Doctor Strange and Professor Hegel in the Multiverse of Madness

Doctor Strange and Professor Hegel in the Multiverse of Madness

By Elliot Dolan-Evans

SPOILER ALERT: The following article contains plot spoilers for the blockbuster superhero production, The Science of Logic by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, so you’ve been duly warned…

Cinemagoers have welcomed the long-awaited release of the 28th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Disney has especially welcomed the delayed release of the Multiverse of Madness, with the film posting an eye-watering, worldwide box office of US$911 million (as of 8th June). In his latest adventure, Doctor Strange must protect a young America Chavez as Wanda, aka the Scarlet Witch, pursues both of them across various dimensions, relentlessly attempting to extract Chavez’s universe-hopping powers so that she can reclaim her children from another universe, where they are presumably alive (as opposed to dead as in her current reality).  

The Multiverse of Madness is a journey into Marvel’s Multiverse© concept, teased in 2016’s Doctor Strange, then in Spider-Man: No Way Home and the TV series What If? The cynic may immediately point out that the multiverse is either yet another corporate trick of Disney to ensure none of their billion-dollar characters ever permanently die (we can just get a replacement from a different universe!), to extend Marvel stories across every conceivable reality with slight differences (Captain Britain replaces Captain America), or to flaunt the unworldly amount of intellectual property at Disney’s disposal (i.e., brandished just in the Multiverse of Madness: Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the Inhumans). And they would be correct. However, the multiverse also has a firm basis in theoretical physics, and a reading of the Doctrine of Essence within the Science of Logic also suggests that the superhero of German Idealist philosophy, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, would make some speculative interventions into the multiverse.

Indeed, how does Hegel understand the multiverse? What obnoxious objections and irritating interjections would the famous 17th century German idealist philosopher-hero proffer on a watching of the latest Marvel instalment? And can Hegel resolve the central tension between the actual, our world, and the possible(s), other world(s), that haunts the titular character, Doctor Strange, and chief antagonist, the Scarlet Witch?

Stranger and Stranger: The Marvel Multiverse and Quantum Physics

The Many-Worlds theory of quantum physics best encapsulates the central theoretical physical tendency behind Marvel’s Multiverse paradigm. Rather than the cosmological “multiple universes” theory, which postulates different universes existing far away from each other yet still within the same underlying space-time, the Many-Worlds theory argues that parallel worlds, separated by space-time, are created following every decision. So, in one world (this one) you’re reading this article, and in another world, in a wholly different spatial coordinate and time, you’re having a much more enjoyable time doing something else.

This follows from a foundational idea in quantum mechanics that says that things can possibly exist in different forms – so, for example, your pet cat that you put in a box moments ago, following Schrödinger’s example, may be both alive and dead. A certain understanding of quantum mechanics tells us that, when we actually do check on your cat that you’ve mercilessly stuffed in a box, we’ll only see one of the possibilities (alive/dead) after your act of observation resolves the dual realities.

Now, where this gets interesting and relates to the multiverse is when we open that box to see the state of your poor cat, both possible outcomes still exist, just not both in our reality. Our reality is actually split into two: There is one actuality in which we observe the living cat, are relieved, and we go on with our lives, and another actuality in which we open the box to see your cat no longer living, and we both need heavy psychiatric intervention for what remains of our cat-less lives. Both worlds or actualities exist, but they are completely separated by time and space – both continue in parallel, with the inhabitants of each ignorant of the other. The act of observing the cat in the box  caused the universe to split into multiple copies. This, of course, seems like an entirely wasteful and inefficient predicament, whereby an entire universe is created every time someone decides to do, or not to do, any minor thing – though it has provided generous dividends for Disney thus far, and the initial astrophysicist consultation was certainly worth it.

Back to the Multiverse of Madness. As already pointed out elsewhere, the Multiple-Worlds multiverse tends to lower the stakes for any plot or character considerably, as any mistakes can be immediately repaired by a hop-and-a-skip to the next universe where such a mistake was not made. This is exactly what Wanda seeks to do in the Multiverse of Madness: Having euphemistically ‘deleted’ her children in the TV series WandaVision, she seeks to grab some other version of her kids from a different universe where they weren’t magically purged. Not only does the multiverse allow the possibilities of heightened plot convenience to revive long-dead characters and recycle Marvel intellectual property, but the franchise can engage in brutally violent, yet oddly cathartic, liquidation of superstars from all the other universes that don’t matter anyway. In the Multiverse of Madness, Wanda, exploding with rage and a smack of jouissance, frightfully murders Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart), Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), Reed Richards (John Krasinski), and Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), all in the space of about ten minutes, surely testing the boundaries of the overly generous PG-13 rating.

Wanda and Non-Contradiction

Evidently, the central philosophical plot device driving the Multiverse of Madness is the principle of non-contradiction. Wanda is distraught after erasing her children from her current reality, and her desire to regain them propels not only her transformation into the malign Scarlet Witch, coming into CGI-mediated battle with Doctor Strange, but the entire movie itself. ‘Wanda-without-kids’ is how we might describe the initial situation of the film’s actual reality, which, as common sense and much mainstream philosophy would tell us, cannot exist simultaneously as ‘Wanda-with-kids’ (i.e., Wanda cannot have her kids and be deprived of her kids at the same time). Aristotle, presumably commenting on a similar situation, states ”it is impossible for anything at the same time to be and not to be… [the law of non-contradiction] is the most indisputable of all principles.”[1] Kant agrees, telling us, and the Multiverse of Madness matriarchal antagonist, that “it is indispensable [and] necessary for human understanding to distinguish between the possibility and the actuality of things.”[2]

As per Aristotle and Kant, the principle of non-contradiction means that Wanda-without-kids and Wanda-with-kids cannot co-exist in the one universe. However, as demonstrated in our quantum physics investigation above, they both do exist in separate universes due to the Many-Worlds theorem, which motivates the dimension-hopping witch. However, she needn’t have bothered, because as Hegel argues, both the realities of Wanda-without-kids and Wanda-with-kids are much closer than the Scarlet Witch realizes.

Professor Hegel in the Multiverse of Madness

In the Doctrine of Essence, Hegel asks why both of these opposite positions (Wanda with/without kids) must be totally separate and independent, and thus contained in different universes? Each is, he insists, a one-sided truth. As we shall see, Hegel argues that the actual, current reality is the unity of all actual and possible worlds, together – providing little distinction between Wanda-without-kids, where she purged her two young boys, and Wanda-with-kids, where she thought better of it.

Railing against the posited universality of the law of non-contradiction, and probably the Marvel Multiverse, Hegel instead argues that the differentiation between the two states, Wanda-with-kids and Wanda-without-kids, are not irreconcilable opposites, but in fact distinguished in reference to each other. As perhaps an easier, non-multiverse example: A ‘father’ is the other of ‘son’, and ‘son’ the other of ‘father,’ where ‘each is only as’ the other of the other — the determination of ‘father’ or ‘son’ is in reference to the other, not contradicting opposites. Their actuality is determined by each other — though a father has an identity outside this reference to the son, ”but then he is not ‘father’ but a ‘man’ in general.”[3] In the Marvel Multiverse, our world, Earth-606, is only Earth-606 in reference to every other seemingly contradicting Earth (Earth-1610, Earth-10005, and so on) — otherwise, it is just a planet. But rather than an entire universe ‘branching out’ to create another Earth if, for example, I mercifully and abruptly end this Hegelian exegesis into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the Many-Worlds theorem would have it, in this current actuality/earth where I decide to continue writing, this moment implicitly contains the other moment: the option to discontinue my writing. In taking the former option, continuing my writing, our current actuality contains the very notion of the possibility of the latter, other option not taken, discontinuing my writing, which constitutes a whole and thus a unity, without the need for another universe.

Let’s bring Hegel back to Wanda’s maternal and filicidal dilemma in the Multiverse of Madness. The actual (i.e., what is existing) is Wanda-without-kids. The possible (i.e., what could exist) is Wanda-with-kids. But, as we can already see through the language employed here, the actual state of ‘Wanda-without-kids’ requires the possibility of ‘Wanda-with-kids’ existing: the possible. You can’t have a ‘without’ while not having a possibility of ‘with’! And so, the state of Wanda regaining her children is not only the (a) opposite of the actual reality existing at the beginning of the Multiverse of Madness that lacks a concrete existence, but also, contradictorily, (b) the affirmation of the actual – the possibility of Wanda-with-kids is merely the reflection of Wanda-without-kids. Hegel thus claims that Wanda-without-kids has the possible Wanda-with-kids immediately present in it.[4]

The possible situation propelling the movie of Wanda finding her children is the connection between these two states of the Scarlet Witch; as Hegel would say, Wanda-with-kids is the reflection of the whole, or the totality, which implies that the opposite, Wanda-without-kids, is also possible. Entailed in Wanda-with-kids there is also the possible Wanda-without-kids, and this reference itself connects them in a totality of form: Wanda-with-kids and Wanda-without-kids are a unity. Actualizing Wanda-with-kids in the Multiverse of Madness would thus mean to actualize both Wanda-with-kids and Wanda-without-kids, which is clearly impossible — and exactly why Hegel concludes that ‘possibility is contradiction, or it is impossibility!’[5]

Herein lies the ultimate difficulty that Wanda is unable to resolve, and that Doctor Strange, as a true Hegelian, sees coming. In one of the final scenes, America Chavez and Doctor Strange battle Wanda. America Chavez dramatically ‘punches’ Wanda (the original Wanda, sans children) into another universe, sending the bloodied witch crashing into the living room of an alternative Wanda, who still has her children alive and happily with her. Rather than destroying Wanda before she can retrieve her children, Doctor Strange counsels America Chavez to wait. We, the audience, then see the Hegelian lesson play out: Wanda realizes that regaining her children is impossible. This is because the possibility of Wanda-with-kids already exists within her current reality! The children from this alternative dimension cannot physically present themselves as a solution to this logical problem, and, seemingly knowing this, recoil from the Scarlett Witch (Wanda-without-kids) as she painfully stretches out to them — indicating to her that alongside her situation of lacking children, the opposite, having children, has an actual existence in her world. Finally recognizing this lesson, Wanda accepts her actuality, and returns, resolved, into the present reality.

And so, Hegel rallies against the Many-Worlds of the multiverse, because the possibility of Wanda-with-kids has already been included in the current reality of Wanda-without-kids — this is the inclusive nature of contradiction, as against Aristotle and Kant. Wanda struggling on in life without progeny anticipates every other possible permutation of this relation, as it includes the negative (Wanda-with-kids). There is no logical need for multiple worlds, as every possibility has been included in the actual of current existing reality, including the possibility of ‘Wanda-with-kids’; Hegel argues that the current state-of-affairs of Wanda-without-kids cannot be otherwise, as it is a unity already with this possibility. As Hegel triumphantly expresses, ‘What is Actual is Possible’![6]

Conclusion

Against the multiverse, for Hegel, there is one world, which already contains infinite varieties of other world-like composites, as a layered, immanent part of the constitution of actuality. The actual world we live in contains infinite sets of every possible combination already, though much of it is inaccessible physically to us. Wanda can, and does, find comfort at the end of the Multiverse of Madness by embracing the meaningfulness of her actuality, as both possibility and actuality transitionally emerge to be fully present and embedded in actual reality (though of course, materially lacking her kids).

And will the executive producers of Disney take heed of this Hegelian lesson at the heart of the Multiverse of Madness and shut down the pointless and inefficient multiverse? Of course not. There is more than a multiverse of money to be made, after all.

Elliot Dolan-Evans is an Assistant Lecturer in the School of Medicine at Monash University. Elliot recently completed a PhD in Political Economy and enjoys Hegelian philosophy.


[1] Aristotle (2000) Metaphysics, trans. W. D. Ross. Sound Bend: Infomotions Inc., p. 37.

[2] Kant, I (1987) Critique of Judgement, trans. W. S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, p. 284.

[3] Hegel, G.W.F (2010) The Science of Logic, trans. G. Di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 383.

[4] Ibid, p. 482.

[5] Ibid, p. 479.

[6] Ibid, p. 478.

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