I was watching some televised poker the other day and they spent some time talking about the superstitions of some of the players. That got me to wondering about the belief espoused by many atheists and others that the universe is like a giant pinball machine. The idea is that the universe works according to a fixed set of physical limitations and if we can just figure out the current position and velocity of everything we could predict with near certain accuracy where all the balls will go in the future.

I asked God who was closer to the truth, the people who think that everything is predictable or the people that believe in the magic of superstition. She told me I was presenting a false dichotomy. The people that wear the same “lucky” shirt to every poker tournament believe even more than scientists in a predictable universe, they’re just making guesses about where the paddles are that they can use to push the ball around.

We bandied about different ways of playing with the pinball metaphor for a while, and unfortunately it was late and I went to sleep when we were done, so I really don’t remember a lot of the conversation. I do recall a couple of things though.

Take it as a given that the universe is only the area inside the pinball machine in which the balls can travel. The universe ends at the glass ceiling and does not dip into the guts. There are some pinball machines that have electromagnets beneath the table top that the balls race across. Depending on targets that you hit or other actions within the game, those magnets will activate and exert unusual influences over the trajectory of the balls. So, in our metaphor, the magnets exist outside of the universe but sometimes extend their influence inside. I think she said that black holes are like those magnets.

Or was it angels?

Anyway, the most important thing, the thing I want to leave you with, is that while the flippers are inside the universe, the buttons that activate them are not. So who’s controlling the flippers? She just smiled. And twitched her fingers, just a bit.

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