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Inception and The Dream of Descartes

The Matrix has always been hailed as one the most accurate celluloid adaptation of the “Dream Argument” of Descartes, but people mostly overlook the Cartesian parallels in Nolan's Inception (2010). Nolan is a storyteller. He engrosses us so much with the plot at hand that the audience forgets to engage with the philosophy of the film while enjoying the film. It was only later, after I finished watching the film that I began to understand how Descartes might have influenced Nolan's philosophy. The film begins in a dream and slowly rises up to the level of reality on-board the Shinkansen in Japan.
The constant nagging target of the film is the reality in which the film is set. An idea is the most resilient virus – the notion on which the whole plot rests. When I first read Descartes, the keyword for me was 'doubt', when doubt sticks in our mind, it becomes “impossible to eradicate”, because doubt is an idea in itself. His notions about what could be called into doubt questions the very fabric of reality itself, much like Inception where dreamers face the constant threat of forgetting that they are actually caught in a dream. Similar to Descartes constant self-doubt and questionings about the surrounding reality, the dreamers in Inception's dreamscape need constant assurances that they are dreaming and not experiencing real-life situations. They used self-manufactured 'totems' for that purpose. These totems are the very object of their 'meditation'. The thing separating their dreams from their reality.

One of the interesting aspects of Descartes 'Meditations' is that it nullifies the finality of death through its questionings of reality. The meditations constantly tries to prove the validity of the reality we experience and in the argumentative sphere which it creates, life and death is inseparable from the act of dreaming, or as in Descartes's case, the act of thinking, as he postulates that human beings are essentially thinking things and lives upto the point where the process of rational thinking ceases. The existence of a human body is independent and separate from the mind, as proposed by Descartes. Similarly, death in the dreamscape of Inception does not cause the actual death of the body but ceases the thought process of the mind in that dream level. As a result, the subject either wakes up to reality or enter "unconstructed dream space" or the "limbo" where the subject begins the process of thinking anew. The concept of waking up from the dreamscape by dying in the dream also points to the idea of multiple self-existing and simultaneous realities. The machine which induces the constructed dream could well be thought of Nolan's version of the "brain in a vat" and the designer or the architect of the dream as the "evil demon" of Descartes.
Inception is one of Nolan's more celebrated works (and rightly so) but I hope that one day it attracts the same philosophical scrutiny and criticism which The Matrix earned.
DiCaprio as Dominick Cobb in Inception

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