Inception’s Cure for Cartesian Scepticism
Any movie whose protagonist questions his reality as often as Cobb obsessively checks his totem is worth a philosophical interpretation. Cartesian scepticism as posed by seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes, is the idea which "call[s] into question the reality of experience . . . that I can never be sure my experience reflects a reality outside myself" (Anderson 39). Already there are a number of books and academic papers regarding the obvious Cartesian notions of Inception (2010), papers like Nathan Anderson’s “Inception and Deception” and Stephan Mulhall’s “Sharing a Dream of Scepticism: Parasitism, Plagiarism and Fanaticism in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.” However, because of its intricately written narrative, the potential of Inception’s philosophical ideas may not take easily. Rather than a simplistic summary of Anderson’s and Mulhall’s thoughts, I would like to approach a Cartesian view of Inception in Cobb’s spirit of positive suggestion rather than negative - by means of better understanding Inception’s climax. The Arctic action sequences, and apparent failure of the mission after Fischer is shot by Mal, are distracting to some core narrative facts and causes confusion for viewers as to what happens to Fischer when he is shot, and where Cobb and Ariadne go to get him back, hence the “fourth dream-level or Limbo debate,” in which many viewers believe Cobb and Ariadne do not descend into Limbo, but a fourth dream-level (Yau). I will argue that they do in fact descend straight to Limbo, and furthermore, that their time in Limbo is crucial to viewing the film as not just an illustration of, but a solution to Cartesian scepticism. Hopefully this tactic will result in both a better understanding of the film’s narrative, as well as an enlightenment of Inception’s philosophically rich themes.
Alternative theories to the narrative structure of Inception differ in their stance on the “fourth dream-level or Limbo” debate (Mort).
Common arguments in favor of the four dream-level scenario revolve around Cobb, Ariadne, and Fischer’s drop into, and subsequent escape from, the dream-level in question (immediately after the Arctic dream level). Most are heresy, such as Cobb and Aridane’s use of the dream machine to descend to the next level, rather than simply shooting themselves to descend to Limbo. A counter argument would note Cobb and Mal’s drop into Limbo simply by “experiencing the concept of a dream within a dream . . . pushing things . . . deeper and deeper.” A more enlightening observation recalls that previously, Cobb and Mal’s death in Limbo resulted in an immediate awakening in the real world, without stops on the other dream-levels. As Ariadne and Fischer awake one level up in the third/Arctic dream-level, the fourth dream-level theory makes sense. A counter argument would cite the second and often overlooked way in which a subject can awake from a dream: a kick. “That feeling of falling that jolts you awake, that snaps you out of the dream.” A closer look confirms that Fischer and Ariadne do not kill themselves in Limbo, but fall off the balcony, kicking themselves back to the third/Arctic level. The subsequent kick of the collapsing Arctic base results in all the dreamers riding the remaining kicks back to reality. That is, all the dreamers except Cobb, who decides to stay in Limbo to find Saito.
The strongest argument in favor a fourth dream-level scenario would question the film’s first scene, that of Cobb rewashing up on the shores of Limbo alone. It has been proposed that Cobb’s true fall into Limbo must have resulted from his drowning in the car in the first dream-level, thus leading viewers to believe the dream level he, Ariadne and Fischer were in was not Limbo at all (Yau). Furthermore, it's only when he washes on the shores alone that Cobb displays a total lack of memory and awareness. These are the traits that one correlate's with Limbo, not those of quick-thinking and decisiveness displayed by Cobb and Ariadne when they arrive in the fourth-dream level in question. A counter argument prompts the asking of two questions: How would one forget they are in Limbo, and once lost, how does one realize their world is not real?
The act of questioning one’s reality is philosophical in definition. Mulhall is quick to point out the overlooked fact that “totems are designed to address a problem essentially distinct from the one that philosophy attempts to raise . . . that of establishing whether or not one is inhabiting the world of another person’s dream . . . They patently could not solve the problem of establishing whether or not the possessor of the totem is currently inhabiting a dream of their own” (Mulhall 12). Limbo though, is one dream-level where philosophical scepticism by means of totem is most crucial. This most threatening of dream-levels is defined by a number of ways: “unconstructed dream space . . . raw infinite subconscious . . . a place where brain turns to scrambled egg . . . where we lose sight of what is real.” Its predominant threat then, is its ability to render its inhabitants unaware of their unreality – ignorant to even the idea of scepticism.
Fear that as individuals we may be unaware of a false world unfolding in front of us harkens to the allegory of Plato’s Cave. When Mal hides the, then, only totem in existence (thus hiding the truth that their world isn’t real from Cobb), Mal personifies the prisoner who, after being released from the cave and seeing the outside world, makes a conscious decision to return to said cave. Cobb’s reaction to being in Limbo with Mal is different: “It wasn’t so bad at first, feeling like Gods. The problem was knowing that none of it was real. Eventually, it just became impossible for me to live like that.” Where Mal consciously ignores the knowledge and power of scepticism, Cobb, acting on his own freewill, is prompted to be sceptical, to question the reality of the cave - which in turn leads him to finding the hidden totem.
Its important to note then, that Limbo does not, as it is feared to do, render either of these two visitors unaware of their unreality. On the contrary, they both make conscious decisions to forget, or investigate their reality. Mal’s choice is a selfish one, one which would have her and Cobb spend eternity “together, forever.” Cobb’s choice is a selfless one, one which revolves around a need to return to his children. One could go further and state that Mal’s selfish choice to ignore her reality has the positive effect on Cobb to question his reality, thus explaining his belief that “positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.”
Cobb and Ariadne’s first moments on the shores of Limbo are stark in contrast with Mal’s wide-eyed and confused reaction. Cobb and Ariadne are decisive and aware. Their mission to save Fischer from Mal is beyond doubt or temptation. Once Fischer is found, it almost seems like a happy ending, but Cobb chooses to stay in Limbo to find Saito. Ariadne warns him: “Don’t lose yourself.” Her warning forebodes the first time a subject is left physically alone in Limbo. Only then does its power of rendering its inhabitants unaware of their unreality come to full force, for the next time we see Cobb, he has rewashed up on the shores of Limbo, signifying his total loss of reality. Loneliness in Limbo has caused Cobb
Comparing the times characters are seen washing up on the shores of Limbo shows that Ariadne and Cobb’s disposition on arrival in Limbo is stark in contrast to those of the self-deceived Mal and the isolated Cobb.
to forget the truth of his unreality, his mission – everything. The isolated Saito too has suffered Limbo’s lobotomy, as Cobb’s presence only reminds him of “a half remembered dream.” Their mutual epiphany that Limbo is not real and that death is the only escape, coincides with Fischer’s escape in the presence of Ariadne, who in turn escapes in the presence of Cobb, thus confirming that the only way a subject can physically escape Limbo is in the presence of relationships and trust with another – a leap of faith, in pure Kierkegaardian form.
Anderson relates the significance of relationships in Inception as an answer to Cartesian scepticism: “Descartes’s philosophy attempts to root a knowledge of the world in our knowledge of ourselves, but . . . it’s only through our experiences with other people who validate and challenge us that we come to identify for ourselves what is important to accomplish” (Anderson 46). Although at first
Every escape from Limbo, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, is possible only through interaction with others. Cobb and Saito suffer the repercussions of isolation in Limbo until they too find each other.
glance counter-active to Limbo’s narrative definition as the dream-level that renders subjects incapable of scepticism, Anderson ingeniously defines Limbo as a metaphor for an individual consumed by scepticism: “Questioning everyone and everything . . . places one effectively in Limbo . . . This is the true sleep, and the dream from which it’s impossible to wake unaided” (Anderson 47). In other words, Cobb’s failure to believe in a single reality as a result from his guilt and lack of closure over Mal’s death effectively places him in a metaphorical Limbo, an existence that has him perpetually questioning his reality – a constant sceptic.
How then, does one escape from this metaphorical form of Limbo? The same way one escapes from the physical Limbo: by trust and interaction with others. As Cobb’s guide out of his Limbo of scepticism, Ariadne lives up to her name as Thesus’s labyrinth guide in Greek mythology: “[Cobb’s] redemption comes only when he allows himself to engage in an increasingly emancipatory relationship with another woman (Ariadne), whose conversational thread leads him through his internal labyrinth to acknowledge what he did to initiate Mal’s scepticism” (Mulhall 20). Anderson also notes the positive repercussions inception has on Fischer: “Where Fischer starts out doubting himself, insecure because he had never felt accepted by his father, he walks away from the dream with a renewed self-confidence and an increased capacity to trust in others” (Anderson 48). The choice of succumbing to deceptions, isolation and scepticism, or breaking free of deceptions through trust in others, is a prevalent theme in nearly all Nolan’s films.
Nolan’s recurring theme of deception has his characters choose either a life of isolation, obsessive behavior and scepticism, as with Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight, or a life built on relationships and interactions with others, as with Inception, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight Rises.
Interaction and mutual catharsis as the means to escape Limbo applies best if a subject is in Limbo – the dream-level defined by its ability to render its inhabitants incapable of scepticism. It completely loses its weight if a viewer thinks that Cobb, Ariadne and Fischer are not ever in Limbo, but a fourth dream-level. Cobb is shown re-washing up on the shores because in the absence of another person to interact with in the physical Limbo, as well as the absence of the guilt that placed him in a metaphorical Limbo of scepticism, he has succumbed to Limbo’s power.
Before Cobb’s confession to his accidental inception of Mal, she asks our protagonist, “You keep on saying what you know, but what do you believe?” The fourth dream-level argument, though theoretically possible as any of the seemingly infinite narrative interpretations, takes away from the anti-sceptical theme by down-sizing the characters’ time in an environmental embodiment of Cartesian scepticism. For this reason I choose to believe, rather than know, there is no fourth dream-level.
- Anderson, Nathan. “Inception and Deception.” Inception and Philosophy:
- Ideas To Die For. Ed. Thorsten Botz-Bornstei. Google Books, 2011. Web. Oct. 2012.
- Inception. Screenplay by Christopher Nolan. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Prod.
- Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy. 2010. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2010. DVD.
- Mort, Sean. "Inception Poster/Infographic." Graphic. SeanMort.blogspot.ca,
- 20, July 2010. Web. March 2013.
- Mulhall, Stephan. Sharing a Dream of Scepticism: Parasitism, Plagiarism
- and Fanaticism in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Unpublished essay. U of Oxford, 2012. Print.
- Yau, Nathan. “Inception dream levels explained in flowchart.”
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