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.

A Runaway Train of Thought

It’s been more than a month since I last did some written reflection or theorizing here—a rather worrying regression. Amidst the flurry of recent change—and being someone quite easily disconcerted by flux (I’m working on it)—a quiet mind is a rarity these days; or even where there is mental quiet, it is only a restless silence, and not the placid self-assuredness of a present mind. Quite bluntly put, I have no motivation to write these days. And when there is no desire to write, it intuitively follows that there is no object that inaugurates this desire; there is no purpose or point or end. So one can write at length—if one is even fortunate to begin—and never finish writing, or never knowing why he writes. Of course, this assumes that all writing must have an end (in either sense); for me at least, unless I’m churning out nihilistic postmodern fiction (which will never happen), everything must be meaningful. Meaning is contingent on transience (termination/ending), at least from a humanist point of view. Things are humanly meaningful only because things will one day die.

But God is eternal, you might say; is he not meaningful, if not meaning par excellence? Yet God is a conceptually different issue altogether. We can argue that he remains meaningful to us despite his eternality because he is at bottom part of our living cognitive framework, which is ultimately mortal. This is not to say God cannot be meaningful in his perfection and immortality; he by definition is, as mentioned. Nor is this to claim that he is merely a cognitive construct that cannot stand independent of our experiences of him (if any). If God is omnipresent (and he by definition is), then he is both extraneous to and entrenched in our time and space. He is both existing and experienced. Yet his eternality (and existence) notwithstanding, we may only ‘know’ him as an experience—be it sensory or spiritual, intellectual or intuitive. And because we shall one day die, God is therefore—like any other object—invested with earthly/experiential meaning for us, over and above the ‘eternal’ meaning he has by virtue of existing (which we can never access in our mortal form).

Well, that was a rather (un)necessary diversion with the intent of justifying why God can remain meaningful despite being eternal. Why did we bother with that? Because I claimed that meaning is contingent on transience, but—wait a minute—God isn’t transient, and so is he supposedly meaningless?


Anyway, back to the issue of being uninspired recently. If one does not write with intention and object(ive), the whole exercise becomes a pretentious farce at worst, and one in self-indulgence at best. And this is about to become either, so it’s best I wrap things up before I lapse into vacuous prose (which I probably already have).

Long story short, I think I need time to recalculate my intellectual bearings, because right now I’m just so fixated on the external and visceral; there is simply too much going on out there in the phenomenal realm that demands my attention. So while it’s true that I have gone on a reasonably long writing hiatus already, I think I will maintain this non-committal engagement with this space, since I don’t really wish to feel obliged to ritualize my writing—not at this point of time, at least. Perhaps when I’ve finally settled down in my cosy single room in hall, I’d be able to sit placidly in the eye of the storm:

An old custodian, at the heart of his vast, enveloping library of thoughts, sifting through the spiralling shelves of time-lost tomes—in search of an answer he never has to abandon again.

With Bolder Wing

“Thee I revisit now with bolder wing
Escaped the Stygian pool though long detained
In that obscure sojourn while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes than to th’ Orphean lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night.”
John MiltonParadise Lost (III.13-18)

As I climbed the last flight of stairs leading to the ELL department office on the sixth floor, there was none of the proverbial surge of anticipation before the end; nor did I feel overwhelming relief as I hastily passed my softbound copies and other paraphernalia through the window at the counter. Perhaps it was because much of the pathos and sentiment had been lost in the frenzy and rush of printing and binding. That was quite an adventure in itself—a kind of parodic rite of passage—which brought out the technological idiot in me. I say this unflinchingly. If you had been there to watch me run between printer and computer terminal no less than 14 times (I subconsciously kept track), you’d have been torn between feelings of amusement and pity.

I got up early to arrive in school at about 8:30am, and settled myself comfortably in the library to begin my last round of proofreading before printing. When that was done, you should have seen the conviction in my eyes when I strode up to the printing release station—it was a glorious moment. Until I realised that I printed EVERYTHING double-sided, including the peripherals like title page, acknowledgements, contents page. The triumph very quickly turned to comedy, and then threatened to slide into the burlesque tragic. But thank God I printed only a single copy (you know, just in case exactly what happened happened). For the next hour, I wrestled with MS Word’s (heresy, I know) printing function like dear Jacob with God, trying to segment my print order such that the first few pages printed single-sided, and the body of the thesis printed double-sided, AND each chapter began on a new page. I almost literally bled paper; my condolences to Gaia and her leafy offspring.

In exasperation, I decided to manually print chapter by chapter. Things turned out fine for the first few pages. Then when it was time for the chapters proper to be printed, the system refused to differentiate between Arabic and Roman page numbers, and all that effort went to hell. At that point, I told myself “f-that, I’m just going to print my hardbound copies single-sided”. I would have made that the order of the day across the board, if I hadn’t heard one of the other Lit majors quip to her friend from the terminal behind, “the Lit department is quite eco-friendly.” Drats.

So I spent the next one and a half hours figuring out how to selectively print my softbound copies (the two sent for marking) double-sided. By 10:30am, the amount of scrap paper I amassed from my gross incompetency had piled up to slightly more than an entire thesis printed single-sided—that’s upward of 71 pages. I surprised myself with my nonchalance though; but any closer to 11am and I would’ve begun freaking out like a live fish in a frying pan of oil.

My saving grace dawned on me in a mockingly matter-of-fact instruction from one of the technicians, to those two equally exasperated Lit majors behind me—”just print in PDF.” I swear, at that moment I would’ve flipped the table—four terminals, keyboards, people and all—if I had been less occupied with cursing MS Word inwardly. The twist? I had the PDF version in the same thumb-drive all the time. Somewhere halfway around the world at that moment, someone probably heard something that sounded like a cataclysmic whimper.

It took all of 15 minutes.

After this technological farce, everything was more or less in the style of The Amazing Race, from binding to submission, which brings us back to the point of exoneration. It was one of muted joy, with muffled notes of tragic, as I turned in the upshot of my six-month labour. Unsurprisingly, it felt like I was letting part of myself go—fixing it in the past, and acknowledging its undeniable facticity. So much investment—time and otherwise—had gone into the writing. If there is anything I’ve learnt from this brief stint with Paradise Lost, it is this: the Fall of (Milton’s) Satan is the true tragedy of the epic, and not the Fall of Man. While the latter is promised a prospective redemption, the other is eternally consigned to damnation. And I think many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—forget that Satan began just like us, and perhaps even more initially esteemed, for he was created the first archangel of Heaven. It is as much a reminder of an equal susceptibility to evil, as it is a sobering realisation that his transgression was nothing Man couldn’t have possibly done himself, in that capacity and circumstance.

One more thing: having mentioned it innumerable times over the course of my thesis, I’ve learnt, ironically, not to misuse the term trauma. In many ways—between the symbolizable and unsymbolizable—it is not simply an absence as my thesis has suggested. It is more negative, more radical, more fraught than absence. It is the excruciating void at the heart of the subject that abjures being in spite of ontological presence. I am here materially and viscerally, but in my metaphorical heart and soul I feel an annihilating absence; and at every moment, there is a violent crossfire of cosmic forces—a rending and tearing of the body, spiritually and existentially. Trauma is not merely loss. It is a loss that cannot be understood because we survive in being, in the aftermath, when so much of us has died inside. To be honest, if there is one way in which I feel my thesis has fallen short, it is that I have not done the phenomenology of trauma justice; then again, can any discourse ever embody in writing the soul-wringing despair and agony of loss? No matter how much I endeavour to circumscribe the experience of trauma, it will always be a dispassionate, clinical exercise—naive and almost ironic. Perhaps it is only when I have myself come face to face with the prospect of self-annihilation—only then will I be fully aware of the limits of language, and the experiences that transcend language not because of their high sublimity, but because they are so incredibly visceral, primordial, and unsignifiable.

Whatever the outcome of this project, I think the journey itself has sufficed as just reward. Perhaps that is why I feel no absolution or weightlessness, post-thesis. Perhaps it was never truly a labour. Perhaps in my exegesis, I was simply writing my own narrative, and the narrative of the Everyman for whom Eden has been lost, and lost irrevocably.

“All hope is lost
Of my reception into grace; what worse?
For where no hope is left, is left no fear.”
John MiltonParadise Regained (III.204-6)

Self Deconstructed

Plato points to Heaven; Aristotle levels his hand to Earth. Excerpt from Raphael’s The School of Athens.

I’ve grown quite impulsive of late. If I don’t feel like studying, I just don’t. If I want to daydream, I just do. My humour has turned (more) facetious, my tolerance less than hospitable. I am restless, emotionally. Something threatens to destabilize this psychic order; or else its ecosystem has already been damned into disarray. My mind darts around from imaginary node to node–a baton race in a prison cell; Intuition has gone berserk.

I can’t concentrate; my consciousness is everywhere. Nope, I’m not talking about some meditation-induced hyperawareness in which conscious thought diffuses radially from a central nexus of being until the cosmos is entirely present to the internal Eye/I. Nah, none of that psychic arcanistry. In what seems like a mocking perversion of omnipresence, my mind feels like it’s been sundered and partitioned into spaces–a fragmented topos–and each piece of frayed fabric dyed with a shade here, a hue there. I leap and vault from one magic carpet to another–whole new worlds are at once raised and shattered: raised, only to be shattered, like some sick joke played by an ennui-ridden Maker.

Meaning. All my frustration, grief, and anger have precipitated from the compulsion to make meaning ex nihilo. To (en)force presence where there is none–where there is absence, that placid, sempiternal corpse; some things were dead from the start, but I could not recognize death-as-being. Or else, I misrecognized the primordial absence as a hungering for presence–a desire that craved satiation. So I stuffed that ravenous maw ravenously–almost out of spite, because why would God create absence when it was in his power to present? When we create meaning, we foreclose possibilities of meaning; in signification, we silence ambiguity–its dying gasps are met with our first words. We condemn and catastrophize with our semantic architecture; we conjure grand Pandemoniums and sky-breaking Babelian towers; sprawling tombs choked with corpses of royal dead, chambers and courtyards replete with blasphemous riches and amoral harems. All this we raise from the abyssal void of absence–and what for? To sustain the fantasy of that Eden which was never ours to begin with.

To be sure, there never was Paradise.But yes, I have catastrophized all my losses only because I’ve always wanted them to mean something. By signifying them–by fastening signified to signifier–I fixate on the fictional presence superimposed on a natural absence/ab-sense/nonsense. I was never–in my human capacity–obligated to throw that absence a second glance, but to merely accept the chasm as a feature of presence, as how one observes mountains and valleys alternating. But no, I needed and still need, closure. I need to dam(n) that absence, that gaping alterity. I have to make the loss meaningful in the most literal, pedantic sense of the word; it must mean something because of everything that I’ve lost. But by now, I think, I ought to know that commemoration is catastrophe.

That is why I must try not to impose meaning on everything that I own or lose. I am everything that I own, and very soon I will be everything that I lose because surprise–everything must die. If I persist in being wantonly sentimental, I risk foreclosing my entire life–my whole Self–to a single monolithic narrative no less hateful than the metanarratives of the ancients; and only because I need closure and despise ambiguity.

I need to stop taking myself and everything around me so seriously, and I don’t mean being facetious about things one ought to treat with gravity. I mean being ironic, unabashedly. Okay so what if I’ve loved carelessly and lost my heart (whatever that is) at sea? Let me then lose until I learn. Let me desire until I can finally realise that love and loss are dialectical, that we can never fully love without the overhanging shadow of loss.

But above all, let me desire and desire irrationally. Let me disarm myself of Reason, just momentarily–just so I don’t have to explain myself, to explain why I should or should not love someone, to convince myself why I should or should not miss someone. It is mortally exhausting to have to qualify something as psychologically complex as love, in the face of a thousand possibilities and contingencies. Love/desire/limerence is capricious, selfish, possessive–so let it be. It’s funny how I’m only beginning to realise this now. But hey, it’s about time.

If there is one thing I’ve lately learnt–or that experience has demonstrated–it is that there is no such thing as a humanly experienced transcendental Love; it is not accessible to us. Platonic/Transcendental Love does not desire; it cannot. For it to be transcendental, it must be timeless and unchanging–that is the love of gods.

All iterations of (romantic) love are phenomenological in nature–it is felt, in its full consuming force; mercurial, paroxysmal, wanting, fallen, or falling. How ever can we speak of and attest to the metaphysical Love if all we can do is perceive with our fallible senses? It is at best inferred, if not constructed. Constructedness–I must be aware of its constructedness: ideals and expectations that I can never hope to completely satisfy.

A paradigm shift is in progress–some kind of intrapsychic eclipse is ongoing, as I begin to abandon Platonic idealism for a Aristotelean humanism. Have I grown cynical? Perhaps I have; but I’d rather think I’ve been forced to be more critical, more aware that Eden is a fictional space, or a mental state–one that has no place on Earth. But truth be told, I am reluctant. I am reluctant to think and speak outside a system of Forms–of stable transcendental signifieds–because I need its dedication to absolute presence, closure, and therefore, assurance. By squaring every human phenomenon with the divine template, everything is blessed with meaning.

Something tells me I will never be able to completely forsake the Platonic philosophy, which in part convinces me that I can never lose faith in God. But I must concede that I am Human–and from me these ideals are forever removed. My gaze, having long been transfixed on the metaphysical, must be redirected to the earthly–the sensory, the physical, the mechanical, the absence, the artifice.

Or rather I, while keeping my gaze to the heavens, must learn to feel the earth beneath and all around me. Or else, I am simply a mortal fool living by eternal laws, whose high virtues will always remind me that I can never be good enough for anyone–not even myself.

A part of me wishes, that there were an Aristotle incarnate somewhere today to teach me, in all my idealism, to stay grounded because I am only Human. To be carefree without being careless; or to love and lose unapologetically.

Because we don’t have many sunsets left to watch.