*Warning: This post contains spoilers for Doctor Strange and Inception, as well as information that may shatter your perception of reality*
You. Yes, you. You reading this. What do you really know about your existence? Your perception of reality just that: a perception, limited to the senses. Your eyes only detect a minuscule percentage of the visible spectrum. Your ears detect a small amount of the sound surrounding us. All of these are signals sent to and decoded by your brain. Can you trust it?
On a much larger scale, our understanding of what lies beyond is extremely limited. Humans are yet to travel farther than the moon, but there are more stars in our universe than there are grains of sand on all the world's beaches. On a much smaller scale, there are more atoms in a single grain of sand than there are stars in the observable universe.
On the topic of the observable universe, the expanse of space current technology allows us to perceive consists of two trillion galaxies. Out of those two trillion identified, 90% are yet to be studied. To put such magnitude into perspective, if the universe were the size of the Earth, then our galaxy, the Milky Way, would be the size of a small dust particle. In short, there is much to explore, and consequently our understanding of reality is very much a work in progress.
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Reality: Stranger Than (Science) Fiction
In a universe where there are still so many questions unanswered, philosophy, spirituality and science fiction fill in the blanks. In particular, film is a powerful medium for pondering the metaphysical, which brings us to the crux of this article: Doctor Strange, Marvel's exploration of the mystical, the superhero movie that opened the door to magic and alternate realities.
From the release of the first trailer, comparisons were made with #ChristopherNolan's Inception, a mind-blowing depiction of lucid dreaming and the subconscious. It's not hard to see why — the clip of the Mirror Dimension reflected (pun fully intended) the iconic, trippy scene of dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) flipping entire cities on their axis like most people flip pancakes for breakfast.
Both movies took inspiration from Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, who was known for creating "impossible objects." One of his most well-known images, "Ascending and Descending" — based on The Penrose Brothers's "Penrose Staircase" — is directly referenced in #Inception, while #DoctorStrange cinematographer Ben Davis referred to "all sorts of Escher stuff" in the #MCU feature.
Aside from well honed and visually similar CGI sequences, Doctor Strange and Inception both raise interesting questions on the topic of reality. In fact, they're so closely linked that in this article, I'm even going to argue that, using both scientific and philosophical theories and explanations, they may both occupy the same shared dimension. Oh, and I'll reason that they could both feasibly exist in our reality. For real, this article is that audacious (or I'm that deluded).
Is This Real Life? Is This Just (Multiple) Fantasy?
The foundation of the relationship boils down to the fact that there is more to reality than we can see, smell, touch or hear. Doctor Strange introduced the concept that many dimensions exist, seen in the form of the multiverse. This is witnessed by Stephen Strange after he's shoved into a hallucinogenic journey through dimensions by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
As far-fetched as it initially appears, quantum physicists — including the likes of quantum mechanic genius Stephen Hawking — do believe that there is a high probability our reality is not singular, but instead complex, with a set of finite or infinite universes. This underpins what is known as the "string theory," a relatively recent branch of physics that attempts to observe how gravity and quantum physics fit together in the vast jigsaw of the universe.
Astrophysicist Adam Frank — who consulted on the science in Doctor Strange — believes Marvel's mystic offering is close in its depiction of the multiverse. But what scientific theories is the film inspired by? These are neatly summarized by cosmologist Max Tegmark, who lays out four levels of parallel universes, which are:
- Level 1: An infinite universe that by its definition would contain a replica of the Earth.
- Level 2: Distant areas of unexplored space that, although adhering to the same basic laws, have different physical parameters.
- Level 3: Known as the "many worlds interpretation" of quantum physics, this is the level often depicted in television or movies, where every possible alternate history or future is real and exists somewhere. #RickandMorty episode "Rixty Minutes" is an apt depiction of this level, when Rick provides inter-dimensional goggles that can access the user's many alternate realities.
- Level 4: The concept that there is a possible infinite amount of universes, but they are disconnected from ours and may adhere to completely different physical laws.
While those like Tegmark attempt to explain such events in the paradigm of science, others muse on our existence in a more philosophical nature. These range from those who believe there's a decent chance our entire universe is a simulation (for further details see: The Matrix), to phenomenalism — the view that physical objects don't exist by themselves, but instead only appear when perceived by a conscious being.
The Paradox Of The "Dream Argument"
I've been waffling on for a while without talking about Inception; well, here's the link. Many of those theories on our existence extend to dreams, speculating that, far from a bizarre and vivid product of brain chemistry and the unconscious, the world we experience while we sleep is, in fact, another form of reality.
A philosophical theory known as the "dream argument" stretches all the way back to Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, before the idea was explored in detail by René Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy. This theory draws from the paradox that, for most people most of the time, when we are in a dream, we are unaware of it. Therefore, it's not inconceivable that our "wakeful" state could also be one big dream.
The same argument is also common in many branches of Buddhism, which places a lot of emphasis on seeing through the illusion, or the veil or reality, and waking up to what is within. Contemporary Buddhist teacher Namkhai Norbu claims: "In a real sense, all the visions that we see in our lifetime are like a big dream."
Furthermore, Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou makes this argument in his passage "Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly." Tackling the theory of the "great dream," he wrote:
"Someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream. Yet the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman ‑ how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too."
However, Christopher Nolan's masterpiece, Inception, tackled a subject which appears to derail this argument: Lucid dreaming. A lucid dream occurs when the dreamer becomes self-aware that they are in a dream state, while remaining in the dream. On a basic level, this could be a fleeting moment that then leads to that person waking up. In the extreme, some lucid dreamers can manipulate their surroundings, take control, play God.
Lucid dreaming also comes with a host of philosophical theories. Spiritually, lucid dreaming has been used as a tool for development in the form of dream yoga, an advanced practice in Tibetan Buddhism. In a collection of teachings on the subject, Shugchang, et al. describe lucid dreams as an extension of reality:
"The whole universe arises and dissolves like a mirage. Everything about us, even the most enlightened qualities, are also dreamlike phenomena. There's nothing that is not encompassed within the dream of illusory being; so in going to sleep, you're just passing from one dream state to another."
Astral La Vista, Baby
Going one step further, some believe lucid dreaming is an elevated plane of existence, a higher dimension our spirit, soul or consciousness can access, free from the physical limitations of the body. This is known as astral travel, a phenomenon explored in Doctor Strange, and also the biggest connection between the mystic superhero and Inception.
Astral travel is the idea that we each have an "astral body" that is separate from the physical body, capable of travelling to different dimensions. It's how Stephen Strange studies in his sleep, steals books from the library and battles an enemy in a different dimension while his body lies on the operating table.
In theory, it could also be how the dream-sharing technology works in Inception — if lucid dreams are a form of astral travel and not a creation of the brain, then different astral bodies could, in theory, join a collective dream. In Doctor Strange, this applies to every situation where Strange is in a different realm by transcending his physical body. See below gif for details:
By now, you're probably with me or you're not. You're thinking I'm crazy, or you're looking at ways to lift the veil of illusion, explore the world of lucid dreams, and you've already booked flights to travel to India and become a devote Buddhist monk. Or, maybe you're just enjoying the ride. All of these options are fine.
After all, these theories are entrenched in the ideological, told through stories passed down by generations. They aren't actually experienced first hand. There's a scientific explanation, surely? To answer that, let's look at the mysterious compound dimethyltryptamin (DMT), a substance traditionally digested by Amazonian tribes in the form of ayahuasca.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule
In 1990, Dr. Rick Strassman undertook a study, where he gave 60 volunteers doses of DMT, with deeply profound results. Strassman later wrote a book on his findings, which was turned into a 2010 documentary, DMT: The Spirit Molecule. In an interview with The Huffington post, the director of that documentary, Mitch Schultz, explained the intense and life-changing effects the drug had on those involved. He said:
"People have a sense of motion a lot of times, moving through a portal, having information coming by or through them very quickly. A lot of fractals and geometric patterns, entities that can be described from aliens to angels, and also just huge cathartic releases of emotions and things that have been buried for years."
Although the "trip" from DMT only last for mere minutes, volunteers claim the altered state of consciousness was free from the shackles of time and space and the event had a lasting spiritual impact on both the religious and the non-believers. Many report ego death — the complete loss of the sense of "self" — followed by a rebirth. The same description could almost describe Doctor Strange's intergalactic trip.
Despite in-depth research into DMT, it still remains a mystery. Yet this is a chemical found within the human body (possibly produced by the pineal gland), the body of all mammals, and potentially every organism in the world. It has also been speculated that DMT is released when we dream. And before we die.
Why is a chemical that induces angelic and divine visions so prevalent in nature? The component architect of dreams? Possibly responsible for the last view we'll ever see? A possible common denominator across all living things? Maybe we'll never know. Maybe we'll find out in a different life. Maybe because science.
The Shared Reality Of Inception And Doctor Strange
So, how do all the dots join together? I promised you I'd explore how Doctor Strange and Inception could feasibly exist in the same dimension. I promised I'd explain how they could also exist in our dimension. Do I deliver on my promises? Personal relationships aside, you bet I do!
Firstly, the question of whether both films could exist in the same dimension. Well, the link here is in lucid dreaming and astral travel, and the theory that the astral body can access different realms, either the "dream world," or different universes. Astral travel could link the Mirror Dimension in Doctor Strange to the lucid world of Inception — the way in which the environment is manipulated would suggest they share the same physical laws.
On to the ambitious notion that they could exist in our "reality." To answer this, let's go back to the multiverse. Level 1 and level 4 suggest there could be an infinite number of universes, not adhering to our laws of physics. As an extension, "fictional realism" is a theory that claims if there are infinite worlds, fictional creations must exist by definition.
Taking a trip back to the beginning of this article; could the vast, unexplored space consisting of two trillion galaxies (and possibly more) contain a world with the physical laws of the the magical MCU? Or a dimension lucid dreamers arrive at while they sleep, the world of Inception?
Well, what do we really know?