Epistemology, Dreaming, Inception

Chistopher Nolan’s imaginative and visually stunning thriller Inception is looking more and more like the hit film of the summer, if not the year. I won’t write here about the nature of the film as danielwilson’s post already does that. Instead, I’ll be concentrating on the ways in which the movie draws on epistemological problems first raised by Descartes.  (Guaranteed spoiler-free!)

Unusually for a commercially successful movie, Inception raises a number of engaging (if well-worn) questions. Indeed, publishers have been quick to see the appeal of the film for philosophers and their students, with open calls for abstracts issued by both Open Court and Blackwell within just a few days of each other.

The central question raised by the film is familiar from a number of sci-fi films, most reminiscently evoking the epistemological conundrums of The Matrix. How does one know when one is dreaming? As every philosophy undergraduate knows, this was a question posed lucidly by Descartes in the Meditations on First Philosophy. The Cartesian project of Foundationalism attempts to identify those features of our knowledge which stand up to sceptical challenge, providing a basis for those forms of knowledge that are susceptible to doubt. This ultimately led Descartes to posit the certainty of ones own thinking existence – famously; cogito ergo sum – as such a foundation. But on the way, he offered a famous argument about the impossibility of knowing whether you’re in a dream. How can I know, asks Descartes, ‘that I am indeed that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper’ when I have represented the same things to myself in a dream?

There are two distinct implications arising from doubts about dreaming. The first is that dreams can have the quality of being similar enough to waking life as to be indistinguishable from it. The second is the idea that there is no benchmark test for reality: that one might be dreaming at this very moment. Put more radically – as in Hilary Putnam’s ‘brain in a vat’ – it shows that, if we accept that the meanings or validity of our speech and conscious mental states depend in some way upon interaction with an external, causal environment, then there can be no way of proving that there is a world to experience, let alone the idea that one’s own experiences adequately reflect the world as it is. In short, there can never be empirical grounds for rejecting the sceptical thesis.

To tell dream from reality, the dreamers in Inception use fetishes: personal items which cannot easily be recreated in the artificial environment of the manipulated dream. When these fail to act realistically, the dreamer can know that they are dreaming. At the end of the picture we are presented with such a totem, but we are unable to tell whether or not we are witnessing waking life or dream. But if a dream, then we cannot trust any of the distinctions between waking life and dream that the movie has previously made.

The film’s epistemological cliffhanger is supposed to draw on the apparent impossibility of knowing whether one is in a dream or not, and so we return to the apparent impossibility of telling dream from waking life.

Of course, the dreamscapes of Inception are harder to tell from real-life because they reflect it more closely. OK, we do see the Penrose Stairs, but there is generally little that is surreal or bizarre in the dreams of these dreamers. In the film, this is explained away as a feature of the technology used to enter the shared hallucination: technically, they aren’t so much dreams as computer simulations that the protagonists even refer to as ‘levels’. While this conceit may be necessary for the sake of narrative coherency, it closes us off to what many thinkers have seen as the true nature of dreaming: the bizarre, unsettling and many-layered windows into the unconscious. For such thinkers – including Freud and the surrealists – dreams can be said to be more real than waking life.

Related Articles

External World Skepticism
By John Greco , Saint Louis University
(Vol. 2, June 2007)
Philosophy Compass

3 thoughts on “Epistemology, Dreaming, Inception”

  1. Pingback: Interesting Posts | Crisis

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