“Bargaining with Eternity and Numbering One’s Days: Medicine, Nietzsche and Doctor Strange”

So, while browsing online for things, I came across the book “Doctor Strange and Philosophy” edited by Mark D. White which, in the tradition of all of the other “Philosophy and Pop Culture” works, uses aspects of mostly the Doctor Strange movie to discuss philosophical issues.  So I get to start here with the first essay in this collection, which is “Bargaining with Eternity and Numbering One’s Days: Medicine, Nietzsche and Doctor Strange” by George A. Dunn.  Basically, in this essay Dunn examines the Western medical approach and materialistic approach of reducing physical bodies mechanistically to the status of machines and then trying to deal with them as if they were machines to simply be “fixed”, tying it directly to the notion of control.  If bodies are machines, then we can control them, and so we can make them do what we want them to, and so anything that they do that’s out of our control is a failure that we need to overcome.  Dunn traces this tradition back from Strange himself — who, to be fair, is much more arrogant about it — to Descartes and Francis Bacon who at a minimum treated the body that way (Descartes clearly did not think of the mind or soul that way, and it is likely that his view of the body is in part what drove his rejection of the idea that the mind can be reduced to body).  Dunn compares this to the Eastern ideas expressed in the movie as well as to Nietzsche’s own criticisms of the idea, where he at a minimum believed that adversity was necessary to make something worthwhile out of people (the old “it builds character” argument) but might go so far as to demand that we consider suffering good in and of itself, a beautiful part of life — according to one rhapsodic passage that Dunn quotes — that we need to learn to love and not seek to avoid.

People following my posts in general should see the link to the Problem of Evil, at least as interpreted in the modern sense as the Problem of Suffering.  So while I don’t think that we should love suffering, I do think that in order to develop we need there to be adversity and that will cause some suffering.  As someone Stoic-leaning, then, I don’t see suffering as being inherently bad or something to be avoided or railed against.  One could indeed try to reduce unnecessary suffering, but that would be a practical consideration and not a moral one.  But then when it comes to medicine it can indeed be argued that that is a practical rather than a moral field and so trying to eliminate all the suffering it possibly can is the right approach for medicine.  We might not want to import that attitude into every aspect of our daily lives — and the criticisms of Eastern philosophies about the West being overly materialistic are really about importing that as an overall moral standard for all — but in medicine it seems a not unreasonable approach.

But the most interesting point in the essay is Nietzsche’s view or thought experiment of the “eternal return”, where someone is told by a demon that they will be required to live this very life out over and over again.  Now, at first I didn’t get the thought experiment and thought that it was basically a “Groundhog Day” loop, except over a longer scale, but where you can do different things and make some changes, at which point I thought that everyone would leap at the chance, even if they had experienced suffering during it.  But then I realized that the life was going to be exactly the same, which means that we would, in fact, make the exact same mistakes.  This would be a more challenging scenario, as we have all done things in our past that we would like to change and that we regret.  Could you live your life again knowing that it was all going to turn out the same?  Now if you remembered your previous lives, this could indeed be torture, as you would see your mistakes coming and be powerless to change that.  This would probably make for a good concept for Hell, come to think of it.  But if we take that obvious torment out of the picture and instead posit that the demon says that you will relive your life to infinity but won’t remember it, then whether or not this is torment depends on how satisfied you are with this life, which ties into one of my own main principles.  If you are trying to happy, then you might look back on all the times you failed to achieve that and lament being damned to a life where you can’t ever improve it.  But if you strive for contentment then you can look back on your life and be content with it, warts and, more importantly, mistakes and all.  So the more you accept that life isn’t perfect, the more willing you will be to accept the demon’s words as at least neutral and not the curse you might think it to be.

Now, Nietzsche thinks that you should be able to do this after your “loneliest loneliness”, which for many people will be difficult for emotional reasons.  But I think that most people should be able to look back on their lives and find the good things and the bad things and, hopefully, note that the good outweighs the bad and that reliving it would not be horrible torment.  It’s an interesting way to make that point and to get people to look at the bulk of their lives and not the most dramatic mistakes and sufferings that they’ve experienced.


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