Epistemology in Doctor Strange (2016)

“No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.”
Dr. Steven Strange

Marvel Studio’s Doctor Strange opens with a character exposdoctor-strange-posterition of a man who is equal parts sardonic and insufferably full of himself; he navigates the confines of the operating theatre with surgical accuracy—a kind of medical Sherlock Holmes, so to speak. The dramatic irony is deafening. Later in the film, Steven Strange vehemently professes to be a radical materialist (no surprise there) for whom the spiritual realm does not exist. There is for him only one substance that constitutes the universe—matter, and nothing more.

His skeptical and monist convictions very much struck a deep and resonating chord somewhere in the recess of my belief system. Even as my eyes remained transfixed on the moving image on screen, there was a sense in which an inner discourse was unravelling; my thoughts were set in tense negotiation with what I had just heard on screen. Those words could very well have been uttered by yours truly—every syllable of it.

At some imperceptible point in my life, there was as it were, an asymptote of faith which inaugurated a movement towards the kind of paradigm subscribed by Strange. A young man who once championed an unerring confidence in an almighty deity had fallen away, like a withered leaf from the bough of a great oak. Even the word ‘falling away’ is contentious here, because it presumes a right path from which one could possibly diverge from, and in so doing, ‘fall’ or err. A proper materialist and agnostic would do away with such loaded terms.

I cannot remember exactly when this epistemological turn transpired—but the shift was pre-philosophical, even before my formal engagement with academic philosophy in my early twenties. All I remember was feeling an instinctive indignation at all the evil that was blossoming unchecked around me, and this whittled away any faith I held in an omnibenevolent higher being. Prayers for my own and my family’s safety began to feel immensely self-serving. Then I realised everyone else around me was doing the same. Prayers for others felt like incidental whispers in the dark—perhaps motivated by the need for our conscience to be heard in what seemed like an ‘indifferent universe’. We pray for divine assistance and expect help to fly in choruses of angels to Syria or the Rohingyas—for some miraculous change of heart in the antagonists whom we unwittingly believe belong to the fairy tales of bedtime rituals. Stories of glorious conversion and poetic justice. The mortal realm is regrettably far more complex than our consoling imaginations of the divine can fathom.

Yet even as I shape these seemingly wayward thoughts into words, a part of me is shaken still with some oscillation of uncertainty at my own convictions. How sure am I in my implicit claims to understand the ‘divine’—whether it is physical or metaphysical, real or imaginary, or perhaps a linguistic feature? Do I know enough to know that there is no transcendent reality beyond my own? These are precisely the types of unstable beliefs and claims to knowledge that the exposition of Doctor Strange seeks to challenge. Never mind if the philosophical problem is quickly and formulaically answered with displays of dramatic mysticism and CGI in the Marvel universe. It is nonetheless a question that still persists in our own—and it is one that I’ve been forced to confront time and again with renewed vigour.

At one point in the film, The Ancient One reprimands Strange with powerful counter-empiricist rhetoric:

“You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is “real”? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses?”

The implicit conclusion here is that there are other ways of knowing beyond sense or reason. Knowing therefore becomes an event of meaning. There is no longer universal truth in the strictest sense, but only knowledge that makes sense within a specified context of knowing. And surely, this context we speak of is not one of culture or nationality or ethnicity—it is one of dimension: of the senses, of the mind, of other uncharted media. In claiming that we know how the world works, the only truth in that statement is the knowledge of how it works through the use of our senses or reason. That’s it. We can say nothing more of knowing beyond those human faculties.

I am as such, at every possible waking moment, myself reminded of the limits of my senses that no recourse to reason or a rationalist worldview could possibly bridge. There may be a vast repository of non-sensory or irrational phenomena unfolding around or within us that neither sense nor mind can decipher, much less detect.

And who knows—perhaps God resides in those gaps of silence.

Writing in the Negative

or, The Romance of Absence

These days, the thoughts don’t come easy; the words, too. It’s been like this for a few months now, since I graduated and started my post-graduate diploma in Education. Much of my intellectual fervour has been dampened, if not repressed by more pressing individual concerns, from identity crises to the haunting shadows of restless commitments—once so religiously upheld, now like vacant lighthouses with embers for lamps. Writing is one such ruin.

What do I write about these days? It seems that I’ve gone all pseudo-paradoxically meta without realising it: I’ve been writing about not being able to write. I’ve been writing in the negative. But difference and absence reside at the very heart of language, don’t they? Signifiers signify when they are not. Meaning arises in a plume of smoke from empty, belching vents—language is fluff. And all that jazz.

Despair comes so easy. Absence, in fact. That is why it is so easy to write—we are inscribing absence on blank sheets, and the vacuity presents itself like the magician’s rabbit. Fascinating.

Zooming out and stepping back, we see the same romance of absence at every tier of our existence—from post-failure optimism to funeral eulogies to the salvation discourses of high religions, despair is made good. But no, whether there is an actual ontological movement from ruin to rebirth is immaterial; all we need to do, or rather, all we always do is reframe the loss psychologically—we romanticise absence, and suddenly all that is lost is reprised in another form. The illusion of repossession redeems us.

We write everywhere. Everywhere absence is a phoenix, clambering clumsily out of its own smouldering ashes; everywhere rising, if only in our minds. We un-know despair, transforming the void into its inverse. Suddenly Hell blooms into Paradise. 

But remember, all is epistemology, not (meta)physics.

Yet neither are the conversion narratives we weave for ourselves a gratuitous fabrication; if anything, they are a humanly necessary delusion. How else would we survive, if we believe despair is our only portion? Even if it is, the trauma of knowing would crush us utterly (as if we weren’t already ruined). So we claw the collective consciousness—like phoenixes who have seen Death—for our stories of glorious redemption, our ashes the sand for bricks, and with borrowed vigour begin our reconstruction.

Only to, again and again, reanimate these architectures of dust.

The Epistemology of Winter

Those leaves that turned brown and maple vermilion — the same ones that fell in languorous droves at Autumn’s end — they continue to fall; only now, they are white with bleached complexion, and they fall like feathers from the wintry down of Heaven. The descent of frost blows in from the frigid North, and across the nape of my unsuspecting neck its frozen teardrops fall. Teardrops? No, they are light and almost immaterial; somehow the weight of their history has long evaporated, and all that remains are empty lockets that dissolve against the vital, incandescent skin. Their passing — their melting — carries away the lukewarm lifeblood of experience, and for a moment they flow as liquid crystal against velvet — as tears, perhaps, though not the same tears that fell long ago. These tears are not warm with the convulsions of terror or grief, vengeance or loathing, or impotence. These tears are shadows that have lost their light falling down from those celestial heights — frozen then defrosted, and reanimated, but hardly reinvigorated. All they reflect in the glass of their icy spheres is the unending whiteness of Winter’s approach — in each of them is a frozen cosmos embittered by a frozen tempest, the off-spring of Winter.

So they cascade lifeless, down the borrowed warmth of this expanse of breathing skin. They are not tears — they are water. The sting of their salt has passed away. I strain to hear the pitter-patter of their descent, but there is no sound, no impact. As soon as they leave the homeostatic geography of skin, they combust and crumple into ashen corpses — cold with death — taken up once again by the invisible chariots of the Borean wind. There is no rain or the homely smell of petrichor — but only sullen white cinders that weave listlessly in erratic helices; these are the burning caskets of souls drifting down and down, then up and up again. They struggle always to cling onto the coattails of yet another freeze-dried updraft, just to prolong the memory they carry in their glacial bodies — because they are nothing if they do not fall, even as snow. Overhead, the screen of the universe is a silent cacophony.

The paraphernalia of Memory falls from Heaven.

***

This is the Winter of my college sojourn — aptly so, since as with all cyclical narratives of rise and fall, my short four-year stint here finds an analogical correspondence with the quartet of seasons. Spring, Summer, and Autumn have come and gone, and now Winter’s contingent drifts somberly into consciousness. The floor beneath my feet are frozen — these feet are frozen; but they still dream of a time when it snuggled in the lush greenery of spring, or frolicked carelessly in the romance of summer heat. Or when finally they stopped to rest by the last verdant tree, on the carpets of autumnal vermilion. But now we have arrived by Time’s chariot, at the palace of Winter, where no servants or butlers attend us — where we are our own Kings. The air of this place is laced with a sheer absence that enforces introspection and reflexivity, simply because it is here that we are the only node of presence; in the absence of distracting externalities, the individual becomes the object of his own thoughts. So winter is the season of irony and satire — cold irony that cuts against our own skin, and reminds us that we are at once ruler and ruled, mind and body, subject and object; as much as we have done, we must now realise that we have also been done to. It is both a sobering and numbing awareness — a numbing sobriety or a sober numbness? Numb because as subjects our subjectivity has been undermined by an external determinism, and these fingers forget that we feel. Sober because as objects, even in our hermetic ontology we find that we are still conscious, and thinking, and writing.

I am becoming more, and more conscious of an entrenched alterity, coursing through these veiny conduits — precipitating slowly but surely, in the solvent redness of blood. This long winter, in all its phenomenological privation (there is an abundance of frost, no doubt — yet it is simply the absence of heat), has forced me to turn inward, to question and scrutinize the Self that I think I know so intuitively, and whether my claims to knowing the Self are justified. But already, I feel something other, something that has been lying in wait, inside — perhaps in insidious ambush. There is something I do not know but which is so intimately emblazoned in my mortal fabric. With the inception of this disconcerting presentiment, I am reminded that the construction of Selfhood is dynamic and unceasing, although the architecture is at any one time definitively identified as the Self. If one does not take care to integrate (rogue) emergent elements into the existing framework that constitutes the Self, then the psyche — in an attempt at patchwork immunology — will be thrown into an embattled disarray as it turns viciously upon itself; the proverbial identity crisis ineluctably ensues. One would feel as though an impenetrable vault has been breached, and the sacrosanct ‘I’ stolen away by a domestic uprising running amok in his own castle. In self-knowledge at least, there must be at any one time, one unitary monarch, one imperium — to forge one history, one stream-of-consciousness, one knowing. Anything else would be epistemic schizophrenia.

Now the frozen orb is rising. Now the frozen orb is setting. The sun is a lighthouse, and between these transient beams of snow-filtered light, the nights are the longest and the darkest.

Icarus

Whiskey. I need a drink, badly.

What does it mean to know? To know is always to know something; to know something is to know something that before we hadn’t known. To say we know X is to effectively concede that we hadn’t known X before – a second ago, a month ago, a lifetime ago, but now we do. But now we do. It is therefore reasonable to infer that we have gained something in the knowing; and no, by gain I do not mean the humanist acquisition of some life-lesson, or moral credit that brings us a step closer to self-actualization. None of that fluff, none of that preachy optimism. By gain, I mean, and only mean, an epistemic increase – quantifiable, accountable; an empirical, or should I say, phenomenological increase, in the mind, of ideas and sensations. When we know Y, we may therefore say, brutally, that we now know Z + Y, where Z is the pre-existing quantity of knowledge prior to the increase. No, no saccharine sweet life take-aways or teachable moments – nothing.

But who can vouch that he has known, and only known? Who can say that knowledge when acquired, is simply that solid rock hurled, as it were, into the watery abyss of consciousness, to sink, to let loose some orders of concentric ripples, to totalize rock and water, and to say that now there is rock in addition to water; a transient disturbance, an increase in volume, a reassertion of smothering quietude. We cannot. I cannot. Every instance of knowing is in the inviting, viscous, potent globule of liquid ink that one lets fall into a receptacle of innocuously clear water; we think that our psyche consumes – we always speak of the consumption of texts. But no, it is knowledge that consumes – infects. Watch, how that chromatic splotch of pigment – the contagion of thoughts – descends from the airy heights, reflecting from its glassy curvature, the light of its sheer fullness and potential – to infect, to breed, to alter, to devour. And down it falls, and in that moment of collision, of surface and surface, there is an intolerable resistance, as when one’s vehement foot is slammed on a child’s balloon – and does not miss – and in that moment of meeting within the moment of impact, there rises the raw, excruciating anticipation of dissolution – of consummation, of unity and destruction. Then the surface

breaks. It is then that we begin to know. Our consciousness is breached, and in floods the flows of capital knowledge – molecular critters – home in on the unstained and unadulterated – the primitive body, unmarked, or marked primitively. From our safe place outside the dramatic glass, we – who are we? – see the downward creeping distributaries of contagion, deeper and deeper creep. Staining, irrevocably. Forever henceforth the water is hued with an alien glow – the nocent mark of experience. That is, to know.

And I have just now known. Or else I stumbled, and knew. I know realise that I shouldn’t have, but I did anyway – search. I started in small brushes, like an archeologist at work in the desert heat, revealing a digit here, and a rib there embedded in the archaic sand. Then I grew ravenous – I wanted to know, and know everything. Tossing from my hand the instruments of that delicate profession – of rational inquiry, I launched, or leapt, whichever, and with the claws of my bare hands ravaged the unrevealing soil, like a dog hungry not for the spoil, but for where it buried it. Now ashen skull revealed, now a rusty joint unearthed.

“But why must I speak now and later feel that I have not spoken”, I mused, as crystal nodes of frustrated sweat rolled intermittently down the sides of my face, the stubbled sideburns, down the glistening jawline, gathering at the chin, and then falling in drops profuse. With wandering glance I surveyed the skeletal frame that now began to materialize, though still enframed – entrenched – in that musty soil. “Why all this speaking around? Why can’t I articulate, enunciate, vocalize? Desire – what I speak is not mine”. My fingers traced out the ancient vertebrae. “I always say what I mean, in a way that does not mean what I say”, muttering as I dislodged a mound of packed earth from the gaping mouth of the skull – teeth still intact, some twenty odd, the last muted orifice. Within that weathered maw there came a flood of blackness, and swirling sand-dust in its wake. I rubbed my eyes – dry from the vapid air. I now began to tear from the stray grains displaced by the restive flailing of an oncoming gale. Squinting, I gazed on that mouth(piece), that probably in its last moments of crying, of gasping, had wished to speak. At this point, Reason checked the Romantic, yet reason itself turned to romance; for I thought idly, “if we live in preordained finitude, then must not our breath be finite too? And we trade breath for words – so this man, his lips parted, could not speak because he could not breathe. He hadn’t breath enough – he hadn’t life enough. Don’t we all? So our words, like our breath, like our lives, are finite. When will you speak to mean what you say, before your words run out?”

Before this romantic argument had reached its upshot, a desert storm began to stir, kicking up, all around me lashes of arid sand; I crawled, veiling my eyes with my coarse hands, against the flagellating winds, and snatched at the nearby roll of tarpaulin. Unspooling the weighted canvas, I proceeded, half-gingerly, half-somberly, to shelter the exhumed grave of bones that lay in sleep exposed, but no less in sleep.

As I reached to shroud his head, I saw that the poor man’s gaping mouth had once again filled up with sand.

***

Whiskey. I need a drink, now. Yes, I imagine – let me imagine, now, preferably with someone who wishes to drink to drown – no, not sorrows, not griefs, but confusion; to drown confusion. To sit with me as the ambient music plays, under the stars extinguished by these passing clouds – it’s been raining these days, hasn’t it? In between our exchanges, the rush of cool warm alcohol down our parched throats and brains, there is silence; a comfortable one, like you once said you liked it. It is our punctuation, this silence, which gives our speech – sober or slurred – coherence; the difference between speech and speech – silence. That. Demarcates. Every. Word. It is absence that presents. We raise our half-done glasses midway, laughing at how we’ve started so ardently, that we have forgotten to toast. A toast is in order, a toast to something. This one, I say, is to our confusion, that for a moment we shared; or else for the one that from that moment till now I’ve inherited; haha! – do you hear how I hardly make sense? I look at the swirling elixir in my glass, and I think I see the fumes. So, I say, let’s talk about life, philosophy – no – psychoanalysis! And we talk; that’s how it should (have) be(en). You know nuts about the unconscious, but want to, in a playful sort of way; in a playful sort of way that belies an alluring, inquisitive mind; in a playful sort of way that knows it’s important to me. And I tell you; you smile that grin of yours, but I know you’re listening. The sky is dark – what need have we of light? All it ever does is destroy the dreams we’ve had sleeping. You call for another glass, and I say, yeah – get me another too; I’m hardly done. You ask me, why I’ve been gone for so long – but I say, it’s not me, it’s you; and we laugh uproariously at ensuing mentions of relative motion and displacement. Comfortable silence – we fall into its arms, weary of laughter (though still smiling). Silence begins to speak (parenthetically). You gaze out into the streets, at the street lights, (from behind this dewy glass); I follow that gaze. What are you thinking of, right now, staring at those neon lights, or those couples strolling by? (I’m not quite sure, you say – perhaps of tomorrow?) I rub my eyes; (those lights are getting brighter, aren’t they?) I know you heard me, because you stifle a chuckle. Heh, you say, we shouldn’t go too fast (, drinking). I laugh – inwardly, and then laugh. (Yes, we went too fast; but it doesn’t matter now, does it?) It matters, you say, now (and you laugh) because if you get wasted no one’s gonna carry you home. Nah, I have pretty good self-control, you watch. You laugh that playful, cynical laugh of yours. Heh, I say – what a sceptic. You reply, that’s what they all say, isn’t it? (- and you knew that, didn’t you? When it comes down to the moment, there’s no such thing as control, because the moment has to pass; you made a false promise). There is an uneasy silence, as I raise my glass to my lips – I sense something approaching, something sobering. Looking back, it was a departure as much as it had been an arrival, or a dawning. Epiphanies come, and always take us to another place, another consciousness.

“It’s getting darker, no?”, I enquired. You gazed a little at me, but blankly.

“I mean, it’s getting darker – later”. I pointed to my watch, but I ended up pointing to my wrist. You nodded weakly to show you understood, but I knew you’d been made to understand something else, and I understood it too. I took a long sip, then replaced my glass on the coaster; my hands were cold.

“I guess it’s time to go then(?)”. Was that an interrogative or a declarative? I wasn’t sure, but I knew it mattered whether it was one or the other. I took the cue anyway – I made it an imperative.

So we left our empty glasses there – mine was empty, yours hardly. I had many, many things to say, that were in that glass – mine.

But the sand of the Hourglass, in its tragic necessary descent, has since filled those empty spaces. I wish I could empty that glass again, but who makes drink out of sand, if only the poor man who wanted to speak, but ran out of breath?

So I said, I know now. I searched compulsively – in a moment of sheer desire and indulgence – against the best of Reason and sensibility; and what have I unearthed but the very face of dead possibility. No, not impossibility – it wasn’t always this; it was always an enduring possibility, the potential for a kind of return, no matter how remote the chances were, I’ll admit. That, that was what fettered me to this death drive, this repetition, this compulsion – to emphasize again and again, to enact, to react to, to reenact the horror; no, not horror – the grief? No – the unspeakability. But now that the stimulus has faded in the wake of knowing, desire – whatever it is – has arrived at a terminus. I try to imagine, like I’ve always done, but this time there is an obstruction, a denial. There is a brute facticity that forestalls fantasy, or possibility. The door that I’d left open and locked – so that it wouldn’t shut – has now bashed itself closed; and the lock, being maimed, no key can ever open. This knowledge, it seems, like a spot of ink in clear water, has changed everything.

“On th’ other side Adam, soon as he heard
The fatal trespass done by Eve, amazed,
Astonied stood and blank while horror chill
Ran through his veins and all his joints relaxed.
From his slack hand the garland wreathed for Eve
Down dropped and all the faded roses shed.”
— John Milton, Paradise Lost (IX.888-93)

The Uncanny in Plato’s Euthyphro

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the first week of my sixth semester crawled by like a hungry trawler plying a tremendous, fish-less gulf of cold oil. Noticeably absent was the usual ‘first wind’ whose newly innervated wings would carry me right through to the end of recess week (which really should be named Week 6.5 or the semester’s Platform Nine and Three Quarters into which disgruntled students cram a world’s worth of readings and mid-term assignments). Much to the dismal contrary, I spent the greater part of the week defrosting my cryogenically petrified faculties, and this is taking so much longer than expected. What would usually be a knee-jerk resuscitation—a sudden but epiphanous gasp for precious air—  has now become a desperate hacking and hewing away of archaic glacial residue from last Winter’s slumber, in an attempt to rouse this snoozing sloth known as Mind. Things are certainly slowing down, the reason probably attributed to a kind of weariness or exhaustion at having to endure the length of a semester for the sixth iteration. Besides, unlike prior semesters, the present one has seen certain modules plunging head-on into the deep during their first seminars, especially with the EN4000s. Heck, we are more or less done with Part I of Tamburlaine (EN4880A), and Medea’s (EN3244) airtime has all too quickly expired—within the week.

There is certainly a dense, overhanging fog of dreariness characteristic of a far-flung and forgotten gothic village whose day is no different from night. Whatever celestial orb that usually graces its allotted hour of the diurnal span has been rendered phenomenologically irrelevant, since this smothering blanket drowns the sky with a seemingly endless winter solstice. These dewy windows are always shut and curtained, because the only living light flickers from behind them, on withering candles of pauper families who will renounce their next meal for a handful of coal to feed the hungry hearth that belches token respite against the cold. But yes, these sleet-encased windows need to be flung wide sooner or later, or we shall all die huddled against a sputtering flame, not for warmth but for shame, when unbeknownst to us, the sun already rises.

I began my long awaited foray into Greek Philosophy with Plato’s Euthyphro, and although we shared a brief but passionate rendezvous in PH1101E during my freshman semester, encountering the text again (after two years) conjured a very different pathos towards the dialogue between keen-minded Socrates and a self-righteous Euthyphro, who is on his way to report his father for murder. (Technically, it is a kind of accidental manslaughter since the victim was a servant who had in his drunken stupor, killed another steward, and was later bound by Euthyphro’s father and hurled into a ditch while the latter went off to report the crime. He died under the exposure to the elements). While reading Euthyphro a second time, I found myself unwittingly aligning my wits with that of Euthyphro, and to watch his convictions (established but untested) demolished by his own struggle to enunciate those very resolutions, is rather unnerving. Socrates is certainly a master at intellectual baiting; all through the course of the dialogue, his questions—dissembled in an air of false appeal to Euthyphro’s self-declared wisdom and piety—were delivered in a highly calculated, incisive manner with the intent to assure the self-destruction of Euthyphro’s argument. It was a little painful to read this time round, perhaps because two years worth of close reading texts have certainly tuned, if not augmented my sensitivity to rhetoric and the intent that undergirds its delivery.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t want a friend like Socrates, not because of the mortification that comes with being proven wrong, but because such a person would do so by feigning respect and cordiality right up to the point where he forces me into an unavoidable self-contradiction. I would sooner prefer if someone objectively demonstrated the falsity of my case, than if he performed the same proof by appealing to my ignorance. Certainly though, the Socratic method is extremely effective in making someone see the folly of his ways, when he realizes that upon rigorous questioning, his principles arrive at an impasse. What better way to refine or discard one’s ambiguous beliefs than to be acutely conscious of their inability to hold up against objection? But this is where things get a little unsettling, you see. Socrates sounds like a sort of rational nihilist who wields the blade of Reason mechanically—almost ruthlessly; not that it should not be employed as such, but there are certainly more practical (or human) concerns than the pursuit of distilled knowledge (e.g. our sanity). Some delusions are simply necessary, without which we shall find ourselves drowned in pure absence when faced with the hellish conclusion that nothing is real or certain if we do not possess absolute knowledge – and we don’t. All knowledge  may be assumed to be simply justified true belief (debatable), and even if not, the fact that there isn’t even a consensus on the definition of knowledge demonstrates this groundlessness—this free fall into the abyss.

So, what if one such Socrates were to wield Reason against something like religion, or simply one’s own personal convictions? It is rather frightening to imagine your long-standing resolutions fall to an abject rubble upon such relentless interrogation; the most incisive aspect of the Socratic method is that you are made to utter your own doom. Socrates does not openly attack Euthyphro, but gradually and with manipulative rhetoric baits the latter into digging his own grave—like a sort of self-annihilating puppetry. The greatest horror is finding unfamiliarity in those all too familiar words uttered by that self-same mouth. Suddenly the divine tenets of our forefathers turn blasphemous, and the mirror that once was graced with our familiar image now reflects the very writhing visage of a Medusa that horrifies us speechless. This has quite extensive implications; if (1) the uncanny is all that ought to be hidden (repressed) but has come to light, and (2) our delusions via some version of the Socratic method or by any kind of disproof, are made to seem uncanny, it follows that (C) some of the delusions we hold are in fact instances of repression.

What we repress is perhaps the only positive Truth that all there is, is a cataclysmic negative—a Great Nothing.