This is a hard book to rate. On one hand, Stephen Hawking’s humility, dry humor, and the devastating disease he overcame make him incredibly endearing and admirable. On the other hand, I don’t think all of the questions he answered in this volume pertain to his area of expertise. Apparently there was some dispute about this, because the volume was comprised of his answers to questions that he was asked often, and he himself did admit that some argue religious questions, for instance, should not fall under the purview of science. I’d agree to a point–I certainly did find that arguments in the opposite direction (apologetics) helped to convince me of the truth of the Bible back when I was searching for such answers. But science only gets you so far. There’s a last leap of faith still required.
Hawking, meanwhile, drew the conclusion that there did not appear to be any role for God for a few main reasons. First: after the Big Bang, the scientific laws seemed to march forward inexorably, without outside intervention. Prior to that, he said, time did not yet exist, and therefore the concept of causation makes no sense. Asking “what caused the Big Bang” is like asking “what is south of the south pole?” The question has no meaning. (I understand what he means, but that sounds like begging the question to me.) Second, because of the concept of positive and negative particles constantly annihilating one another, he saw no need for anything to have triggered the initial explosion either. While he acknowledged the incredible fine-tuning of the universe in which we live, he argued that this can be explained away with what I consider a very suspect philosophical argument: The Anthropic Principle, which essentially argues that things must be the way that they are because we are here to ask the question of why they are the way they are–and if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. That seems like circular logic to me, though I suspect Hawking did not think so because of the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (which is apparently attributed to Feynman). In that view, all possible worlds actually do occur–so no matter how statistically unlikely a particular world might be, it’s bound to happen at least once. And that world would be the one in which we exist to ask questions like probability. (The idea that multiple universes exist seems to violate the philosophical concept of Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Multiple universes would introduce infinite complexity. Why not the collapse of the wave function interpretation of quantum physics instead?)
He also evoked the concept of Panspermia to support evolution: an argument that life on earth was seeded from space, where, somewhere, there’s presumably a more advanced life form than ours. (This gets around the problem that even if the earth is the four billion years old accepted in most scientific circles, that’s still not enough time for random chance to have produced life, statistically.)
Aside from that, I did find the questions Hawking answered about black holes, space and time travel, and speculation about what our future may hold to be very engaging. His overall outlook of the future of mankind reminds me of Matt Ridley’s optimism, though tempered with some of Elon Musk’s caution about the potential dangers of AI.
Hawking’s politics seeps into the text on a number of occasions as well. And yet, he was just so darn likable, it didn’t bother me.
My rating: ***1/2
Violence: none (it’s nonfiction)
Sexual content: none (ditto)
Political content: pretty heavy but somehow I overlooked it.