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I think my favorite idea for a superpower would be an ability that makes you super itchy whenever you tell a universal lie. While this would at first be an extreme inconvenience, imagine taking a multiple choice test. You could test each answer to see if it makes you itchy, and if it doesn't you choose it. Extended to a superhero, the power would be s-tier in hunting down villains or solving missing peoples cases since they could use their powers in a binary search type way to quickly narrow down their latitude and longitude. They could use their powers to test potential strategies for a league of other superheroes, and pick the best one each time. Since their power relates to universal truth, they could also develop scientific knowledge far beyond our current level, because they have no need of actually running experiments. They just need to sit in a room with a box of baby powder for when their itching gets too unbearable.

Basically, their ability is to ask the universe as many yes/no questions they want, it's just that this ability is slightly nerfed by the fact that if the answer is "no", they get itchy.

Extend this ability to allow them to turn on an internal mode, so that when they choose to use it, they get itchy when their thoughts are wrong too. Since you can think much faster then you can speak, this could allow the user to even use the ability in combat by occasionally predicting their opponents moves. The ability could also allow you to share it with others, which could be used to incapacitate some villains and also be used in interrogation.

What are people's opinions on this/ what clarifications could keep the power from becoming something that I obviously am not trying to describe? Also, are there any other potential uses or interesting modifications for this power that I have missed?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by sphennings, JBH, Aify, ShadoCat, Erin Thursby Jul 23 '18 at 23:09

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ All I have to say is "Forty Two" $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Jul 23 '18 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Universal truth would be what the majority of people would consider to be fact if they were omniscient. So a person's location by a given set of rules like longitude latitude is universal truth, while information like whether the user looked pretty could not be checked since that's more of an opinion. $\endgroup$ – Malcoto Jul 23 '18 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ your example is not universal. Take a glass of beer: in UK and US the universal truth would be to measure it in pints, on the other side of the Channel the universal truth would be in liters. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 23 '18 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch: But I can convert from pints to liters with math so the volume is constant. The word is not. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jul 23 '18 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ @L. Dutch: Also a U.S. Pint is different from a British (Imperial) Pint. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jul 23 '18 at 20:00
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"what clarifications could keep the power from becoming something that I obviously am not trying to describe?"

That's very hard to answer, since some of what you describe wouldn't fall under what I'd call universal truths. A truth-the-universe power is heinously powerful, for many of the reasons you cite, but if you're actually going to draw some line on "universal", there are some things you should clarify.

1) Are hypotheticals allowed? I'd argue that the answer should be "no", since that's not a currently-available truth. Unless their power is effectively querying an omniscient supercomputer that can run simulations.

1a) You need to make a decision on "current capability" questions. Let's say there's a kid with super-strength. They haven't tested their strength beyond their local gym, so they only know they can go up to, say, 500 lbs. What happens when your hero asks "Can this kid lift a two-ton car?" You can't base it on past activity, and you can't base it on anyone's knowledge. Also keep in mind corner cases: if you're going for present-tense predictions only, then "they can do that if they practice, but can't pick one up this second" should get you a "no" answer. Wording matters a lot.

2) Prevent future predictions, unless you're actually going for a universe where knowing the future wouldn't allow you to change it. Otherwise, you either aren't getting truth or aren't supporting free will-- which is interesting, but kind of the center of a story right there. This means, among other things, that it's of limited use in battle: you can determine if your opponent is charging their super-attack, but not whether they're going to attack next with a kick or a punch. It informs your strategies, it doesn't predict others'.

3) Can this be used for mind-reading? That one's really critical. "Has this person ever considered assisting a terrorist group?" "Does this person believe X is the truth?" I'd strongly suggest "no", because anything related to mind-reading gets into "truths about opinions", which is a quagmire of grey areas.

4) How is the question being interpreted? A hostile interpreter who reads the question in the narrowest possible way can provide extremely unexpected answers that are still truthful but not at all useful. A friendly interpreter will answer the question as intended. You're querying the universe-- is it the worst-interpretation-genie version, or something that will respond based on user intent?

5) Figure out in advance what happens if the question is based on incorrect understanding. For an extreme case, what if someone living in a Matrix-like environment on a ship in deep space asked if the (fictional) Earth goes around the sun?

Also, itching seems like an insufficient incentive to not use the power, but that may just be me. I'd be sorely tempted to basically get a friend to tie me up so I can't damage myself scratching and alternate rapidly between the question I want the answer to and something that's a no-itch answer I already know to turn it off again. The penalty is temporary discomfort, and I can even control how long it lasts, which is very mild.

If you really want to go with "your thoughts are wrong", I'd be more interested in how this interacts with non-deliberate thoughts. That could be dreams, or intrusive thoughts a la any number of mental illnesses, or just random ideas that pop into your head. What's a "thought", by this definition? By my read, this is another quagmire of grey areas and easier to avoid, but if you go that way, put real thought into what counts.

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    $\begingroup$ In terms of 1a and 2, those are both really good points. I hadn't considered how the itch ability could affect the future, but you're right in that asking deterministic statements should result in no response. AKA the statement "This question will make me itch" breaks the ability temporarily and results in no itch since the statement affects the future it asks about. However, making simple true false questions like "The boy is capable of lifting 2k tons if he chose to" or "He is currently planning to punch me next" you could check probable futures without creating any determinism. $\endgroup$ – Malcoto Jul 23 '18 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ I think this power has to work for mind reading, since otherwise it completely loses out to telepaths which can not only read minds, but control other people. I felt that this power wasn't even that powerful without the itching, so that fact that itching isn't that bad wasn't a problem, but now that you bring it up I agree it might not be the best punishment. What other kickbacks could there be on the power? Maybe they could start sneezing uncontrollably if they over used it? (Negates further use.) $\endgroup$ – Malcoto Jul 23 '18 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ If the question is based on incorrect understanding things become difficult, but the idea is that the itching is based off of how an omniscient being who knows the correct universe would see it. And if the question is too nonsensical from the perspective of the correct reality, then again the ability breaks and no itching occurs. $\endgroup$ – Malcoto Jul 23 '18 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "loses out to"? You can't use it as a cheap mindreading ability, no, but "was X under the influence of mind control at time Y" is hugely powerful in, for example, criminal law in a telepath universe. Remember also that "was X telling the truth" is hugely powerful in and of itself-- but do you mean what they believed to be true, or this universal truth? Also: it sounds like "no", "N/A", and "bad question" have the same result? That seems like it could produce entertaining misunderstandings. $\endgroup$ – Hufflehobbit Jul 23 '18 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ Consider also the horrific implications of binary-search for disloyal people in a totalitarian society and other "thought-based" population searches. $\endgroup$ – Hufflehobbit Jul 23 '18 at 20:48
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First of all: life is not binary and there are too many types of questions out there:

Open:

How was your day?

Close:

Do you understand?

Reflexive:

What have you learned from this?

Direct:

What time does the company opens?


What is the "truth" ?

This is the tricky part. Let's say your character asks himself: "Killing someone else is wrong?".

His answer, yes or not, could be right no matter what. This would be related to conscience. A psycopath doesn't have conscience so he won't feel any moral quams even thought he can pretend the opposite. Killing can be ok for him even thought you and I see murder as a total NO.

Understanding the questions itself could influence so that's another problem. Example:

A: Do you like food?
B: Yes, of course.
A: I meant dog food.
B: Oh my god, no.

I think that a superpower based on what is true or false, wrong or right, can be wide open even if you only consider closed questions.


Developing scientific knowledge

I would say no and this is why: Getting the answers for a question is not the same as knowing the answer of a question.

What if i google the next question?: "Is oxygen a metal?"

I would get lots of "no", ergo, itches (if in your superhero). The difference between Google an the superpower is that the first one would give me some information/research about oxygen and why it is not a metal. The other one will... itch, that's all.

Do i know that oxygen is a metal? Yes, in both cases. Do i know why? Yes, only if google it.

Most people know that things are true or false but that doesn't make them experts on the matter. Your character would have to study as much as any other person to archieve something even if he "knows" the answer. I guess that having a power that leads you to the right way doesn't necessarily give you all the knowledge you need about something.

Finally, about the running experiments. I have another example:

Let's say that your superhero don't know what gravity is but he knows that (because he asked himself before) that there is a natural phenomenon by which all things with mass or energy are brought toward (or gravitate toward) one another. How do he gets the facts about that natural phenomenon without experimentation ?

Will he ask himself a million different questions until the end?

Running experiments will be the best answer even for a superhero like him in that kind of things because a yes or no can't give you everything. Therefore, going beyond our scientific knowledge will depend on his ability to experiment, answer questions without cheating and being able to solve problems with practical thinking.


PD: Sorry for my bad english, i'm not a native speaker.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some one actually asked some similar questions in the original thread. Basically, the power only triggers when used to give a statement of a fact that is either true or false. For instance saying "I think that the death penalty is bad" results in nothing, because you just stated an opinion, but stating "Suzy thinks the death penalty is bad" would result in a response, since it is a statement of fact about an opinion. $\endgroup$ – Malcoto Jul 23 '18 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ Furthermore to answer the problem with having a problem with the understanding of the question, the itch is triggered by the intended meaning behind the statement. IE In my previous example itching would only be triggered if the person who the user thinks of as "Suzy" has a negative opinion of the death penalty. $\endgroup$ – Malcoto Jul 23 '18 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 23 '18 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ Those kind of questions, with the right information beforehand would work for your character. I don't know if the will the WHOLE time but that specific one can without problem. By the way, I edited lots of things in my answert, maybe you would like to read it again! $\endgroup$ – Enrique Bermúdez Jul 23 '18 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, the ability would not be very useful in terms of getting genuine understanding, but it could be used to facilitate it. While you couldn't immediately use it to research everything about a subject, on subjects on which there is little to no research it can help guide the user. It could have been used in the past to disprove the theory that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and could be used similarly to discover flaws in our knowledge of the universe. $\endgroup$ – Malcoto Jul 23 '18 at 22:41
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So, I wrote or created a character for my own fiction with this similar power. Basically, he lacked the inconvient itching. Now there were some rules and it wasn't a binary. He would know the answer to any question he was asked, including himself. The limitation to this power is the imagination on how to use it. Suffice to say, you completely missed a way to offensively weaponize this power that made my character damn scary ("When is the best time to shoot a gun to kill/injure the bad guy?").

Of course, there was the one story where the hero was abducted and asked a series of questions by the villain about the plan of the week and the success of the plan... no one said the guy who knew the answer to every question had to tell the truth.

I also put in a limitation that was basically a lot of Quantum Physics jargon that basically said that truly random games would not be predictable by his answers. He could know instantly what cards were in play in a game of Blackjack and card count, but the next card in the pile was not known to anyone and thus not subject to his powers of always being right. The winning bet in the next roulette spin was right out.

All this amounted to a character who was the living embodiment of "I hate it when I'm always right!" because being right does not mean your answer is of benefit to you... it just means you know that the answer is right. It could be that yes, the deadly trap is escape proof and no one knows you got caught in it. You also don't get points if you didn't think to ask "Is there a trap?"

For your response, what if the answer is a false choice. Two things can be true at once. For your binary search of the globe by lattitude and longitude, you could ask "Where Mary Sue is..." and go to the location and find that yes, Mary Sue is where you said she would be... but she's also dead... Worse, what if you give two locations and don't realize Mary Sue is beheaded?

Your fighting style logic only works if the bad guy is fighting with a known style. If he's just throwing punches and hoping they land, it's not much of a fight... And while Batman knows more martial arts than pretty much the entire verse, that does him little good when he's blocking Superman.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I felt that just access to know the answer to any question you had would be a little too overpowered, so I preferred the binary search power. In addition that way he doesn't need to be nerfed to not be able to predict random results. The fact that he needs to take a significant number of time to check each card in the deck gives a soft nerf implicitly that he can work to overcome by practicing speed speaking. $\endgroup$ – Malcoto Jul 23 '18 at 20:55

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