Misreading Inception with Descartes

Published on Monday July 26th, 2010

Many people, particularly those who hate the movie, think Inception is making the simplistic Cartesian point: how do we know that what we take to be reality is not just a dream. This misinterpretation is not only incorrect, the movie actually takes up a position in direct opposition to this pseudo-deep wisdom.

The big debate is about who was right, Mal or Cobb, is Cobb still dreaming at the end of the movie that Mal, through her suicide, has woken up from? This is a false choice, because the final lesson of the movie is that to ask that question isn’t deep wisdom, it’s ultimately suicidal. The position of radical doubter that Mal occupies leads to her tragic death, and the final scene of the movie, with the spinning top does not invite us to question our reality. In this scene, when we look at the spinning top, wondering if it will fall or not, wondering if this is reality or a dream, we are looking through the world as if through Mal’s suicidal eyes.

The true meaning of the film is a Kantian idealist one: we have no access to the noumenal dimension of reality, of things as they are in themselves. We are in a dream, but there is no outer layer of reality in which we are dreaming it. In a certain sense, subjectivity itself is fictional, only existing as part of the dream. We ourselves are our own dream projections who would be destroyed if we tried to wake up from the dream.


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