Monday, June 24, 2013

There are Atheists in Plot Holes Pt. 1: The Absuridity of Science in a Superhero Universe

Inconsistent much?

The gentleman pictured above is Mr. Terrific, aka Michael Holt.  He's one of my favorite characters in comics, partially because he's a Black superhero who doesn't have the word "Black" in his codename, but mostly because his only "superpower" is his intelligence.  Having mastered the works of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, etc at the age of six before going on to earn fourteen Ph.Ds Micheal Holt is widely acknowledged as the third smartest person in the DC Universe. As the seventh smartest person in the actual universe ( and that's documented), I can relate to the loneliness and frustration Micheal must feel being stuck on a planet full of idiots (present company excluded).

The other thing that makes Mr. Terrific interesting is that he is one of the only "out of the closet" atheists in comics. 

Micheal Holt's atheism is the subject of not a small amount of ridicule in more refined (read: virginal) corners of the internet's comic book message boards, where the ridicule is usually phrased thusly:   "How can someone who has personally met the Angel of God's Vengeance, among various other deities, be an atheist?  ROFL! LOL! SNARK! DERP!"

Good question, fictional internet jerk. But in my opinion, the situation for the hypothetical comic-book-universe atheist is slightly different, but actually much worse, than that.  It's not so much that everyone in the Marvel and DC universes should believe in God full stop. It's that everyone in those universes should at least be more open to belief in God, because no one in those universes should believe in science.

Allow me to explain:

In my view there are three main impediments to atheistic belief in the Marvel and DC universes:

1) Those universes contain beings possessed of seemingly supernatural abilities.

Example: Superman, whose abilities at least seem to be scientifically unexplainable.

2) Those universes contain beings possessed of actual supernatural abilities.

Example: Dr. Fate, whose abilities are accepted as being actually scientifically unexplainable.

3) Those universes contain beings possessed of actual supernatural abilities who claim to be deities.

Example: Zeus,  a being who is an object of worship whose abilities are scientifically unexplainable.

It's easy to see how the existence of Dr. Fate and Zeus would make atheism untenable, as the former would prove that there is a realm outside of the scope of science, and the latter would prove that realm inhabited by actual, living gods.

Impediments 2) and 3) are usually seen as the typical reasons why atheism isn't nearly as rational in the Marvel and DC universes as it supposedly is in our universe.  Micheal Holt has not only seen real instances of the supernatural, some of his best friends, like The Spectre,  are living embodiments of the supernatural.

But my contention is that 1) should be enough to make any atheist in the Marvel and DC universe do some real (pardon the expression) soul-searching.  And that's because almost all superpowers in these universes, whether they are expressly mystical or not, violate one of the most fundamental principles of science.  Thus, if it's true that the progress of science is the best argument for atheism (IMO, it's not, but that's a subject for another blog post) then the profligacy of the superpowers on display in the Marvel and DC universes should make an atheist rather nervous.  Explaining why will require a brief detour into the field of physics. 

If you've ever had the misfortune of hanging out with scientists, you might have heard one of them mutter the phrase "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch."  Scientists don't just say this because they're all cheap, grammatically ignorant bastards. They say it because it's shorthand for one of the more fundamental laws of physics, the first law of thermodynamics.  This law states that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it merely changes forms.  What this means in a nutshell is that you can't get more energy out of a system than you put in it. 

For the sake of mathematical simplicity, let's say you had the misfortune of purchasing a car that only got 1 mile per gallon.  If you put 10 gallons of gasoline in such a car, you'd be able to drive that car 10 miles before it ran out of energy. The car will never go 20 miles on 10 gallons of gas, because the car cannot create energy, it can only use the energy put into it in the form of gasoline (and in fact, according the second law of thermodynamics, in the real world all systems will actually lose energy, and output less energy than was put in).

Now, this assumes that the car is what physicist refer to as a closed system. Basically, a closed system is any system that cannot access energy from anything external to itself. (As contrasted with an open system, which can access energy from external sources.) So when we say that a car that gets 1 mile per gallon cannot go more than 10 miles on 10 gallons of gas, we are assuming the car is a closed system, and not getting energy for movement from somewhere else. If the car was pushed by its driver, or blown across town by a tornado, it could go further than 10 miles despite only containing 10 gallons of gas.  But it would not go further than 10 miles on the energy internal to it.  You'd have to add energy to the system of the car in the form of the man or the tornado.  But if you were to expand your concept of the system to include both the car and the man and the tornado, the principle would remain the same.  The combination of the car and the man and the tornado cannot move the car farther than their total energy level would allow.

Now, an important point to consider is that scientists consider the universe as a whole to be a closed system.   That means there is no net energy being added to or lost by the universe.  This qualification on the first law is pretty important, since if the universe were not a closed system, it would become completely unpredictable.  If the universe were not a closed system, then there could be energetic events, like, say, an explosion, whose cause was not within the universe.  Such an explosion would then be inaccessible to scientific explanation; its cause would be outside the observable range of scientists in our universe.  If the universe were not a closed system, the scientific enterprise would be nearly impossible.

So, to recap, it is indispensable to the scientific worldview that:

1) There are no free lunches (no net gain of energy in any closed system).
2) The universe is a closed system. (there is no energy coming into the universe from outside the universe).

All of the energy we use, whether in our bodies or in our machines, comes from somewhere within the closed system of the universe and costs us something (gas, electricity, calories, etc). 

You can probably already see where I'm going with this.  Superpowered comic book universes are like elementary school in the projects - everybody's on free lunch.  At least, everybody with superpowers. Superpowered beings routinely seem to be getting way, way more energy out of their bodies than they put in them. So as not to pick on the DC Universe, let's take the example of Cyclops, from Marvel Comics X-Men. 

Cyclops' has the ability to project "optic beams" from his eyes that can impact with sufficient force to collapse a tank. In fact, Cyclops' optic beams are so powerful that he can't so much as open his eyes without unleashing a torrent of uncontrollable destructive force.  His eyes are overflowing with so much gosh darn energy, that said energy can't be held back except with the use of his specialized ruby-quartz glasses (or, you know... his eyelids... somehow...)

All of which leads us to the obvious question any scientist would ask himself on seeing Cyclops in action - where the eff-word is all that energy coming from?

It seems there are only two options.  Either A) Cyclops' body is a machine that is capable of converting normal caloric intake into limitless energy, or 2) Cyclops' body is a conduit to an alternate universe/dimension from which we can extract limitless energy.

If A), then Cyclops' body is a machine capable of creating energy, in which case the first law of thermodynamics is destroyed.  If 2), then the universe is not a closed system, in which case the first law of thermodynamics is destroyed.

And the same would apply even for heroes who are not "energy projectors."  Any system can only do as much work as it has the energy within it to do.  So, if Superman were to lift 200 quintillion tons, as this image in Superman All-Star #1 tells us he's able to do, he could only do so consistent with the laws of science if he is taking into his body enough energy to produce such a feat. Given that the planet Earth only weighs 66,000 quintillion tons, it's doubtful Superman is getting his energy from food, unless he's eating all of the food on the planet.

The canonical answer has always been that Superman's powers are fueled by the sun, but how much of the sun's energy would Superman have to absorb to be able to pull this off? I'm not a physicist, so I don't have an exact answer.  But consider how much solar energy would be needed to power a machine that could move something much smaller than 200 quintillion tons, say the state of North Carolina.  If Superman were absorbing enough of the sun's energy to power him to regularly and casually perform such feats, then either he's been storing that energy for eons, or he absorbs enough of the sun's energy on a daily basis to send the rest of the hemisphere into an ice age.

Since neither of those options appear to be the case in the DC universe, we're back to the same options A) and 2) that we had with Cyclops.  Either Superman's solar cells can output vastly more energy than they take in, or they're transmitting energy to Superman from outside the universe.  And again, either way, RIP science.

Now, it could be argued there's a way out consistent with science.  What if superheroes were just conduits of energy from another source, but what if that source was within this universe?  And what if there was a no net gain on the energy exchanged between superhumans and this source, such that the first law of thermodynamics was maintained?

Well, maybe you could save the first law, but only at the expense of other laws.  For example, wherever this source of power is, it's not anywhere close.  The biggest nearby energy source is the Sun, and in the DC universe, at least, the Sun would have a full time job just fueling Superman's powers.  So, assuming this energy source is somewhere out there further than the sun, then superhumans would be transferring this power from this place to themselves at speeds faster than the speed of light.  And special relativity says that nothing travels faster than the speed of light.  (Yes, science nerds, I know what quantum entanglement is, and I've heard of the EPR experiment.  But nonlocality does nothing to show that massive amounts of macro-level energy can be transported instantaneously across the universe at superluminal speeds, which is what would be required.) Sure, maybe they could be using wormholes to bring the energy to themselves, but even transport via wormhole isn't instantaneous, and most superhumans in the DC universe seem to have instantaneous access to their powers.

So, maybe you could save the first law at the expense of other laws, but given the number and variety of superpowers that appear to break the first law, a scientist in the DC or Marvel universe would have to consider this a desperate move.  Are we supposed to believe that Cyclops' eyes and Superman's cells and Wonder Woman's muscles all contain wormholes that allow instantaneous transportation of energy from some source inside the universe to their bodies?  I contend it would be more honest to just admit the first law doesn't apply and start over.  At any rate, whether you threw out the first law or special relativity, science as we now know it would be thrown into extreme disarray, if not completely destroyed, by the sudden appearance of superhuman machines that output vastly more energy than they take in.

Now, I'm not just saying this to make the pedantic point that the feats portrayed in comic books are impossible given the laws of physics.  I'm making the narrative point that the scientists in those universes should know such feats are impossible given the laws of physics, and so those scientists would have to conclude that the laws of physics are wrong.  No scientist in the DC universe could ever again use Einstein's theory of special relativity to explain anything when there are dozens of people in his world whose abilities prove that Einstein's theory of special relativity is flat out incorrect.  Really, no scientists in any superhero universe should use any scientific theory to explain anything until somebody figures out where the hell all of this free energy is coming from.

So, is Micheal Holt crazy for being an atheist? Maybe.  But he's way less crazy than Reed Richards is for being a scientist.

But scientists and atheists aren't the only people in comics who are failing to adequately account for what's going on around them.  Religious believers in the world of comics are just as clueless, as I'll explain in the next installment of this series.

One of my main reasons for writing Theodicy is my belief that people in superhero comics do not respond rationally to the presence of superhumans in their midst.  This irrationality starts with the scientists, who seem blissfully unaware that the mere presence of superheroes kicks out the foundations of that worldview they've been carefully building.  And, as we shall see next week, the irrationality also extends to the religious in those comic book worlds, who don't seem to notice there's not a whole lot of difference between the beings they worship and beings like Superman. (I mean, what's walking on water compared to flying faster than the speed of light?  And are people in the DC universe supposed to be impressed that Jesus rose from the dead? Who hasn't?)

However, instead of exploring the earth-shattering worldview implications of superhumans, most comic book writers instead opt to make superhumans almost mundane in their worlds.  In the world of the Marvel Universe, the existence of superhumans just means that if you live in New York City, your insurance rates will be astronomical, and you might see Spider-Man every once in a while.  But if we were surrounded by beings indistinguishable from gods, I contend that that's not how we'd react.  We'd have to make some big decisions about them and ourselves.  Nothing would ever again be the same.

My goal with Theodicy is to have characters that react rationally, both scientifically and spiritually, to the sudden appearance of superhumans in their world.  And in my view, were superhumans to appear amongst us, there would only be two rational reactions available.

Either we fall at their feet and worship them, or we cut them the eff word open to figure out how they work.

And in Theodicy, two groups representing the only reasonable options will finally be able to fight it out, both physically and philosophically, over the only argument about superhumans it makes any sense to have.  Devotion or Dissection, there's no middle ground.

In Part 2, more about how stupid comic book scientists are, and about why the religious people in those universes are probably even more stupider.


  1. Enjoyed this very much and couldn't agree more. I used to think I was the only who gave a damn about realism in comics. Glad to see I'm not alone. Very interested in reading Theodicy now. Question: Did you intend the title "Theodicy", assuming I'm pronouncing it properly, to sound like "The Odyssey?" If so, clever title, sir.

    1. Thank you, Max!

      No, a theodicy is actually a technical term in philosophy of religion. Webster's dictionary defines it as "a defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil." That it sounds like "The Odyssey" (and it should) is just a coincidence.

      The book is currently available on IndyPlanet and will be available on IndyPlanet Digital shortly.

  2. I'm no expert, but why would the introduction of energy from a source outside the universe to the universe (energy from another dimension entering our world through Cyclops' eyes) overthrow the first law of thermodynamics? I thought that law describes the situation of energy in a closed system. I didn't think that it stipulated that our universe has to BE a closed system.

    Thank you for writing intelligently about comics.