Consciousness and pop stuff

Inception (2010)

Posted in Idealism-or-similar by Trevor on October 9, 2010

SPOILERS! All my posts contain spoilers but I’ve never warned anyone up til now because I haven’t written about anything recent enough to worry about. But this time beware: spoilers ahead.

Funny thing about getting older; you remember all the star actors when they were teenagers. In this film, Leonard DiCaprio leads a crack team of high-tech spies, which includes Juno and the geeky one from “Ten Things I Hate About You”.

Leonardo, Juno and geeky teen

Attack of the Children: The kid from ‘Growing Pains’ leads Juno and the geeky one from ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’ on a high-tech industrial espionage mission

But enough of that.

“Inception”, the movie. What happens? It’s set in the future. Using advanced technology, a team of industrial spies plug their brains into the brains of powerful people they want to spy on. They set up dream-world scenarios in which they all wander about together, having dream-like, symbol-laden adventures. By this method they can discover the industrial secrets of their target individuals. Shenanigans ensue.

So what’s the Consciousness Verdict? Well it’s kind of obvious what I’m going to say, I guess. The characters perceive a world around them which is not physical. In fact, they’re in danger of forgetting the fact that these worlds aren’t physically real. In the final shot of the movie, Leonardo’s “reality indicator” – the spinning top – continues to spin and we are left waiting for it to fall. That is, we are left with the possibility that Leo has never, in fact, woken up from a dream state, and nothing we’ve seen in the film is actually physically real. So there you go – that’s Idealism-or-similar.

Now, the movie doesn’t actually stake an Idealist-or-similar claim, as such. In the world of the movie, there is a “top-level” of reality, a physical world in which they all exist, and from which they dive into their dream-worlds. However it is also the case that the characters can’t tell the difference between a physical and a non-physical world. Observing a physical world is exactly like observing a phenomenalist world, i.e. perceptions consist of conscious experiences.

Given that that’s the case, how can a person then go on to say that they know these conscious experiences definitely correspond to a really existing physical world? All you can really claim is that you’re having a bunch of conscious experiences that you believe to be caused by an outside world of some kind. So, in effect, the movie illustrates the argument for Idealism-or-similar even though it doesn’t explicitly take on that worldview.

The movie also illustrates a point which I’ve repeatedly made in many lectures I’ve given on this topic in the shower: “The world we see is not like a big machine. It is more like a dream that we’re all having.” The world around you can be regarded as non-physical, but the people around you are still real. Their bodies are not physical but their consciousnesses still exist. That is, there are others in this non-physical universe who are having similar conscious experiences to your own.

The question arises: who else in this “dream” is having such experiences? Can we be sure that other people in the “dream” are doing so? What about other things like dogs, elephants, lizards, eels, ants and jellyfish? Within the “dream world”, can we answer this question using scientific methods?

I argued in my thesis that the answer to that is ‘No’. We only have the “Argument from Analogy” to answer this question, and this doesn’t provide us with testable scientific hypotheses. I’m not saying it’s not valid, but I am saying it’s not scientific. The beliefs are justified by philosophical rather than scientific means. Just like the belief in an external world beyond one’s own conscious experiences.

I’ve blathered about this more on my other blog  – – and also in my ten-pager, “What the hell my thesis was about?” (downloadable from this unmaterialism page)

Alrighty, I’ve gone on long enough and made hardly any jokes at all, sorry. Go see “Inception” though, I thought it was a jolly good show.


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