Picture: Stephen Hawking. Having (sort of) criticised philosophers for their relatively undisciplined ways with terminology, it seems only fair to balance things up by noting a possible weakness of scientists, and I suggest impatience.  For scientists it sometimes seems that the final resolution of any great problem cannot be more than ten years away – twenty at the outside.  Turing’s suggestion that thinking machines would take about fifty years is an intolerably long-term forecast by these standards – why, we might be dead by then!  Unlike philosophers, scientists don’t seem content with shedding a small amount of light on a problem which was first seriously addressed by the civilisation before last, and will certainly take at least a few more centuries to clarify to any great extent.  Such sluggishness is the sign, in their eyes, that philosophy is dead.

That was the view taken by Stephen Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design, at any rate. I have noticed as an empirical matter that when someone vigorously criticises philosophy, they are generally about to offer us some, and the rule does not fail in this instance:  besides offering us some choice new a priori metaphysics, Hawking yields again to his predilection for putting Kant straight on a couple of points.

In fact, although the book gives a general potted history of physics (not bad apart from the ghastly jokes) , Hawking and Mlodinow are ultimately out to answer the fundamental questions of metaphysics: why is there anything? And why this?

The answer comes in two parts. There is something, because there’s nothing to prevent a universe arising so long as certain requirements are balanced. Positive energy has to be balanced with negative energy; fortunately gravity provides negative energy of the kind that, for whole universes at a time, will serve to balance all the positive energy.

Why is it that there has to be this balance? Hawking and Mlodinow subscribe, it seems, to the old philosophical principle that nihilo ex nihil fit, or nothing will come of nothing, as King Lear put it. If things could appear out of nothing, then they might do so at any time or place, and the world would be incoherent: therefore, they can’t. This principle has been part of the essential bootstrapping of many metaphysical theories although it’s difficult to show convincingly why the world can’t be incoherent (we just don’t like the idea) and particularly difficult to show that it couldn’t be just a little bit incoherent in certain cases and places and ways without having to descend into complete unintelligibility.

At any rate, the view offered here is that so long as the energies balance, the universe that springs into existence cancels out in theory and is therefore equivalent to nothing, so we’re in the clear. It’s a bit like pointing out that we can’t create money out of nothing, but so long as there’s a debt which matches the cash in our hands, the laws of the financial universe are satisfied. Handily it seems that the balancing of energies which allows whole universes to appear does not work within the universe, so that arbitrary entities cannot appear within the cosmos.

So far so good, if a bit skimpy; Hawking and Mlodinow don’t give much attention to the question of whether there might be other constraints on the existence of universes (so that the balancing of energies might be a necessary but not sufficient condition of their existence); they seem to assume that there aren’t. When we generate cash in exchange for a debt, we normally have a banker to satisfy, too; might not possible universes also face some additional hurdles before springing into existence? If not, don’t we face the prospect of an incoherent series of slightly different universes, and is that really any different from a single universe incoherent in itself (in one case events are indeterminable because they’re indeterminate in themselves; in the other they’re indeterminable because you can’t determine which universe you’re in)?

They don’t give much attention either to the question of different arrangements that might satisfy the balancing requirement. I got the impression that Hawking thinks something like our matter/energy entities and something very like gravity are the only real possibilities (rather in the way that you could incur debts in terms of cowrie shells or quatloos, but any medium of exchange is essentially money). There may be reasons for thinking this, but it would be good to know what they are.  Is it a meaningless question to ask whether the cosmic balancing could be carried out in terms of say, ‘left and right’ or ‘qwz and unqwz’ rather than positive and negative? Perhaps, but then could a universe pull off a dual or triple constitution by achieving a balance of positive and negative values along two or three axes?

One reason Hawking and Mlodinow don’t waste any time tidying up these loose ends is that they are relying on the second part of the argument, which explains why we’ve got this particular universe: the answer is the dreaded anthropic principle.  The anthropic principle says the universe was bound to be one that was suitable for us to live in; there are strong and weak versions. Hawking and Mlodinow say the weak version dictates only our environment while the strong one governs the laws of nature too.  I don’t think that’s quite right, although various statements of the difference have been offered. The weak version of the principle, as I understand it, is purely about appearances. It says that the world was bound to look to an observer like a place where observers could exist; but it’s nothing to get excited about, any more than we should get excited about the lucky fluke that we were born on a planet that supports human life. The strong version, much more controversial, says that our existence has an actual causal or constitutive effect on the universe, and this is what Hawking and Mlodinow seems to be going for.

Reviews of the book generally highlighted the fact that Hawking had broken up explicitly with God. In the past he indulged the old fellow good-humouredly, rather as he might have done with a superannuated colleague, seeing no reason to brusquely attack his possibly-unjustified reputation and even speaking gravely of knowing his mind. Now, suddenly, he has no time for God.

The reason is actually quite clear: in order to make the anthropic principle seem plausible, Hawking and Mlodinow spend some time emphasising how exquisitely the fundamental constants and constitution of the universe are set up to create just those knife-edge conditions which make humanity possible; but that nice adjustment can be read another way. It’s as though Hawking were making a speech about how no intelligent physicist can fail to be impressed by how exactly and non-randomly the universe has been designed for human beings; glancing at the audience he notices to his horror that the wrong people are nodding and hurriedly clarifies that the universe may be exquisitely designed, but for heaven’s sake, not by God!  Hawking and Mlodinow are a little sheepish about the nature of the anthropic principle: this may sound like philosophy, they admit: I’m afraid it’s rather worse than that – it sounds like theology.

They seek to defend the status of the principle as a scientific hypothesis, claiming that it leads to falsifiable predictions: for example, about the age of the universe. But doesn’t seem to work; what we really do is deduce that the universe as we observe it could only be a certain age – the fact that we could only exist in a universe of this kind is another matter, established separately. From our mere existence we could not deduce the age of the universe at all, and the estimate of its age follows from observations to which our existence is actually irrelevant. But hey, that’s OK – not everything has to be science.

Actually the case that Hawking and Mlodinow make for the precision engineering of the universe is not totally convincing either. Among other things they put forward the remarkable precision of the cosmological constant: but the cosmological constant is an arbitrary number chosen to make the sums come out right, with no other justification: it’s there to fill a gap until a proper theory comes along. The only surprising thing about it is that physicists should be so impatient that they’d rather have an open lash-up like that than accept that for the time being that they don’t understand the movement of galaxies. Impatience is similarly at work elsewhere; is it better to wonder at the inexplicable precision of theoretical constants, or hope that one day we might find an explanation for them? Would it have been better science if we’d rested on our laurels when the periodic table was established, contemplating in wonder how the elements had been arranged in such a neat way, sagely remarking that if they hadn’t been arranged numerically we probably wouldn’t be here, and that must surely be the reason for it?

One other problem with the strong form of the anthropic principle is that it requires that our present existence can reach back and influence the past of the universe.  There is normally a strong presumption that the present cannot affect the past: if it does, then that past will change the present itself, and we get either a vicious circle or some kind of uncontrolled spiral and the world becomes incoherent again, because any event is subject to arbitrary revision (See how useful it is if the universe is not allowed to be incoherent!). Now Hawking and Mlodinow invoke the two-slit experiment (apparently it has now been performed successfully not just with photons, but with buckyballs, actual large molecules). You probably know about this famously perplexing business; for present purposes the key point is that if we look at where the particles are, their path changes. It looks as if our intervention now has somehow changed the direction they set off in just before: or if they’re streaming in from a distant star, not just before, but long ages ago.  Now I’m not sure that it’s right to interpret the experiment as showing that we can change the past, but even if it is, there’s a significant difference when it comes to influencing the constitution of the universe, of which the observer is inevitably a part: at the least it seems that in that case there’s a particular problem of circularity.

There is, of course, another oddity about anthropicism: it seems to say that in the end the explanation for reality is to be found, not in the external world but in our own consciousness (phew – bet you thought I was never going to mention that). Now it’s not the creationists in the audience who are nodding, but the idealists, the panpsychists, and perhaps even the solipsists; all rigorous thinkers but surely not the friends Hawking and Mlodinow were expecting for their proclaimed philosophy of  ‘model-dependent realism’?

Of course all this is intended to clear the way for M-theory. The kind of cosmic balancing Hawking and Mlodinow want from gravity requires supersymmetry and M-theory can provide it. Unfortunately M-theory, we’re told, is not a grand unification of the kind we used to hope for: it turns out those probably don’t work. But so what, say Hawking and Mlodinow: after all, you can’t have a map that shows the whole world (they seem to have an unusually jaundiced view of Mercator’s projection), so why should we expect a single theory that accounts for everything? Instead we can have a family of different approaches to apply in different areas, just as we have different maps for different areas of the world. If we can’t have a comprehensive final theory, let’s take what we can have and proclaim that instead.

Well, the other approach might be to restrain our impatience and wait a bit to see what new insights come up. Science still seems to have a few problems to clear up; Hawking and Mlodinow mention a few of these, and they also describe Ptolemaic astronomy. The thing about Ptolemaic astronomy is that it actually worked rather well; if anything, the maths worked better than it did for the Copernican system, at least to begin with. The problem was that Ptolemaic astronomy was full of strange entities it was difficult to believe in and arbitrary values inserted simply to make the sums come out right. A change of paradigm was needed, and perhaps one or two small ones are needed now.

In fairness, I can understand the impatience for answers. It isn’t necessarily a vice – and in a man like Hawking, who has spent so long with his apparent life-expectancy hovering only a little above zero, it is surely particularly understandable. But isn’t there something depressing about the idea that philosophy is dead and science all but finished? Isn’t there something more appealing in the idea that there’s plenty more science to come yet, or as Newton put it:

I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.


  1. 1. Andi Chapple says:

    hi Peter –

    thank you for those calm words on the anthropic principle. I still can’t understand how people think they are so important that the entire universe had to be tweaked to make them possible.

    best wishes,


  2. 2. Kar Lee says:

    Peter, are you getting kick-backs from Hawking? Now I really have to buy the book and that its money into Hawking’s pocket…. 😉

  3. 3. Tweets that mention Conscious Entities » Blog Archive » Impatience -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kevin Zatloukal, argaldo's arXiv feed. argaldo's arXiv feed said: consciousentities Impatience: Having (sort of) criticised philosophers for their relatively undisciplined ways w… http://bit.ly/etIX5Q […]

  4. 4. Vicente says:

    Very interesting post Peter.

    when someone vigorously criticises philosophy, they are generally about to offer us some 🙂 How true!!

    Andy, I don’t sympathise the anthropic principle much either, and I don’t know if the Universe was tuned to make us possible, but we are definitely tuned to make the Universe possible. No consciousness no Universe, or at least no Universe that matters to anybody.

    Kar Lee, I read the book… another reshuffling of the same stuff once more… this kind of science divulgation product,started by guys like Martin Gardner and others, requires of writing the same things in different batches and formats, partially overlapping each other, to make a profitable business case. But it is fine, if people were massively interested in this kind of product, that would mean that we would be living in a better world for sure.

    What I would like to ask Hawking &Co is how his model considers stochastic and random physical processes in this Universe. For example, in a particular spontaneous radioactive decay or a particle desintegration, or an atom falling to a lower energy state spontaneously, we could ask: why has it happened in that precise instant? the first answer seems to be because there was a “vacuum fluctuation”, that generated virtual particles that made it happened. Well, then what was the cause of the vacuum fluctuation in the first place?

    What is behind intrinsic random processes? are there events with no prior cause?

    Another question is, when physics is handling concepts well beyond our intuition, rational acceptance capability and experience, working on a mathematical stand-alone basis, pending of experimental confirmation in many cases… are we not in a Platonic scenario in a way… is it not a kind of logical-philosophy also…

  5. 5. quentin says:

    Very interesting… I would say that more than impatience, it’s an excess of confidence in the completeness of our knowledge.

  6. 6. Kar Lee says:

    I was just wondering if the solution to the fundamental constants’ fine tuning problem in Hawking etal book is the same as that proposed in Paul Davis’ “Cosmic Jackpot”. Did they use the same idea? Because backward in time influence is not impossible once you get rid of the idea of “free will”. The reason one can “skew up history” if one goes back in time and mess up with his or her parents’ lives is the assumption that this person has the “free will” to make things happen differently. But if he does not, whatever he does is “pre-determined” by the consistency requirement even those actions would appear to himself as a result of his own free will, but is in fact not, then backward in time influence is possible and might actually be required if one combines the “4-D block universe” view and quantum consistency requirement. In fact, this is the so-called “transactional interpretation” of quantum mechanics proposed by John Cramer of the U. of Washington in 1986. If Hawking is advocating the same approach as Paul Davis, it seems alright to me. Or he has something different to say?

    Regarding your comment on circularity, let me voice my different take on that. Circularity may be bad as a method of reasoning, however, it could be the reality of existence. It, to the very least, does not bring about any inconsistency (another example of the usefulness of “coherent” as work here 😉 )

    One common method we use in calculating the average field strength of a configuration is by the so-called self-consistent field theory. To solve a certain field equation, you start with some guessed value of the field strength, you put it into the equation, and it automatically result in a new value for the field strength. If you started off with a very good guess, you can end up converging after several iterations on a value which is “self consistent”: If you start with this converged value, you will end up with this same value according to the equation. This is the solution of the equation. So, circularity in this sense may not be as bad as it first seems.

    If we take the same approach with history, if all the events happen consistently, you might imagine that it may have gotten to this temporal configuration because of the self-consistency requirement (God tried it out many times and only this history makes sense ha ha ha..)

    Anyway, this is my take at this point. I have not bought the book yet….

  7. 7. Vicente says:

    Kar Lee, not really, Hawking play with the multiverse idea and eventually appeals to the M-Theory to explain everything, being our local conditions just a lottery… Paul Davis supports the anthropic principle doesn’t he.

    It is true that Hawking also shows some sympathy for Fred Hoyle’s idea about star nuclear chemistry being seemingly tuned to produce from hydrogen the atoms required for life …. and that involves gravity, strong and electroweak forces, i.e. all the constants have to be tuned. I’ll try to find Davis book. Note that this book is written in a very plane and easy going fashion (still elegant).

    Regarding the time travel issue and consistency, I think we should not confuse a “quasi-heuristic” method to solve an equation with the real physical processes considered. The real field has that real value (not the average one) as a result of the physical real system distribution, not because the system has tried to be self-consistent which already is per se…

  8. 8. John Davey says:

    It proves what I’ve always thought – that no matter how great the scientist, their attempts at philosophy are always pretty poor. They always treat philosophical questions as scientific ones , and it never does anything other than look a bit daft. Stick to the evidence-based stuff rather than this wild cosmological fantasy.

  9. 9. John Davey says:

    Actually, what’s interesting about the present generation of super-string super-sized super-computed super-funded physicists is how little they seem to be achieving. What happened the Einsteins and the Diracs and the Heisenbergs ? Yet that doesn’t stop them from predicting the linking of gravity and quantum physics in the next ten years and (hint,hint) the “End of Physics”, as if that was even an epistemological or scientific possibility. But as they say, scientists don’t make great philosophers.

  10. 10. Chris says:

    Glad the site’s back up and running, and thank you for this excellent piece. I’m glad someone’s taken the time to properly dismantle the claims Hawking’s makes in his new book.

    I’m currently looking forward to rereading the article closely, as I’ve only read it in snippets whilst at work. But it heartens me to find a head-on challenge to Hawking’s ‘philosophy’. There should’ve been more writing like this in the press when the book came out, instead of the many half-hearted efforts which appeared here and there (such as on the Guardian website).

  11. 11. Vicente says:

    Could there be an equivalent of the mysterian cognitive closure for science?

    Maybe our minds just can’t understand the physical model of the Universe, and we have to content ourselves having faith… accepting that those equations that seem to describe the Universe (if we ever have them) is all we can have, but not really having a deep and human-friendly view of what’s going on.

  12. 12. Shankar says:

    I am glad to see your critical review of this book from the point of view of philosophy, amidst all the pop-scientific and theological dissections of the same in the MSM.

    I am yet to lay my hands on the book, but I get the feeling that Hawking and the co-author Mlodinow probably stayed away from any mention of the dreaded ‘Q’ word.. (correct me if I am wrong).

    At least Penrose was willing to tackle the qualia issue in ‘The Road to Reality’ and also his previous books (although by offering a physical explanation which again leads nowhere).

    It seems like there is a tussle between two camps (Gravity and Superstring theories) with Penrose being the spokesperson for the former. Ironically enough, I do not believe Hawking had made much contributions to M-theory as much as he endorses it.

    But regardless of their positions, it is good that the book has been reviewed here.

  13. 13. Kar Lee says:

    Vicente, regarding the question of “not confuse a “quasi-heuristic” method to solve an equation with the real physical processes considered”, I may have light-heartedly grouped the “mean-field approximation” with the “self-consistent field theory” together.

    In the case that I am referring to, I think the method itself probably reflects the reality.

    For example, in cryptography, the public key encryption method relies on the difficulty of factoring a large number into its prime factors using modern day digital computer algorithm. But people envision that a quantum computer can do the factorization like flipping a switch. How does quantum computer do that so easily? It is the self-consistency method. It is a massively parallel method in which the concept of “summing over all possible histories” to arrive at a self consistent result is at work here. What physically happens is that all the possible states (no matter you label it “cause” or “effect” are weighed and sum up by the quantum effect automatically, coherently and the final result emerges (quantum effect is intrinsically no-local and you don’t need to sum them step by step).

    If we are to conceptually solve the QM field equation (if it is known) to obtain the history of the world, since time is just one variable, which is not fundamentally different from the other spatial coordinates from the mathematical point of view, you can imagine the solution of the equation (as a function of spatial and temporal coordinates) should emerge as a result of all the contributions of all possible configurations from the entire time domain and spatial domain to arrive at a self-consistent 4-D configuration, in view of the transactional interpretation of QM. Here I found two links that detail this interpretation:
    The idea is that, as a mathematical 4-D object, the universe is a static thing that is lay out in front of you satisfying whatever equation it is supposed to satisfy. But a mathematical object it may be, is it “actualized”? My understanding of this backward in time influence idea is to make a big leap of faith and say, since consciousness seems to be required for the realization of reality (why? or at the end, is it true? there can be no answer) , the one mathematical object that becomes realized is the one whose fundamental constants are adjusted to let consciousness optimally emerge.

    I believe it is in this sense that Paul Davis proposed that the emergence of consciousness affects the values of the fundamental constants.

    Note that those who proposed this type of explanation have a very different idea of what consciousness is (from mine anyway). For all that it matters, they could have a zombie universe and the argument will still go the same. It is this elusive concept of “consciousness” that can somehow be generated from “none” to “then some magic happens” or “some light turns on” that is completely un-defined in this approach. What exactly gets turn on that can fixed those fundamental constants?

  14. 14. Kar Lee says:

    Vicente [11], One needs to start somewhere, right? We all need some sort of super turtle. See my quote here

  15. 15. Vicente says:

    Ok Kar Lee I take your word because I admit that this transactional interpretation is giving me a headache, I have’t got the time to really go through it… still I find very difficult to accept that it is possible to equate a physical process and the equation or method used to represent it. It is like Schrodinger’s equation, just good luck….

  16. 16. Kar Lee says:

    Just got a library copy of “The grand design”. Just noticed it says at the very beginning:

    “Traditionally these are the questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics….”

    Now I know where Peter is coming from …ha ha ha..

    You did it well, Peter!

  17. 17. Shankar says:


    I guess the pecking order is Physicists > Philosophers > Theists

  18. 18. Kar Lee says:

    Shankar, in a grander scale, the pecking order might be:
    Theists< Philosophers< Physicists< Chemists< Biologists< Psychologists< Economists< Wall Street Bankers 😉

  19. 19. Kar Lee says:

    Finally, I finished reading “The Grand Design”, totally about two hours of reading time. Now I can really see where Peter’s comments are coming from. Normally, the Anthropic principle is unsatisfactory as an explanation in the following sense:

    Small fish (thinking out loud under water): Why can I breathe in water?
    Big fish (responding nearby): The fact that you are thinking about this question in water means you can breathe in water. If not, you would be dead and by now and would not be asking this question.

    Immediately, one feels a little bit cheated when hearing this kind of “explanation”.

    In invoking the “weak” form of the Anthropic principle, Hawking etal keep suggesting that the physical laws as they are because we observe them to be this way. If the physical laws are not what they are, we would not be here to ask these questions. Fine. This is the usual cheating thing.

    But in the “strong” from the Anthropic principle, Hawking etal claim that because we observe that the universe and physical laws are the way they are at present (the final state), and the fact that a quantum system (the whole universe is the quantum system) does not have a unique past, and that all the possible histories will contribute to the present state, our observing that the present is what it is, this fact selects out the most prominent histories that contribute to the present state of the universe. Not only that, it selects out the most possible forms of the physical laws. Ok, fine. That “explains why” those physical laws are what they are. But what cause(s) the present universe to be what it is? Why is it what it is?

    I like the physics history review part, which is quite well written. But the conclusion part is less than convincing. Maybe it is not meant to be convincing.

  20. 20. Vicente says:

    “and the fact that a quantum system (the whole universe is the quantum system) does not have a unique past, and that all the possible histories will contribute to the present state”

    Kar Lee, where is this said?

    How would you apply this to a system with memory as we are. Your memories about yesterday in a way set a single past. If you carry out a quantum experiment like the two slit one for some time, the patterns you had at time T1, constitute a sigle past for the patterns you had at a later time T2. A different issue are the paths followed by the particles/waves. Then, if you assume the multiverse version almost everything is possible, but each path still has a single past (the particular chain of events that led to that present configuration, at each instant probably you had infinite contributions, but once they collapsed the outcome got fixed), or not?.

    I suppose that, at our scale, the equivalence principle (Quantum->Classic) operates at some point, and that also defines a single past track, or not?

    How would the Universal Mind include these ideas, Multi-thread processing, one process for each POV?

    My CPU is overloaded and overheated now.

  21. 21. Kar Lee says:

    On Page 135
    “If the origin of the universe was a quantum event, it should be accurately described by the Feynman sum over histories. To apply quantum theory to the entire universe – where the observers are part of the system being observed – is tricky, however…..”

    and continuing onto Page 136

    “…, Feynman’s method tells us that to calculate the probability of any particular endpoint we need to consider all the possible histories that the particle might follow from its starting point to endpoint….If they are applied to the universe as a whole, there is no point A, so we add up all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition and end at the universe we observed today.”

    More on Page 139

    “…In cosmology, in other words, one shouldn’t follow the history of the universe from the bottom up because that assumes there’s a single history, with a well-defined starting point and evolution. Instead, one should trace the histories from the top down, backward from the present time. Some histories will be more probable than others, and the sum will normally be dominated by a single history that starts with the creation of the universe and culminates in the state under consideration. But there will be different histories for different possible states of the universe at the present time. This leads to a radically different view of cosmology, and the relation between cause and effect. The histories that contribute to the Feynman sum don’t have an independent existence, but depend on what is being measured. We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us. ” And this is on Page 140.


    Your remembering a single history of your past, according to Hawking, is because you selected the most possible one out by constantly observing it.

    But why is the present looks like what it looks like? That is what they did not say. That is why I feel a little bit cheated.

    The Universal Mind hypothesis can actually accommodate what Hawking describes. Here is one possible scenario: There “was” a period that the two components of the universe, i.e., the Universal Mind and the pure physical were decoupled. The material world “exists” as a supposition of all possible histories including with different sets of “apparent laws of nature”. At some point, they started to interact and the interaction selected out a unique history and a set of laws of nature which satisfies the conditions for the basis of this interaction: The Universal Mind has view points (conscious beings) inside the material component, i.e., condition that satisfy the creation of life forms. That fixes that fine tuning problem for those universal constants.

    What do you think? Cool, huk?

  22. 22. Vicente says:

    Kar Lee, let me think about it, now my CPU is definitely burned out.

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