The use of the word "design" in the title is a bit ironic. Atheist scientists tend to use words in their popular books in less than precise ways, and no doubt this helps sell more books to the less scientifically literate public. But, the use of such loose words is contrary to their usual practice of terminological precision in scientific journals.
We can be sure that "design" does not mean it was designed -- it is Orwellian doublespeak for "description." Calling it the "Grand Description," and asking "Is Hawking really describing nothing?," may help clear the field in what I describe below.
In this book, we learn that Hawking now explicitly says there is no need for God. In the place of God, he says we have the mindless law of gravity (quantum gravity, I would presume) to thank for it all. This bit of "news" should not be a surprise. Alongside paying lip-service to "God," he had already said much the same in A Brief History of Time. In connection with his no-boundary conjecture, he had written, "What place, then, for a creator?"
So then, just what is Hawking's "new insight"? Here is one extract that is being circulated:
"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...".
This type of philosophical nonsense is not even as good as that typically produced by college freshmen. It is philosophical conjuring, verbal subterfuge and "creative accounting." If Hawking's profession were investment management, his accounting techniques would amount to securities fraud, and he would be subject to criminal prosecution.
As a physicist whose special field is General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory, I can attest that the law of gravity and the rest are not "nothing." Gravity is a property of matter, along with those other laws and other fundamental forces as incorporated in the Standard Model. If all of these other fields, particles, and laws governing their interactions are nothing, then one is left to wonder how the many details of the structure of the physical universe can be analyzed in mathematical terms. And by terms I am being explicit!
All of the physical stuff -- individual particles of matter and their fields -- that supposedly emerges from Hawking's "nothing," by way of gravity, is already in the "mix." There are explicit mathematical terms describing both the individual particles of matter and the laws that govern the interactions of all that "stuff" in the equations from the "git go." To talk as if it is not is just simply creative accounting -- all of the physical stuff is already "lurking" there. And so then the physical universe, too, is already there. If they are truly "nothing," Hawking ought to take a red pencil and strike those descriptors from his equations.
This should be no surprise, since the equations of physical models and theories are deductive in nature, and, therefore, they predict the implications of the theory. If a theory could not deductively predict its logical consequences, it would violate the very tenets of the scientific method and be useless. On the surface, Hawking's claim is equivalent to someone deducing "Socrates is mortal" while omitting the minor premise "Socrates is a man" from that famous syllogism.
Hawking has stated nothing new -- he has just restated the standard brute-fact material universe of atheism. A universe of matter-in-motion not adequate to the task of accounting for all of human experience -- a universe conspicuously devoid of logic, mathematics, morality, human minds and human freedom.
But as Hawking describes the universe, it is something even more absurd than Plato's cosmogony. In place of Plato's intelligent demiurge acting on eternal matter, we have Hawking's mindless gravity and. . .nothing. Well, not quite nothing, but a "nothing" describable by some explicit and rather advanced mathematics. Now that is something!
According to Hawking, after years of work and study in the field of physics, I am now supposed to believe that the elegant mathematics was a description of nothing rather than something.
If Professor Hawking wants to insist that these are all "nothing," then apparently he is writing about nothing and describing nothing (an oxymoron if ever there was). Since it would then appear that the latest property of the law of gravity is "forgiveness" -- and it must be so since gravity is the reason we exist -- then he should please forgive those who curtly dismiss his book.
Maybe, he should change the title to Much Ado About Nothing -- but, alas, that title has already been taken.