Warning: this article contains potential spoilers of several movies.
The latest Hollywood hit for philosophy lovers, Inception, blurred the edges between dreams and reality. But Inception isn’t the first film to cast doubt on the nature of reality, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Of course, the film everyone is comparing Inception to is The Matrix. Both involve constructed realities in which the participants aren’t aware they’re in a dream-like state. Whereas The Matrix was all about the action, Inception, while still somewhat action-packed, is more slowly and thoughtfully paced.
But even before The Matrix there were movies that questioned reality. The movie The Thirteenth Floor dealt with computerized simulations of human beings and seemed to relate directly to philosopher Nick Bostrom’s theories of simulated realities.
Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, postulated in his paper “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” that if a sufficiently advanced civilization had the necessary computing power, they could run nearly infinite simulations of reality. In turn, at least some of these simulations would develop simulated civilizations advanced enough to run their own simulations of reality. If this were the case, Bostrom argued, then it is most likely that our reality, our world, our universe, is one of the simulations and not the one true reality.
This idea of a simulation within a simulation is also a common theme in movies. The Thirteenth Floor had its simulation within a simulation. Inception had its dreams within dreams. Charlie Kauffman’s film Synecdoche, New York had its plays within plays.
The obvious question when considering these kinds of loops is, “Where does it end?” When one awakens from a dream, only to discover they’re still dreaming, how do they know once they’ve awakened that they won’t merely wake up once more? Twice more? A dozen more times?
In Inception, dream extractor Dominic Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, lives with his wife in an artificially constructed dream world for what seems, to their sleeping minds, to be years. When DiCaprio realizes that they have to wake up and rejoin the real world, his wife refuses at first because she has come to believe that their dream world is the real world.
It’s an unsettling notion. If people can become convinced that reality isn’t actually real-which happens all the time of people with mental disorders such as schizophrenia-then what’s to say that reality isn’t real? What’s to say that our dreams aren’t actually dreams within dreams and that when we wake up to reality, we’ll be surprised to find ourselves one day waking up once again . . . perhaps at the conclusion of our lives.
Such notions are not alien to philosophy and religion. Eastern philosophy questions the nature of reality, and it is even a common theme in Buddhism.
A quote from “The Teaching of the Buddha” states: “It is a mistake to regard this world as either a temporal world or as a real one. But ignorant people of this world assume that this is a real world and proceed to act upon that absurd assumption. But as this world is only an illusion, their acts, being based on error, only lead them into harm and suffering. A wise man, recognizing the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it were real, so he escapes the suffering.”
As a side note, Wikipedia points out that the Buddhist belief that reality is an illusion can be interpreted two ways. Some argue that “the perceived reality is considered illusory not in the sense that reality is a fantasy or unreal, but that our perceptions and preconditions mislead us to believe that we are separate from the elements that we are made of.”
Wikipedia goes on to point out that others “consider perceived reality literally unreal. As a prominent contemporary teacher puts it: ‘In a real sense, all the visions that we see in our lifetime are like a big dream […]’. In this context, the term ‘visions’ denotes not only visual perceptions, but appearances perceived through all senses, including sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations.”
Eastern philosophies like Hinduism also profess a disbelief in earthly reality. The website spaceandmotion.com states, “The metaphysical foundation of Hinduism, which is expressed in both the Vedas and the Upanishads is that Reality (Brahman) is One or Absolute, changeless, perfect and eternal. The ordinary human world of many separate and discrete (finite) things (which our mind represents by our senses) is an illusion. Through meditation and purity of mind, one can experience their true Self which is Brahman, God, the One infinite eternal thing which causes and connects the many things.”
Clearly, these religious beliefs in reality as illusion aren’t quite as dramatic as what we see on the silver screen in films like The Matrix, with Neo (Keanu Reeves) awakening from his idyllic slumber to a frightening world where humans are contained in individual pods and used as batteries, or Vanilla Sky, where we learn that David Aames (Tom Cruise) uses lucid dreaming to escape mistakes made in reality that ruined his life.
False reality is fertile ground for lots of other films, too. 1999’s eXistenZ, starring Jude Law, uses the concept of a virtual reality video game to leave the viewer doubting reality to create suspense. One never knows whether what they’re seeing is part of the game, or real life. The 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall (based on the story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” by Phillip K. Dick) deals with false, implanted memories. The short-lived television series Dollhouse, which deals with human beings whose minds are “erased,” and implanted with new personalities and skill sets, then rented to wealthy clients, explores similar themes.
So, Inception is the latest film to spark debate on the nature of reality. Will it be the last?
I certainly doubt it. Whether we’re living in reality or some kind of illusion, we have all the time in the world to come up with new stories to explore the nature of the universe we live in.