As I wrote in my review of Doctor Strange, one of the most interesting developments to happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the introduction of supernaturalism. Doctor Strange and the current season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D have given a previously materialist universe a healthy dose of the spiritual, and it has turned that comfortably scientific world on its head.
Doctor Strange did this by taking a firmly materialist neurosurgeon confident in his ability to understand and explain the world on empirical terms and confronting him with other dimensions, the magical manipulation of energies, the astral plane, and other ideas that transcend any scientific account of existence. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has done something similar with the addition of explicitly religious ideas—notably Mack’s and Slingshot’s faith in God and the infernal origin of Ghost Rider.
What makes all this remarkable is that where Thor explained its apparently magical and supernatural ideas as radically advanced science, Doctor Strange and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D have so far failed to provide any plausible scientific explanation to the strange events that have occurred in the MCU this year. Inhumans—who have been the subject of the previous two seasons of AoS—are easily explained by the scientific method, but Dormammu, Ghost Rider, and the Spirit of Vengeance defy any materialist explanation.
All of this directly challenges and exposes the inherent flaws in a view known as scientism. Scientism is not science itself. Instead, it’s a philosophical belief that science and empiricism (the belief that all knowledge comes through the senses) can and will answer all questions—including the ultimate question: why does something exist rather than nothing?
Scientism is a theory of epistemology, which is the study of how we can know things. Epistemology asks both the most complicated and the most fundamental of all philosophical questions: how do we know things? or how can I be sure that I know anything? One answer to that question is empiricism. As I write this blog entry, I see a bookshelf next to me full of completed and half-completed Lego sets, and a few feet away my oldest son sits with his nose in a book. I know that these things are here in the room with me because my eyes sense the bookshelf and the Legos; I see my son with his book and hear the brush of paper across his fingertips as he turns the pages.
But here’s the thing: if I believe that I can only know things that my senses can verify, how can I verify my senses themselves? In other words, how can I prove using my senses that what my senses tell me is true? Ask someone else to verify what you see, you suggest. So let’s say that I ask my wife to come into the room and see if she sees the same things that I see. No doubt she will see the bookshelf, the Legos, and our son, but how do I know that she sees them . . . oh, right. I know it because I see her with my eyes and because my ears hear her tell me that she sees the same things that I see.
In other words, if I am an empiricist, I have no way to prove that empiricism is true.*
To compound the problem, I know that my senses can be deceived. When I look up at the night sky, my senses tell me that stars and planets are revolving around the earth. Even though the earth is rotating on its axis at over 1,000 mph, I feel like I’m sitting still right now. When I’m driving on a flat stretch of interstate on a hot day, I see something that looks like a pool of water on the pavement a mile or so ahead, but I know that this is only a mirage.
Scientism has to ignore (or at the very least, minimize) the major problem with empiricism. It has to accept without any empirical proof that we can trust what our senses tell us. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which has up until this point taken a studiously empirical view of the universe (especially through the characters of Fitz and Simmons) has had to throw aside bland scientism this season. This has been most dramatically apparent in the last few episodes before the mid-season finale.
In “Deals With Our Devils,” for example, when Fitz, Coulson, and Robbie (Ghost Rider) have been pulled into the space between their earth and a dark dimension (which all evidence seems to indicate is Hell; in fact, that’s exactly what Mack calls it after he’s possessed by the Spirit of Vengeance), no one left behind can find them by scientific means. Empirical methods fail, and nearly everyone on the team seems ready to believe that Fitz, Coulson, and Robbie are dead; after all, that’s what the empirical evidence seems to say. Only Daisy (Quake) refuses to accept this, and she tells Robbie’s brother that she knows “what it feels like when someone’s gone—this isn’t it.” Whatever that source of knowledge is (call it “intuition,” “gut feeling,” or something else) it’s not her senses.
Whether they meant to do this or not, the folks at ABC and Marvel studios have made a direct challenge to materialist epistemology and thrown a monkey wrench into the materialist machine that has been running fairly smoothly up until now. I can’t wait to see what they build in its place.
* The philosopher Rene Descartes has a philosophical proof that we can trust our senses, but it depends upon the existence of God. In other words, it has to appeal to the supernatural in order to prove that our senses are reliable.