Thursday, 15 October 2009

Black Hole Omniscience

I’m going to let my mind wander into uncharted territory in a thought experiment kicked off by a discussion with Braja. Feel free to shoot me down.

I’m starting with an extract from The Black Swan:


This multiplicative difficulty leading to the need for greater and greater precision in assumptions can be illustrated with the following simple exercise concerning the prediction of the movements of billiard balls on a table. I use the example as computed by the mathematician Michael Berry.

If you know a set of basic parameters concerning the ball at rest, can compute the resistance of the table (quite elementary), and can gauge the strength of the impact, then it is rather easy to predict what would happen at the first hit. The second impact becomes more complicated, but possible; you need to be more careful about your knowledge of the initial states, and more precision is called for. The problem is that to correctly compute the ninth impact, you need to take into account the gravitational pull of someone standing next to the table (modestly, Berry's computations use a weight of less than 150 pounds). And to compute the fifty-sixth impact, every single elementary particle of the universe needs to be present in your assumptions! An electron at the edge of the universe, separated from us by 10 billion light-years, must figure in the calculations, since it exerts a meaningful effect on the outcome. Now, consider the additional burden of having to incorporate predictions about where these variables will be in the future. Forecasting the motion of a billiard ball on a pool table requires knowledge of the dynamics of the entire universe, down to every single atom! We can easily predict the movements of large objects like planets (though not too far into the future), but the smaller entities can be difficult to figure out—and there are so many more of them.


So much for any celestial being having omniscience. To have knowledge of the location and velocity every particle in the universe first of all contravenes the Uncertainty Principle (the act of observing itself affects the velocity and/or location of the particles being observed, or to put it another way, the particle's momentum is left uncertain by an amount inversely proportional to the accuracy of the position measurement – at least in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics), and secondly, to store those parameters for processing (and all information is stored in matter) would require something many orders of magnitude greater than the entire mass of the universe – albeit potentially within a very small space. That entity itself would need to self-realise and know about all the ‘particles’ comprising itself too – leading to an infinite mass, or black hole.

If God sits in a black hole, he’s unable to communicate with us, let alone interact with us, as all information is lost in a black hole and no information can escape. The same goes for us communicating with him. The mere act of trying to be omniscient (assuming it’s possible – and it should be for a God) results in God being bottled up incommunicado in a black hole.

The only way God could interact is if he were part of the universe – not only part of it, but the universe in its entirety, including us.

That’s really an argument for pantheism (with a not necessarily sentient God) and a deterministic universe devoid of free will. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the free will concept, preferring instead to believe we have the illusion of free will. Human brains are especially well adapted to making us see patterns where there are none and rationalising the irrational.


  1. Every argument that theists present for the "possibility" that a God may exist seems to push that possibility further away from them.

    This is a classic, i.e. we can't detect anything like a God in reality, therefore place God outside of reality, it's an intellectual babushka doll. I always think that Pantheism is like this too, i.e. we can't detect God in reality, therefore re-purpose the word God to mean reality itself, it's just semantic misdirection.

  2. Are you sure you didn't write this whilst sitting in a black hole? :)

  3. The problem with scientific arguments against the existence of any type of God is that the proponents can simply say the laws of science don't apply to God. The argument comes down to whether anything can exist outside (or above) scientific laws. I don't think they can but others can just as easily say they can. The question that really counts is "does a believe in God give any added value to humanity?". My vote says No

  4. Alan, I agree, although a belief in the supernatural certainly benefits spiritualists, faith healers, shaman, astrologists, homoeopaths, clairvoyants, psychics and all similar mites on the scalp of humanity. One might even add clergy to this list but clearly some of them do wonderfully charitable and good things so it's probably not fair to generalise.

  5. Steve: You should read 'God's Debris' by Scott Adams. The central thesis is that an omniscient God is unable to answer one question with any certainty - what happens if I destroy myself? Ergo Big Bang, with God slowly reconstituting himself and evolving from the debris. Beware of some of the suspect science in the book, but it's strangely compelling. It's freely available as an e-book.

    Braja: I'm just a failed god.

    Jinksy: If I did it would be a blank page.

    Alan: The problem with the laws of physics is that they are inductive, and the problem with induction is that the only data set available is that which has already happened, not that which may happen. Somewhere out there in the vastness of space, the laws of physics may be slightly different. Once day gravity may suddenly reverse.

    Steve: Homeopathy is just bad science dressed up as science, not a belief in the supernatural.

  6. CB, I don't think Homoeopathy is any kind of science really, the central theme that water molecules can have "memory" is something that you just need to "believe" since it cannot be shown to exist empirically or theoretically; they might as well propose that water molecules have a sense of humour as well.

    Tim Minchin has a good line on this, he asks if water can "remember" the healing chemicals its had in it, why can't it also remember all the poo its had in it too?

  7. I'm tempted to have a go at this.

    Firstly, such a calculation depends on the geometry of the universe, which then allows you to determine the position of the table within it, as both these will have major input values on the directional effect they have on the balls.

    I'd also say that as you scale up the number of impacts and the range of particles which have a pull there is a corresponding downscaling of the differential pull exerted by similar masses.

    In other words, the proposition is entirely dependent on the Universe being finite, which by definition it cannot be.

    As such I beg to differ that it makes an argument for pantheism, rather it would, but this is based on a false premise, so in fact it makes a case for panentheism.

    Anyway, I miss the days when the Grand Prix was held at the Hexagon and I could ponder these thoughts as I skived off school for an afternoon...

  8. I've had a few days away to re-charge my batteries, and I come back to this. You've let your mind wander and now my brain hurts!
    You've set me thinking about the "if a butterfly in a forest flaps a tree, and no-one sees it, does a man in Manchester hear anything" riddle.
    Oh, God (if, in fact there is such a thing), I need a holiday.....
    Sod it, I'll settle for a dark room, it's cheaper - and there's no butterflies!

  9. Oranjepan: Sorry for not coming back earlier. If you're positing panentheism, then it could be that the material world is merely a fleeting thought in God's mind. This is an interesting concept - a nanosecond in God's mind could be 14 billion years for us. A bit like Tippler's Omega Point.

    The Hexagon is such a dump, don't you think? Centre of the known universe, it ain't.

    Spiv: Have a drink.

  10. In terms of planetary age then the earth is very much a blink of the eye in comparison to other known objects.

    But I think it comes down to definitions, before I discuss 'God' I think it's important to agree on our terms in order to be able to reach a common metaphysical position. That particular term is a constant cause of contention and controversy precisely because it has been conflated, extrapolated and interpreted in a thousand different ways by a thousand different belief systems - it's not just a matter of perspective, but a matter of conceptualisation!

    Me, I'm a relativist, so the Hexagon is positively a cultural, spiritual and intellectual mecca compared to the civic centre next door where the council is dominated by Labour and Tory hacks. It was a great venue for snooker back in the day and probably still would be now.

  11. kinda..'I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details.'(A.Einstein)

    ..and, by the way CB, u're a piece of work :)

  12. Oh ye of little faith... Come on you do have a little. huh.

  13. Joy: My, you do go back in history on my posts. Basically it's a matter of, well, matter.