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The Grand Design

Chapter 3: What is Reality?


Stephen Hawking introduced the idea of model-dependent realism as a view that can
best explain the universe. This approach can best be analogized by the gold-fish perspective
he wrote at the beginning of chapter 3. At one time, the city of Monza, Italy, proposed a
measure prohibiting the use of curved bowls for goldfishes as this, they explained, distorts
the fishs view of reality. Hawking said that we might also be in a similar situation as the
goldfish but we can find ways on how to rectify the situation by finding a suitable model to
measure and explain reality. He said that a model is a good model if it:

1. Is elegant
2. Contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements
3. Agrees with and explains all existing observations
4. Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify
the model if they are not borne out.

Elegance, according to Hawking, refers to the form of a theory, which means that the
model must be as simple as possible, but not simpler, as Einstein puts it. The second criterion
is closely allied with the first, a sort of mechanism to avoid making the model more of a
catalog of data than a theory. The third and fourth allows for the model to be actually put to
test and duplicated by others which can pave the way for further improvements or
developments of the said theory.

Hawkings thesis is that there is no picture or theory-independent concept of reality.

Reality, according to him could best be explained by a view he calls model-dependent realism
described as the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model and a set of rules that
connect the elements of the model to observations.

He used as an example the historical development of the two theories that allowed
physicists to explain the forces interacting in the universe particle and wave theory. The
first was accepted during the time of Newton but when it was not sufficient to explain the
phenomenon of the Newton rings, came the wave theory to rescue classical physics. This
realization brought up a very important facet of Hawkings idea that: there seem to be no
single mathematical model or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe. Here he
briefly mentions M-theory, a theory that employs a network of theories which is, at best, able
to describe phenomenon within a certain range. This theory, says Hawking, is consistent
with a model-dependent realism, which states that no single theory within the network of
theories can describe every aspect of the universe.

Stephen Hawkings ideas again strike a chord at the heart of one of lifes most elusive
questions: What is Reality? His proposal that a theory that could best explain the inner
dynamics of reality is a theory that reflects the observable aspects of the universe, is
consistent with and is flexible enough to allow room for predictions and change.
I would point out that Hawking is saying nothing new. In fact, it was Aristotles legacy
that science became what it is now due to his emphasis to empirical analysis of phenomenon,
as the basis of science. His works evidences his firm belief that knowledge of reality should
be based on empirical data and that science should be a search for the causes of things. This
heritage was synthesized by Aquinas in the Middle Ages and became an important element
of his philosophy. Aristotles realism was greatly enhanced by Thomas Christian faith and
became part of Christianitys contribution to both science and faith for centuries to come.
When Hawking speaks of model-dependent realism he is echoing, in my opinion, the same
realism that influenced the works of Aristotle and Aquinas.
I agree with him, when he says that: there seem to be no single mathematical model
or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe. In as much as reality is the sum
total of all that is, in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, I would construe that Hawking is
amenable to the idea that the universe is itself a mystery, in the sense that, all reality cannot
be explained fully, in ones lifetime, or even within the universes span of existence.