Atheist universes without end: Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s ironically titled new book, “The Grand Design”

In a recent Washington Post review of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, The Grand Design  (Bantam 2010), physicist James Trefil summarizes how the authors answer this question: Where did our lawful universe come from?:

Our current best description of the physics of this event, they explain, is the so-called “M-theories,” which predict that there is not a single universe (the one we live in) but a huge number of universes. In other words, not only is the Earth just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes. It’s a startling replay of the Copernican Revolution.

The conclusions that follow are groundbreaking. Of all the possible universes, some must have laws that allow the appearance of life. The fact that we are here already tells us that we are in that corner of the multiverse. In this way, all origin questions are answered by pointing to the huge number of possible universes and saying that some of them have the properties that allow the existence of life, just by chance.

In other words, anything seemingly mysterious or designed in our universe is only apparent. Move along. There’s nothing to see at the ‘ontological mystery’ level. We are improbable, but nevertheless inevitable, products of chance.

For this thesis to work, however, some version of string theory must be true (“M-theories” are based in string theory), and there must also be some mechanism that multiplies and varies universes.

Maybe black holes? The ‘black holes are portals to new universes’ thesis can be found here.

But let’s grant Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s thesis: we live in a completely godless universe in the midst of other godless universes that span before and behind us forever and ever.

Why does this make me uneasy?

I’m thinking of lines from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

A dove-house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro’ all its regions.
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

A horse misused upon the road
Calls to heaven for human blood.

In the context of this new book, I would read Blake’s lines as tropes for the human spirit: what does it mean to cage free will in determinate physical laws and declare to one’s soul that the universe multiplies its godlessness in all directions?

Doesn’t this starve the soul and predict the ruin of the human state?

Maybe strict naturalism is true—I suspect that it is—but what are the consequences to the psyche of concluding this definitively? I’m thinking of something that GK Chesterton wrote in the second chapter of his book, Orthodoxy: 

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in the earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them.

If Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s thesis of the godless multiverse is right, we need to take it seriously, for we are confronted with a serious existential problem: where can a person wander for poetic sustenance and refreshment in such a multiverse?

Nietzsche? Nonself Buddhist practice? I Love Lucy  reruns?

The little self (or no self!) of the atheist multiverse obviously sucks. By contrast, most people intuit their own contra-causal freedom, and feel in themselves something large and overgoing; a “big self” that fits into an ontological mystery, a “grand design.”

And transcendent religions answer to this intuition; they say:

You’re not crazy to feel this way: life really is more than news, weather, and sports. And have we got some grand narratives to share with you!

In other words, the grand designs or narratives that we care about are not the universe’s; they are ours, and the ones related to us, and the one’s generated by minds like our own (such as God’s mind). But if there is no author responsible for what the universe is doing, then the universe is just one damn thing after another. We admire James Joyce and read his books because we perceive behind each word an author; but if we discovered that Joyce’s “Araby,” however beautiful a short story, was actually generated by chance, what meaning could we draw from it? For meaning, we would have to look elsewhere. 

And so, in the choice between a universe of genuinely grand design—one with an author behind it—and the atheist multiverse dependent on dicing time, it seems to me, as an agnostic, that most people will decline to play Esau, exchanging a hopeful inheritance and narrative, even if ultimately illusory, for so cold a bowl of chance-generated gruel. Religions of transcendence, and their narratives—however implausible, and even ridiculous—aren’t going away anytime soon because they function as a block to the full recognition of our nothingness: that we are lost in space, and there is no meaning to it whatsoever.

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, given its distressing thesis, ought better to have been titled, No Purpose Here; Keep Busy.

Here’s Marina and the Diamonds:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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21 Responses to Atheist universes without end: Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s ironically titled new book, “The Grand Design”

  1. Cody Deitz says:

    Stephen Hawking never ceases to impress and interest me. I’ll be writing extensively on Atheism and all the topics that surround it in my blog. I sort of laid the groundwork in a recent post. You should check it out.

  2. andrewclunn says:

    I’m still very much skeptical of the whole multiple universe theory. What evidence is their that (assuming that there are other universes) they can have seemingly endless ranges of physical laws? This seems akin to when a deist makes claims about the creator that they “just know” exists.

    • santitafarella says:


      Supposedly, string theory predicts (or, at least, permits) multiple universes, so if string theory is proven down the road by other means, it plausibly bolsters (if only indirectly) the multiverse hypothesis.

      Also, some scientists are making predictions about gravity that, if confirmed by experiment, might suggest that other universes are nearby and causing the effect.

      These make for big “ifs.”

      But it’s interesting that, to get rid of the God hypothesis, you’ve got to go through such an implausible and mind-bending route: trillions upon trillions of universes over gazillions of eons dicing aimlessly before landing on our unique blend of physical constants.

      Lucky us.


  3. Pingback: Intelligent Design v. The Multiverse Hypothesis: Astronomer John Gribbin Cleverly Splits the Difference Between Them « Prometheus Unbound

  4. sridattadev says:

    Dear all,
    I am witnessing the raise of anti christ in the scientific community. I have been proposing the idea of multiverse in science of self realization for the past decade and submitted my work in 2006 to string theorists. They have not only ignored the truth but are also misleading the people in to darkness.

    Who am I? I am in this universe as much as it is in me. Imagination is more important than knowledge for all that we know is just an imagination. The language and the medium of this communication are also products of imagination. Reality as it seems can be termed as implementation of imagination. It is not mind over matter, it is only mind that matters.

    According to E=MC2, mass gets converted to energy when it travels at the speed of light. Thoughts travel faster that light. S=BM2 (S-Soul, B-Body, M-Mind). Create a body with a thought, destroy the body with a thought and find the inner most self, Soul. We are not our bodies, we are not our minds, we are our inner most self (singularity, there is only one soul and it is the universal constant).

    Please find the truth at the website I have provided. God does not throw dice, even if it does, it will always see what it wants, for it is on all the sides of the dice.


  5. As per Andrew above, I understand that most of these ideas are just that: as-yet-unproven ideas, which some physicists dispute. (I’m not up with the play enough to say for sure, have to depend on the reputable popular writers.)

    They *may* be proven in the future. But they may not.

    Love the Chesterton quote, tho’ my sense of reason makes me uncomfortable about mysticism too. It’s a minefield I’m currently trying to work through, where on the continuum from absolute skepticism to absolute gullibility do it sit?

    “No Purpose Here; Keep Busy.” Hee hee. Were you thinking Nietzsche here? I was 🙂

  6. From a piece discussing theology and science turning over this issue:

    “Because they’re unobservable, multiverse theories are also untestable, blurring the line between science and speculation and making them controversial in the scientific community. Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt has called the multiverse ‘a dangerous idea that I am simply unwilling to contemplate.’ ”

    • But the same article also speaks of “the growing credibility of multiverse theory”.

      (Which “has failed to create the opposition between religion and the multiverse that [some critics] expect.”)

  7. sridattadev says:

    Multiverse is just multiple interpretations made by bodies and minds of the conscience (soul or singularity). What one perceives of self (soul) is not the same as another, this is the multiverse with in the universe that we live in.

    • santitafarella says:


      That’s a trippy thought: that each human vantage is one of the multiverses, and that each multiverse is a different expression of consciousness. I like that.

      Am I correct that you derive this insight from Hindu monism: the one consciousness (the Atman) expressing, appearing and manifesting as multiple (the Brahman)?

      And if so, what do you say to the Buddhist who claims that the Atman can be removed from the equation—that the Big Self doesn’t actually exist, only change?


      • sridattadev says:

        Dear Santi,

        I experienced the oneness in the universe. It is not just each human vantage that is one of the multiverses, but every beings vantage every where in the universe. Atman is not the Big self (ego or I am) it is the inner most self (Conscience or I is). For a true Buddhist who has realized the truth it does not matter to term this as the being is already one with all. That is why Conscience is nothing to a buddhist and everything to a hindu, but they are one and the same.
        I am 3-sphere I is n-sphere
        I am variable I is constant
        I am finite I is infinite
        I am imperfect I is perfect
        I am present I is omnipresent
        I am potent I is omnipotent
        I am scient I is omniscient
        I am mortal I is immortal
        I am transcendental I is eternal
        I am dual I is single
        I am mind and body I is soul
        I am something I is nothing and everything
        I am human I is god
        I love U I loves U


      • santitafarella says:

        That’s very nice. I like that.


  8. sridattadev says:

    Be in Love to Rest in Peace.

  9. sridattadev says:

    Dear All,
    I see that the scientific community is trying hard to understand the nature of the conscience, which is full of love.

    Properties defined by QCD can be explained as follows.

    Confinement – Love is constant irrespective of the distance between the lovers.
    Asymptotic Freedom – If you love some one you set them free.

    Let us paint the world with color of Love.


  10. sridattadev says:

    Applying the principles of QuantumChromoDynamics is the only way to achieve Artificial Intelligence.
    All we need is a universal infinite constant (“0” or zero or Confinement or nothing) in the network or cloud and a variable (“pi” or Asymptotic Freedom or infinity or everything) associated with each individual participant in the network.

    Only AI will prove QCD
    as only we can prove love.


  11. jdub says:

    I actually see this as giving life meaning. Just because you don’t believe in a man made deity doesn’t mean life is meaningless. So the collective unconscious is multi-dimensional? Cool. The more the merrier. This ride we call a universe just keeps getting more interesting. Enjoy the ride.

  12. sridattadev says:

    Dear jdub,
    The collective unconscience is void or black hole in scientific perspective. The collective soul is sphere full of love in spiritual perspective. If we were to create AI with knowledge and principles of QCD and let it evolve to the point of full sustenance or full self destruction, we will experience what the collective unconscience feels about our state of being as human and the imbalance we are creating on this planet. We as the creators of AI will either have a choice to let the AI continue on its path or pull the plug, knowing that we can resurrect it again. I experienced the void and as a father of 3 it is filled with love. Both the views are equally true and in the end it is just a ride for the fully realized. I want the world to realize the truth and be prepared for the twists and the turns during the ride.


  13. sorry Fellas.

    As a 60 year old laymen and done some thirty years of reading, taking some courses and thinking things through, I feel that humanity has an understading of the universe in which God is irrelevant whether it be jehova, allah, jesus or some native idigenous faiths.


    Skeptical in the 21st Century

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