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Philosophy and pop culture

Inception and Philosophy: Did the Spinning Top Fall?

Even if the top fell, Cobb could still be dreaming.

The movie Inception still fascinates me; I suppose that is why my colleague (and co-blogger) William Irwin asked me to edit the Wiley/Blackwell Pop Culture series book on the movie—Inception and Philosophy: Because It's Never Just a Dream. The book came out this month and my Pop Culture and Philosophy class is about to dive into it. As a result I've really got Inception on the brain and I'd like to do a few posts on it. Although it's been about a year and half since the movie was released in theaters, people are still talking about it—so I'd like to start out by settling a debate over a question that overtook the internet in the summer of 2010, and is still alive and well today: 

Did the top fall?

Inception is a movie about dreams—shared dreams specifically. The protagonist, Cobb, is an "extractor" who can share your dreams and steal your ideas. He carries a totem with him—a top—that he uses to tell dreams from reality. Whenever he is unsure whether he is awake or still dreaming, he takes out his top and spins it. If it continually spins, that indicates that he is still dreaming, but if it falls that is supposed to assure him that he is awake. At the end of the film, when he returns to his children, Cobb spins his top one final time to see if he is awake—but his kids distract him, and the film cuts to black before we see whether or not it falls.

The number of online debates and blogs on whether or not the top falls—and thus whether or not Cobb really made it back to his kids—exploded, and only increased once the DVD was released and people had access to the minute details of the film. But there is something very important that most people involved in this debate missed—something that only a tenth or fifteenth viewing of the film can reveal. Whether or not the top falls doesn't matter! Even if Nolan had revealed just a few seconds more, and let us see the top fall, that still would not tell us whether Cobb is awake and has really returned to his kids.

To see why, consider how totems work. As the film reveals, you are never supposed to let anyone else touch your totem. Why? Because they might figure out how it works—how it is weighted, or how it is supposed to behave in the real world. And if they do, the totem will not be able to tell you whether or not you are in their dream. For example, if Ariadne knew how Arthur's die is loaded, she would know on which number it always falls in the real world. Consequently, Arthur's totem could never assure him that he is not in one of Ariadne's dreams—for she could dream that his die falls just as she knows it does in the real world. This is why Arthur refuses to let Ariadne touch his totem. This is also why she refuses to let Cobb touch her totem when he asks to see it. Recall, Cobb is pleased when she refuses. "So, you're learning?" Most importantly, this is why a totem can only tell you that you are, as Arthur tells us, "not in someone else's dream." Since you know how it behaves in the real world, it can behave that way in your dream. So, even if the top did fall at the end of the movie, Cobb could still be in his own dream—for he could dream that it fell.

The problem gets worse: Cobb is not the only one who knows how his totem works. A single line in the film reveals this fact. When Ariadne calls totems an "elegant solution for keeping track of reality" and asks Cobb if it was his idea, he replies, "No . . . it was Mal's actually . . . this one was hers. She would spin it in the dream [and] it would never topple. Just spin and spin." He just told Ariadne how it works! And since she designed all the dreams for the Fischer Inception, the top can no longer tell Cobb whether he has exited those dreams or is trapped in one of hers. Worse yet, the top was once Mal's—so she knows how it works too. Sure, Cobb thinks she is dead, but he only thinks that because she threw herself from a window—a window in a world that Cobb couldn't prove was real. Mal might have been right; they could have still been dreaming. So, even if the top did fall at the end of the movie, Cobb could still be in Ariadne's or Mal's dream.

But the problem goes even deeper than that. Think about how the other totems work. Only Arthur knows how his die is weighted. So, in the real world, it will always come to rest on a certain number. In someone else's dream, it will come to rest on all numbers randomly. Only Ariadne knows how her metal bishop is weighted, so if it falls in a way that it would not in the real world, she knows she is in someone else's dream. Only Eames knows how "Mombasa" is misspelled on his poker chip, so if he sees it spelled correctly he knows that he is in someone else's dream. (Actually, I know how it is misspelled; the chip was on display at comic-con. "Mombasa" has an extra "s"-"Mombassa".) Totems work because only their owner knows how they actually behave in the real world, and other dreamers will assume that they behave as such objects usually do in the real world—dice are random, metal bishops are solid, and real 100 shilling poker chips from the Mombasa District Casino don't have an extra "s".

But, Batman, riddle me this: How do tops behave in the real world? If Cobb spun a top in your dream, how would you assume it would behave? Wouldn't you assume that it would fall? Isn't that how tops behave in the real world? So, if Cobb spins a top in your dream, he should expect it to fall! Cobb's totem is backwards! Its behavior should be unique in the real world, but ordinary in a dream—like Arthur's die, Ariadne's Bishop, and Eames' poker chip. Instead, its behavior in the real world is ordinary (it falls) and in a dream it's unique (it spins continuously.) Clearly, if it did spin perpetually that would be a good indication that he is dreaming—that can't happen in the real world. But the top falling tells us nothing. Everyone knows that tops fall, but no one can know how Cobb's totem works in the real world if it is going to be reliable as a dream detector.

So, more than likely, the top did fall at the end of the film. Who would dream otherwise? But that tells us nothing about whether or not Cobb is dreaming. He could be in his, Ariadne's, Mal's...or anyone's dream for that matter. Cobb's totem is not reliable. And, truth be told, neither is Cobb. "...you've noticed how much time Cobb spends doing thing he says never to do." Cobb is the one who spends most of the time telling the audience how things work—totems, shared dreaming, Limbo. But we can't be sure that any of it is accurate. His memory certainly isn't. He admits to Adriane that he tries to change his memories, and we actually see two versions of some events—like one version of him and Mal on the train tracks when they are young, and another when they are old. And he's so sure that committing suicide on those train tracks in Limbo brought him and Mal back to the real world. Yet when Adriane and Fischer committed suicide in Limbo, they only went back up one level—to Eames' snow fortress dream, the third dream in a multi-layer dream. Yet Mal and Cobb entered Limbo while "exploring the concept of a dream, within a dream." Wouldn't committing suicide in Limbo have just kicked them up into the lowest level of that multi-level dream? Might, then, Mal have been right? Were they still dreaming? Instead of dying when she threw herself from that window, did she wake up? Forget about whether or not the top fell at the end of the movie—might the entire movie have been a dream?

It is to that question that I will turn next time.

But in the meantime, if you are looking for a clue that Cobb is still dreaming at the end of the film, consider this. The movie teaches us that subconscious elements work their way through dreams. Mal and Cobb's anniversary suite number is 3502; the train that barrels down on the team in Yusuf's dream is also number 3502, and the taxi they hail is numbered 2053. Likewise, the random string of numbers Fischer arbitrarily gives as the combination to his father's safe is 528491. That is also the combination to both safes in Eames' snow fortress dream, the fake telephone number Eames gives Fischer (as the sexy blonde) in Arthur's hotel dream, and the room numbers in the hotel are 528 and 491. Now consider this: At both the beginning and ending of the film, we see that Saito dreams of a mansion on the ocean-a house on a cliff. In fact, this is where Saito spent at least 40 years in Limbo. Yet when Cobb returns to his children at the end of the film, and he asks them what they have been doing, they say they are building "a house on the cliff." (Turn the captions on!) Could it be that Cobb is in Saito's dream, and Saito's subconscious is peeking through? After all, when Ariadne and Fischer committed suicide in Limbo, they just went one dream layer up-back to Eames' snow fortress dream. Might Saito have done the same after killing himself, only to find that dream level abandoned? (The rest of the team was back to Yusuf's kidnap dream before Cobb and Saito had awoken.) Might Saito have remade that level based on his own expectations, and Cobb entered it after he committed suicide in Limbo? Perhaps...just perhaps.

Copyright 2011: David Kyle Johnson

 

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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