God at the pool table


Below is Lamoureux’s analogy of God playing pool to contrast EC with YEC and PC. Read it and let me know:

  1. What do you think of this analogy? Do you think it’s a helpful illustration?
  2. Do you think the analogy breaks down and if so where?

Consider divine action in the origin of the world to be like the strokes of a cue stick in a game of billiards. Label the balls into three groups using the words “heavens,” “earth,” and “living organisms,” and let the 8-ball represent humans. The young earth creationist depicts the Creator making single shot after single shot with no miscue until all the balls are off the table. No doubt, that is remarkable. A progressive creationist sees the opening stroke that breaks the balls as the Big Bang. All of the balls labeled “heavens” and “earth” are sunk by this initial shot. Then God sinks those that signify living organisms and humans individually. That is even more impressive.

Evolutionary creationists claim that the God-of-the-individual-shots (or “gaps”) fails to reveal fully the power and foresight of the Creator. According to their view of origins, the breaking stroke is so finely tuned that not only are all the balls sunk, but they drop in order, beginning with those labeled “heavens,” then “earth,” followed by “living organisms,” and finally the 8-ball, the most important ball in billiards, representing humans. And to complete the analogy, the Lord pulls this last ball out of the pocket and holds it in His hands to depict His personal involvement with men and women. Is not such a God infinitely more talented than that of the anti-evolutionists? Is His eternal power and divine nature not best illustrated in the last example?


Personally I think it is a great analogy.

Where it breaks down is it makes God seem a little too much in the fold of a deist. Although the picking up the 8 ball at the end is a nice touch.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

I want to hear him work sin and rebellion into this analogy. Wayward billiard balls that decide they would rather go this way than that? Or they just don’t want to go down into that particular pocket?

[Whenever I play pool, I only ever get the sinful billiard balls --and a rebellious pool
stick too.]

(Randy) #4

I have to read the postings under the other thread, but in his online course, he talks about a relationship with God like one with a father–of ongoing learning and correction, like Irenaeus. He also alludes to several different philosophers which he picks apart a bit, either pro- or con. It’s a great course; and just his listing of philosophers in it gave me yet another list of “oughta reads” that I got but haven’t followed up on yet. @DOL


Exactly my thought. But I still love the analogy for the way it conveys God’s power and wisdom in creating all matter/energy–and from this, all of life–with a single ex nihilo creative act.

I tried to think of ways to improve on it so it would include also God’s personal involvement and works of providence (continual upholding, governing, preserving, caring, etc) but then I gave up. :wink:


The version I heard has God grabbing the pool balls with his hands and dropping them into the pockets. This is supposed to be analogous to God breaking the rules of pool in the same way that he would break the rules of physics in a YEC scenario.

Either way, it is interesting to contrast the YEC and EC views in this context. I have always found it strange that YEC’s think God is made to look more powerful when he has to break the very laws of the universe he created in order to produce life and biodiversity. Even to this atheist, a more powerful God is one who can create a universe capable of producing life and humans within the laws found in that universe, just as sinking all of the balls is much more impressive when it is done within the rules of billiards.

(Paul Nelson) #7

Here’s a different take on this metaphor, which has been around for a long time. Context: Ken Miller spoke at the 1995 ASA meeting in Montreat NC, and brought up the God-as-master-pool-player thought experiment:

This may be the place to mention Ken’s answer to a question from the audience about Ken’s own views on God and evolution, because it applies to the question of mechanism. Ken is a Roman Catholic (he elicited a great laugh from the audience by joking, “this is probably the first time Protestant scientists have listened to a debate between two Roman Catholics” [Mike Behe was his debate partner]) who has consistently called himself a theist in his writings (in fact, a “creationist,” that word, exactly, in a 1984 essay, if by “creationist” one understands “any…scientist who professes a religious belief”). In reponse to the question, “how do you think God acted?” Ken told the following story.

“I knew a nun while I was a graduate student in Colorado,” he said, “who was also a biologist. She gave a lecture on evolution, which she fully accepted, and was asked during the question period how she could believe in a God who created through evolution. How did that fit with her theology?”

“Well, she replied,” Ken continued, “that it sounded to her like the questioner believed in a God who wasn’t a really superlative pool player. Imagine a pool player who says, ‘I’m going to sink all the balls on the table,’ and he does so – but only one at a time. ‘My God,’ said the nun, ‘is like the pool player who lifts the triangular rack on the 15 balls, lines up the cue ball, and sinks all the balls with one shot.’”

“And that’s my God, too,” said Ken.

Now, one’s first intuition, on hearing this story, is to say, hmm, that would be quite a feat: sink all the balls with one shot. Wouldn’t that be the greatest design, to build the whole universe so all its design unfolded right from the start – with one shot, so to speak?

But there’s a very interesting problem buried in the nun’s metaphor.

No pool player could possibly sink all the balls with one shot. It’s impossible. The pool player can’t put enough physical information into the head of the cue stick (so to speak), transfer that information to the cue ball, and have the cue ball transfer the information (e.g., vectors) into the fifteen balls in the rack formation to have those balls roll into the pockets of the pool table.

Sure, nothing in principle prevents all the balls from rolling into the pockets. After all, after the impact of the cue ball, they have to go somewhere, so why not into the pockets simultaneously?

But the pool player can’t do it, because he can’t forsee (calculate) all the interactions, and even if he could, he couldn’t “get the information” (the interactions) into the head of the cue stick, using only his muscles (which are subject to dynamics of their own), eyes, nervous system, etc. Furthermore, as the cue ball interacts with the cue stick and the cloth of the table , even before it contacts the rack formation, some information will be lost. That’s why no one will ever lose $ betting against the player who claims to be able to sink all the balls in one shot.

Now, could God sink all the balls with one shot? Of course. It’s only a problem of mechanics. Presumably there are indefinitely many single shots, which, if only one could make them, would sink all the balls in any pattern one chooses.

But scientifically speaking, humans can’t “get at” those shots analytically – because we’re limited by our finite knowledge and the probabilities we face. Therefore we can safely declare the event impossible (meaning excluded probabilistically).

Now, here’s why I think this story becomes a problem for the theistic evolutionist who wants to use it to show how great a designer God becomes (when one accepts evolution). As our scientific descriptions of the universe run back to the Big Bang, we lose information: by that, I mean the “specifications” required, for instance, to provide function in even the simplest organisms, will disappear – they can’t be expressed by, or reduced to, physical equations.

Thus, if the theistic evolutionist starts with God creating “the laws of nature,” he lacks the explanatory resources to generate organisms later. The physical laws and regularities are too information-poor. That is, they won’t generate specified functional (or informational) structures. Well, how about giving those laws some help, by rigging the starting conditions? (Trick shots in billiards displays often begin with the shooter arranging the balls in some carefully specified pattern.)

Again, I don’t think that helps. The information required won’t go away: one simply has to encode it at another, lower level. (Mike Behe and I once argued about whether a cosmic ray burst might generate all the mutations necessary for a cilium to arise de novo; I said, sure, it could, but then one has to explain the vastly unlikely event of simultaneous cosmic ray bursts all striking one cell, etc. The information won’t go away.)

So, when the nun says, “I believe in a God who sinks all the balls with one shot,” she’s really describing a created universe that wouldn’t work. At least, we can’t say how it would work, i.e., bring forth organisms from physical regularities in the fullness of time.

What does it mean to say, “we can’t say how that universe would work”? Exactly what it means, I think, in the billiards example. Suppose someone said, “it’s possible to sink all the balls with one shot.”

“Yes, in principle,” we respond. “In reality? Never.”

That’s equivalent to rejecting naturalistic evolution probabilistically. Then the nun says, “OK, but God could have done it.”

Sure, he could have. But, scientifically speaking, we face all the same problems. God’s knowledge is not “our” knowledge, and our science is always relativized to our limitations. Thus, to say, “God could have done it” does absolutely nothing to solve the problem of getting enough information out of the Big Bang to build organisms, and so on.

That’s why most theories of theistic evolution, when one looks at them closely, really involve God acting all along the way. One can’t tell the other story – where God acts only at the beginning, setting up just physical laws – and get organisms out several billion years later.

Standing in the line for dinner and discussing this with David Wilcox, we agreed that Ken’s story about the nun’s billiard metaphor, far from making theistic evolution more plausible, actually made it much less so. Sitting next to Ken at dinner, I mentioned this problem, saying, “do you realize how much information has to be in the head of the cue stick?” – and he smiled. Then I said, “but of course the story is a great way to get out of the question” – and he nodded.

Excerpted from here (http://www.arn.org/docs/asa795rpt.htm)

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

Thanks for sharing those interactions, Paul. [Dr. Nelson, rather. Sorry for my presumption of familiarity.]

I agree that the “single shot” is most certainly more than a stretch for what is “realistically possible.” And furthermore, I don’t feel any great need to defend the concept since I’m more into “involved gardner” metaphors for God’s actions than the deistic conceptions that reserve their admiration for that initial single shot.

So I really have no ax to grind here in playing “deist’s advocate” to perhaps partially rescue a fetching story. Sure, there is no way human muscles (much less a normal mind) come anywhere close to pulling off such a feat … especially if one accepts a random opacity (courtesy of QM amplified by chaos theory) that would prevent the greatest mind from seeing beyond a brief number of interactions in the first place. But we aren’t talking about human beings with human muscles holding the cue stick. We’re talking about God, who presumably knows every atomic position and imperfection - every wooden fiber of the said cue stick and who knows every electron placement in every carpet fiber all over the table and (and this is the biggest hurdle yet) – presumably is not blocked by the same QM opacity that is a barrier to our knowledge. The only way that God could be thwarted from performing the “one-shot feat” is to insist on QM ontological randomness that is opaque even to God (which I know some propose - I don’t). Of course, set aside free will too, and allow a fully deterministic universe, and why couldn’t God interact with it with whatever infinite precision was required? That’s a lot of allowances, but then again, it’s a “lot more God”.

All that said, though, I still relate to a God who I strongly suspect would prefer laughing, playing, and relating to others in a normal game of billiards by giving other players a chance to make their mark in the game, rather than just ending it all with a single shot and walking away like a showoff. God is powerful, smart, and good. No believers through history ever needed to be convinced of that. [or let me soften that to: we usually don’t need to be convinced of that.] But that such a one would ever come, get his feet dusty, and simply relate to us within our own contexts – now that is what seems to have faced a whole lot more skepticism, both historically and even still now. The God who not only lets us make our own plays, but even let’s himself apparently get beat in a billiards game – now that God blows our minds.

It is a cool metaphor on which to bandy about different scenarios.

[with edits.]

(Paul Nelson) #9

Yes – but then, that’s not billiards or pool as we normally understand it. What we know is this: the single shot is impossible. God can do anything, of course, but the story was supposed to show that the physical laws we understand could give rise to the universe, to the Earth, to life, and to us.

The problem with the supreme billiards player metaphor is it miscarries precisely where it is supposed to pay off in deeper understanding. In fact, it miscarries in exactly the wrong direction.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

Good point.

I agree that this is a problem for those who want to imagine that a meticulous plan was entirely front-loaded so that God could sit back and just be hands-off. As much as such a scenario may have been valued by Leibniz and his cohort, I’m not sure how many here would lose much sleep letting go of this conception if they haven’t already. It sounds like we’re agreed that, cool metaphor notwithstanding, the comparison probably can’t carry the assigned load.

So we’re all agreed (well… all two of us anyway.) Now as long as you don’t ask me for any details on how God keeps busy in and among all these natural regularities we love to observe, everybody’s still happy, right? :grin:

(Bill Wald) #11

Job chapter 1 could be described as God and Satan playing a computer game with this universe.

I have concluded that God and Jesus have been historically misrepresented. God is “totally other.” and can not be understood my humans. Jesus told us all we need to know. Respect God. Respect ourselves and our neighbors. Work at being a good neighbor to the people in which we come in contact with. The rabbis taught the same thing but the Devil is in the details.