God and Black Holes: Different Forms of Belief
by: John Tyrrell
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In Talk Back 121 published this week, Dan Bruce tells us about his discussion with his atheist astrophysicist friend:
...I asked him if he believed in Black Holes. Without pause, he answered affirmatively, that he did indeed believe without doubt in Black Holes. I reminded him that a Black Hole could not be seen directly, and thus his belief rested on the effects that a Black Hole causes at its boundary with the material universe that surrounds it. He agreed that was so. I continued by explaining that it was the same with God. We cannot see him directly, but we can perceive his existence based on the space-time effects we can see in our world that reveal him.
While I don't have the benefit of a degree in astrophysics, my quick and dirty answer to Dan's message to me on my belief in black holes was, I think, a little more careful than a simple "Yes."
I don't "believe in" black holes. However, I accept the currently available scientific evidence which indicates a very strong probability for the existence of black holes.
I'm going to expand on that idea a bit.*
The scientific basis for the existence of black holes is not just "the effects that a Black Hole causes at its boundary with the material universe that surrounds it." It is also that black holes are the inevitable result of a set of physical conditions. We can "see" black holes because of the effects they cause, but they also are caused by a set of other physical phenomena, for each of which there is evidence. And the predicted existence of black holes (before any were actually found) arose out of the theory of relativity.
Black holes have a scientifically evidence-based cause. God (at least in the major monotheistic religions) does not have a cause, scientific or otherwise.
Our acceptance of black holes is based not just on their observable effects, but also that their existence necessarily arises out of the effects of natural phenomena and the laws of physics.
Even if the supposed effects of God could indeed be solidly attributed to some form of deity, the evidence for that deity would necessarily be weaker than that for a black hole because the deity lacks a cause. The "proof" for a deity would remain one-sided, while there are two sides to the proof for a black hole.
Let's look at another key difference between belief in black holes and God. And that will take a short fictional tale about the destruction of belief in black holes
Suppose a physics professor - let's call him Professor Nino of Tempo University - in an idle moment took another look at the equations arising out of relativity, manipulated them through several mathematical transformations, and realized that an alternate outcome to the predicted existence of black holes could be a previously unidentified form of matter, which in a bit of whimsy (to which some people are strangely prone) he called Deep Purple Matter. He determined that if deep purple matter indeed existed, nearly all its effects would be identical to the effects expected of a black hole, except for the effect on specifically a trinary star system approaching the boundary - where the impact of the various forces in play would be the repulsion of the three stars in different directions away from the deep purple matter rather than the three being drawn into the black hole.
Professor Nino's results were laughed off by the physics community as a mathematical curiosity unlikely to be verifiable, until Ms. April, an doctoral student in astrophysics at Stevens University desperate for an original thesis topic decided to see if Nino's idea could be tested. As luck would have it, using a series of images from a deep space telescope taken over a number of years, she found a trinary star system approaching the boundary of a reputed black hole in a galaxy center, and sure enough, the three stars were expelled in three different directions exactly accordance with Nino's hypothesis. She successfully demonstrated the existence of deep purple matter.
Other investigator's subsequently confirmed the results, Nino of Tempo and April of Stevens shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of Deep Purple Matter, and black holes joined the aether and phlogiston upon the trash heap of science. Deep purple matter reigns - until some better theory comes along.
OK - it's just a story and highly unlikely to happen; black holes are extremely probably quite real. But that's the way science works. Good ideas are steadily replaced by better ideas and science moves steadily closer to a fuller understanding of reality.
The idea of God is different. Dan Bruce thinks we can "see" God through his effects on the universe. But as science continues to examine those effects and identify natural causes for those effects, proponents of God continue to assert his existence - because there are always effects for which science has not yet identified a cause.
For example - the origin of life - science has not yet established a highly probable answer, so instead of "I don't know", believers say "God did it - the origin of life is therefore evidence for God." And when science does eventually identify the actual origin of life as something quite natural, the belief in God by true believers will remain unshaken, unchanged. Except they may point to some other as yet unanswered question as "evidence for God."
You can believe black holes exist, and you can also believe God exists - but those two types of belief are quite different. One of them is open to change based on actual evidence.
* Anyone with a better understanding of science than me (and my science education is largely 50 years old) is welcome to offer suggestions for improvement in this article.
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