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Inception and Philosophy: It Was All Just a Dream

Forget the spinning top. Inception was all just a dream!

After watching Inception, everyone worried about whether or not the top fell after the credits started to roll, ultimately thinking that knowing the answer to that question would reveal whether Cobb was dreaming and whether he really made it back to his kids. As I showed in my last post, the question is misguided; even if the top falls, Cobb could still be dreaming. But those who concentrated on this question also overlooked a bigger one. Sure, Cobb could be dreaming at the end, but, truth be told, he could have been dreaming the whole time. Might the entire movie have been a dream?

At first, this may seem like a silly question—isn't it obvious that what Cobb calls "the real world" really is real? But the more you watch the movie, the more you realize that this is not a silly question at all. In fact, Christopher Nolan seems to have left multiple clues that suggest Cobb is dreaming—dreaming the entire movie, even when he is supposed to be in the real world. The chase scene in Mombasa, for example, has many dream-like qualities. Not only do the overhead shots establish that Mombasa is a maze—just like one of Ariadne's designed dreams—but agents (projections?) inexplicably pop up around every corner and the walls of buildings literally close in around Cobb—just like they do in a dream.

Need more? Eames is a dream forger, appearing as others in dreams and "magically" lifting Fischer's wallet in Arthur's "Hotel Dream." (Watch closely; he can't have actually lifted it.) Yet in the real world, Eames forges casino chips and also magically lifts Fischer's passport (again, watch closely).

Want more still? Consider where Mal sits as she threatens suicide: in the window of another hotel room across from their suite. (Don't think she is in another room? Look behind her.) If she had climbed out their window, she would be on the same side of the building as Cobb (just like in every other movie where someone is threatening jumping off a building). Yet her inexplicably being in the window of another hotel room is exactly the kind of thing that happens in a dream. In fact, when Cobb speaks to his father-in-law Miles about Mal's death and getting home to his children, Miles specifically tells him to "come back to reality."

Still not convinced? (This one is my favorite.) The song the dreamers use to herald the end of a dream is Edith Piaf's original recording of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (No, I Regret Nothing). When the song is done, the dream is over. That recording is two minutes and 28 seconds. Inception is, exactly, 2 hours and 28 minutes. (It's timed down to the second; watch the count on your DVD player!) Could it be, just like with shared dreaming, when the movie is done, the dream is over?

That's not even close to all the clues. For more on these clues, and a list of others, see the "Editor's Totem," the first three chapters, and the appendix and of my book Inception and Philosophy: Because It's Never Just a Dream (published by Wiley/Blackwell). (It's also got a huge list of other cool things you might have missed.)

Those who wish to argue that Inception is all a dream usually point to these kinds of clues. The problem is, none of them are conclusive. They could all, for example, just be subtle clues that Cobb is losing his grip on reality—not that he is actually dreaming.

Those who wish to argue that the real world is indeed real like to point to the fact that Cobb's children, at the end of the film, are older and wearing different clothes. Others have pointed out that Cobb's wedding ring might be his real totem—he wears it in dreams, but not in the real world. But, of course, if the real world is a dream, Cobb may merely be shaping it based on his expectations; he thinks that Mal is dead, and that he has returned to his kids, in the real world so he never wears his wedding ring and his kids look older in that world.

The fact is, pointing to clues in the movie is never going to settle the issue. The movie is ambiguous—Nolan has even admitted that he intentionally made it so. Nothing will definitively prove whether or not the entire movie, or even the ending, is a dream. The answer to the question is, what philosophers would call, "underdetermined."

Yet there is still a very compelling reason to prefer the "all dream" hypothesis.

Scientists have been dealing with underdetermination for years; multiple scientific hypotheses can account for any set of evidence or data, yet scientists always prefer the most adequate one. The most adequate hypothesis is the one that is the most fruitful, simple, conservative, and has the most scope. (In other words, they prefer the hypothesis with the most correct predictions, the fewest assumptions, that coheres with what we already know and answers the most questions without raising more).

Philosophers have been dealing with underdetermination, too. When dealing with language, and the possibility of multiple interpretations, philosophers employ the principle of charity. When it's unclear what someone means, you choose the most charitable interpretation-the one that entails the speaker is not an idiot or misinformed. And philosophers do this with art too; when a movie is ambiguous, you choose the more charitable interpretation-the one that makes it the best movie.

So which interpretation makes Inception the best movie? Clearly, the "all dream" hypothesis. There are a number of things that make Inception kind of a bad movie if the real world is, in fact, real. For example, all the characters in the real world (besides Cobb) are one dimensional. In addition, the editing in the real world is kind of sloppy—quick jumps within scenes without transitions. And having Saito swoop in, out of nowhere, in Mombasa to rescue Cobb with the excuse "I have to protect my investment"—isn't that a bit cheesy? Yes, unless all of these things are subtle clues that Cobb is, in fact, dreaming the entire movie. Might the characters be one-dimensional because they are just projections of Cobb's subconscious? Is the editing sloppy because Cobb is jumping from place to place and time to time in the real world—just like we know he does when he is dreaming? And yes, Saito's line is cheesy—but as a subtle clue that Cobb is, in fact, dreaming, it's brilliant!

This doesn't settle the issue, and there is more to say about it—for more see Jason Southworth's chapter, "Let Me Put My Thoughts in You: It Was All Just a Dream," in my book. And you might think that it's director Christopher Nolan's intentions that settle the matter; only if he intended for the whole movie to be a dream, is it really all a dream. I'm not so sure. Ruth Tallman, who wrote the first chapter of my book, "Was It All a Dream? Why Nolan's Answer Doesn't Matter" certainly wouldn't think so.

Some might object by arguing that the "all dream" interpretation makes Inception a worse movie. After all, why care about a movie if nothing in it really happened? But there's the rub—it's a movie! Nothing in it really happened anyway. It's fiction. Why would anyone care less about fictional dream events, than fictional "real" events? Besides, as a dream, Inception can be a metaphorical story about a disturbed mind, or even a demonstration of how our own minds are disturbed. Might that be more interesting? (For more on this, see the third chapter in my book, by Andrew Terjesen, "Even If It Is a Dream, We Should Still Care.")

But now we are left wondering: If we can't tell whether Cobb is dreaming, can we really tell whether we are dreaming? Might you be dreaming right now? You don't think you are, right? But how could you know? How could you be sure? And if you can't, should you care? Is living in reality all that important?

It is to those questions that I will turn next.

Copyright 2011 David Kyle Johnson.