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.”

6 Replies to “Theory of everything explains nothing”

  1. It’s turtles all the way down.

    Dr. hawking has fallen into the logical trap that equates origin with identification. Just because we can identify all the physical laws that govern the universe (somehow that seems a bit of an arrogant statement), that doesn’t mean we have identified the origin, and that doesn’t mean that we do not need to identify a first cause.

    Very logical positivist of him.

  2. Thanks for the link. Its a very interesting article. I think my response is this. The bottom layer of the universe may be raw information, but it can not be understood at that level. I can comprehend the sentences I type into my word processor ( well, some of them..) but it would be impossible to edit them by poking around with the ones and zeros in the memory chip. The one is made of the other. A change in one requires a change in the other. But it is not possible to comprehend my prose at the binary level. That is catataxis.

  3. Two thoughts come to mind; (1) God and Physics are not separate, and that the more we understand physics the more we understand God (or what ever we chose to term / name the Creative Element, & (2) Why leave all this to be determined by the Mind; just as we once judged things in terms of IQ, we have come to a more expansive appreciation that there are many categories of intelligence.

Leave a Reply