What if? -Should we Forgive Dr Strange?

With the unlimited money of Disney Plus Marvel keep churning out more and more content at an uneven pace in terms of quality. Their latest attempt is an animated series called ‘What if?’ where a narrator who is a kind of multiversal celestial being talks us through a series of possible worlds where reality involves characters we are familiar from the cannon Marvel Cinematic Universe but who live different lives from the ones we know. Each episode is supposed to be a different universe and all episodes are distinct from the Marvel Universe we take as cannon.

In the latest ‘What-if?’ episode we are shown a story about Dr Strange which was very sad and moving. The story involves Dr Strange’s wife being killed in a car crash. Strange cannot cope with his girlfriend’s death and uses the eye of Agamotto (an enchanted stone which gives him some control over time), to try and change the past and ensure that his girlfriend never dies. However, no matter how many times Strange changes the past his girlfriend keeps on dying. The story unfolds with Strange obsessively trying and failing to stop his girlfriend from dying. The culmination is that Strange turns to the dark arts to bring back his girlfriend while he does end up bringing her briefly back to life, she is terrified of the abomination that he has become, and she ends up dying anyway.  Ultimately, the spell which brought her back to life ends up destroying the entire universe, except for Strange, leaving him on his own crying and bemoaning his mistakes.

As the episode ends one is left feeling some sympathy for Strange as he weeps and regrets his actions. But while an immediate sense of sympathy for a character is understandable one, it leads one to reflect on whether the sympathy is warranted. When Strange starts to try and modify time to bring his wife back it first seems to be motivated by love. But slowly it takes the form of an obsession, a dreadful need to control reality that is motivated less and less by love as the episode ends. In one sense the fact that Strange appears to be motivated less and less by love makes him a less sympathetic character. But on another level his compulsive need to control reality reveals a child like side of Strange that is both pathetic and tragic. Strange seems to want reality to unfold precisely as he wills it and one is left to feel some pity for his puerile attempts to play god. But to pity a person is not to justify their behaviour. We can pity a person who is in the depths of alcoholism who drives under the influence and ends up knocking someone down and killing them[1]. The pity can derive from the fact that the person is a pathetic figure who wasn’t fully in control of their actions. However, even if one did feel pity for the drunk driver, most people would still hold the drunk driver morally responsible for his actions. To hold a person morally responsible for their actions one needs to argue that they could have done otherwise. The drunk driver could have chosen to not drink when he was driving, or if he felt compelled to drink, he could have desisted from driving. If the drunk person couldn’t have done otherwise, then he cannot be held responsible for his actions. A determinist who argues that all our behaviours are determined by causal antecedents would hold the view that ultimately nobody is responsible for their actions.

But adopting a determinist perspective on Dr Strange’s behaviour in his fictional world may be in tension with what we know about the Marvel Multiverse. In the episode we are discussing there is a twist where we find out that the sorcerer supreme splits Strange in two (unknownst to Strange), so while one version of Strange obsessively tries to bring his girl friend back to life the other one moves on with his life and is a force for good in his universe. Indeed, the whole premise of ‘What If?’, is that there exists an infinite possible version of Dr Strange all of them living slightly different lives.  Furthermore, we know from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that there exists at least one other Strange whose girlfriend died in a crash and yet this Strange managed to move on with his life without destroying a universe. To some the fact that there are alternative versions of Strange who do not engage in his abhorrent behaviours indicate that he could have done otherwise.

In the under-described and fictional world of Marvel which appeals to magic as well as pseudo-scientific explanation in its world building; there will obviously be no matter of fact answer to whether Strange’s behaviour was determined. However, from the point of view of the real world, our world, there is no logical compulsion that possible worlds or a multiverse imply the existence of freewill. In fact physicist Sean Carroll argues that one version of the multiverse which is supported by a realistic interpretation in Quantum Mechanics is entirely deterministic:

“The right way to think about the causality is “some microscopic processes happened that caused branching, and on different branches you ended up making different decisions,” rather than “you made a decision, which caused the wave function in the universe to branch”…Quantum Mechanics is not necessarily indeterministic. Many-Worlds is a counterexample. You evolve, perfectly deterministically, from a single person now into multiple persons at a future time. No choices come into the matter anywhere.” (Sean Carroll ‘Something Deeply Hidden pp 214-218)

There is obviously no fact of the matter about whether Strange lives in a deterministic universe like our own one. Nonetheless he does make a useful thought experiment on whether we should feel sympathy for people in a deterministic universe. In this authors view a deterministic universe should elicit universal sympathy; as no agent is truly responsible for their behaviour. But responsible or not they get to live their behaviour.


[1] Some would argue that it would be inappropriate to feel sympathy for the drunk driver that all sympathy should be directed towards the innocent victim killed by the drunken driver and the victim’s family. However, it is possible to feel some sympathy for the drunk driver even if most of your sympathy is with the victim and his family.

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