No, Thanos Couldn’t Just Double the Number of Resources
***This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.***
Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted a couple of days ago that “if you hold the power to snap your finger and end half of all life in the universe . . . then surely you have the power to snap your finger and double the resources instead.” This was a common criticism when Avengers: Infinity War came out last year. And now that the argument has the endorsement of a scientist like Tyson, the matter is settled, right?
I’m an English professor. You might say that I’ve got no business arguing with an astrophysicist about a scientific matter, but Tyson has it wrong on this one. Taken together, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame show that Thanos couldn’t have simply “doubled the resources” in the universe.
But first . . .
The easy answer to Tyson’s argument is that Thanos’ plan doesn’t have to be logical. Our world has produced Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and countless other tyrants and murderers who have thought that they were doing the world a favor, in additional to shooters who terrorize schools and churches out of hatred or imagined grievance. Is it really so hard to imagine Thanos opting to wipe out half of all life rather than trying to increase the well-being of everyone currently living?
Moreover, Thanos shows his true colors in Avengers: Endgame. He might have deluded himself into believing that he is acting for the “greater good,” that he is the only one who has the courage to do the “simple calculus”––but in Endgame, he shows that he is truly the Mad Titan. His supposed altruistic goals are a self-delusion meant to mask his megalomania.
So even if Thanos’ logic doesn’t satisfy everyone, it’s perfectly realistic that he would do what he does in Infinity War. You don’t have to look far back into history to find examples of people who have thought and acted like Thanos.
Still, someone might say, “But surely Thanos would at least have considered increasing the number of resources in the universe.” Given the way in which the Infinity Stones work in the movies, however, that was never really an option.
In the comics, the Infinity Gems are capable of creating things out of thin air and also of annihilating them. These are things that only a deity can do. The idea that matter can neither be created nor destroyed isn’t a new one. Modern science has codified it and explained it in mathematical terms, but ancient thinkers understood that “out of nothing, nothing comes” (ex nihilo, nihil fit).
In the opening pages of Infinity Gauntlet, Mephisto says in no uncertain terms what it means to wield the Infinity Gems: “There be only one word to describe you . . . GOD.” But Thanos hasn’t just become a god in the sense that Thor or Ares are gods. No, with the Infinity Gems, Thanos takes on the creative powers of a supreme being. When Death spurns his affection, Thanos conjures a new lover out of thin air. And when he snaps his fingers, half of life in the universe blinks out of existence. They don’t just die; the matter that composes their bodies simply disappears.
So one might say that the Thanos of the comics could create more resources instead of wiping out half the life in the universe. But that Thanos isn’t motivated by a desire to eradicate suffering. Instead, he is in love with Death herself and kills trillions in an effort to woo her.
You’ll never be . . . a God . . .
The Infinity Stones of the films are different, though. As powerful as they are, they don’t grant the same kind of power to the one who wields them that the Infinity Gems do. This becomes clear when “the Snap” happens in Infinity War. Instead of simply ceasing to exist, Thanos’ victims in Infinity War actually die, and their bodies undergo a kind of rapid decomposition, turning into dust. The atoms that make up their bodies continue to exist. I suppose that in scientific terms, perhaps one might say that the Snap breaks the molecular bonds holding together the atoms that compose their bodies.
This is tremendous power, but it still conforms to the laws of science. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and having the Infinity Stones doesn’t exempt Thanos from that rule.
Avengers: Endgame gives us further evidence that the Stones are limited by what is possible according to the laws of the universe. During the climactic final battle of the movie, Thanos tells Iron Man that when he gets the Infinity Stones back from the Avengers, he will reduce the universe to atoms and rebuild a new one that is “balanced” and full of “grateful” beings. The language he uses here is significant. He doesn’t say that he’s going to annihilate the universe and create a new one. He plans to use the atoms of this universe to build a new one. In other words, he can’t create atoms. He can’t create matter. Ex nihilo, nihil fit.
But still . . .
Still, one might argue that even though Thanos can’t create matter, he could have used some of the existing matter of the universe to create more resources. Since I’m just a lowly English professor, I can’t speak to that question with any certainty. But it seems likely to me that if Thanos pulled the matter from asteroids, uninhabited planets, and stars to create more resources for all of the living beings in the universe, he would upset the delicate balance of the universe that enabled life to exist in the first place.
Moreover, it isn’t clear to me that Thanos would even be able to do that effectively. The Infinity Stones clearly don’t grant infinite knowledge. Maybe reconfiguring matter in order to make new resources is too difficult for a finite mind. It is easier to destroy than it is to build, after all.
But let’s stop and think about what “double the resources” would mean, anyway. People need non-living resources like energy, space to live, and water––but they also need food, and more food has to mean more living things. The plants and animals that we eat consume most of the same resources that we do. So would it really improve matters if Thanos “doubled the resources”? If he doubled all the living things on Earth, he’d have to increase the amount of land mass––which would entail creating matter.
As evil as Thanos might be, his logic isn’t as crazy as some people make it out to be. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, the Snap might be the most efficient way of achieving Thanos’ goal. He can’t create matter, and rearranging matter to make new resources would be extraordinarily difficult––not to mention that it would probably create as many problems as it would solve.
So to steal a line from Bugs Bunny, “I don’t like to argue with no genius, but . . .”
Armond Boudreaux is an associate professor of English and the author of Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World (with Corey Latta), Animus: Little Gods, and That He May Raise. He also writes about superheroes, philosophy, and politics at aclashofheroes.wordpress.com.