Black Holes & the Penumbras of Belief
The field of theoretical physics has, for quite some time, been in search of a single, “unified” theory that explains the way the universe operates. Albert Einstein discovered general relativity which is able to explain how enormous things relate, and quantum physics accurately predicts the behavior of subatomic particles. The problem is that the two can’t be reconciled.
This problem has puzzled the world’s sharpest mathematicians for decades now. On the quantum front, researchers are able to tinker with atomic particles in laboratory conditions. The Large Hadron Collider is the largest and most expensive research laboratory ever fashioned, and the fruits of research there are impressive, to hear the physics gurus tell it. They have recently confirmed the existence of the Boson Higgs particle, curiously nicknamed the “God” particle, much to the chagrin of some in the physics community. But what of astronomical physics, or cosmology? Mankind is making giant strides in teeny tiny physics, but there seem to be unique challenges facing astrophycisists. Namely, time and space.
To begin with, astronomical processes often take millions or billions of years. Thanks to Einstein, we understand that, by the time the light from stars in space reaches us, it is already old. Sometimes very old. If you point your telescope to a star that lies 100 lightyears away, the image you are seeing is one hundred years old. Astronomers who witness and study events such as, for instance, a supernova, are watching what happened when their grandfathers were in diapers. Or perhaps when Copernicus first suggested that the earth revolves around the sun, instead of the other way around. The scale of astrophysics also complicates study of the super-big. Whereas elements and atoms are subject to manipulation by human hands, galaxies are not.
The result of this is that astronomers are not able to subject their hypotheses to the same process as normal scientific endeavors. With the scientific process, an idea must be tested in a controlled setting, and must be repeatable in order to be considered an established scientific fact. This is science 101. Does that work for astronomers and astrophysicists? Not exactly. They have to wait for processes to take place, take measurements and observations and draw conclusions. In this sense, astrophysics, astronomy and cosmology, etc. would seem to qualify as deductive sciences, heavily dependent somewhat abstract mathematics and logic. They contrast with mainly inductive sciences which rely on repeatable processes and high amounts of testable data.
A very interesting example of the non-testable nature of astrophysics are black holes. No one can prove that they exist, as of yet. They are not observable, yet no one doubts their existence (can you see where this is going?) The epistemology of (the means by which we understand) black holes lies within the penumbras of real scientific certainty. But the scientific community is effectively unanimous concerning the ontology of black holes. How do we know they are there? Michael Finkel gives us a layman’s explanation in the March, 2014 issue of National Geographic:
“No one has ever seen a black hole, and no one ever will. There isn’t anything to see. It’s just a blank spot in space–a whole lot of nothing, as physicists like to say. The presence of a hole is deduced by the effect it has on its surroundings. It’s like looking out a window and seeing every treetop bending in one direction. You’d almost certainly be right in assuming that a strong yet invisible wind was blowing.
“When you ask the experts how certain we are that black holes are real, the steady answer is 99.9 percent; if there aren’t black holes in the center of most galaxies, there must be something even crazier.”
If the scientific community is content to accept the existence of black holes largely using deductive reasoning (rather than the preferred scientific method of inductive reasoning), skeptics cannot rationally reject the existence of God based on a lack of testable data. In the same way that conditions and events surrounding black holes give scientists a rational basis for belief, Occam’s Razor would seem to indicate that God is the simplest and most rational explanation for the conditions and events we see in the world—and the universe—today. Most conservative Christians who have studied the question would argue that the data in the New Testament and other 1st century writings are compelling enough, but let’s give the community of skeptics the benefit of the doubt for the sake of the argument. Black holes aside, can we find other examples of inconsistency regarding a reasonable threshold of proof?
Consider SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Researchers have spent millions of dollars creating a listening post whose sole purpose is to intercept and analyze radio and other signals from space. Planet earth is listening. If someone or something non-human and intelligent were to speak, SETI would hear. What might constitute evidence that a radio signal had an intelligent source? If a signal were to have an organized pattern, we can all agree that SETI researchers would have reasonable grounds to consider the source of the signal to be an intelligent being. The study of information sciences tells us that complexity does not arise at random. However, if we turn our attention once again from the macro to the micro, we will notice volumes of highly detailed and complicated messages written in every living cell: DNA. Someone is speaking. Yet for some reason, a certain contingent of the scientific community is committed to explaining how the message came to exist without an intelligent source. While I can not claim to be a professional scientist, this seems intellectually inconsistent to me. How can any rational person accept organized information as reasonable evidence for intelligence in one instance and dismiss it in another?
Please don’t misinterpret my ramblings. I don’t intend to say that the astronomy community lacks epistemic warrant for belief in black holes, nor that SETI should dismiss an organized signal in the event they receive one. What I do want to say is that religious skeptics might take a second look at the bigger question of what constitutes evidence or proof. What would we expect to see if an intelligent, supernatural being existed? To what extent could we logically say such an intelligent being owed us testable data? Has the burden of proof been met? Is it logically consistent to require “hard proof” in the case of God, but be satisfied with the penumbras of evidence for the claims of theoretical physics?
Admittedly, this post falls short of providing any evidence FOR the existence of God (or black holes, for that matter). But that was never my intention. I am simply in the learning process, like the rest of us, and asking questions along the way. The burden of proof has already been met for me, for both black holes and God. What about you?