There’s a theological problem with black holes

Black Holes are collapsed stars that are so dense they have several distinctive effects on objects nearby. At the gravitational states of black holes the universe operates rather haphazardly and different from the normal universe, let alone the parochial mundaneity of our Earth’s surface. It won’t serve much use to explore in exhaustive details what black holes do precisely, but there’s a specific problem with black holes that has profound theological implications for an all-powerful deity such as being believed in by (for instance) the catholic church.

Near the stellar mass of a “normal” black holes gravity quickly increases as any object would get closer to the singularity space. The actual black hole is so heavy that it has compressed more matter than is in the sun to an area of mere kilometers. There is no frame of comprehension human minds can apply to describe this. What is however known is that near any black hole, whether it is minimum sized (several solar masses) to large (galactic ones weight millions to billions of solar masses) the ordinary flow of time is functionally disrupted. Thus an object that falls in to a black hole, as perceived by observers, falls ever closer to this transitional realm of space where the ordinary flow of time is retarded and effectively objects that get close to this “event horizon” effectively freeze before falling in. In other words, what falls in to an already formed black hole falls towards the event horizon and then becomes an image frozen in time, never to fully observationally fall in. It is still there millions of years later, at least in theory still in a state of temporal retardation doing things, potentially making decisions and (from a moral stand point) able to engage in functional moral choices.

From the perspective of a person who actually falls in to a black hole (and survives long enough to deliberate the consequences) something else of considerable importance happens. This mental experiment could not occur in the confines of smaller black holes, as these exert a marked increase in gravitational torque as you approach them. In other words, smaller (stellar mass) black holes are relatively concentrated gravitational points and falling towards these exerts a force that jumps up to fast to allow a person to deliberate much as you get closer. But in case of very heavy black holes the transitional state of falling in gets aggravated by the resulting acceleration caused by falling in, and the observers speed increases as well, thereby causing an ever more considerable slowing of time for the astronaut who falls in to the hole. In other words, the bigger the hole, the more time the traveler has to have a while to look at the surroundings and contemplate matters and exert free will of some sort.

Now this has an interesting implication for theology of some religions. In some religions there is a thing called sin, and in many monotheistic religions certain moral choices have implications on whether a soul is “saved” by the grace of an all knowing deity. This is especially poignant for catholicism, where it is assumed that specific private choices of a moral character can have bearing on when a person becomes damned or saved. Also, in catholicism (and a few other comparable monotheistic ideologies), there is a certain assumption that in some moment in the (allegedly) near future there will be some kind of intervention initiated by the divinity in Earth’s affairs. For many christians it is assumed that this will be within a few years, at most decades, but certainly not in a multitude of centuries, in several millenia and certainly not in millions of years.

However there is a problem with this. And I’d love to hear theologians take this problem seriously and respond to it.

My question is relevant to some theoretical astronaut to travel to a very heavy black hole at some point in the future, and hurtle him or herself in to this object at a very high speed. Just the flight inward of the astronaut will move him or her to “relativistic speeds”, thereby inducing from his or her perspective a change in time flow. Now let’s assume the astronaut is a virtuous soul by the standards of any religion. He or she might be saved or might not be saved by the grace of the almighty, and at the moment of proximity to the singularity mass this is uncertain, even in the contemplation of the divine. However as the astronaut falls in, he or she may experience a retardation of time that he or she is still alive in a point, far in the future of Earth. In fact, with very heavy and large black holes this moment may be literally billions of years in the future.

This implies that the almighty would not be able to properly decide on the moral state of this astronaut for billions of years. Even worse, this astronaut might literally end up the last human (or the last person with the particular kind of free will associated with the divine plan) in the universe for literally billions of years after any other human being has long since passed away. If the almighty would not intervene in the experiential flow of time, and if the act of jumping in to the black hole was not to be regarded as a mortal sin of suicide (for instance — the astronaut were to be thrown in to the black hole by a particularly insidious scientist as an experiment) then we’d all see an unsaved soul frozen in time at the event horizon, still in an undecided state for a long long time.

While no theologian can presume to know the will of the almighty, I am fairly curious on how this question might be resolved, from a merely theoretical theological perspective. When does the almighty make a choice on the state of grace (respectively damnation) of the astronaut? Does the almighty have to contend with potentially waiting billions of years before “rolling up the universe”, so finally it is possible for the end of times to occur, after the last soul has been properly accounted for? Inquiring minds are keenly interested in finding out.

  • Thornton Prime

    First on the Physics …

    Einstein’s Theory of Relativity states that people (and other “observers”) moving at speeds near the speed of light do NOT experience time dilation. They perceive no difference in the flow of time. They experience no retardation, and have no extra time. Clocks moving in their frame of reference seem to operate normally.

    It is the relative flow of time compared to other “observers” outside their reference that demonstrates the difference in flow. They only experience the difference when they compare clocks with someone outside of their frame of reference later, and they notice that time has passed slowly for them, while those outside of their frame of reference experienced more time passing. The best way to describe this is that the person moving close to the speed of light is moving into the future, as well as through space, more quickly that others. The spaceship is a time machine.

    This relative difference in time has been verified using atomic clocks, and is something now featured in the calculations of GPS.

    It’s also worth noting that while the relative frame of reference for the astronaut will slow time, the tidal forces of a black hole will rip the astronaut to shreds long before they reach the black hole event horizon. At the event horizon, all matter is effectively reduced to subatomic particles by the intense gravitational forces and the spin of the black hole.

    Now to the Theological Point ….

    Your question assumes that God experiences time the same way people do, and that God is “outside” the frame of reference of the astronaut falling into the black hole. The underlying assumption here is that God is subject to the laws of space and time, and therefore not “almighty.”

    This question was raised long ago by Christian theologians (and theologians in other monotheistic faiths). It was mostly raised by the question of “What was God doing before the beginning?” Augustine of Hippo explored the issue extensively and concluded that God, if God is truly almighty, is not subject to time but is the creator of time. Augustine answered the question, “What was God doing before the beginning?” by answering that God created time, and before time there was no “before.” While this may seem like a bit of philosophical trickery, the point Augustine was making is that a truly infinite and almighty being would not be subject to time or space or causality the same way we are.

    Another key theological point in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is that God is omnipresent. That means that God is everywhere simultaneously. God would not be “outside” the astronaut’s relativistic frame of reference.

    Now on to a new Theological Puzzle …

    Can God create a stone so heavy even God can’t lift it?

    Yes. They are called black holes.

    According to classical laws of physics, and the Theory of Relativity, nothing can escape a black hole once it’s reached the event horizon. That means the gravity is so strong, nothing can lift it.

    The remarkable thing, though, is that God gave him/herself an escape clause from this paradox.

    Quantum mechanics, though, has speculated that it is possible for black holes to “leak”. Those subatomic particles that everything is shredded into at the event horizon are all in Quantum “superposition” states. They behave very strangely under Quantum mechanics rules, and sometimes they “pop” over the event horizon barrier, leaking back out and escaping the black hole. This “leaking” is called Hawking Radiation (for Stephen Hawking who postulated the quantum states of particles in black holes), and we have measured radiation emissions from black holes that are consistent with Hawking ‘s predictions.

    So, yes, God can create a rock that even God can’t lift, but God still cheats the paradox by playing the Quantum mechanics card.

  • Giulio Prisco

    As Thornton Prime says, God is outside of time. If time is one of the two coordinates on a flat sheet of paper, God is outside that plane, in the third dimension, observing the plane from “above.”

    Concerning the stone so heavy that God can’t lift it, see my MTA 2013 talk: Life and The Computational Problem of Evil
    http://turingchurch.com/2013/04/15/my-mta-2013-talk-life-and-the-computational-problem-of-evil/

  • René Milan

    Interesting thought but of no practical value. Theologians have constructed a system that does not follow rational thought. Why would i be concerned about theological problems ? I am sure they will come up with solutions in the fantastic manner they apparently do not know how to overcome. An obvious one would be to point out the contradiction within your statement: “the almighty would not be able”.

    • Giulio Prisco

      @René re “the contradiction within your statement: “the almighty would not be able”.”

      Hi René! Contradictions usually point to improper use of concepts and language (Russel was one of the first to realize that).

      An almighty being is unable to draw a triangle with four sides, because a triangle is defined as something with three sides, and therefore something with four sides cannot be called a triangle.

      If you assume the truth of a false statement such as “A AND non-A” (the existence of a triangle with four sides falls in this category, because it would be both a triangle and a non-triangle) you can then use formal logic to prove anything.

      The ability to do something that is logically impossible is not a meaningful property.

      • René Milan

        Hey Giulio,

        “Contradictions usually point to improper use of concepts and language (Russel was one of the first to realize that).” I have to admit i do not know who Russel is, but the thought occurred to me during my preteens. “cannot be called a triangle” – logically correct. But we are not dealing with logic in theism. And the meaning of “al”mighty indicates that this assumed entity has the power of changing what we refer to as ‘laws of nature’ which would enable it to create an alternative universe within which four sided triangles are common. And it certainly conveys the power of redefining language. And who is to tell the ‘almighty’ about improper use of concepts and language ?

  • Darren Reynolds

    Several rebuttals spring to mind, but this is my favourite.


    God is everywhere. The astronaut carries God with him. Therefore God experiences the same time dilation and there is no problem for God.

    In writing the above I’ve just taken the OP as read. However, it is perhaps worth considering the physics literature for a moment to make sure we are barking up the right tree.

    Whilst others watching the astronaut from a distance will perceive his clock to go more slowly, this is generally of no use to the astronaut. For the astronaut, local time appears to pass normally. He perceives his wristwatch ticking at the same rate it always did. This should not be surprising, because if wristwatch slows down (let’s stick with the big black hole case), then so do all the wave functions and vibrations and everything else in the astronaut’s brain, so he slows down by the same ratio. Hence, when he looks at the clock, it all looks normal, and he does not gain any superpowers.

    So:
    (1) each party perceives their own clock to be ticking normally, and
    (2) the distant world perceives the astronaut to be almost frozen at a moment in time, even as he whizzes into the black hole at near light speed.

    So, what does all this mean for forgiveness?

    Not a lot, I think, interesting as an exploration it is. My God is, at its most fundamental, something internal to the mind, because God is internal to everything. God ‘knows’ us, because we are God. God ‘knows’ us better than our conscious selves do, because God is all of us, our conscious, subconscious and unconscious selves all rolled up. I use quotes around ‘knows’ because it is not God doing the knowing. It is us doing the knowing, because God is an intrinsic aspect of our material selves, like our emotional state, our weight or our intelligence. We *are* God, just like we are happy, 70Kg in weight (OK, mass) or dunces. People sometimes feel this more keenly when they fall ill, or are afraid. Base instincts begin to take over. Emotion dominates over reason. In extremis, all reason goes out of the window, and emotion is all that we have left. That condition of primal fear is sometimes the moment that God is revealed.

    God is kind of a ground state, present in everything, dead or alive, and perceivable only as our consciousness emerges, when matter bridges or bonds in a way not yet understood by our physicists to produce the islands of subjective experience that each of us enjoys daily.

    Ultimately, everything we perceive is our brain’s attempt to makes sense of incoming stimuli. The whole experience of reality is a hallucination, and it is the one hallucination that natural selection has found to be the hallucination most useful for the survival of the replicating entity. Nowadays we accept that perception as ‘real’, but all the word ‘real’ means here is ‘useful for succeeding under natural selection’. It is no more real than any other hallucination would be under different circumstances, such as with a different brain or under the influence of psychedelics. It’s just that those other ‘reals’ lead to walking off the edge of a cliff and are thus less useful to a replicating entity in the system of natural selection, given the physical world that appears to be around us. Try not to make the mistake of thinking that survival is the only or the most important goal. It’s just one possibility. Think of it this way. Natural selection does not give us the brain best suited to perceiving an underlying reality. Natural selection gives us the best brain for succeeding (replicating and surviving) under a system of natural selection. Perhaps a brain that is good at the latter is hopeless for the former.

    So, on the question of forgiving sins and of heaven and hell, this is more to do with the emotional state of the individual than a place in the universe where such things can be touched by a scientist. The experience of psychedelics may be a useful instructional tool here. Each of us knows, at a deep level, the kind of life we have lived. We also know, from our conditioning, what kind of life we ought to have lived if we are to reap the reward of eternal happiness as opposed to eternal damnation. We can make our own judgement as to where we are headed, heaven or hell. We might be able to fool ourselves for a while, but deep inside we know. The materialist, rationalist will say he’s not worried about that because it’s all nonsense, but I challenge such an individual to take a powerful hallucinogen and come out the other side still convinced that, when he finally dies, he will be able to maintain his view that heaven and hell are nonsense and he doesn’t need to worry about them. He needs to worry about them because when that moment comes, he will cease to be a rational being and become an emotional one. That replacement being will have no truck with claims that heaven and hell are nonsense. To him they will be very real.

    Forgiveness is an internal state. It is a question of feeling forgiven, and genuinely believing that whatever transgressions have taken place, one has been truly remorseful and been forgiven. Once that is deeply embedded and sincerely felt, then, for those culturally conditioned as Christians, at least, the eternal happiness of heaven is at hand.

    We started with talk of time dilation, and the psychedelic experience is useful again in understanding what this means for eternal heaven and hell. Psychedelics can create a distorted perception of time. One might have read the scientific literature and know that a particular compound will cause hallucinations that last for eight hours. But, it might be only once under the influence of that substance that one realises that the scientist meant eight hours of real-time. In the new world, the clocks have all stopped. Suddenly you hit a wall of eternity. It’s very real when you go there, ‘hallucination’ or not. Much of what I am writing here is pure speculation, of course, but I suspect that dying (and some meditation) has certain aspects in common with the psychedelic experience and this sense of eternity may be one of them.

  • mitch

    What about entanglement, aka EPR effect? If it is really instantaneous as all indications show, then there is a connection that occurs instantly. I am not saying that communication occurs, only that connectivity is instantaneous, even within a Black hole.

    The interesting additional physics written about the Higgs Singlet, by Dick Pelletier, back on October 1st on IEET, may have some impact here. Information might pass back and forth in time, it has been suggested.

    I, myself, am somewhat less concerned, if there is the Deity then I am if there is hope for humans. The conception that God exists, is kind of pedantic when it comes to the existential arguments. If God is there but does not care, what does it matter?

    A nice nebula, a pretty comet, maybe that’s all the Painter wanted, before moving on. Suntzu, seems to be arguing how a perfect being, limited, by physics, could know everything? My opinion is that we set Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine aside for the moment and evaluate God, for what he, she, it, is, and not include or disinclude, these great religious thinkers. I have been neurotically, toying, the God exists and from the point of view of physics math and astronomy, might be a Boltzmann Brain. Is this idea crazy enough to be true?

    • Giulio Prisco

      @Mitch re “God exists and from the point of view of physics math and astronomy, might be a Boltzmann Brain. Is this idea crazy enough to be true?”

      I find a Boltzmann Brain (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boltzmann_brain) more plausible than a bearded old man in the clouds. But can we understand a Boltzmann Brain? I don’t think so, not in our current evolutionary phase. And once we understand a nearly omnipotent Boltzmann Brain, we may find evidence for even more powerful intelligences.

      So my favorite definition of God is a very old one: God is in the unknowable, the unknown beyond what we know at any given moment.

  • Mitch

    Certainly, Dr. Prisco.

    This leaves the mysterious beauty of God, still sacrosanct and left to the quiet moments of meditation, and contrition, meditazione e di contrizione, so to speak

    I do not know if a Boltzmann Brain is even possible, or what old, Boltzmann believed it to be true, but I haven’t discovered why he believed this? I find, that, if true, it’s strangely, compelling. Each to their own, of course. There has been chat on the web, over the last several years, asking a couple of questions, such as “are we Boltzmann Brains?” and “Could God be a Boltzmann Brain.” Also, “are our lives merely thoughts within the Boltzmann Brain?” All, probably unanswerable question, unfalsifiable.

    On the other hand, there was the description of the after-world by neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander. Alexander (perhaps merely doing creative writing) wrote about singing, globes, with cometary-like tails. Or, it could be a psychological test that the observer (me) screens in what he wants, and screens out what he does not.

    Here is an animation of some interest to the topic. Some see God in the sunset. Others, elsewhere.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tf8qhTOMSsI