIII plus CLIV?

How do you create something out of nothing?  How do you take the first step on the catatactic ladder? Hawking says God is not required in the explanation. It is hard not to feel that he is being a bit of a kill joy.  Science aims to explain the magic, to illustrate the workings of the conjuring trick. Where is the fun in that?  Don’t you feel a twinge of regret when something is explained?

The rational response is that only the truth matters. I would say two things in reply. First the enigmatic line on Keats’s urn “Beauty is truth, truth beauty “. The second is this: sometimes the truth is that which can not be put in words. Wittgenstein’s last line of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus sums it up quite wellWhereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”